Ancient Celebrations – Part 13 – Midsummer Traditions

The exact dates of Midsummer festivals vary among different cultures, but is primarily held close to the summer solstice. The celebration predates Christianity, and has existed under different names and traditions around the world.

St. John’s Day

Although we all know that the birth of Jesus is celebrated on December 25th to tie in with the Winter Solstice, the birth of St. John the Baptist was designated as June 24th around the 4th century at a similar time Christmas was first established. These were both established during the first council of Nicea, convened by Constantine I, Emperor of Rome and the first to convert to Christianity, held in 325 CE.

In the Gospels, John, born of Mary’s sister Elizabeth was exactly 6 months older than Jesus. The significance of this is John the Baptist “was understood to be preparing the way for Jesus”, with John 3:30 stating “He must increase, but I must decrease”; this is symbolised by the Sun beginning to diminish after the summer solstice and eventually increasing after the winter solstice.

Up to the Council of Nicea, though, birthdays and special designated days were avoided by Christians, with only a Mass held around the Passover to mark his death and resurrection.

The Council also outlawed Arianism, named from Arius, that disputed the divine nature of Jesus as having a beginning, being begotten from his father. As opposed to him being one and the same as his father. This was actually pre Trinity, but the doctrine was the duality of the Godhead.

To say that the Council of Nicea basically took pagan ideas and Christianised them might be going too far. However, given the former beliefs of many and the cultures that prevailed at that time, it is highly likely that Christianising pagan celebrations, such as the Solstices, would give a previously simple Church a more universal appeal to potential converts.

It is likely then, that St John’s Day celebrations draw from much older pre Christian Summer Solstice celebrations. The seasonality of the celebrations with the decreasing and increasing being applied to days certainly has an old world pagan feel to it. It is actually far more like that John was born around March/April and Jesus around September/October time, but that’s a more indepth discussion.

The fires of St. John

Throughout Christendom “Saint John’s fires” are lighted on mountains and hilltops on the eve of his feast. These probably have a much older pagan connection.

In Ireland the celebration is also called “Tine Cnámh” meaning Bone Fire. Lit by the oldest present, the youngest present would throw in a bone as part of the celebrations. As part of some customs after the dancing and celebrations were over, revellers would bring home a spent ember from the fire, this was thrown into a field to bring good fortune in the year to come.

In his poem “The Sisters,” published in 1861, Limerick poet Aubrey Thomas de Vere describes “Bonfire Night” or “St. John’s Day Eve” in a post-Great-Famine world that still lay in ruins: –

“At last,
After our home attain’d, we turn’d, and lo!
With festal fires the hills were lit! Thine eve
Saint John, had come once more, and for thy sake
As though but yesterday thy crown were worn,
Amid their ruinous realm uncomforted
The Irish people triumph’d. Gloomy lay
The intermediate space; — thence brightlier burn’d
The circling fires beyond it. ‘Lo!’ Said I,
Man’s life as view’d by Ireland’s sons; a vale
With many a pitfall throng’d, and shade, and briar,
Yet overblown by angel-haunted airs,
And by the Light Eternal girdled round.”

Herbs and Potions

As the first day of summer, Saint John’s Day is considered in ancient folklore one of the great “charmed” festivals of the year. Hidden treasures are said to lie open in lonely places, waiting for the lucky finder. Divining rods should be cut on this day. Herbs are given unusual powers of healing, which they retain if they are plucked during the night of the feast. St John’s Wort is the best known of these herbs. In Germany people bring these herbs to church for a special blessing.

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Eve, Oberon seeks to punish Titania. He calls upon Robin “Puck” Goodfellow, his “shrewd and knavish sprite”, to help him concoct a magical juice derived from a flower called “love-in-idleness”, which turns from white to purple when struck by Cupid’s arrow. When the concoction is applied to the eyelids of a sleeping person, that person, upon waking, falls in love with the first living thing they perceive.

Love-in-idleness is actually a reference to the wild pansy, botanical name Viola Tricolor. And Shakespeare is drawing from Roman Mythology, in which Cupid shot one of his arrows at the imperial votaress, but missed and instead struck it. As Cupid is the god of desire, affection and erotic love, the flower’s juice received the trait, to act as a love potion.

Spirits Roam The Earth

In Scandinavia and in the Slavic countries it is an ancient superstition that on Saint John’s Day witches and demons are allowed to roam the earth. As at Halloween, children go the rounds and demand “treats,” straw figures are thrown into the flames, and much noise is made to drive the demons away.

In Shakespeare’s time it is also highly likely that similar beliefs were held, considering the supernatural content of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Midsummer Pole

In some Northern European countries, such as Sweden, the Bonfire customs are no longer part of Midsummer (and reserved for Walpurgis Night), but a form of Maypole is erected.

