Midsummer Day


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Midsummer Day (St. John's Day)

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal, Folkloric, Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: June 24, or nearest Friday
Where Celebrated: Brazil, Europe, Scandinavia
Symbols and Customs: Bonfires, Wheel
Related Holidays: Beltane, Inti Raymi Festival, Summer Solstice

ORIGINS

This ancient pagan festival celebrating the SUMMER SOLSTICE was originally observed on June 21, the longest day of the year. Like BELTANE in Ireland, Midsummer Day in Europe and the Scandinavian countries was a time to light BON FIRES and drive out evil. At one time it was believed that all natural waters had medicinal powers on this day, and people bathed in rivers and streams to cure their illnesses.

When Christianity spread throughout the pagan world, the Midsummer festival on June 24 became St. John's Day, in honor of St. John the Baptist. Christian symbolism was attached to many of the pre-Christian rites associated with this day. The bonfires, for example, were renamed "St. John's Fires," and the herbs that were picked on this day for their healing powers were called "St. John's herbs." But the pagan customs and beliefs surrounding Midsummer Day never really disappeared, and the Feast of St. John is still associated with the solstice and solstitial rites.

Midsummer Day marks the changing of the seasons, which people in all parts of the world have honored since ancient times. Many cultures divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter, and marked these points of the year at or near the summer and winter solstices, during which light and warmth began to increase and decrease, respectively. In pre-industrial times, humans survived through hunting, gathering, and agricultural practices, which depend on the natural cycle of seasons, according to the climate in the region of the world in which they lived. Thus, they created rituals to help ensure enough rain and sun in the spring and summer so crops would grow to fruition at harvest time, which was, in turn, duly celebrated. Vestiges of many of these ancient practices are thought to have survived in festivals still celebrated around seasonal themes.

In Sweden, the Midsommar celebration begins on a Friday and lasts through Sunday. Every town and village sets up a maypole (see MAY DAY), which is decorated with flowers, leaves, and flags. One of the most popular places to spend the Midsommar weekend is in the province of Dalarna, where some of Sweden's oldest wooden cottages have been preserved. Because Sweden is located so far north, Midsommar is called "the day that never ends." The sun doesn't begin to set until 10:00 p.m., and it rises again at 2:00 a.m. In areas of Norway and Sweden that lie above the Arctic Circle, the sun shines twenty-four hours a day in the summer.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Bonfires

Fire festivals were held all over Europe on June 23 (the SUMMER SOLSTICE) or on Midsummer Day (June 24) during pre-Christian times. The solstice is the turning point in the sun's journey across the sky: After climbing higher and higher, it stops and begins to retrace its steps. Ancient peoples believed they could stop the sun's decline by kindling their own "suns" in the form of bonfires.

Bonfires were originally called "bone fires" because young boys would often throw bones and other noxious-smelling things on the fire to drive away monsters and evil spirits. Over the centuries, these fires attracted many folk beliefs and rituals. For example, people believed that their crops would grow as high as the flames reached, or as high as they could jump over the burning embers. Farmers drove their cattle through the fires to guard them against disease and to promote their fertility. Sometimes ashes from the bonfires were scattered over the fields to protect the crops from blight and to ensure a good harvest.

Midsummer bonfires were associated with courtship and fertility rituals as well. Young girls would often make wreaths out of leaves and ribbons, then hang them in a tall fir tree that had been cut down and erected in the middle of the fire. As the flames licked at their heels, young boys would climb the tree, take down the wreaths, and stand on one side of the fire while their girlfriends stood on the other. Sometimes the girls would throw the wreaths across the fire to the boys they wanted to marry. Then, as the flames died down, the couples would join hands and leap over the fire three times for good luck.

In Bohemia, a region in the western Czech Republic, young boys would collect all the worn-out brooms they could find, dip them in pitch, and after setting them on fire, wave them around or throw them up in the air. Sometimes they would run Midsummer Day

headlong down a hillside, brandishing their torches and shouting. The burned stumps of the brooms would then be stuck in their families' gardens to protect them from caterpillars and gnats. Some people put them in their fields or on the roofs of their houses as a charm against lightning, fire, and bad weather.

In Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, midsummer bonfires were known as "Balder's balefires." Lighting them was a way of reenacting the myth of Balder, the Scandinavian god of poetry who was killed when Loki, a divine mischiefmaker, struck him with a bough of mistletoe. His body was burned on a pyre at the time of the summer solstice. Later on, effigies of Balder were thrown into the midsummer bonfires.

