Some things connect people across the vastness of history. For those in the northern hemisphere, the days are drawing shorter and shorter, and the nights are becoming longer and brighter, just as it did for the ancient Egyptians, the Persians, or the Vikings.
None of those peoples were unaware of this, and indeed throughout history this trend of longer days often culminates in one unforgettable evening. This is especially important for northern Scandinavia, where those within the Arctic Circle will eventually find their nights without darkness at all.
People abandon the cities for the weekend retreating to the countryside, surrounding themselves with nature. What better way to honor the harvest and the sun than to be in nature? It’s the festival of Midsummer. But what are we celebrating on this ancient holiday?
An Ancient Celebration
Midsummer’s Day, as defined by the Christian Church, is celebrated on June 24th, and it’s no coincidence that it falls on the same week as the shortest day of the year. To gain a deeper understanding, we must look towards astronomy.
Summer begins on the summer solstice (June 21st). The Earth rotates around the sun on a tilted axis, and at this point the northern hemisphere is most titled towards the sun, receiving the most daylight. This delivers the brightest and longest day of the year.
The word solstice comes from the Latin word “solstitium”. “Sol” means sun, and “stitium” means motionless or stopped. For ancient scholars, the sun had paused in the sky at the apex of its journey. From now on, it would go no further and instead retreat into winter.
It’s also worth noting that the summer solstice represents the middle or peak of the agricultural season for farmers. Crops are growing, indicating the plenty of food they may expect to harvest. Although there were no seeds to be planted or crops to be harvested at this point, it was still an important day, one of celebration.
The Christian Church named the 24th of June Midsummer Day in 1953, but this ancient celebration dates back far more. The exact date when people began to celebrate this spiritual period or observe this event is unknown. Christians celebrate specifically the life of St. John the Baptist on the summer solstice, one of the most important individuals in the Christian faith.
St. John the Baptist?
St. John the Baptist, who was born six months before Jesus, was thought to be a foreshadowing of Jesus and “was regarded by many to be preparing the way for Jesus”. Given Jesus was traditionally held to have been born at Christmas in December, it only makes sense that John should be associated with summer.
Furthermore there is a poetic balance to the choice to celebrate John at this time. The Bible refers to John and Jesus with the words “He must increase, but I must decrease”. What more opportune time of year to recognize the link between these two great figures.
Of course the festival itself is much older than Christianity, and here we see another example of the early Church leaders looking to promote their nascent religion by co-opting existing days of celebration. Similar rituals to signify the shortest day of the year were celebrated on pagan cultures as well.
Where these come from originally is lost in the mists of time, but we do know that the origins of midsommarstång, or maypole dancing, originated in Germany between the late 17th and early 18th Century. The midsommarstång, the maypole, is both symbolically and often physically the focal point of the festivities.
Constructed using fragrant flowers, plants, green garland, and ribbons and bows it is set in the town’s center as a sign of celebration. People dance around it during the festivities, wearing flowery crowns made from the same garlands.
To many, the midsommarstång was designed to look like a phallic symbol, especially with the two huge hoops at the top. Although the theory is merely speculation, it would make sense because this event looks forward to a bountiful harvest, a fertile harvest.
Others suggest the three-axis design represents the underworld, earth, and skies, a theory that can be linked to Norse mythology. It is certain that whatever religious overtones were important at the time were linked to the cycle of the seasons, and that midsummer was a time of celebration, a time when everything felt alive.
Another tradition that is observed particularly in Sweden is a celebration called the “Midnight Sun”. Swedes would place flowers under their pillows on Midsummer Eve, following the belief that if you pick flowers of seven different species and put them under your pillow, you will have pleasant dreams about your future husband or wife.
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Once again, life and fertility is a core theme of celebrations at this time of year. People would congregate around Kokko (bonfires) to celebrate; both the bonfire and the loud noise of people were intended to ward off evil spirits who could otherwise disrupt the rich harvest.
Midsummer Around the World
Although an official national holiday in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland, Midsummer celebrations are observed across the world. Parties are held in many other nations across the world, including northern Europe, Canada, and even Puerto Rico in the Caribbean.
In Italy, particularly in Rome, people eat snails because they believe the delicacy will protect them from evil. While in the north of Italy, they celebrate the upcoming grape harvest and wish the grapes well as they approach a critical stage in their development, by cooking meals using aged balsamic vinegar.
In the United Kingdom people assemble around Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in England. They wait for the sun to rise to dance and sing with traditional instruments to mark the sun’s solstice peak.
Russians and Ukrainians celebrate the holiday by participating in a variety of water-based activities, including skinny dipping. They have also taken up the Latvian custom of jumping over bonfires. All of this is being done to thank and be closer to nature.
Guatemalans commemorate this Mayan festival by performing ancient spiritual rituals at Tikal’s famous ruins. The rituals take place in these temples at sunrise and sunset as they were built in alignment with the passage of the sun during the solstice.
Maybe you prefer to observe the ancient holiday of Midsummer by erecting a midsommarstång, as the Swedish do. Perhaps you choose to praise St. John the Baptist according to Christian tradition. If neither of these traditions appeals to you, consider one of the many new customs that are popular now across the world.
But one thing can be certain: this is a party. Midwinter feasts may be about defiance at the harsh conditions, and the equinoxes may be of more practical use regarding agriculture, but for one night at the end of June it is time to celebrate being alive.
Top Image: Midsummer, the longest day of the year, is celebrated across the world. Source: Jutaphoto / Adobe Stock.
By Roisin Everard