Midsummer may refer to the period of time centered upon the summer solstice and diverse celebrations of it around the world. However, the English term refers mostly to European celebrations that accompany the summer solstice, or to Western festivals that take place in June and are related to Saint John the Baptist. European midsummer-related holidays, traditions and celebrations, many of which are non-Christian in origin (although they are also called “St John’s festivities”), are particularly important in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Estonia, but found also in other parts of Europe and elsewhere. Midsummer is also sometimes referred to as Litha; stemming from Bede’s De temporum ratione in which he gave the Anglo-Saxon names for the months roughly corresponding to June and July. So what is it all about?
From the scientific point of view solstices are nothing unusual – they occur twice a year, when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is oriented directly towards or away from the Sun, causing the Sun to reach its northernmost and southernmost extremes. The name is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because at the solstices, the Sun stands still in declination; that is, only its apparent movement north or south comes to a standstill of course.
The term solstice can also be used in a wider sense, as the date (day) that such a passage happens. The solstices, together with the equinoxes, are connected with the seasons. In some languages they are considered to start or separate the seasons; in others they are considered to be centre points (in English, in the Northern hemisphere, for example, the period around the June solstice is known as midsummer, and Midsummer’s Day is 24 June, about three days after the solstice itself).
From the ancient times people considered that period as something special. Some believed that mid-summer plants, especially Calendula and fern, had miraculous healing powers and they picked them on this night. Fern was supposed to bloom during the shortest night of the year and if you were able to collect that unique flower (which supposedly emitted light in the darkness but also was heavily guarded) you would have special powers like opening any doors or becoming very lucky for the whole year. In fact, any magical herb plucked at Midsummer is said to prove doubly effective and keep better. Divining rods cut on Midsummer’s Eve are said to be more infallible. You can charge your charms, depending on their purpose, at midnight, noon or in dawn’s first light.The dew formed on midsummer night was believed to have healing powers. Dreams could be made come true by sleeping through midsummer night with nine different flowers placed under the pillow (but what if these were nightmares?). According to some beliefs, the flowers had to be picked in the lands of three different farmsteads, without uttering a word. Bonfires are lit to protect against evil spirits which were 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 (sabbaths) with devils at that time. Quite a busy night although so short.
How have people celebrated Midsummer around the world? I chose several countries which customs seemed to me the most remarkable.
In Denmark, the solstitial celebration is called Sankt Hans aften (“St. John’s Eve”). It was an official holiday until 1770, and in accordance with the Danish tradition of celebrating a holiday on the evening before the actual day, it takes place on the evening of 23 June. It is the day where the mediaeval 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. It has been celebrated since the times of the Vikings, by visiting healing water sources and making a large bonfire to ward away evil spirits. Today the water source tradition is gone. Bonfires on the beach, speeches, picnics and songs are traditional, although bonfires are built in many other places where beaches may not be close by (i.e. on the shores of lakes and other waterways, parks, etc.).
In the 1920s a tradition of putting a witch made of straw and cloth on the bonfire emerged as a remembrance of the church’s witchburnings from 1540 to 1693 (but unofficially a witch was lynched as late as 1897). This burning sends the witch to Bloksbjerg, the mountain ‘Brocken’ in the Harz region of Germany where the great witch gathering was thought to be held on this day. Holger Drachmann and P.E. Lange-Muller wrote a beautiful midsommervise (Midsummer hymn) in 1885 called “Vi elsker vort land…” (“We Love Our Land”) that is sung at every bonfire on this evening.
“Jaanipaev” (“John’s Day” in English) was celebrated long before the arrival of Christianity in Estonia, although the day was given its name by the crusaders. The arrival of Christianity, however, did not end pagan beliefs and fertility rituals surrounding this holiday. 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 Jaanipaev have very strong folkloric roots. The best-known Jaanik, or midsummer, ritual is the lighting of the bonfire and the 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, ensuring a good harvest. So, the bigger the fire, the further the mischievous spirits stayed away.
Estonians celebrate “Jaaniohtu” (“John’s Night” in English) on the eve of the Summer Solstice (June 23) with bonfires. On the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, old fishing boats may be burnt in the large pyres set ablaze. On Jaaniohtu, Estonians all around the country will gather with their families, or at larger events to celebrate this important day with singing and dancing, as Estonians have done for centuries. The celebrations that accompany Jaaniohtu are the largest and most important of the year, and the traditions mirror those of northern neighbour Finland. Right.
|Summer solistice celebrated around Stonehenge, the UK|
Before 1316, the summer solstice was called Ukon Juhla, after an old Finnish god Ukko. In Karelia, people had many bonfires side by side, the biggest of which was called Ukko-kokko (the “bonfire of Ukko”). At present, the midsummer holiday is known as Juhannus (or midsommar, for the Swedish-speaking minority), and is the year’s most notable occasion for drunkenness and revelry.
Most of the people of Finland burn bonfires (kokko) at lakesides, and eat smoked fish from the same lakes. In the coastal areas that are the stronghold of the Finland-Swedish, these are supplanted by a maypole tradition, transferred from Sweden, and pickled herring.
When Finland was Christianized, the holiday was named after John the Baptist (Johannes) in order to give a Christian meaning to the pagan holiday. The traditions, however, remain quite unchanged and survive in modern-day Finland, although they have lost their original purposes. In folk magic, still well known but no longer seriously practiced, midsummer was a very potent night and the time for many small rituals, mostly for young maidens seeking suitors. Will o wisps were believed to be seen at midsummer night, marking a treasure.
A great many people get very drunk and punch-happy. It is also an occasion when many people look for a relationship (often a rather short one as you can imagine). The statistics for the number of people drowned and killed in accidents are morbidly counted every year while the number of assaults also peaks. Or so I was told ;))). It’s also common to start summer holidays on Midsummer day – small wonder.
