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Midsummer Solstice: Definitions and Customs
The Summer Solstice, also known as Litha and St. John's Eve/Day, marks the time when the Sun is at its strongest; the day is the longest and everything nurtured by it promises to bloom to its fullest. Best known for the gathering of Druids and Neo-Pagans at earliest light at Stonehenge, this holiday’s roots extend beyond, invading so many cultures.
Around the world, Fire reigns for much of this evening and day. Bonfires are lit on shore and hill as the people encourage the Sun to shine on through harvest. From the Mayans and Incas to the Celts, Babylonians and Assyrians, to the Egyptians, Romans and Greeks, to the Austrians, Latvians, Germans and Yugoslavians to the Chinese and Japanese, the Summer Solstice is a key turning point in the year. In celebrating or at least marking this turning of the wheel, cultures and customs vary.
On this day, Finnish housewives pay special care to their housecleaning. They decorate their rooms with freshly cut Birch branches as symbols of new life. Meanwhile Latvians gather flowers and herbs to form wreathes used in special ceremonies and divination. In old Yugoslavia, all Solstice herbs must be gathered before Sundown of June 24, and special songs were sung to the plants thus gathered.
Garlands woven from these special plants were hung to encourage health and blessings for both livestock and humans. The Swiss head to the heights to picnic, while Irish fishermen go to the shores. Yet, in almost all of these celebrations of Fertility, renewal, and harvests to come, the Bonfire plays a significant role.
The Origin of the Term Bonfire
The origin of the term bonfire for such festivals is debated. It could come from Bone-Fire, Boon-Fire, Baun (Beacon) - Fire or even Bane Fire. Some Wiccans and neo-pagans refer to it as Bale Fire. Whatever the original source, wherever Fires were lit, the purposes and usage were similar. Fires were to divine the future of crops, the future of marriages, the health of a culture or group.
The countries around the world developed their own bonfire customs, although many bore similarities. In Austria, for example, the youths leapt the fire three times to make themselves immune to fever. In France, people kept the embers of the Solstice bonfire as a talisman against fire, lightening and disease. The youth leapt the fires to encourage crops to grow as high as their jumps.
Ireland and Germany had a similar custom. These peoples sent a great burning wheel down a hill. This was to mimic the path of the sun. In Germany, the longer the wheel burnt, the more fruitful the harvest; if it went out, bad luck was sure to follow. The ashes of the burnt wheel, sprinkled later on the ground and new growth, fed the crops.
In Ireland, and other similar cultures, the participants drove cattle and sheep through the dying embers of the Solstice bonfire. The purpose of this action was to protect the animals and ensure continued fertility. This applied not only to farm animals but also to people.
In some cultures, the women jumped over the Solstice Fire. The number of times they successfully do so indicates how many children they will bear. Young girls, however, may toss wreathes over the fire to those whom they wish to marry. It is not by coincidence that many of these rites echo or duplicate those performed in Beltaine.
Brightly burning bonfires are an integral part of the celebration of the Solstice in the Western continent and the European continent. This midsummer celebration marks the triumph of the sun. It is at its brightest and hottest. The days are the longest and the nights the shortest as the sun makes its way across the sky. This is a time when bonfires were lit to ensure the fertility of animals and humans alike. It is also, as the next article will explain, a time for the Faeries and for divination.