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The Catholic roots of the “World’s Tallest Bonfire” in Norway


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Zelda Caldwell - published on 06/18/18

An incredible inferno commemorates St. John the Baptist's birthday, which also falls close to the longest day of the year.

For those who live in northern Scandinavia, close to the Arctic Circle, winters really test one’s mettle.

Frigid temperatures and days with as few as five hours of daylight have their flip side, though.

On June 23, close to the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, the sun rises before 4 a.m. and continues to blaze until close to midnight, creating ideal conditions for quite the party.

And that’s exactly what the citizens of Ålesund, Norway do. Every year on June 23, to celebrate Midsummer’s Eve — also known as the eve of the birthday of St. John the Baptist [St. Hans Aften]) by creating “The World’s Tallest Bonfire.”*

That’s when nimble and fearless Ålesunders (mostly teens and 20-somethings) stack hundreds of wooden pallets, boxes and barrels into a narrow but awe-inspiringly tall structure built on a man-made island just south of the Arctic Circle and the “Land of the Midnight Sun.”

One brave soul climbs to the top of the 155-foot high tower, which is built to burn from the top down, and lights the fire before quickly descending. Onlookers watching from boats enjoy the blaze until dawn.

The festival probably originated in pagan times, when the summer solstice was celebrated. When Norway became Christian, the summer celebrations continued, but were held in honor of St. John the Baptist, whose birthday is thought to fall on June 24, three months after the celebration of the Annunciation, when Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy.

* Ålesund first set the Guinness world record for the tallest bonfire in 2010. In 2016, it broke its own record with a 155 ft. 5.9 in inferno, which took 3 months to build and burned for two days.

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