In the Northern Hemisphere, the festival of Midsummer is traditionally celebrated at the time of the summer solstice, generally thought of a being on June 21st, though it can fall at any time between the 21st and 22nd, depending on the time zone you’re in. (Note that in the Southern Hemisphere, the June solstice is the Winter Solstice.)
The word ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin solsitium, or ‘sun stands still’ – the day when the sun appears to stand still as it reaches its highest point in the sky, an illusion which occurs because the Earth’s axis is tilted as far as it goes toward the sun on that day.
In ancient times, the festival associated with the summer solstice was primarily a Celtic fire festival, representing the shortening days as they gradually headed back towards winter. The ancient ceremonies revolved around beliefs in the power of the sun, which was often revered as the sun god. People would flock to join in with the all-night festivities whilst awaiting the first light of dawn. Midsummer bonfires were lit in the belief that they would add strength to the sun’s energy. In some areas of Scotland, Midsummer fires were still being lit in the countryside well into the 18th century.
At Stonehenge, the sun rises over the ‘Heel Stone’ and is framed by the great trilithon stones of the main entrance. These pictures from my Stonehenge post show the Heel Stone and trilathons (megalithic structures consisting of two upright stones and a third across the top as a lintel).
This diagram below shows the alignment of the sun’s rays through the Heel Stone, which can be seen outside of the circle at the bottom:
The Christian Church designated June 24th as the feast day of St John the Baptist, and in the U.K, from the 13th century onwards, Midsummer’s Eve became known as Saint John’s Eve, though it was still celebrated by feasting and merrymaking, and the lighting of great bonfires. St John’s Wort was traditionally gathered on this day as it was thought to be imbued with the power of the sun, and several other plants were also thought to be more potent at this time. Such flowers would be placed beneath pillows in the hope of wonderful dreams, particularly about future lovers.
Like that of many festivals, St John’s Eve was seen as a time when the veil between this world and the next thinned and powerful forces were free to wander. Careful watch was kept during the night and it was said that if you spent a night at a sacred site during Midsummer Eve, you would gain the powers of a bard (poet). But, it was also thought that people could end up totally mad, dead, or be spirited away by the fairies. Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is based on the idea that fairies were about and at their most powerful on this night.
The summer solstice is still important to pagans today, and many of them celebrate it at great sites like Stonehenge and Avebury. Some head for other stone circles and ancient monuments or hold small ceremonies in open spaces … everywhere from gardens to woodlands. For witches the solstice forms one of the lesser sabbats – or sections of the wheel of the year – their main festivals being Beltane and Samhain.
Stonehenge is always the most popular site at both the summer and winter solstice, and there are several videos on YouTube for anyone interested. This video gives a very brief look at the summer solstice sunrise at Stonehenge in 2015. I haven’t added the actual video to my post because I’ve no idea about copyright – and I really don’t fancy a massive fine!
Though many of the original traditions no longer exist, some were brought back during the 20th century. Midsummer bonfires are still lit on some high hills in Cornwall, a tradition that was revived by the Old Cornwall Society in the early 20th century.
Naturally, different countries have their own traditions, and this post would go on forever if I attempted to work through them all. The many Midsummer celebrations held in the United States are mostly derived from the cultures of immigrants who arrived from various European nations since the 19th century.
I’ll finish with a quick word about Scandinavia, where the festival of Midsummer is celebrated as much as Christmas. In Sweden, it is a national holiday called Midsommar. Houses are decorated inside and out with wreaths and flowers and people then dance around a decorated midsummer pole while listening to traditional folk songs known to all. As in many other countries, the Midsummer festivities include bonfires and divining the future, especially one’s future partner or spouse.