Midsummer's Day :|
the Summer Solstice
The word "solstice" comes from the Latin "sol" meaning sun and "stice" to stand still. Midsummer's day - June 21st - marks the summer solstice, the day when the sun reaches its northernmost point and stops before beginning its journey back to the south of the equator. The sun reaches its highest point in the sky and Midsummer's Day is the longest day of the year - in northern latitudes of the British Isles the sun is only just below the horizon even at midnight, and it never gets completely dark. (For a diagrammatic explanation of just how this works, click here.)
THE ORIGINS OF THE FESTIVAL
June 24th is a church "Quarter-day" and the feast of St. John the Baptist – the Christian feast day which is nearest the astronomical summer solstice (which is at precisely 1.48 am GMT on the night of 21st June 2000) and is the day celebrated in much of mainland Europe, particularly Scandinavia, as Midsummer's Day, another case of the church adapting a Christian celebration to accomodate a pagan festival. The British, of course, have to be different from the rest of Europe. We celebrate Midsummer's Day on midsummer's day!
Midsummer has been an important event and a reason for celebration for thousands of years. Ancient man dreaded the long, dark days of winter and looked forward to the warm, fertile summer months. The spring festivals marked the end of winter, but midsummer was the time when they could be sure that the sun really HAD come back, and was an occasion for great rejoicing.
CUSTOMS AND TRADITIONS
Midsummer is a magical time, and there are many superstitions connected with it. Almost all magic is more powerful at Midsummer.
Midsummer dew has special healing powers. Young girls wash their faces in it to make themselves beautiful, older people do the same to make themselves look younger. If you walk barefoot in the dew on Midsummer Day's morning, it will stop the skin from getting chapped. If you can brave the sometimes chilly June night and bring yourself to skip naked through the dew, then it will ensure fertility for the coming year……..I expect skipping around naked at any time can have that effect!
Herbs, especially St. John's Wort, gathered on Midsummer's Day and burnt on bonfires will keep livestock healthy and banish bad luck.
If on Midsummer’s Eve, you approach a fern leaf backwards, without looking, and - without touching the leaf - collect the seed (spores), they have to power to make you invisible.
Handfasting was a custom of "trial marriage" where, at midsummer, couples who had announced their intention to marry at the earlier May Day (Beltane) festival would pledge themselves for a year and a day, and marry at the end of that period if all went well (divorce was virtually impossible once married in church.)
Stonehenge is the one thing above all others which springs to mind when "summer solstice" is mentioned in Britain. Stonehenge instantly captures the imagination. It still holds great mysteries - although much research has been done, no-one knows for certain why it was built, who built it or even how they built it.
It seems as old as time itself, and over the centuries ideas have come and gone - in the 12th century it was believed to mark the grave of King Arthur; by the 17th century, the Druids had been given credit for its construction, and nowadays there are people who believe it was constructed, for whatever purpose, by visitors from outer space. On a more plausible level in the "outside influence" theories, the Romans, the Phoenicians and even the ancient Egyptians have also been implicated.
It is now fairly certain that Stonehenge was constructed in stages between around 3000 BC and 1800 BC : since the Druids did not arrive in Britain until a few hundred years BC, that would appear to rule them out as the builders. It was most probably constructed by Neolithic man for religious or astronomical purposes, or more likely a combination of both as the two were closely intertwined. Stonehenge is built along an east-west alignment, presumably in order to study the sun, and at dawn on on Midsummer's Day the the rising sun appears behind the Hele Stone and creates a shadow that reaches deep into the heart of five pairs of sarsen stone trilithons (two upright stones with one laid across the top) arranged in a horseshoe open towards the rising sun.
It is a sad fact of life that not all visitors to Stonehenge are as careful of this ancient monument as they could be, and in recent years it has suffered a lot of damage, so much that since 1976 access has had to be restricted in order to preserve the remaining structure : we would all like to think that Stonehenge will survive for another 5000 years.
This attempt to preserve the stones for posterity has not met with universal approval and there is a campaign for open access to the stones. Although Stonehenge was undoubtedly not built by Druids, they probably made use of it for their religious ceremonies and there is support for this connection to be continued. Unfortunately, recent concessions to allow modern-day Druids to celebrate in the circle at midsummer have not been entirely successful due to the irresponsible behaviour of a small minority.
There are some nice photographs of Stonehenge on this page, there is a comprehensive but readable account of the latest theories about Stonehenge here, and the Discovery Channel's Stonehenge pages are well worth a visit - you can come back to this site with your browser's "back" button.
HOME & WEBRINGS | INDEX | RECIPES | GRAPHICS | CRAFT IDEAS