Midsummer 2016 is this Friday and is marked with a series of traditions and customs that can be traced back thousands of years.
Astronomically, midsummer is the day of the summer solstice, or longest day, which usually falls on June 20 or 21 but June 24 is the traditional date for Midsummer’s Day, which is also the feast day of John the Baptist. Midsummer’s Day (June 24) is one of the four Quarter Days in the Legal calendar. The others are Lady Day (March 25), Michaelmas (September 29) and Christmas Day (December 25).
Midsummer has a few different names including John’s Day, Saint John’s Festival, Rasos (Dew Holiday) and Kupole. The date is – as the name implies – a celebration of the middle of summer. However, not so commonly known is that the date is also called the Celtic Fire Festival, when people mark the shortening of days. The herb St John’s Wort is also traditionally harvested on Midsummer’s Day, hence its name. Some people believe the plant to have the ‘powers of the sun’ too along with other flowers and herbs. These plants were held in high regard and sometimes placed under a pillow to encourage romantic dreams.
Friday 24th June is Midsummer’s Day, the longest day in the year. The summer solstice is set to take place this weekend, marking the first day of the summer season in the northern hemisphere with the longest hours of daylight. On 20 June, the annual solstice occurs when the sun’s zenith is at its furthest point from the equator. At this time, the sun reaches its northernmost point while the Earth’s North Pole tilts directly towards the sun, at about 23.5 degrees. Derived from the Latin word “solstitium”, solstice means “sun-stopping”, after the point at which the sun appears to rise and set, stops and reverses direction after this day. In ancient times, solstices and equinoxes were important in guiding people to develop and maintain calendars, as well helping to understand the seasons and weather, which would help maintain crops.
It is the longest day of the year but in England every Summer’s Day is long when it’s grey and wet! Tomorrow is the day the Romans called Solstice from “The Sun stands still.” It is an excuse for some Midsummer madness with the Druids at Stonehenge and Newgrange to get in touch with your inner Pagan! Record numbers of people will descend on Stonehenge to mark the summer solstice. Despite the sun not making an appearance in an overcast sky last year, around 36,500 people enjoyed a carnival atmosphere at the ancient stone circle on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire. An eccentric mix of Morris dancers, pagans dressed in their traditional robes and musicians playing guitars and drums gathered alongside visitors from across the world. The event to mark the dawn of the longest day in the Northern Hemisphere has grown in popularity since a four-mile exclusion zone around the site was lifted ten years ago.
Restrictions were placed on the amount of alcohol people could bring in, with security checks at the main entrance. A Wiltshire police spokesman said: “We are very pleased everything went to plan. The atmosphere has been very good, especially around the stones. “Most people have been very co-operative with us and very understanding of the reasons for our presence.
As nature shows bounty and fertility
Let all things live with loving intent
And to fulfil their truest destiny “
Wiccan blessing for Summer
Solstice, Midsummer or Litha means a stopping or standing still of the sun. It is the longest day of the year and the time when the sun is at its maximum elevation. This date has had spiritual significance for thousands of years as humans have been amazed by the great power of the sun. The Celts celebrated with bonfires that would add to the sun’s energy, Christians placed the feast of St John the Baptist towards the end of June and it is also the festival of Li, the Chinese Goddess of light. For the Egyptians, the sun represented light, warmth, and growth. This made sun deities very important to Egyptians, and it is no coincidence that the sun came to be the ruler of all. In his myths, the sun was either seen as the body or eye of Ra.
Like other religious groups, Pagans are in awe of the incredible strength of the sun and the divine powers that create life. For Pagans this spoke in the Wheel of the Year is a significant point. The Goddess took over the earth from the horned God at the beginning of spring and she is now at the height of her power and fertility. For some Pagans the Summer Solstice marks the marriage of the God and Goddess and see their union as the force that creates the harvest’s fruits.
This is a time to celebrate growth and life but for Pagans, who see balance in the world and are deeply aware of the ongoing shifting of the seasons it is also time to acknowledge that the sun will now begin to decline once more towards winter. When celebrating midsummer Pagans draw on diverse traditions. In England thousands of Pagans and non-Pagans go to places of ancient religious sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury to see the sun rising on the first morning of summer.
New findings at Stonehenge suggest its stones were erected much earlier than thought, challenging the site’s conventional history. A new excavation puts the stones’ arrival at 3000 BC – almost 500 years earlier than originally thought – and suggests it was mainly a burial site. The latest results are from a dig by the Stonehenge Riverside Project. It is in conflict with recent research dating construction to 2300 BC and suggesting it was a healing centre. The 2300 BC date was arrived at by carbon dating and was the major finding from an excavation inside the henge by professors Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright who said:
“These stones were very closely associated with the remains of the dead. There were cremation burials from inside the holes holding the stones and also the areas around them.” The archaeologists suggest that very early in Stonehenge’s history there were 56 Welsh bluestones standing in a ring – 87m (285ft) across.
What is common is a gap in our understanding of the peoples and cultures behind such Neolithic remains such as the remarkable collection of 46 tumuli (passage graves) around Newgrange in Ireland and the oldest and greatest Neolithic remains in Europe on the Island of Malta including at Gigantija on the island of Gozo the world’s oldest stone building.
See; Neolithic Malta
If there is one place you should see above all others when in Ireland it is the amazing place called Newgrange, a UNESCO World Heritage site which is older than the pyramids of Egypt. This is a truly special and unique place on the Island of Ireland, no more special than at the Summer and Winter Solstices, the longest and shortest days of the year. To ancient cultures this represented the turning of the year, the point after which the days lengthened and hope could be sustained of the rebirth of the land in spring and the fertility of summer and the bounty of the harvest to come.
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is full of tales of fairies – and for good reason. Traditionally, Midsummer’s Eve is a time thought to be when fairies are at their most powerful. Some even believe that if they spent the night at a sacred site they may gain the powers of the bard – or worse case end up mad, dead, or spirited away by fairies.
Glad Midsommar – Happy Midsummer Day!