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Midsummer

Wait, if the Summer Solstice marks the first day of summer, why is it called "Midsummer"? We explain, and share some of the folklore and traditions.

In 2020, June 20th marks the Summer Solstice, the day of the year when the Sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer, its highest point in the Northern Hemisphere. The day of the Summer Solstice is also the longest day of the year for those of us living north of the Equator. Modern calendars refer to this day as the first day of summer, though ancient reckoning actually viewed May 1 as the beginning of summer, and the Solstice as “Midsummer,” the halfway point of the season. Which actually makes a lot of sense. Here’s why:

What is Midsummer?

Because the Solstice marks not only the Sun’s greatest potency, as well as the turning point at which the length of days begins to wane, this older viewpoint does make sense. After all, most Americans consider Memorial Day to be the unofficial start of summer, and Labor Day the unofficial end. Both days fall about three weeks earlier than the astronomical dates that mark the passage of the seasons.

Even though the date of the solstice can change from year to year, the Feast of St. John is a fixed date of June 24th.

A Time For Mead

Mid-June was also the time when honey was allowed to ferment to make mead, a wine-like beverage. As one legend has it, a bride’s father would give the groom all the mead he wanted after the wedding, and the term “honeymoon” was used coined. Thus many of our ancestors also referred to June’s full Moon as the “Mead Moon.”

An Old Swedish Proverb

An old Swedish proverb says, “Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” This is because after the Midsummer celebrations in June, where many Swedes celebrate, many babies are born in March.

The dew of Midsummer was believed to have special healing powers. In Mexico, people decorate wells and fountains with flowers, candles, and paper garlands. They go out at midnight and bathe in the lakes and streams. In Ireland, many people celebrate by holding bonfires.

Midsummer’s Eve

Because summer is a great time for a party, Midsummer has long been a time of revelry. The early church capitalized on this by creating the feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24, six months before Christmas, to coincide with Midsummer (according to the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist was born six months before his cousin, Jesus, which is why this is a fixed date on the 24th). Many of the traditional festivities associated with St. John’s feast day were held the night before, on June 23, or St. John’s Eve.

St Johns Eve Celebration in France 1858
St. Johns Eve Celebration in France, 1858.

Perhaps more than any other day of the year, except Christmas, St. John’s Eve is full of lore. Throughout the world, this night has traditionally been celebrated by lighting massive bonfires, accompanied by music, singing, and dancing. In fact, in Ireland, St. John’s Eve is still known as “Bonfire Night,” and its history stretches back even further than Christianity in Ireland. At one time, Bonfire Night honored Ãine, the Celtic goddess of love and fertility.

St. John’s Eve Folklore and Celebrations

St. John’s Eve bonfires were believed to have magical, protective qualities, and many rituals sprang up around them.

  1. Jumping through the fire was said to bring good luck. Farmers walked in circles around their sheep, carrying torches lit from the bonfire. In certain areas of Ireland, some people still believe that…
  2. If you hold a pebble in your hand while circling a Midsummer bonfire, any wish will be granted. Simply whisper the wish before casting the stone into the fire.
  3. Others believed that the ashes from a Midsummer bonfire would ensure fertility for their crops. Common practices included mixing the ashes with the seeds while planting or spreading them over the fields.

Faerie Activity?

Not surprisingly, given the wealth of other lore surrounding the day, the ancient Celts also believed St. John’s Eve was a prime day for faerie activity, second only to Halloween. Anyone who wanted to see one of the wee folk would gather fern spores at the stroke of midnight and rub it onto their eyelids. One had to be careful, though, because the crafty faeries often led unwary humans astray, getting them utterly lost, even in familiar territory. This condition was known as being “pixie-led,” and could be safeguarded against by turning your clothing inside out or carrying a small a few leaves of rue, a strong-smelling evergreen, in your pocket.

Rue branch isolated on white. Lithuanian traditional plant, a symbol of virginity
Carry leaves from the Rue plant in your pocket prevents you from being “Pixie-led.”

Midsummer’s Eve is Herb Evening

Midsummer’s Eve is also known as Herb Evening. Legend says that this is the best night for gathering magical herbs. Supposedly, a special plant flowers only on this night, and the person who picks it can understand the language of the trees. Other Swedish legends and traditions include placing flowers were under your pillow before bed, which will cause you to dream about the one you will marry.

New Midsummer Traditions

Today, of course, we generally enjoy our campfires and fire pits all summer long and making s’mores has replaced leaping through the flames. Whether or not you go hunting for faeries to mark the feast of St. John, though, be sure to get outside and have an enjoyable summer!

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