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On June 23, Norwegians celebrate Midsummer with boating, parties and other seasonal activities. In the western city of Ålesund, the world’s largest bonfire is built and lit every year.

Published: 19 June 2018

Midsummer has been celebrated throughout Europe for thousands of years, with a variety of traditions from country to country.

What most of them have in common, though – not least in the north – is joy and gratitude for the warmer, brighter and longer days we get to enjoy around summer solstice, which occurs on June 21 in 2018.

In Norway, this celebration has both religious and secular roots. But to most modern Norwegians, this is the part of the summer most closely connected to the end of school season and the smell of bonfires accompanying it.

Tromsø

Tromsø.
Photo: Christian Roth Christensen / Visitnorway.com

The world’s largest bonfire 

In fact, one of the most essential Norwegian sankthans (derived from “St. John’s”) traditions is the lighting of bonfires – particularly along the coast. Where most people settle for smaller bonfires, typically centred around a party or observed from a boat along the nation’s long coastline, a group of enthusiasts in Ålesund have taken it all one step further.

After securing a world record of the world’s tallest bonfire in 2010, they broke their own record in 2016. By then, the construction – primarily made of wooden pallets – measured a staggering 47,4 meters.

Since then, the tradition has survived – albeit without any new world records. Alexander Heen is the former bonfire chief of Slinningsbålet, which takes up to three months to build. With help from the current bonfire chiefs, Mathias Haga, Andreas Bekjorden and Vetle Lande, he has determined the ideal height of the fire to approximately 30 meters.

“If anybody should attempt to build a bonfire higher than our 2016 record, they’ll have to use a crane. That’s out of the question for us," Heen says to Visit Norway.

Sankthans, Ålesund

Sankthans, Ålesund.
Photo: Slinningsbålet

Being bonfire chief in 2015 and the record-breaking 2016, Heen knows how much hard work it takes to make it all click. 

“Often, the head of the bonfire is only 18-19 years old, and there’s a lot of responsibility for someone that young, from the security training of the 50 volunteers working to sketches and plans for absolutely everything,” Heen says, adding that the interest from national and international media has exploded over the past few years.    

“In Ålesund, however, this tradition dates back 150 years. Back then, there would be 40-50 bonfires on sankthans. Today, one is enough.”

Sankthans, Ålesund
Sankthans, Ålesund.
Photo: Slinningsbålet
Sankthans, Ålesund
Sankthans, Ålesund.
Photo: Slinningsbålet
Sankthans, Ålesund
Sankthans, Ålesund.
Photo: Slinningsbålet

A night for magic and superstition 

The current Norwegian Midsummer celebration, with St. John’s Eve on June 23 and St. John’s the day after, is officially a religious festival in the memory of John the Baptist.

In earlier days, Norwegians would typically flock to churches and holy houses on the eve of sankthans, seeking healing from illness and relief from pain. The Røldal stave church in Odda, with its “sweating” crucifix, was an especially popular shrine for pilgrimage way into the 1800s.

But the festive and secular dimension of Midsummer stretches back to pre-Christian times. These days were often interpreted as a prediction of the weather and crop situation in the following autumn. Herbs and hay harvested on Midsummer’s Night were regarded as special plants with magical traits, according to the Great Norwegian Encyclopedia.

A myth many modern Norwegians still relate to, claims that if you sleep with a red campion flower – also known in Norway as “sankthansblomst” because of its flowering period – underneath your pillow on the night of sankthans, your future spouse will appear in your dreams.

Sankthans, Ålesund

Sankthans, Ålesund.
Photo: Slinningsbålet

Danger of fire

Even though the sankthans bonfire is a Norwegian tradition, it doesn’t mean you get to light one wherever you’d like this time of year – especially not this year.

The Norwegian spring and early summer has been unusually hot and dry this year, resulting in i full fire ban a number of places – including Bergen, normally known for its endlessly rainy days, and Oslo.

The fire ban in the capital includes all open fire and barbecues in the forest, the beach zone and the islands in the Oslo fjord. Violations have been fined with up until 15 000 Norwegian kroner, and the police and fire department have been busy putting out fires in the city.

"We’ve had a lot of small incidents that could have been big without early notice and swift intervention. If anybody wonders if the forest fire danger is real, just take a look at all the forest fires we’ve had lately," information manager at the Oslo Fire Department, Lars Magne Hovtun, told the newspaper VG earlier in June.

After a long period of drought there have been some eagerly awaited periods of rain in most parts of the country – including Ålesund. Alexander Heen at Slinningsbålet has no doubt that there will be a bonfire on the eve of sankthans.

"Everybody with the slightest knowledge of Ålesund knows that there will be raining dogs here by then," he jokingly says to Visit Norway.

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