This Midsummer pole is decorated with greenery and flowers. The maypole is a comparatively new part of Swedish Midsummer tradition. It came to Sweden in the late Middle Ages from Germany, where the pole was decorated with leaves and raised on May 1 (hence the name).

Since spring comes later to Sweden it was hard to find the greenery to decorate the pole on May 1, so the tradition was moved to Midsummer. Some sources also attribute the perpetuation of the term majstång, or maypole, to the archaic Swedish word maja, meaning “to decorate with green leaves.”

Traditional dress is worn and in some areas males dress as the green man (with green faces an garnered in greenerer), whilst females are adorned in flowers. Traditional music is played and they dance around the Midsummer pole.

Midsummer was considered to be a time of magic, and anything to do with nature was thought to have a special power. Gathering flowers to weave into wreaths and crowns was a way to harness nature’s magic to ensure good health throughout the year.  Even though most people these days probably are unaware of the magical origins of the tradition, weaving crowns of flowers is still a major part of any Midsummer observance.

A Time of Romance

“If music be the food of love, then play on.”

Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” demonstrates that Midsummer was a time of romance (or unrequited love – we’ve all been there, or will go there at some point).

A Swedish verse says, “Midsummer night is not long but it sets many cradles to rock.” For maidens, it’s said that if you pick seven (or sometimes nine) types of flowers and place them under your pillow, you will dream of your future husband. So Midsummer is a time to enjoy romance and embracing natural sexual attraction and pairing.

In the old days in Finland, unmarried women would use special charms and bend over a well, naked, in order to see their future husband’s reflection.

The Midsummer Feast

Of course, no celebration is complete without a feast. In Sweden, Midsummer is a national holiday, second only to Christmas and always celebrated on the closest Saturday. All Swedes take to the countryside and after celebrating they have a picnic lunch of pickled herring with potatoes, dill and chives, whilst drinking nubbe (vodka schnapps).

In Latvia, folks feast on bacon pie and sweet beer. Italians vary and have regional midsummer traditions. In Rome, people eat snails, believing that these horned creatures will protect the consumer from devilry. If that doesn’t whet your appetite, you may prefer the traditional dishes of northern Italy. There they prepare dishes (including salads with fresh tomatoes) with aged balsamic vinegar.

Stonehenge and other ancient monuments

In Britain, Midsummer is connected with music festivals and Glastonbury. Stonehenge is considered THE place to be.

Stonehenge is aligned with the Solstices and dates back over 5000 years, a huge gap between the building of Stonehenge and St John’s Day. At Stonehenge on the summer solstice, the sun rises behind the Heel Stone in the north-east part of the horizon and its first rays shine into the heart of Stonehenge.

English Heritage provide free Managed Open Access to Stonehenge during the Summer Solstice. However, Stonehenge is a significant World Heritage Site and to many it is sacred. So a plea goes out respect the stones and all those who are attending. In previous years, Stones have been marked and descrecated by disrespectful attendees.

Amplified music, alcohol, illegal drugs and disorderly behaviour are not tolerated at Stonehenge, though difficult to police due to the sheer numbers that attend. It is a sacred place and the Order of Celtic Wolves suggest that the nearby music festivals are the places to party, whilst you take in the atmosphere and absorb the magical field around the Stones.

There are also many other wonderful Stone Circles around, so maybe choose to celebrate the Solstice at a quieter event, if you are like me and enjoy a bit of peace and contemplation.

Finnish Traditions

To finish (pun intended) let’s look at the traditions of Finland, where Midsummer is the main national holiday. Midsummer is the high point of summer in a land that sees continuous Sun during this period and the most popular time to start annual vacations.

Appeasing Ukko the God of Thunder

Like Sweden it takes place on the Saturday between the 20th and 26th of June. In Finland it was a tribute to Ukko, the god of thunder. Since he controlled the rain, you had to appease him in order to get a good harvest.

Bonfires were also burned in Finland, a ritual that continues today. Although in the Swedish-speaking areas of the country people have been happy just to put up a well-decorated maypole.

In modern times in Finland, Midsummer is also a celebration of Saint John (hence the Finnish name for the holiday: Juhannus), a time for some people to consume vast quantities of alcohol and a popular weekend for weddings and confirmations.

In Finland, it is a time for barbecues, plenty of drinking with friends on country vacations, with plenty of alcohol.

So, whether you are pagan or a Christian there are plenty of traditions based around the Solstice, or make your own. I like nothing better in Britain than meeting with friends, enjoying a ritual and having a nice bowl of strawberries and cream.

Solstice Blessings to all from all of us at the Order of Celtic Wolves 🙏

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