Mia – June 19, 2017
The lazy days of summer may be upon us, but I’ve been busy, busy, busy getting ready for my annual St. John’s Eve party.
Never heard of it? It’s the Danish version of Midsummer, which Nordic countries joyfully celebrate during the summer solstice. No surprise that nearly uninterrupted daylight and warm temperatures are worth a major holiday for countries that spend half the year in cold and darkness.
And it’s no surprise that this Danish-American girl looks forward every year to enjoying St. John’s Eve with friends and family in Chicago. With its magical customs and fresh flavors set against a gently darkening sky, there is absolutely no better excuse for a summer patio party.
Known in Denmark as Sankt Hans Aften, it is observed on June 23, the night before the feast day of St. John the Baptist. It’s also the day before The Danish Home’s Tivoli Gardens and Casino Night, which I’ve been planning for months with other descendants of The Danish Home. Midsummer the Danish Way will be in full force this weekend, and I couldn’t be more excited!
The roots of the St. John’s Eve holiday are purely pagan, but other elements have been added over time. In medieval times, healers would gather medicinal herbs at Midsummer because they believed they were most potent that night. Bonfires have been a centerpiece of the celebration since Viking times and, by the 1920s, included a straw-and-cloth witch figurine that serves as a remembrance of the real-life “witches” who were burned during a period of religious turmoil from 1540 to 1693.
With three kids under the age of 10, we downplay that bit of Danish history, but Jake, Astrid and Alex are always in charge of making a little witch of raffia and cloth scraps to be dangled from a branch near the fire pit.
In my opinion, a far better use of those Sankt Hans Aften flames is crisping the traditional snobrød, or campfire bread. I wrap long strips of dough around skewers, which are then twirled over the flames until golden. So good! They’re served with juicy pork sausages, agurkersalat (thinly sliced cucumbers pickled in dilled vinegar), potato salad and a do-it-yourself smorrebrod, or open-faced sandwich bar, that includes a selection of smoked salmon, herring, roast beef, creamy butter, tomatoes, asparagus, red onions and dense rye bread. Dessert is easy: heaps of gorgeous red strawberries drizzled with heavy cream.
We load our coolers—red, of course—with ice and Tuborg and Carlsberg beer, plus soft drinks and water for the kids. It’s not easy to find Danish wine in the Chicago area, so I lay in some basic red and white and order a bottle a year of Kijafa cherry wine just for fun.
My red-and-white tablecloths come out for the occasion, and so does my Danish music, including “Midsommervisen,” also known as “We Love Our Country,” a hymn written in 1885 by Holger Drachmann which is sung at St. John’s Eve bonfires throughout Denmark—and in my suburban backyard, too. It’s amazing how easy those Danish lyrics trip off the tongue once you’ve tossed down a Tuborg or two.
This year, we’ll be extending our St. John’s celebrations through this Saturday, June 24, when The Danish Home will hold its Tivoli Gardens and Casino Night as part of this year’s 125th Anniversary celebration. I’m so proud of this event! A full day of activities will take place from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. on the grounds of The Danish Home, which will be transformed to look like the magical Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.
To say that I’m looking forward to this first weekend of summer is an understatement. Fingers crossed it doesn’t rain!