We all like to celebrate summer – long days, more drinking time, and sunshine on our skin. The summer solstice marks the sun’s journey back to the dark night.
The summer solstice is a double-edged sword. It is high summer, which is great, but it also signifies a turn of the tide. Days start to get shorter, and we know winter is on the horizon.
However we humans have always tended to live in the now, and have celebrated the summer solstice since ancient times. The Celts noted that at this time of the year, the night time sky doesn’t become truly dark. Instead, a bright yellow sunset will be visible all along the northern horizon. In Scandinavia, the sun grazes the horizon but never goes under it, hence the name “land of the midnight sun”. Even the Chinese marked the day by honouring Li, the Chinese Goddess of Light.
Midsummer started out as a pagan celebration. However, with the arrival of Christianity it soon morphed into something a bit different. Now it is associated with the birth of John the Baptist, but it is also blended with other traditional beliefs.
In Ireland, people believed that certain plants had miraculous healing powers and they picked them on the night of the summer solstice. Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits, believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southwards again. In later years, witches were also thought to be on their way to meetings with other powerful beings!
In Bulgaria it is thought that on the morning of the summer solstice, “Enyovden”, the sun winks as it rises and anyone who sees it will be healthy throughout the year. It is also believed that on Enyovden herbs have the greatest healing power, especially at sunrise. Therefore, they have to be picked before dawn. Sorceresses go to gather herbs by themselves to cure and make charms.
The Danes believe that Midsummer is the day where the medieval wise men and women (the doctors of that time) would gather special herbs that they needed for the rest of the year to cure people. The summer solstice has been celebrated since the times of the Vikings by visiting healing water wells and making a large bonfire to ward away evil spirits.
Today the bonfires are built in many other places where wells may not be close by (lakes, beaches etc.) In the 1920s a tradition of putting a witch made of straw and cloth (probably made by the elder women of the family) on the bonfire emerged as a remembrance of the church’s witch burnings from 1540 to 1693.
In Estonia, “Jaanipäev” (John’s Day) was celebrated long before the arrival of Christianity, although the day was given its name by the crusaders. The arrival of Christianity, however, did not end pagan beliefs and fertility rituals surrounding the summer solstice. In 1578, Balthasar Russow wrote in his Livonian Chronicle about Estonians who placed more importance on the festival than going to church. He complained about those who went to church, but did not enter, and instead spent their time lighting bonfires, drinking, dancing, singing and following pagan rituals.
Midsummer marks a change in the farming year, specifically the break between the completion of spring sowing and the hard work of summer hay-making. Understandably, some of the rituals of Jaanipäev have very strong folkloric roots. The best-known ritual is the lighting of the bonfire and jumping over it. This is seen as a way of guaranteeing prosperity and avoiding bad luck. Likewise, to not light the fire is to invite the destruction of your house by fire. The fire also frightened away mischievous spirits who avoided it at all costs, thus ensuring a good harvest. So, the bigger the fire, the further the mischievous spirits stayed away.
Bonfires are also very common in Finland, where many people spend their midsummer in the countryside. Before 1316, the summer solstice was called Ukon juhla, after the Finnish god Ukko. After the celebrations were Christianised, the holiday became known as juhannus after John the Baptist.
In the Finnish midsummer celebration, two young birch trees are placed on either side of the front door to welcome visitors. During Midsummer night the sauna is typically heated and family and friends are invited to bathe and to grill. In folk magic, midsummer was a very potent night and the time for many small rituals, mostly for young maidens seeking suitors and fertility. An important feature of the midsummer in Finland is the white night and the midnight sun. Because of Finland’s location spanning around the Arctic Circle the nights near the midsummer day are short or non-existent.
The French traditionally celebrated the “Fête de la Saint-Jean” (feast of St John) with bonfires. In medieval times, this festival was celebrated with cat-burning rituals. Eeeek!