I don’t know if any Germans celebrate nowadays but on June 20, 1653 the Nuremberg town council issued the following order – “Whereas experience heretofore hath shown, that after the old heathen use, on John’s day in every year, in the country, as well in towns as villages, money and wood hath been gathered by young folk, and thereupon the so-called sonnenwendt or zimmet fire kindled, and thereat winebibbing, dancing about the said fire, leaping over the same, with burning of sundry herbs and flowers, and setting of brands from the said fire in the fields, and in many other ways all manner of superstitious work carried on – Therefore the Hon. Council of Nurnberg town neither can nor ought to forbear to do away with all such unbecoming superstition, paganism, and peril of fire on this coming day of St. John.” It seems old customs were hard to forget or forgo.
As in Denmark, Sankthansaften is celebrated on 23 June in Norway. The day is also called Jonsok, which means “John’s wake,” important in Catholic times with pilgrimages to churches and holy springs. For instance, right up to 1840, there was a pilgrimage to the stave church in Rřldal (southwest Norway) whose crucifix was said to have healing powers. Today, however, Sankthansaften is largely regarded as a secular event. Most places the main event is the burning of a large fire. In parts of Norway a custom of arranging mock marriages, both between adults and between children, is still kept alive. The wedding was meant to symbolise the blossoming of new life. Such weddings are known to have taken place in the 1800s, but the custom is believed to be older.
Especially in northern Poland – the Eastern Pomeranian and Kashubian regions (but also in the rest of the country), midsummer is celebrated on June 23. June 23 is also an official Catholic holiday called “Body of the God” (Boże Ciało). During the day people attend the Church service and a special procession. Then they dress up and girls throw wreaths made of herbs and flowers to water, be it the Baltic Sea, or lakes and rivers. If a boy fancies a girl he will try to catch her wreath showing his interest. 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 Swietojanska what means St. John’s Night. In that day in big Polish cities (like Warsaw and Krakow) there are organized open air entertainments like concerts, shows, theatricals and such, but the most popular one remains Wianki (what means wreaths) and drinking beer of course. Well, for some people any occasion is a good one.
In Romania, the Midsummer celebrations are named Dragaica or Sanziene. Dragaica is celebrated by a dance performed by a group of 5-7 young girls of which one is chosen as the Dragaica (bride of a dragon?). She is dressed as a bride, with wheat wreath, while the other girls, dressed in white whear a vail with bedstraw flowers. Midsummer fairs are being held in many Romanian villages and cities. The oldest and best known midsummer fair in Romania is the Dragaica fair, held in Buzau between 10 and 24 June every year.
Ivan Kupala was the old Russian name for John the Baptist. Up to the present day, the Russian Midsummer Night (or Ivan’s Day) is known as one of the most expressive Russian folk and pagan holidays. Ivan Kupala Day is the day of summer solstice celebrated in Russia and Ukraine on June 23 OS and July 6 NS. This is a pagan fertility rite, which has been accepted into the Orthodox Christian calendar.
Many rites of this holiday are connected with water, fertility and autopurification. The 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. Nights on the Eve of Ivan Kupala inspired Modest Mussorgsky to create his Night on Bald Mountain.
In modern Sweden, Midsummer’s Eve and Midsummer’s Day (Midsommarafton and Midsommardagen) are celebrated from the eve of the Friday between June 19 – 25. It is arguably the most important holiday of the year, and one of the most uniquely Swedish in the way it is celebrated, even if it has been influenced by other countries long ago. The main celebrations take place on the Friday, and the traditional events include raising and dancing around a huge maypole. One typical dance is the frog dance. Before the maypole is raised, greens and flowers are collected and used to cover the entire pole.
Raising and dancing around a maypole is an activity that attracts families and many others. People dancing around the pole listen to traditional music and many wear traditional folk costumes. 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.
Because Midsummer is one of the times of the year when magic is believed to be the strongest, it was a good night to perform rituals to look into the future. Traditionally, young people pick bouquets of seven or nine different flowers and put them under their pillow in the hope of dreaming about their future spouse. In the past it was believed that herbs picked at Midsummer were highly potent, and water from springs could bring good health. Greenery placed over houses and barns were supposed to bring good fortune and health to people and livestock; this old tradition of decorating with greens continues, even though most don’t take it seriously. To decorate with greens was called att maja (to “may”) and may be the origin of the word majstang, maja coming originally from the month May Other researchers say the term came from German merchants who raised the maypole in June because the Swedish climate made it impossible to find the necessary greens and flowers in May, and continued to call it a maypole.
Today, however, it is most commonly called a midsommarstang. In earlier times, small spires wrapped in greens were erected; this probably predates the maypole tradition, which is believed by many to have come from the continent in the Middle Ages. Others argue that some form of Midsummer pole occurred in Sweden during the pre-Christian times, and was a phallic fertility symbol, meant to impregnate the earth, but as there were no records from those times it cannot be proven, and this idea might just be a modern interpretation of the poles form. The earliest historical mention of the maypole in Sweden is from the Middle Ages.
Midsummer was however linked to an ancient fertility festival which was adapted into St. Johans day by the church, even though it retained many pagan traditions, as the Swedes were slow to give up the old heathen customs. The connection to fertility is naturally linked to the time of year. Many young people became passionate at Midummer, and this was accepted, probably because it resulted in more childbirths in March which was a good time for children to be born (practical people, these Swedes).
To many Swedes this holiday is seen as a holiday of partying, and as the start of the summer. The cities become almost deserted as most people travel to the country, often to their summer cottages, to celebrate. Midsummer rivals Christmas as the most important holiday of the year.