June 21 marks the Summer Solstice, the day of the year when the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer, its highest point in the Northern Hemisphere. The summer solstice is also the longest day of the year for those of us living north of the Equator.
Modern calendars refer to this day as the first day of summer, though ancient reckoning actually viewed May 1 as the beginning of summer, and the Solstice as “Midsummer,” the halfway point of the season. Because the Solstice marks not only the Sun’s greatest potency, but also the turning point at which the length of days begins to wane, this older viewpoint does make sense. After all, most Americans consider Memorial Day to be the unofficial start of summer, and Labor Day the unofficial end. Both days fall about three weeks earlier than the astronomical dates that mark the passage of the seasons.
Because summer is a great time for a party, Midsummer has long been a time of revelry. The early church capitalized on this by creating the feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24, six months before Christmas, to coincide with Midsummer (according to the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist was born six months before his cousin, Jesus). Many of the traditional festivities associated with St. John’s feast day were held the night before, on June 23, or St. John’s Eve.
Perhaps more than any other day of the year, except Christmas, St. John’s Eve is full of lore. Throughout the world, this night has traditionally been celebrated by lighting massive bonfires, accompanied by music, signing, and dancing. In fact, in Ireland, St. John’s Eve is still known as “Bonfire Night,” and its history stretches back even further than Christianity in Ireland. At one time, Bonfire Night honored Ãine, the Celtic goddess of love and fertility.
St. John’s Eve bonfires were believed to have magical, protective qualities, and many rituals sprang up around them. Jumping through the fire was said to bring good luck. Farmers often drove their cattle through the flames or walked in circles around their sheep, carrying torches lit from the bonfire. In certain areas of Ireland, some people still believe that if you hold a pebble in your hand while circling a Midsummer bonfire, any wish will be granted. Simply whisper the wish before casting the stone into the fire.
Others believed that the ashes from a Midsummer bonfire would ensure fertility for their crops. Common practices included mixing the ashes with the seeds while planting or spreading them over the fields.
Not surprisingly, given the wealth of other lore surrounding the day, the ancient Celts also believed St. John’s Eve was a prime day for faerie activity, second only to Halloween. Anyone who wanted to see one of the wee folk would gather fern spores at the stroke of midnight and rub it onto their eyelids. One had to be careful, though, because the crafty faeries often led unwary humans astray, getting them utterly lost, even in familiar territory. This condition was known as being “pixie-led,” and could be safeguarded against by turning your clothing inside out, or carrying a small a few leaves of rue, a strong-smelling evergreen, in your pocket.
Today, of course, we generally enjoy our campfires and fire pits all summer long, and making s’mores has replaced leaping through the flames. Whether or not you go hunting for faeries to mark the feast of St. John, though, be sure to get outside and have an enjoyable summer!