The feast of Saint John the Baptist has been celebrated in Florence from medieval times, and certainly during the Renaissance, with festivals sometimes lasting the three days from 21 to 24 June. This happens nowadays also in Cesena with a special street market and celebration that last from June 21 to 24. John the Baptist is the patron saint of Genoa, Florence and Turin where a fireworks display takes place at the celebration on the river. In Turin, since medieval times the city has stopped work for two days and people from the surrounding areas come to dance around the bonfire in the central square.
The Latvian Midsummer is called Jāņi Svētki (John’s festival). It is a national holiday celebrated on a large scale by almost everyone in Latvia and by people of Latvian origin abroad. Celebrations consist of eating Jāņu cheese, drinking beer, singing hundreds of Latvian folk songs dedicated to Jāņi, burning bonfires to keep light all through the night and jumping over it, wearing wreaths of flowers (for the women) and leaves (for the men) together with modern commercial products and ideas.
Oak wreaths are worn by men named Jānis in honor of their name day. Small oak branches with leaves are attached to cars in Latvia during the festivity. In the western town of Kuldīga, revellers mark the holiday by running naked through the town at three in the morning. The event has taken place for the past seven years. Runners are rewarded with beer, and police are on hand in case any ‘puritans’ attempt to interfere with the naked run.
Midsummer is commonly called John’s Day (Joninės) in Lithuania. The traditions include singing songs and dancing until the sun sets, telling tales, searching to find the magic fern blossom at midnight, jumping over bonfires, greeting the rising midsummer sun and washing the face with a morning dew, young girls float flower wreaths on the water of river or lake.
In Norway, a custom of arranging mock marriages, both between adults and between children, is still kept alive. The wedding was meant to symbolize the blossoming of new life. Such weddings are known to have taken place in the 1800s, but the custom is believed to be older.
The Polish midsummer is celebrated on June 23. People dress in traditional Polka dress, and girls throw wreaths made of flowers into the Baltic Sea, and into lakes or rivers. The midsummer day celebration starts at about 8:00 p.m. and lasts all night until sunrise. People celebrate this special day every year and call it Noc Świętojańska which means St. John’s Night. On that day in big Polish cities (like Warsaw and Kraków) there are many organised events, the most popular event being the Wianki, which means wreaths.
In Portugal, on Midsummer night, if you are attracted to someone, you can declare yourself in the heat of the festivities by offering to the loved person a manjerico (a flower-pot with a sweet basil plant) and a love poem. St John’s is a festival that is lived to the full in the streets, where anything is permitted. People carry a whole plant of flowering garlic with them (or a little plastic hammer), which they use to bang their neighbors over the head for good luck. According to one Portuguese Grandmother, the tradition is that St. John was a scalliwag in his youth and the people hit him on the head with the garlic saying “return to the right path.”
Many Russian rites of this holiday are connected with water, fertility and purification. Girls, for example, would float their flower garlands on the water of rivers and tell their fortunes from their movement. Lads and girls would jump over the flames of bonfires. Nude bathing is likewise practiced.
Spanish women traditionally collected several species of plants on St. John’s eve. In some areas, these are arranged in a bunch and hung in doorways. In most others, they are dipped in a vessel with water and left outside exposed to the dew of night until the following morning, when people use the resulting flower water to wash their faces. Also, on some beaches, it was traditional for women who wanted to be fertile to bathe in the sea until they were washed by 9 waves.
In Sweden, the Midsummer celebration is one of the most important holidays of the year. The main celebrations take place on the Friday, and the traditional events include raising and dancing around a huge maypole. Before the maypole is raised, greens and flowers are collected and used to cover the entire pole. The year’s first potatoes, pickled herring, sour cream, and possibly the first strawberries of the season are on the menu. Drinking songs are also important at this feast, and many drink heavily.
It is thought that an ancient fertility festival was adapted into St. John’s Day by the church. However, the celebration retained many pagan traditions, as the Swedes were slow to give up their customs. The connection to fertility is naturally linked to the time of year. Many young people became passionate at Midsummer, and this was accepted, probably because it resulted in more childbirths in March which was a good time for children to be born.
So there are some ideas for you. Midsummer celebrations! Let’s do it!