Midsummer may simply refer to the period of time centered upon the summer solstice, but more often refers to specific European celebrations that accompany the actual solstice, or that take place on the 24th of June and the preceding evening. European midsummer-related holidays, traditions, and celebrations are pre-Christian in origin. They are particularly important in Northern Europe - Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden - but are found also in Ireland, parts of Britain (Cornwall especially), France, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain, other parts of Europe, and elsewhere - such as Canada, the United States, Puerto Rico, and even in the Southern Hemisphere (Brazil), where this imported European celebration would be more appropriately called Midwinter.
Midsummer is also sometimes referred to by neo-pagans and others as Litha, stemming from Bede's De temporum ratione in which he gave the Anglo-Saxon names for the months roughly corresponding to June and July as "se Ærra Liþa" and "se Æfterra Liþa" (the "early Litha month" and the "later Litha month") with an intercalary month of "Liþa" appearing after se Æfterra Liþa on leap years. The fire festival or Lith- Summer solstice is a tradition for many pagans.
Solstitial celebrations still centre upon 24 June, which is no longer the longest day of the year. The difference between the Julian calendar year (365.2500 days) and the tropical year (365.2422 days) moved the day associated with the actual astronomical solstice forward approximately three days every four centuries, until Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar bringing the solstice to around 21 June. In the Gregorian calendar, the solstice does shift, but in the long term it moves only about one day in 3000 years.
In Sweden Mid-summer celebration originates from the time before Christianity; it was celebrated as a sacrifice time in the sign of the fertility .
The solstice itself has remained a special moment of the annual cycle of the year since Neolithic times . The concentration of the observance is not on the day as we reckon it, commencing at midnight or at dawn, but the pre-Christian beginning of the day, which falls on the previous eve. In Sweden, Finland and Estonia, Midsummer's Eve is considered the greatest festival of the year, comparable only with Walpurgis Night, Christmas Eve, and New Year's Eve.
In the 7th century, Saint Eligius (died 659/60) warned the recently converted inhabitants of Flanders against these pagan solstice celebrations. According to the Vita by his companion Ouen, he would say:
Indeed, as Saint Eligius demonstrates, as Christianity was introduced to previously pagan areas, midsummer celebrations came to be often translated to new Christian holidays, often resulting in celebrations that mixed purely Christian traditions with traditions derived from pagan Midsummer festivities.
As the northeast is largely arid or semi-arid these popular festivals not only coincide with the rainy seasons of most states in the northeast but they also provide the people with an opportunity to give thanks to Saint John for the rain. They also celebrate rural life and feature typical clothing, food, dance (particularly quadrilha, which is similar to square dancing). Like Midsummer and Saint John's Day in Portugal and Scandinavian countries, São João celebrates marital union. The "quadrilha" features couple formations around a mock wedding whose bride and groom are the central attraction of the dancing. A maypole, called "mastro de São João", is also raised.
Usually taking place in an arraial, a large, open space outdoors, men dress up as farm boys with suspenders and large straw hats and women wear pigtails, freckles, painted gap teeth and red-checkered dresses, all in a loving tribute to the origins of Brazilian country music and of themselves, some of whom are recent immigrants from the countryside to cities such as Olinda, Recife, Maceió and Salvador, and some return to the rural areas during the festival to visit their families. However, nowadays, Saint John festivities are extremely popular in all urban areas and among all social classes. In the Northeast, they are as popular as Carnival. It should be noted that, like during Carnival, these festivities involve costume-wearing (in this case, peasant costumes), dancing, heavy drinking, and visual spectacles (bonfires, fireworks display, and folk dancing).
Two northeastern towns in particular have competed with each other for the title of "Biggest Saint John Festival in the World", namely Caruaru (in the state of Pernambuco), and Campina Grande, in Paraíba state. In fact, Caruaru features in the Guinness Book of World Records for holding the biggest outdoor country festival. As Saint John festivities also coincide with the corn harvest, dishes served during this period are commonly made with corn, such as canjica and pamonha; dishes also include peanuts, potatoes sausages and also sweet rice. The celebrations are very colorful and festive and include amazing pyrotechnics. Bonfires and fire in general are thus one of the most important features of these festivities, a feature that is among the remnants of midsummer pagan rituals in the Iberian Peninsula.
