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Creative Nonfiction Sad Happy

It’s the longest day of the year. The turning point, where the night is as far away as it’s ever going to be. Tomorrow, it will be a little closer. Then it’ll start to win back territory. Only those territories that are eternally disputed, the hours that can be either light or dark.


I’m alone, watching the raindrops fall past my window, remembering past summers. This is my 31st summer, though I don’t remember the earliest ones. The most recent ones were filled with pandemics, parenting and labouring to pay bills. Before that, music festivals, pub gardens and holidays. Half my summers were spent here in England, the other half, across the North Sea, in Denmark.


The rain shows no sign of ending. It never used to rain on midsummer’s eve. The golden, glorious evenings of my earliest summers. It was always sunny. I have no memories of a raining midsummer’s eve as a child. I suspect magic was involved, or my memory is fallible. The day dedicated, by the Danes, to St Hans was the 24th of June. The evening before, was St Hans’ eve. “Hans” is diminutive for Johannes, or John, so I guess the English would call it St John’s eve. But the English-speaking world doesn’t celebrate it as the Danes.


I grew up in a small town. We all knew each other. We weren’t always friends, but on the eve of St Hans, when the whole town was gathered around the bonfire, we were a united community.


My hometown, you wouldn’t know about it, was called Grimstrup. Situated in the west of Denmark, on the peninsular of Jutland. The town was in the shadow of an ancient oak forest, crawling with red squirrels, deer, and anemones. Most forests in Denmark were felled for wood to build ships, then replanted later, but not this forest. These oaks had stood since the beginning of time.


In the shadows of the oaks, we would have our annual bonfire. The wood came from everywhere. The townsfolk would add their garden waste throughout the year, resulting in a large flammable pile inhabited by soon-to-be scorched bugs and beetles.


Smaller fires were scattered around the fields for children to sit around and bake their snobrød. Snobrød is just regular bread, but it’s tied around the end of a stick and baked over open fire. 'Twist bread' would be an accurate translation. The mothers in town would prepare enough dough for everyone, usually resulting in way too much dough.


All the children would find a stick in the woods, peel the bark of the end, and twist their dough around the stick. Then we all sat huddled around the fires, baking and munching our Snobrød, while awaiting the hour of sunset, when the larger bonfire would be lit.


After the munching, the same sticks doubled up as swords and broomsticks, as we chased each other around the fields in play.


 The larger bonfire was not for baking bread. The origin of the tradition is hard to trace, but midsummer bonfires have been widespread in Scandinavia since the Vikings used them to chase away evil spirits. Perhaps even before then, the summer solstice was marked by flames and fire. 


In the 90’s when these memories were the present, the bonfire served to send the witch back to Bloksbjerg. On the bonfire, an impressive effigy sat on a broomstick, waiting to make her journey to Bloksbjerg where witches gather in the summer. As a child, I thought Bloksbjerg was an imaginary place, because surely the witch wasn’t really flying anywhere. But it turns out, Bloksbjerg is a real place in Germany, and there really is a witch gathering taking place there each summer. Who would have thought?


Once the kindling was lit, the anticipation grew, silence fell, and we all watched in awe until the flames reached the effigy. The witch’s journey was marked by a loud, intense scream from the crowd and sometimes from a whistling firework. The older kids would pour booze on the flames, trying to entertain us younger ones. They and the grown-ups would be drunk by the time the witch flew off. Even if they had worried about fire safety earlier in the night, those worries had vanished in the midsummer atmosphere. On midsummer’s eve, even the grown-ups were children. We were all children, surrounded by smiling familiar faces.


Eventually, as the day’s light left the sky, we would fashion a chain out of our arms, in a kind of circle dance, and sing the traditional song, We Elsker Vort Land. The direct translation of the title is ‘We Love Our Country.’ But this isn’t a song about a country. It is a song about love. Not the superficial grown-up kind, but the meaningful childish kind. It is a song about peace and unity, about warm hearts holding no doubts, about freedom and youth and sacrifice and blessings.


For hours the fire would burn light into the shadows under the oaks. I imagine the older kids stayed out long after we had been taken home to bed by our parents. I never saw the embers distinguished. Perhaps they never were, or maybe I fell asleep too soon. Alive in my memory is the burning, the crackling, the light and laughter, the billowing flames of my childhood, with me everywhere I go, yet eternally out of reach.


I left the town for good before I reached 10 summers, and nowhere did I ever find a town that celebrated the midsummer quite like Grimstrup. The spirit of those evenings may be truly extinguished now. The Unity, the joy, the peace. The way we all sang and danced together. The world isn’t like that anymore. Or perhaps I’m the one who has changed. Peace had been replaced with anxiety, trust with fear. Children don’t play with fire anymore.


Now, I’m a grown-up, and the midsummer is marked by rain. Lessons, progress, bitterness, and regrets. Those are the building bricks of maturity. Slowly and steadily you let go of your faith in the song and meet a world that is cold and bound and selfish and withering. There can be no peaceful joy in such a world, the light will fade, and there is no bonfire to ward of the night.


I close my eyes; I can hear them singing. I can smell the snobrød baking. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the dancing shadows, fleeing from fires that burned decades ago. I’m alone, at home, watching the rain. The midsummer atmosphere flows in my veins, follows me around, always welcome, always with me.

June 21, 2021 12:20

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3 comments

Andrea Magee
19:07 Jul 13, 2021

Wonderful story...your storytelling had a wistful air about it...I felt like it was my actual childhood memory....well done!

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Ida Stokbaek
20:27 Jul 14, 2021

Thank you :)

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Alex Sultan
11:45 Jul 03, 2021

I really like stories like these - the ones that interpret a unique culture I have not heard about. It's nice to learn about in this way. I also like how you worded the first paragraph, and Snobrød sounds pretty good.

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