Why Is ‘Midsummer’ at the Beginning of Summer?

Midsummer Eve bonfire
Midsummer Eve Bonfire on Skagen Beach (1906), an artistic depiction of the traditional Danish bonfire.

Many people in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate Midsummer’s Eve and Day. This ancient celebration is associated with the summer solstice this weekend.

It is especially important in the Scandinavian countries where the arrival of summer after a long winter is even more of a cause for celebration.

Midsummer was traditionally celebrated on June 24, which is the feast day of St. John the Baptist. But the holiday has its origin in a pre-Christian pagan solstice festival. The Catholic Church decided early on that rather than ban pagan festivals, they co-opted them by connecting them to Christian celebrations.

But why call it MID-summer when it occurs at the start of summer?  I learned the answer in a college Shakespeare class when I asked that question during our study of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This day marks the MIDpoint of the growing season being halfway between planting and harvest (April-September).

This day is one of four “quarter days” in the wheel of the year.

Feel free to do some feasting, dancing, and singing in this nice part of summer before the hot summer days arrive. June 24 is the traditional date of Midsummer Day, but it is often celebrated on the closest weekend to June 24 – so keep the party going until the 24th.

Summer and Fathers

down the shore
Down the Shore

There are three events you might be marking or celebrating this weekend.

The summer solstice, which marks the official start of the season in the Northern Hemisphere is June 20. (The Southern Hemisphere has to wait for December for summer.) The summer solstice is when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky and is the day with the longest period of daylight. At the Arctic circle there is continuous daylight around the summer solstice.

According to Wikipedia, the summer solstice is also known as estival solstice – a term I have never heard used – and as Midsummer.

Midsummer is the period of time centered upon the summer solstice, and more specifically the northern European celebrations that accompany the actual solstice. Those celebrations take place on a day between June 19 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The celebration predates Christianity, and existed under different names and traditions around the world.

Father’s Day is this Sunday and celebrates fathers and fatherhood, paternal bonds, and the influence of fathers in society. I only learned this year that the tradition is said to be started from a memorial service held for a large group of men who died in a mining accident in Monongah, West Virginia in 1907. That seems to be quite an odd way for this holiday to have started. It was first proposed as a national day in 1909 and is celebrated in the United States annually on the third Sunday in June.

I will celebrate the solstice at the beach, which has always meant summer for me. Here in New Jersey, we don’t go to the beach – we go “down the shore.”

Midsummer” always seemed to me to be an odd name for a time when summer is just beginning. You can celebrate Midsummer’s Day or Midsummer’s Eve. Shakespeare gave the night a big boost.

I’ll spend Father’s Day with both of my sons, and my younger son is a new father, so the day will be more special than in some years. My family, past and present, has spent many summers down the shore, but not always for the solstice or Father’s Day.  All holidays are really personal celebrations in some way.

Down the shore with my father and sister on a father’s Day many years ago.

Is It Midsummer Already?

Midsummer's Eve
Midsummer’s Eve Bonfire on Skagen’s Beach by P.S. Krøyer

Is it midsummer already? Why, it seems like we just started summer this past week.  Yes, we did just pass the summer solstice. But Midsummer, also known as St John’s Day and Litha, is a day or the period of time centered upon the summer solstice. In most Northern European celebrations, the event takes place on a day between June 19 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures.

Today is St. John’s Day, so we can celebrate Midsummer today too. The Christian Church designated June 24 as the feast day of the early Christian martyr St John the Baptist, and the observance of St John’s Day begins the evening before, known as St John’s Eve.

European midsummer celebrations are pre-Christian in origin. In the Southern Hemisphere (mostly in Brazil, Argentina and Australia), this imported European celebration would be more appropriately called “Midwinter.”

Midsummer is also sometimes referred to by some Neopagans as Litha, the fire festival.  Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southward again. Some believed that witches were also on their way to meetings with other powerful beings.