In 1908, Pope Pius X designated John the Baptist as the patron saint of the French-Canadians. In 1925, June 24 became a legal holiday in Quebec and in 1977, it became the secular National Holiday of Quebec. It still is the tradition to light great fires on the night of the 24th of June.
In Denmark, the solstitial celebration is called Sankt Hans aften ("St. John's Eve"). It was an official holiday until 1770, and in accordance with the Danish tradition of celebrating a holiday on the evening before the actual day, it takes place on the evening of 23 June. It is the day where the medieval wise men and women (the doctors of that time) would gather special herbs that they needed for the rest of the year to cure people.
It has been celebrated since the times of the Vikings, by visiting healing water wells and making a large bonfire to ward away evil spirits. Today the water well tradition is gone. Bonfires on the beach, speeches, picnics and songs are traditional, although bonfires are built in many other places where beaches may not be close by (i.e. on the shores of lakes and other waterways, parks, etc.). In the 1920s a tradition of putting a witch made of straw and cloth (probably made by the elder women of the family) on the bonfire emerged as a remembrance of the church's witch burnings from 1540 to 1693. (Unofficially a witch was lynched as late as 1897.) This burning sends the "witch" away from us, to Bloksbjerg, the mountain 'Brocken' in the Harz region of Germany where the great witch gathering was thought to be held on this day.
Holger Drachmann and P.E. Lange-Müller wrote a midsommervise (Midsummer hymn) in 1885 called "Vi elsker vort land..." ("We Love Our Country") that is sung at every bonfire on this evening.
Midsummer marks a change in the farming year, specifically the break between the completion of spring sowing and the hard work of summer hay-making.
Understandably, some of the rituals of Jaanipäev have very strong folkloric roots. The best-known Jaanik, or midsummer, ritual is the lighting of the bonfire and the jumping over it. This is seen as a way of guaranteeing prosperity and avoiding bad luck. Likewise, to not light the fire is to invite the destruction of your house by fire. The fire also frightened away mischievous spirits who avoided it at all costs, thus ensuring a good harvest. So, the bigger the fire, the further the mischievous spirits stayed away.
Estonians celebrate "Jaaniõhtu" ("John's Night" in English) on the eve of the Summer Solstice (June 23) with bonfires. On the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, old fishing boats may be burnt in the large pyres set ablaze. On Jaaniõhtu, Estonians all around the country will gather with their families, or at larger events to celebrate this important day with singing and dancing, as Estonians have done for centuries. The celebrations that accompany Jaaniõhtu are the largest and most important of the year, and the traditions are similar those of Sweden, Finland and the southern neighbour Latvia.
Since 1934 the June 23 is also national Victory Day of Estonia and both 23 & 24 are holidays.
Before 1316, the summer solstice was called Ukon juhla, after the Finnish god Ukko. In e.g. Karelian tradition, many bonfires were burned side by side, the biggest of which was called Ukko-kokko (the "bonfire of Ukko"). After the celebrations were Christianized, the holiday is known as juhannus after St. John (Finnish: Johannes). The Swedish-speaking minority calls the event midsommar.
In the Finnish midsummer celebration, bonfires (Finnish kokko) are burnt at lakesides and by the sea. Especially in eastern Finland entire young birch trees (the decorative entire young birch tree is called meiju while birch in Finnish is koivu) are brought to both sides of the front door to welcome visitors. In Midsummer night the sauna is typically heated and family and friends are invited to bathe and to grill. In the coastal areas some of the Swedish speaking communities raise a maypole, a tradition that has spread from Sweden during the 20th century.
In folk magic, still well known but no longer seriously practised, midsummer was a very potent night and the time for many small rituals, mostly for young maidens seeking suitors and fertility. Will o wisps were believed to be seen at midsummer night, marking a treasure.
Many music festivals of all sizes are organized on the Midsummer weekend. The Finnish midsummer is notorious for drunkenness and revelry. The number of drownings, road accidents and other mishaps usually peak statistically.
It's also common to start summer holidays on Midsummer day. For many families the Midsummer is the time when they move to their summer cottage by the lake. Often Finns spend the whole of July at the summer cottages.