When Midsummer Day became St. John's Day, the Church gave new meaning to the bonfires. Since Jesus had once called John the Baptist "a burning and a shining light" (John 5:35), church officials decided that the fires should stand for St. John instead of the sun. The fact that it was St. John who baptized Jesus in the River Jordan dovetailed nicely with the pagan belief in the medicinal powers of water on Midsummer Day.

Although at one time midsummer bonfires were popular from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east, and from Norway and Sweden all the way south to Greece and Spain, today the bonfire tradition is still alive in only a few countries-primarily Sweden, Finland, and Lithuania. Roman Catholics in Brazil build large bonfires in front of their houses on St. John's Day to commemorate Elizabeth, St. John's mother and a cousin of the Virgin Mary. According to legend, Elizabeth promised to notify Mary of the birth of her child by building a bonfire in front of her house and setting off fireworks. In the United States, midsummer bonfires have been moved to the FOURTH OF JULY.

Wheel

Sometimes the straw that had been collected for the Midsummer BONFIRE was attached to a wheel and set on fire. As the wheel burned, two young men would grab the handles that projected from the axle and run downhill with it, often extinguishing the flames in a river or stream at the bottom of the hill. The wheel, of course, represented the sun, and letting it roll downhill was a demonstration of the fact that having reached its highest point in the sky, the sun was now beginning its descent. In Germany, the sun's "falling" is still celebrated on St. John's Day with burning wheels rolled down hills. It is considered good luck if a wheel burns all the way to the bottom of the hill.

In some European countries, burning discs were hurled into the night sky after being kindled in bonfires. Their flight made them resemble fiery dragons, symbolic of the monsters believed to roam the earth on this night.

FURTHER READING

Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Heinberg, Richard. Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth's Seasonal Rhythms through Festival and Ceremony. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1993. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

WEB SITE

Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs www.vm.ee/estonia/kat_174/pea_174/1190.html

Midsummer Day

June 24, or nearest Friday
This ancient pagan festival of the Summer Solstice, originally kept on June 21, is celebrated in Europe and Scandinavian countries in much the same way as Beltane was celebrated in Ireland. Bonfires are still lit in some places on Midsummer Eve as a way of driving out evil and renewing reproductive powers. At one time it was believed that all natural waters had medicinal powers on this day, and people bathed in streams and rivers to cure their illnesses. Midsummer Day is also sacred to lovers. Shakespeare's romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, reflects the traditional spirit associated with this festival.
The Swedish begin their Midsommar celebration on the Friday before Midsummer Eve and continue through Sunday. Every town and village sets up a maypole, or Majstang, which is decorated with flowers, leaves, and flags. In Rattvik, Sweden, on Lake Siljan, the festivities are held on a pier. The province of Dalarna, where some of Sweden's oldest wooden cottages have been preserved, is a popular place to spend the Midsommar festival weekend.
The Swedes call Midsommar "the day that never ends," because the sun doesn't begin to set until 10:00 p.m. and it rises again at 2:00 a.m. In areas of Norway and Sweden that lie above the Arctic Circle, the sun shines brightly 24 hours a day for six weeks.
When June 24 was designated St. John's Day by the Christian Church, the fires that had been associated with the pagan festival were reinterpreted to symbolize St. John, whom the Lord had once called "a burning and shining light." But the pre-Christian elements surrounding Midsummer Day never really disappeared, and the Feast of St. John has long been associated with solstitial rites. This day is also one of the official Quarter Days in England.
In Estonia, St. John's Eve is a national holiday known as Voidupuha, or Victory Day, commemorating the 1919 Battle of Vonnu in which Estonia regained control from Baltic-German rule; because celebrations extend into the night, the next day, June 24, is also a public holiday.
See also Calinda Dance; Inti Raymi Festival; Juhannus; Kupalo Festival; St. Hans Festival
CONTACTS:
Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Press and Information Department
Islandi valjak 1
Tallinn, 15049 Estonia
372-6-317-000; fax: 372-6-317-099
www.vm.ee
SOURCES:
AmerBkDays-2000, pp. 470, 474
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 814
BkFest-1937, pp. 32, 59, 125, 136, 213, 220
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 151
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 105, 157, 168, 202, 203, 253, 486, 606, 629, 723, 747, 754, 789, 866, 871, 930, 961, 966, 1032, 1172
FestWestEur-1958, pp. 13, 27, 43, 68, 153, 167, 199, 235
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 392
OxYear-1999, p. 259
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 301
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