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Welcome to Theo’s Blog. And it is a very happy blog because we can all cast our sheepskins aside and bask almost naked in the weather of midsummer.
In Ireland, many towns have some sort of shindig. They are loosely called ‘Midsummer Carnivals’. But it is really just an excuse to hear some live music, light some big feck-off fires (mostly illegal) and set off some fireworks (mostly illegal). On midsummer night the authorities tend to look the other way. This is because bonfires on midsummer night have been around as long as the Celts themselves have! Such traditions live on, so we are prone to burning a whole pile of stuff in a green.
Midsummer is officially the longest day of the year, and why not celebrate it? We all like to celebrate the most-liked season – long days, more drinking time, and sunshine on our skin.
However, the summer solstice is a double-edged sword. It is high summer, which is great, but it also signifies a turn of the tide. The summer solstice marks the sun’s journey back to the dark night. Days start to get shorter, and we know winter is on the horizon. But if we live in the now then we can celebrate our pants off.
The Celts often noted throughout history that at this time of the year, the night time sky doesn’t become truly dark – a bright yellow sunset will be visible all along the northern horizon during the night. While our sun does eventually go down on midsummer night (albeit briefly), in places like Scandinavia, the sun grazes the horizon but never goes under it. Scandanavia is called the “land of the midnight sun.” We don’t get midnight sun, but we do get way too much rain, so we are grateful for any sunshine we can get.
Although Midsummer started out as a pagan celebration, with the arrival of Christianity, it soon morphed into something a bit different. Now, within the church calendar, it is celebrated as the birthday of John the Baptist, one of Jesus’ mates and possible relative of the dude. But John the Baptist didn’t light any fires. He was too busy running around baptising people. But like a lot of traditions in Ireland that were originally Pagan, the church celebrations, rather than totally overriding the Pagan celebration, ended up blended with the Pagan ways in a cocktail of stern ceremony and nature-based pleasure. The new Christian beliefs didn’t entirely envelop the old belief system. Up until the late 1950s, accounts from old folk showed that some people still believed that on midsummer’s eve, witches were on their way to meetings with other powerful beings.
In Ireland, many people believed that plants had miraculous healing powers and they were at their most potent on midsummer’s eve. They were picked on this night, and preserved for later use. St John’s Wort was one of these plants. It has been used medicinally for centuries in Ireland. It was deemed so important that on Midsummer’s eve many a picking party would be out scouring the fields for the stuff. Also, many a young maiden would put a piece of yarrow, picked on midsummer’s eve, under her pillow, and supposedly that night she would dream of her future husband! Many young girls now would largely hope to dream of One Direction. You’d need 5 chunks of yarrow for that I guess.
But the main thrust of the night was to light a big fire. Jumping over it gave the participant a good cleansing for the year. Prayers were often said to obtain blessing for the crops, which at this time of year were in full bloom. Humans could not relax until the harvest was in during autumn, so they prayed seriously hard. Women prayed for success in their garden crops and for good weather. I think we stopping praying for good weather about 2001, because something has broken in that regard.
Another tradition was to walk through the fields with lit torches to bless the fields, and then throw the torch into the fire afterwards, ensuring the banishment of evil away from the crops.
It was also a tradition to jump over the fire for luck. Luck is a broad category, it covered new businesses, fertility, good health, marriage or just pulling someone, anyone. Lovers would jump through the flames holding hands, ensuring a long and successful relationship. Sometimes this was just a flirtation, but people who saw it knew that things were hot and happening at this point.
After the fires had burned down to flickering embers, the ashes would be distributed through the fields as a blessing of the crops. If the people failed to do this, it was seen as inviting trouble onto their crops. Some of the ashes were kept for medicinal purposes. I hope I never have an ailment that would require me to take charcoal internally. So I’m off to jump the hell over a fire.
So go forth, modern-day Irishers, and enjoy midsummer’s eve. These celebrations pre-date the belief in Jesus, so this has been around for a long time. Why break the tradition now? Just don’t set your pants on fire.
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