In certain French towns, a tall bonfire is built by the inhabitants in order to be lit on St John's Day. In the Vosges region and in the Southern part of Meurthe-et-Moselle, this huge bonfire is named "chavande".
The 21 June is also known as the Fête de la Musique.
In the western town of Kuldīga, revellers mark the holiday by running naked through the town at three in the morning. The event has taken place for the past seven years. Runners are rewarded with beer, and police are on hand in case any "puritans" attempt to interfere with the naked run.
As in Denmark, Sankthansaften is celebrated on 23 June in Norway. The day is also called Jonsok, which means "John's wake", important in Catholic times with pilgrimages to churches and holy springs. For instance, right up to 1840, there was a pilgrimage to the stave church in Røldal (southwest Norway) whose crucifix was said to have healing powers. Today, however, Sankthansaften is largely regarded as a secular event.
Most places the main event is the burning of a large fire. In parts of Norway a custom of arranging mock marriages, both between adults and between children, is still kept alive. The wedding was meant to symbolise the blossoming of new life. Such weddings are known to have taken place in the 1800s, but the custom is believed to be older.
Saints’ days are full of fun and merriment. The streets are decorated with balloons and arches made out of brightly-coloured paper; people dance in the city's small squares, and altars, dedicated to the saints, are put up as a way of asking for good fortune. These holidays are days of festivities with good food and refreshments, people eat Caldo Verde (cabbage and potato soup), Sardinha Assada (grilled sardines), bread and drink red wine and água-pé (grape juice with a small percentage of alcohol).
In Lisbon, in Avenida da Liberdade, there are the Marchas, a parade of the inhabitants from the city's different traditional quarters, with hundreds of singers and dancers and a vast audience applauding their favourite participants. As St Anthony is the matchmaker saint, it is still the tradition in Lisbon to celebrate multiple marriages (200 to 300) and still following the tradition, if you are attracted to someone, one can declare himself in the heat of the festivities by offering to the loved person a manjerico (a flower-pot with a sweet basil plant) and a love poem.
In Oporto St John's is a festival that is lived to the full in the streets, where anything is permitted. People carry a whole plant of flowering garlic with them (or a little plastic hammer), which they use to bang their neighbours over the head for good luck. According to one Portuguese Grandmother, the tradition is that St John was a scalliwag in his youth and the people hit him on the head with the garlic saying "return to the right path". There is also dancing, while the highlight of the night is the firework display over the River Douro.
Across the country the traditional midsummer bonfire is also built, and following an ancient pagan tradition, revelers try to jump over the bonfire, this in order to gain protection during the rest of the year.
Ivan Kupala was the old Russian name for John the Baptist. Up to the present day, the Russian Midsummer Night (or Ivan's Day) is known as one of the most expressive Russian folk and pagan holidays. Ivan Kupala Day is the day of summer solstice celebrated in Russia and Ukraine on June 23 OS and July 6 NS. This is a pagan fertility rite, which has been accepted into the Orthodox Christian calendar.
Many rites of this holiday are connected with water, fertility and autopurification. The girls, for example, would float their flower garlands on the water of rivers and tell their fortunes from their movement. Lads and girls would jump over the flames of bonfires. Nude bathing is likewise parcticed. Nights on the Eve of Ivan Kupala inspired Modest Mussorgsky to create his Night on Bald Mountain. A prominent Ivan Kupala night scene is featured in Andrei Tarkovsky's film Andrei Rublev.
The Yakut people of the Sakha Republic celebrate a solstitial ceremony, Ysyakh, involving tethering a horse to a pole and circle dancing around it. Betting on Reindeer or horse racing would often take place afterward. The traditions are derived from Tengriism, the ancient sun religion of the region which has since been driven out by the Russian empire, Russian Orthodox Church and finally the Communist Party. The traditions have since been encouraged.
The traditional midsummer party in Spain is the celebration in honour of San Juan (St. John the Baptist) and takes place in June the 23rd night. It is common in many areas of the country. Parties are organised usually at beaches, where bonfires are lit and a set of firework displays usually take place. Bonfires are lit in the streets and there are fireworks too. On the Mediterranean coast, special meals like Coca de Sant Joan are also served on this occasion.
