Midsummer, also known as St John’s Day, is the period of time centered upon the summer solstice, and more specifically the Northern European celebrations that accompany the actual solstice or take place on a day between June 19 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures. The Christian Church designated June 24 as the feast day of the early Christian martyr St John the Baptist, and the observance of St John’s Day begins the evening before, known as St John’s Eve. These are commemorated by many Christian denominations. In Sweden the Midsummer is such an important festivity that there have been serious discussions to make the Midsummer’s Eve into the National Day of Sweden, instead of June 6. It may also be referred to as St. Hans Day.
European midsummer-related holidays, traditions, and celebrations are pre-Christian in origin. They are particularly important in geographic Northern Europe – Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – but is also very strongly observed in Poland, Russia, Belarus, Germany, Netherlands, Flanders , Ireland, parts of the United Kingdom (Cornwall especially), France, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Ukraine, other parts of Europe, and elsewhere – such as Canada, the United States, Puerto Rico, and also in the Southern Hemisphere (mostly in Brazil, Argentina and Australia), where this imported European celebration would be more appropriately called “Midwinter”.
Midsummer is also sometimes referred to by some Neopagans as Litha, stemming from Bede’s De temporum ratione which provides Anglo-Saxon names for the months roughly corresponding to June and July as se Ærra Liþa and se Æfterra Liþa (the “early Litha month” and the “later Litha month”) with an intercalary month of Liþa appearing after se Æfterra Liþa on leap years. The fire festival or Litha – Summer solstice – is a tradition for many neopagans.
Solstice celebrations still centered on the day of the astronomical summer solstice. Some choose to hold the rite on June 21, even when this is not the longest day of the year, and some celebrate June 24, the day of the solstice in Roman times. Although Midsummer is originally a pagan holiday, in Christianity it is associated with the nativity of John the Baptist, which is observed on the same day, June 24, in the Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant churches. It is six months before Christmas because Luke 1:26 and Luke 1.36 imply that John the Baptist was born six months earlier than Jesus, although the Bible does not say at which time of the year this happened.In Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Quebec (Canada), the traditional Midsummer day, June 24, is a public holiday. So it was formerly also in Sweden and Finland, but in these countries it was, in the 1950s, moved to the Friday and Saturday between June 19-26. In Wicca, the longest day and shortest night of the year has not had a set date since the retirement of the 13-month Celtic calendar.
The celebration of Midsummer’s Eve (St. John’s Eve among Christians) was from ancient times a festival of the summer solstice. Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southward again. In later years, witches were also thought to be on their way to meetings with other powerful beings. The solstice itself has remained a special moment of the annual cycle of the year since Neolithic times. it is customary for cultures following lunar calendars to place the beginning of the day on the previous eve at dusk at the moment when the Sun has set. In Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Estonia, Midsummer’s Eve is the greatest festival of the year, comparable only with Walpurgis Night, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve.
Ancient Romans would hold a festival to honor the god Summanus on June 20. In the 7th century, Saint Eligius warned the recently converted inhabitants of Flanders against the age-old pagan solstice celebrations. According to the Vita by his companion Ouen, he’d say: “No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia (summer solstice rites) or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.” As Christianity entered pagan areas, midsummer celebrations came to be often borrowed and transferred into new Christian holidays, often resulting in celebrations that mixed Christian traditions with traditions derived from pagan Midsummer festivities. The 13th-century monk of Winchcomb, Gloucestershire, who compiled a book of sermons for the feast days, recorded how St. John’s Eve was celebrated in his time. Let us speak of the revels which are accustomed to be made on St. John’s Eve, of which there are three kinds. On St. John’s Eve in certain regions the boys collect bones and certain other rubbish, and burn them, and therefrom a smoke is produced on the air. They also make brands and go about the fields with the brands. Thirdly, the wheel which they roll. The fires, explained the monk of Winchcombe, were to drive away dragons, which were abroad on St. John’s Eve, poisoning springs and wells. The wheel that was rolled downhill On St John’s Day 1333 Petrarch watched women at Cologne rinsing their hands and arms in the Rhine “so that the threatening calamities of the coming year might be washed away by bathing in the river.
In Great Britain from the 13th century, Midsummer was celebrated on Midsummer Eve (St. John’s Eve, June 23) and St. Peter’s Eve (June 28) with the lighting of bonfires, feasting and merrymaking. In late 14th-century England, John Mirk of Lilleshall Abbey, Shropshire, gives the following description: “At first, men and women came to church with candles and other lights and prayed all night long. In the process of time, however, men left such devotion and used songs and dances and fell into lechery and gluttony turning the good, holy devotion into sin.” The church fathers decided to put a stop to these practices and ordained that people should fast on the evening before, and thus turned waking into fasting.
However many Midsummer festivities were frowned upon by the Reformed establishment. The Chester Midsummer Watch Parade, begun in 1498, was held at every Summer Solstice in years when the Chester Mystery Plays were not performed. Despite the cancellation of the plays in 1575, the parade continued; in 1599, however, the Lord Mayor ordered that the parades be banned and the costumes destroyed. The parade was permanently banned in 1675. However Traditional Midsummer bonfires are still lit on some high hills in Cornwall (see Carn Brea and Castle an Dinas on Castle Downs). This tradition was revived by the Old Cornwall Society in the early 20th century. Bonfires in Cornwall were once common as part of Golowan, which is now celebrated at Penzance, Cornwall. This week long festival normally starts on the Friday nearest St John’s Day. Golowan lasts several days and culminates in Mazey Day. This is a revival of the Feast of St John (Gol-Jowan) with fireworks and bonfires. In England Midsummer Day, is the feast of St. John the Baptist, and is one of the quarter days in England. In recent years on the Summer Solstice, English Heritage has run a “Managed Open Access” to Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice celebrations.