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Summer Solstice Celebrations – Midsummer In The British Isles
What is the Summer Solstice?
The Summer Solstice occurs exactly at one point in time, where the axial tilt of the Earth is the closest it gets to the Sun at its maximum of 23⁰ 26’, but we generally refer to the whole of the day that it occurs on as the Summer Solstice or Midsummer’s Day. Here in the northern hemisphere, the Summer Solstice occurs every year between 20th and 21st June and this is the day when we enjoy the most hours of daylight in the year – the longest day of the year!
The Summer Solstice marks the first day of summer, but gets its name of Midsummer because it is roughly halfway through the growing season for farmers and gardeners in the northern hemisphere. Midsummer’s Day has long been a day of great significance in the United Kingdom, and many beliefs and traditions are associated with the time of the Summer Solstice. The Summer Solstice brings to an end the period of time where the hours of daylight are lengthening and the nights are growing shorter.
It is as though, for a brief point in time, that the Sun has stopped moving in the sky. A short rest for the Sun, before the motion returns and the cycle of the hours of night growing longer commences. In fact, the word solstice derives from the Latin sol meaning sun and sistere meaning to stand still.
As the Sun is at its zenith at this time, the Summer Solstice was traditionally a festival dedicated to the life-giving and regenerative powers of the solar orb. In our pagan past many celebrations and rituals were held at the time of the Summer Solstice that were linked with fertility, the ripening of the crops and the seasons coming full-circle to the glory of midsummer.
The ancient Celts, who once inhabited these lands, believed that evil spirits and demons could be banished at the time of the Summer Solstice. The warmth of the sun was said to chase away any darkness or negativity, and it was a time for creating abundance and wealth.
Astrologically speaking, the Sun at the time of the Summer Solstice in the northern hemisphere is travelling through the watery sign of Cancer. Now Cancer is ruled by the Moon, so this partnering of the male energy of the Sun and the female energy of the Moon on the longest day of the year, is one of the reasons why the Celts held so many fertility rites at this time.
In ancient times, people were totally dependent on the cycles of nature for their survival, and they fully believed that it was their rituals and religious practices that maintained the continuity of the seasons, the success of their crops and livestock and the clemency of the weather. So times like midsummer were celebrated because it meant that the all was well in the skies and that the life-giving Sun was moving across the heavens as it should.
For our ancient ancestors, this was a time when they could rejoice that the long cold winter was finally over, that they could find enough food again to ensure full bellies every night and be able to relax in the warmth of the sun.
Midsummer - A Time For Weddings
The Summer Solstice was also a time when the crops had been planted, but were still ripening in the fields and not harvested. This month of June was traditionally a time for weddings; because the ancients believed that their gods and goddesses came together in their ‘grand union’ during the Beltane festival of early May and that it would be disrespectful for couples contemplating matrimony to try to rival the gods. The first full moon of June is known as the ‘Honey’ Moon, as it was thought that this was the best time of the year to collect the honey from the bee hives.
In some cultures, a newly married couple were fed on honey or dishes containing honey for a month after their nuptials, as this was said to boost their fertility and chances of having a large family. This is the origin of our modern ‘Honeymoon’, where nowadays a newly married couple go and lay on a tropical beach for a fortnight to recover from their wedding day.
The Celts and the Summer Solstice
So how did the Celts celebrate Midsummer? The Sun was associated with light, vibrancy and warmth, so bonfires were lit, wheels of fire were sent cascading down the hillsides, and lovers would jump through the flames to bring themselves luck. It was thought that the higher the couple could jump, the higher the crops would grow to match. The flames of the bonfire were also used for divination and love magic, and young maidens could find out the identities of their future husbands by gazing deep into the fire.
The bonfires also represented the burning heart of the Sun, and if the bonfires burned long and bright, the Sun would be guaranteed to continue to shine strongly over the land and ripen all the crops. It was a time of feasting and celebration, and dances were performed around the bonfires. The Druids celebrated the feast as ‘Alban Heruin’ or ‘Light of the Shore’ where they symbolically crowned the Oak King, the king of the waxing year.
Modern Midsummer Celebrations
The focus of Midsummer Celebrations for pagans in modern Britain is the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge. Standing on Salisbury Plain and built over 5,000 years ago by our ancient ancestors, these massive stone blocks is believed to have been erected to capture the sunrise on Midsummer Morning between its standing stones. Many of the prehistoric stone circles and stone tombs were orientated so that they captured the rising sun on particular days of the year, usually the solstices.
Each year many thousands of Pagans and New-Age followers gather around Stonehenge at the Summer Solstice, so they can be present at the magic moment when the rising sun of the Midsummer Morning appears over the Heel Stone. Modern pagans also use the time of the Summer Solstice to cut their divining rods and wands, to be used in rituals and for divination in the coming months and celebrate the sabbat called Litha. Midsummer’s night is known as ‘Herb Night’ as it is believed that this is the most powerful night of the year to gather herbs for healing and divination, as the herbs are at their most potent at this time.
Midsummer Bonfires Still Lit in Britain
When Christianity came to Great Britain, the focus of the midsummer celebrations became the feast of St John the Baptist on the 24th of June. Most saint’s days mark the anniversary of their deaths, quite often as martyrs, but unusually the feast of St John the Baptist celebrates his alleged birthday, quite appropriate as the Summer Solstice represents fertility and new beginnings, not death and endings.
In some parts of Britain, the traditional Midsummer Bonfires are still lit. The Old Cornwall Society revived the custom in the early 20th century and bonfires are now lit every year on some of the Cornish hills. In Penzance, a weeklong festival called ‘Golowan’ starts on the Friday closest to St John’s Day and culminates in Mazey Day when bonfires are lit and fireworks light up the skies. In the Scottish Borders, the town of Peebles holds a Beltane Week, and in Wales a folk-dancing festival is held in Cardiff on the feast of St John.
So what are you going to do to celebrate the longest day of the year? Build a bonfire and let off some fireworks to celebrate the life-giving warmth of the Sun and the abundance of the Earth. It is a day to make wishes, cast spells and have your future divined. Just close your eyes and picture what Midsummer night was like in Great Britain a thousand years ago, with hundreds of bonfires lighting up the summer sky from the north of Scotland to the tip of Cornwall. So enjoy, as the Summer Solstice is still a day for feasting, dancing and celebrations.