Midsummer tradition is also especially strong in northern areas of the country, such as Galicia, where one can easily identify the rituals that reveal the pagan beliefs widespread throughout Europe in Neolithic times. These beliefs pivot on three basic ideas: the importance of medicinal plants, especially in relation to health, youth and beauty; the protective character of fire to ward men off evil spirits and witches and, finally, the purifying, miraculous effects of water. What follows is a summary of Galician traditions surrounding St. John's festival in relation to these three elements.
Medicinal plants: Traditionally, women collect several species of plants on St. John's eve. These vary from area to area, but mostly include fennel, different species of fern (e.g. dryopteris filix-max), rue (herb of grace, ruta graveolens), rosemary, dog rose (rosa canina), lemon verbena, St John's wort (hypericum perforatum), mallows (malva sylvestris), laburnum, foxgloves (digitalis purpurea) and elder flowers. In some areas, these are arranged in a bunch and hung in doorways. In most others, they are dipped in a vessel with water and left outside exposed to the dew of night until the following morning (o dia de San Xoan -St. John's day), when people use the resulting flower water to wash their faces.
Water: Tradition holds it that the medicinal plants mentioned above are most effective when dipped in water collected from seven different springs. Also, on some beaches, it was traditional for women who wanted to be fertile to bathe in the sea until they were washed by 9 waves. Fire: Bonfires are lit, usually around midnight both on beaches and inland, so much so that one usually cannot tell the smoke from the mist common in this Atlantic corner of Iberia at this time of the year, and it smells burnt everywhere. Occasionally, a dummy is placed at the top, representing a witch or the devil. Young and all gather around them and feast mostly on pilchards, potatoes boiled in their skins and maize bread. When it is relatively safe to jump over the bonfire, it is done three times (although it could also be nine or any odd number) for good luck at the cry of “meigas fora” (witches off!).It is also common to drink “Queimada”, a beverage resulting from setting alight Galician grappa mixed with sugar, coffee beans and pieces of fruit, which is prepared while chanting an incantation against evil spirits.
In modern Sweden, Midsummer's Eve and Midsummer's Day (Midsommarafton and Midsommardagen) are celebrated from the eve of the Friday between June 19 - 25. It is arguably the most important holiday of the year, and one of the most uniquely Swedish in the way it is celebrated, even if it has been influenced by other countries long ago. The main celebrations take place on the Friday, and the traditional events include raising and dancing around a huge maypole. One typical dance is the frog dance. Before the maypole is raised, greens and flowers are collected and used to cover the entire pole.
Raising and dancing around a maypole (majstång or midsommarstång) is an activity that attracts families and many others. People dancing around the pole listen to traditional music and many wear traditional folk costumes. The year's first potatoes, pickled herring, sour cream, and possibly the first strawberries of the season are on the menu. Drinking songs are also important at this feast, and many drink heavily.
Because Midsummer was thought to be one of the times of the year when magic was strongest, it was considered a good night to perform rituals to look into the future. Traditionally, young people pick bouquets of seven or nine different flowers and put them under their pillow in the hope of dreaming about their future spouse. In the past it was believed that herbs picked at Midsummer were highly potent, and water from springs could bring good health. Greenery placed over houses and barns were supposed to bring good fortune and health to people and livestock; this old tradition of decorating with greens continues, even though most don't take it seriously. To decorate with greens was called att maja (to "may") and may be the origin of the word majstång, maja coming originally from the month May. Other researchers say the term came from German merchants who raised the maypole in June because the Swedish climate made it impossible to find the necessary greens and flowers in May, and continued to call it a maypole. Today, however, it is most commonly called a midsommarstång. In earlier times, small spires wrapped in greens were erected; this probably predates the maypole tradition, which is believed by many to have come from the continent in the Middle Ages. Others argue that some form of Midsummer pole occurred in Sweden during the pre-Christian times, and was a phallic fertility symbol, meant to impregnate the earth, but as there were no records from those times it cannot be proven, and this idea might just be a modern interpretation of the poles form. The earliest historical mention of the maypole in Sweden is from the Middle Ages. Midsummer was however linked to an ancient fertility festival which was adapted into St. Johans day by the church, even though it retained many pagan traditions, as the Swedes were slow to give up the old heathen customs. The connection to fertility is naturally linked to the time of year. Many young people became passionate at Midsummer, and this was accepted, probably because it resulted in more childbirths in March which was a good time for children to be born.
