I had never been this far north before and didn’t fully realize the difference it makes in a day.
I was celebrating the Summer Solstice in Denmark, called Midsommar’s Night there, where there is daylight for nearly 24 hours around this time of year. The sun just barely rises to make a long, soft arc over the horizon before tucking back in. It doesn’t reach overhead like a midday noon sun normally would; it just flirts with the sky and the landscape alike, traveling its parallel course. Midsommar’s night is the longest day of the year with the most hours of sunlight, and for centuries people have celebrated this day.
Originally a Pagan holiday, people gathered to light bonfires to warn away witches and evil spirits. It was often the day where the elders would gather the healing herbs used in medicines for the coming year. Over time, it also became the celebration of Saint John the Baptist, whose birthday may have been around then. Still, to Northern Europeans, it is a day to gather to appreciate the never-ending twilight and the long days of summer.
In Copenhagen, the lakes (called “søerne”) that divide downtown from the rest of the city and the many beaches are flooded with Danes armed with blankets and beers. They gather to build giant bonfires floating on the water’s edge. Often topped with a figure of a witch, the fires are lit as the night wears on. One can walk and watch as the city rids itself of evil spirits for another year, watching as the witches burn into the changing color of the night.
I walked from the train station toward the lakes. There were crowds out in numbers that reminded me of the fourth of July in the US. Groups carried baskets of food and blankets, laughing and conversing jovially in the streets. Copenhagen is always crowded with walkers and cyclists, but this day was different. The people were out in droves. With good reason too: the sky changed from blue to grey to shades of melon- orange and even greenish at times. There were odd moments where the sky seemed brighter than the ground, where the earth seemed to be attempting to convince the sky of the time of night and shade of darkness it was supposed to be.
The five rectangular shaped lakes reflected the color of the sky and time seemed to stand still. Without a setting sun, knowing the time was difficult. I rounded the lakes, crashing parties, listening to the lilt of the Danish accent, watching the burning of the witches and trying to capture the true color of the sky in a photograph. I eventually hopped on the Metro and went to the beach. It was ten p.m. and still plenty of sunlight shone.
I exited the train at Amager Strand and waltzed along with the crowd. I had no idea where I was going. I knew vaguely of a beach and some baths nearby, and figured at least that I would find people celebrating. It was a funny feeling; it being so light out but relatively late, being a single woman without a map was a looming thought. If I should ever be out alone in a foreign place at midnight, I figured Denmark on the lightest night of the year was a good bet.
I wandered through a collection of gardens on the way to the beach. There are suburban plots all over Scandinavia for those that live in the city center. These were larger plots, some with tiny one-room cabins on them for weekend getaways. There were high shrubs distinguishing plots and creating privacy. I knew I was intruding by being there, I felt the trespass palpably. I couldn’t help it though, the hedgerows led me through a labyrinthine puzzle of blooming flowers and colorful tiny cabins. It was too folklore-ish and fairy tale to have just walked past. I remember a man peering out of his doorway as I tried to snap a photo of his home; I felt his sneer was a result of the photo and trespass, but in hindsight, I realize he also might have been really surprised to see someone in his yard at midnight.
I eventually left the garden maze and found the beach. There were thousands of people lining it. Bonfires lit the coast with windmills in the background reminding me of Denmark’s progressive policies, regardless of its affinity for burning wood in the open. Music, dogs and fire dotted the landscape.
I walked to the water. The weather this time of year is still not completely warm. It was a windy night; I wore my travel uniform of jeans, jacket, giant scarf. The landscape was shades of grey; the water, sky and windmills so monochromatic at this late hour that the fires were the lone breaks in the scenery. The beach leads to a pier with a round bathhouse on the end. There are swimmers this time of year—in just a week I’d be swimming in the canals of Copenhagen with my sister— but on this night I couldn’t imagine taking the plunge. I dipped a toe in and decided that was sufficient for now.
There were structures on the beach that were used for changing rooms and restrooms, made of beautiful weathered wood and growing out of the sand. A ramp slowly elevates from the sand, inviting you to walk up the platform, steadies for a bit up high, then lowers down to the sand again. I walked over it without realizing that I’d just walked over the restrooms, I just thought it was a piece of art on the beach. It’s things like this that defined Denmark for me; artful public spaces that are executed with forethought, beautiful design, and unobtrusiveness.
After sitting to watch the fires for a while, I took a last look at Sweden across the water, and retraced my steps to the Metro station. I finally got home around 2:30am and went to sleep with my bed near the window. It never got dark that night; it stayed a color that promised the sun’s quick reappearance. And indeed, it had resurfaced by six that morning, when I rolled over and finally covered my head with a pillow to get some rest.