European midsummer-related holidays, traditions, and celebrations are pre-Christian in origin, but tonight, the evening of June 23, St John’s Eve, is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist. This feast day is one of the very few saints’ days to mark the supposed anniversary of the birth, rather than the death, of the saint commemorated.
Although Midsummer celebrations originated as a pagan holiday, the Feast of Saint John coincides with the June solstice also referred to as Midsummer. The Christian holy day is fixed at June 24, but, in some countries, festivities are celebrated the night before, on St John’s Eve. (It is six months before Christmas because Luke 1:26 and Luke 1.36 imply that John the Baptist was born six months earlier than Jesus, although the Bible does not say at which time of the year this happened.)
Solstice celebrations still center around the day of the astronomical summer solstice. Some choose to hold the rite on the 21st of June, even when this is not the longest day of the year, and some celebrate June 24th, the day of the solstice in Roman times.
The wise people of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Quebec (Canada) celebrate the traditional Midsummer day, June 24, as a public holiday.
My first exposure to all this was Shakespeare A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream whose setting originally confused me since I never considered June to be the middle of summer.
In England, it was the ancient custom on St. John’s Eve to light large bonfires after sundown, which served the double purpose of providing light to the revelers and warding off evil spirits. This was known as ‘setting the watch’. People often jumped through the fires for good luck.
Streets were lined with lanterns, and people carried cressets (pivoted lanterns atop poles) as they wandered from one bonfire to another. These wandering, garland-bedecked bands were called a ‘marching watch’. They might be accompanied by dancers, and traditional players dressed as a unicorn, a dragon, and six hobby-horse riders.
Late night parties were held to stay up throughout the whole of this shortest night of the year. You might even spend the night keeping watch in the center of a circle of standing stones to gain the power of poetic inspiration.
This was also the night when the serpents of the island would roll themselves into a hissing, writhing ball in order to engender the ‘glain’, also called the ‘serpent’s egg’, ‘snake stone’, or ‘Druid’s egg’. Anyone in possession of this hard glass bubble would wield incredible magical powers.
At one time in Britain, Midsummer Night was second only to Halloween for its importance to the Faeries, who especially enjoy causing mischief. Want to see the Faeries? Gather fern seed at the stroke of midnight and rub it onto your eyelids.
Of course, you might be led astray by Pixies unless you carry some Rue in your pocket. Also try turning your jacket inside-out, or crossing a stream of “living” water.
If you want to decorate for a party, adorn the front door, with birch, fennel, St. John’s wort, orpin, and white lilies. Five plants were thought to have special magical properties on this night: rue, roses, St. John’s wort, vervain and trefoil. Good luck finding those at Home Depot.
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