Midsummer is one of the only pagan holidays that are still celebrated in Europe (if not the only). In Denmark and Norway it is referred to as the eve of St. Hans but it's only in Sweden that it has kept its original name. Midsummer rivals Christmas as the most important holiday of the year due to the copious amounts of alcohol consumed.
In late fifteenth-century England, John Mirk of Lilleshall Abbey, Shropshire, gives the following description: "At first, men and women came to church with candles and other lights and prayed all night long. In the process of time, however, men left such devotion and used songs and dances and fell into lechery and gluttony turning the good, holy devotion into sin." The church fathers decided to put a stop to these practices and ordained that people should fast on the evening before, and thus turned waking into fasting (Festial 182).
Mirk adds that at the time of his writing, "in worship of St John the Baptist, men stay up at night and make three kinds of fires: one of is clean bones and no wood and is called a "bonnefyre" [bonfire]; another is of clean wood and no bones, and is called a "wakefyre", because men stay awake by it all night; and the third is made of both bones and wood and is called, "St. John's fire" (Festial 182).
These tradition largely fell to the Reformation, but persisted in rural areas up until the nineteenth century before petering out.
Other Midsummer festivities had uneasy relations with the Reformed establishment. The Chester Midsummer Watch Parade, begun in 1498, was held at every Summer Solstice in years when the Chester Mystery Plays were not performed. Despite the cancellation of the plays in 1575, the parade continued; in 1599, however, the Lord Mayor ordered the parades banned and the costumes destroyed. The parade was permanently banned in 1675.
Traditional Midsummer bonfires are still lit on some high hills in Cornwall (see Carn Brea and Castle an Dinas, St. Columb Major). This tradition was revived by the Old Cornwall Society in the mid 20th century. Another Cornish midsummer celebration is Golowan, which takes place at Penzance, Cornwall which normally starts on the Friday nearest St John's Day. Golowan lasts several days and culminates in Mazey Day. This is a revival of the Feast of St John (Gol-Jowan) with fireworks and bonfires.
Midsummer festivals are celebrated throughout Scotland, notably in the Scottish Borders where Peebles holds its Beltane Week. The Eve of St John has special magical significance and was used by Sir Walter Scott as the title, and theme, for a pseudo-ballad poem. He invented a legend in which the lady of Smailholm Tower, near Kelso, keeps vigil by the midnight fires three nights in a row (see above) and is visited by her lover; but when her husband returns from battle, she learns he slew that lover on the first night, and she has been entertained by a very physical ghost.
See also Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Midsummer celebrations are held throughout the US. The NYC Swedish Midsummer celebrations in Battery Park, New York City, attracts some 3,000-5,000 people annually, which makes it one of the largest celebrations after the ones held in Leksand and at the Skansen Park in Stockholm. This event is cohosted by the Swedish Consulate in NYC and the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy. Swedish Midsommar is also celebrated in other places with large Swedish and Scandinavian populations, such as Chicago, Minneapolis, and Lindsborg, Kansas. The Swedish "language village" (summer camp) Sjölunden, run by Concordia College in Minnesota, also celebrates Midsommar.
Geneva, Illinois, hosts a Swedish Day (Svenskarnas Dag) festival on the third Sunday of June. The event, featuring maypole-raising, dancing, and presentation of an authentic Viking ship, dates back to 1911.
The Seattle, Washington neighborhood of Fremont puts on a large Summer Solstice Parade & Pageant, which for many years has controversially included painted naked cyclists. In St. Edwards Park in Kenmore, Washington, the Skandia Folkdance Society hosts Midsommarfest, which includes a Scandinavian solstice pole.
A solstitial celebration is held on Casper Mountain in Wyoming at Crimson Dawn park. Crimson Dawn is known in the area for the great stories of mythical creatures and people that live on Casper Mountain. The celebration is attended by many people from the community, and from around the country. A large bonfire is held and all are invited to throw a handful of red dirt into the fire in hopes that they get their wish granted.