The Magic of Midsummer: Origins of Litha and Ways to Celebrate
Midsummer is Here
The warmth radiating from the bonfire caresses your sun-kissed face, while the scent of burning cedar and sweet sunflowers gently fills your nose. A whole year has passed and Midsummer is here once more. The surreal and entrancing sound of the drums pulls you into a place of pure magic...a place that calls out to your very soul...a place that stays in your heart and mind and inevitably makes you yearn for the Midsummer Festival year round - through Autumn, Winter, and Spring. The welcoming, warm image of the Sun and joyful memories of faery tales told by the fireside, fills your very being with an aching for Litha once again. Now it is here...
Midsummer is an ancient festival celebrating the beginning of summer (usually on June 21st in the US), which dates back thousands of years. The beginning of summer consists of the longest day and shortest night of the year and is also commonly referred to as the summer solstice (polar opposite to the winter solstice in December). The noble and strong Celtic people celebrated Midsummer, as well as the Nordic people of Europe. Today, Midsummer is still celebrated by many people in the Northern European countries, by people in Great Britain & Ireland, and by Pagans in America.
Many traditions were practiced on the longest day of the year (Midsummer); one of the major traditions being that of the lighting and enjoying a luminous bonfire. Fire is the element of the Sun, obviously signifying the season of Summer...a season of warmth and growth. So it is only necessary to welcome the Sun's triumphant full reign of the sky with a large bonfire. Other ancient ways in which to use the element of fire in celebrating the arrival of Summer and the Sun King was to send a wheel lit on fire down a hill in order to demonstrate the great dance of the Sun.
Ever heard of a maypole? Well, if you have not heard of one, I am sure you have seen one in art or elsewhere. The maypole was and is a phallic symbol, representative of fertility. The ancient peoples would decorate the maypole with beautiful wreaths of summer flowers and proceed to dance merrily around the maypole for hours, sometimes even days! In England, the idea was to have men and women in alternating spots around the maypole and wind blue and red ribbons around the maypole until they reached the bottom of the maypole. This tradition is also seen during May Day or Beltaine. Depending on the country, maypoles are used in both Beltaine and Litha and sometimes both. To me, the idea of intertwining ribbons represents the coming together of male and female, poor and rich, to celebrate the rise of the Holly King and the descent of the Oak King.
The story and symbolism of the Oak King and the Holly King is believed to date back generations, possibly centuries. This is a belief and tradition that many modern day Pagans hold dear to their hearts and the tradition can be seen in their celebrations, specifically during the Midsummer festival and also during Yule. Consequently, the Holly King is said to do battle with the Oak King during Midsummer and wins, taking his place as the reigning King. The Oak King is said to return to wage war against the Holly King during Yule, thereby taking his rightful place as Lord from December 21st through until Midsummer again. Also associated with Midsummer are various Mother Goddesses, as Summer is viewed as the time of the year in which the earth is at its most fertile stage...comparable and equivalent to a woman bearing a child. The earth is ripe...the crop is beginning to yield its full bounty, in preparation for the Harvest in the coming Autumn months. With the Celts, Summer Goddesses included Epona (the horse goddess of fertility), Brigit (the goddess of fire, healing, fertility, poetry, and cattle), and Cerridwen (the goddess of the cauldron, innately representing fertility and child-bearing).
The season of Summer proved to be a part of the year that showed the coming fruition of hard work and also a time of fertility to the ancient Pagans. Many modern day Pagans have come to remember these truths and practice them annually. Even if you are not Pagan, you have the ability and the right to celebrate the coming of the Summer season...
Easy Ways to Celebrate Midsummer
Here are some easy ways to celebrate Midsummer discreetly and cheaply:
- go to the beach and bask in the sun's glory
- go for a walk in the park or forest and enjoy the shade of the trees and beauty of wildlife
- plant some flowers or seeds in your yard or garden (specifically flowers that represent the sun - sunflowers, daisies, etc.)
- climb a tree
- have a picnic outside
- have a cook-out
- go for a swim
- sun-bathe in your backyard
- get up early and watch the sun rise
- watch the sun setting
- pray/give thanks to the sun, god and goddess
- plant or start a fairy garden
- build and decorate a fairy house or door
- leave offerings for the fae
- have a bonfire
More on the Summer Solstice
Taking into consideration our rich historical past, as Americans and various cultures around the world, we have to realize that it is in our blood to celebrate the seasons. Summer is no exception. Even if you do not consider yourself Pagan, or if you were taught that these beliefs were evil, believe it or not...it is in your nature and genes to recognize and celebrate the four seasons of the year. Modern day Pagans know this as the Wheel of the Year, and the Summer solstice is one of the most important sabbats.
Think about what Summer means to you...what images pop into your mind when you think of the word Summer? My mind is flooded with thoughts of basking in the sun, dipping in the pool, going barefoot on the sand, collecting seashells, and picnicking in the shade of a great oak tree. All of these memories and definitions of Summer are representative of what Summer meant to the ancient Pagans. Fruitfulness...happiness...warmth...these are all terms that speak of the full essence of the season of Summer. The earth is filled with life and ready to be harvested.
Some ideas as to how to celebrate, whether out of the closet or in the closet Pagan, you can celebrate without fear of judgement. Tomorrow I have plans to plant a row of sunflowers in my backyard...why? Because I have a deep connection to the sunflower and they are a pure symbol of Summer to me. I see the Sun and the fertility gods and goddesses when I look at the beautiful yellow grin of a sunflower. Not a fan of sunflowers? Plant some other flower or plant that reminds you of your past summers and good memories of the season.
If you keep an altar, definitely place some freshly picked wildflowers on your altar as an offering to the returning Holly King and Summer Goddesses. Also another thing to offer - fruit and vegetables. Preferably they will be fruits or veggies from your own hand-grown garden, but if not...no big deal! The thought is what counts...and the father and mother goddess know and will acknowledge that. Check out the sun wheel made of flowers beautifully constructed by one of our fellow modern day Pagans. This picture instantly brought a smile to my face...and literally to my soul!
If you are going to spend the weekend with family, and perhaps they are not of the Pagan type, celebrate in your own way that is relative to your family's traditions. Set a bonfire up, or do some barbecue-ing! Serve some grilled meat and veggies and also some sort of dessert that is clearly thankful towards the fruits of the summer - watermelon, berries, mango, etc. Go with what is dear to your heart.
Send a card or note to your Pagan or like-minded family and friends in light of the coming Summer season. Remind them of exactly what you remember of them and the summer time. Summer brings back some very sweet memories and recollections for me...building pool forts, riding bikes until my hair was caked in dirt, jumping into ponds by way of hanging vines, thanking god for his Sun, etc. Let these memories of the season fill your mind and heart with their warmth and remind others of this warmth. These are simple and more conservative ways of celebrating Midsummer...other ways could include celebrating with a coven or group, though many of us do not have this privilege due to family standards or time or other personal reasons. I believe that if you know in your heart what you are grateful for, specifically earth and its gifts, you will remain connected and build a ubiquitous union with the earth in all its glory.
On a side note, have you ever cut an apple horizontally? You would be surprised and most likely delighted to find that the symbol of the 5 point star is clearly present, constructed by the position of the seeds enveloped by the apple's meat. To modern day Pagans, this is a clear representative of the pentagram...the five elements - earth, air, fire, water and akasha (spirit).
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© 2011 Nicole Canfield