Light The Night In Elk Horn

In Elk Horn, Sankt Hans Aften, a Midsummer celebration, features a bonfire, fireworks and more. Photo: Museum of Danish America.

Writer: Michael Morain
Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

There are lots of ways to get rid of a witch. In Oz, spill a bucket of water. In Elk Horn, strike a match.

During Sankt Hans Aften, the annual Midsummer celebration on June 26 at the Museum of Danish America, locals affix a paper witch to a pole high above a bonfire, “so it takes awhile to get her,” says Nicky Christensen, a museum spokeswoman. “We hide some firecrackers in her hat, which is scary even when you know it’s coming.”

The solstice tradition (minus the fireworks) originated centuries ago in Denmark, where folks lit bonfires to repel witches and other evil spirits, sending them off to a mountain in northern Germany. Modern Danes view the ritual with mixed emotions, considering Europe’s history of religious persecution, but many still burn stuff they want to forget from the previous year. Students often torch their final exams.

Visitors can do that in Elk Horn, too, via a designated path leading to the museum’s bonfire. Masks, work-from-home sweatpants, takeout cartons—they can all go up in smoke.

Besides all the festive incineration, the free event features traditional Danish music and a not-so-traditional Danish-American surf-rock band from Colorado.

And also: hot dogs. According to custom, bright red Danish-style hot dogs are served with fresh onions, French-fried onions and remoulade, a mayonnaise-based condiment flecked with pickled veggies, including onions.

As Christensen puts it, “The more onions, the merrier.”

Hmm … maybe fire isn’t the only thing that repels evil spirits.

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