It's summer solstice and Danish Vikings have invaded Muir Beach. They are easy to locate. If you don’t see their red flags or hear a chorus of song, then just follow the smoke to the burning effigy. When you approach the lively throng, you will be welcomed like an old friend and handed an ice-cold Carlsberg beer. While the singing is optional, drinking is not.
Summer solstice, or midsummer, is widely celebrated throughout northern Europe and the Baltic countries. In Denmark, the tradition harks back to the Viking era, when midsummer was a magical evening steeped in pagan ritual celebrating the summer light. Blazing bonfires were lit to ward away malingering evil spirits; flowers and herbs with medicinal properties were gathered for curative needs; and pilgrimages were made to healing springs. With the rise of Christianity, the pagan traditions were tidied up and packaged into the decidedly less hedonistic anniversary of the birth of John the Baptist (Sankt Hans) on June 23, which became Denmark’s official day of the solstice celebration known as Sankt Hans Aften.
Nowadays, the summer solstice is an excuse for Danes to stay up late and party — and who can blame them after a long winter in the dark? And what a party it is: People of all ages gather along the beaches that line the coast, fjords and lakes. The daylight lingers to near midnight, when the sun attempts to set, teasing the horizon, before changing its mind and rising again in the wee hours of the morning. Bonfires are lit, speeches are made, songs are sung, and food and drink are plentiful. The celebrations culminate with an effigy of a witch burnt over the fire, a relatively contemporary addition to the litany of solstice rituals and a symbol of banishing evil spirits — much to the delight of neo-pagans, children and pyromaniacs alike.
The beauty of this celebration is that it is not confined to the motherland. Wherever there are Danes, a beach and the summer solstice, you can be sure there will be a party. For the past six years, Muir Beach has hosted a group of expat Danes, along with an ever-increasing entourage of their friends and Viking-wannabes who fancy a party honoring the longest day of the year. It’s a wonderful blend of Nordic tradition and Marin sensibilities. Picture a roaring bonfire, kettle grills roasting sausages and skewers of meat, tables laden with local cheese, baskets of freshly picked strawberries and platters of inspired farmers’ market salads, with plenty of local wine and Danish beer for refreshment.
Muir Beach provides an ideal gathering point, its pristine beach offering enough cragginess and dramatic weather to satisfy any wandering Viking. More important, it’s one of few Marin beaches whose rules allow bonfires, which are a mandatory accessory to this midsummer celebration. (The rules at Point Reyes beaches also allow bonfires with a permit.) Last year, Muir Beach underwent a significant overhaul of its visitor facilities, including a new parking lot and restrooms and restoration of damaged wetlands. A new footbridge and relocated paths now provide easy access to the semicircular cove’s 1,000-foot expanse of sand flanked by boulders and coastal bluffs. Sure, there will be wind and possibly fog, but for a Dane this is nostalgic — and besides, any excuse to celebrate will not be thwarted by a matter as trivial as the weather. The simple solution is plenty of blankets, fleece and libations — the location and whatever weather it brings are readily accepted. But for this group of returning revelers, the weather somehow, magically, always works out in their favor. Rumor has it that in each solstice celebration, by the time the sun descends over the Pacific, the skies grow clear and the wind calms to a whisper. Perhaps it’s coincidence or divine intervention — or simply a distorted perception influenced by aquavit?
Solstice is a party for all, so pack a picnic, rally your friends and head to the beach. While there is no precise way to celebrate at a solstice beach party, a good rule of thumb is the more the merrier, and potluck is the way to go. Let the hosts take charge of the grilled foods and sundries, and ask everyone else to complete the menu with an appetizer, salad or dessert and to contribute a bottle for sharing. Time the festivities for the end of the afternoon to enjoy a few hours of sunshine before the sunset. Claim a spot on the beach, keeping in mind the flow of the tide and the direction of the wind. Bring portable grills and tables, a Weber kettle if you have it, and plenty of charcoal and wood for stoking the bonfire. And don’t forget long sticks for roasting s’mores and snobrød — skewered hot dogs wrapped in bread dough, a Danish campfire favorite.
The effigy burning is an optional but highly recommended special effect: Enlist artistic types, closet wiccans or spirited teenagers to help in advance and transport the creation, ready to burn, to the beach. Just be aware that a 10-foot witch strapped to a car roof might prove distracting to drivers along the winding route. When the sun begins to set and the sky grows dusky, it will be time to stoke the fire and burn the effigy, which is guaranteed to attract the attention of the entire beach.
Once the fire dies down and darkness blankets the beach, it will be nearly 9 p.m., woefully early by midnight sun standards but perfectly in sync with Marin beach-closing hours. The park rangers are remarkably tolerant of burning witches, but much less flexible about closing-up time. With a little teamwork the party will be packed and cleaned up, cars and trucks loaded, and another midsummer passed. Well, almost. Since there are technically a few hours remaining of the solstice eve, a few Vikings might head to the Pelican Inn for a quick nightcap. After all, they serve mead.
View the gallery below for more summer solstice photos. Want to make some of these recipes? We've got you covered.