Sts Peter and Paul

This photo is from a UK website called rushmatters dedicated to rush gathering and rush crafts

Midsummer and St Petertide are the favorite seasons for “rush-bearing” in England: rushes or new-mown hay are brought in to be laid on the floors of churches. In northwestern England, rushcarts with towering flower-bedecked loads of plaited rushes are the focus of processions.

Good Day to you, you merry men all
Come listen to our rhyme
For we would have you not forget
This is Midsummer time
So bring your rushes, bring your garlands
Roses, John’s Wort, Vervain too
Now is the time for our rejoicing
Come along Christians, come along do.

Bishop’s Castle Rushbearing Song, Shropshire

St Peter by Rubens

Photographer Jeffrey Bezom describes the way the festival is celebrated in Poroa de Varzim in Portugal where St Peter is honored as a fisherman. The houses are decorated with garlands of lights, nautical banners, tinfoil boats and colorful ribbons. Stages are trimmed with nets, oars and rigging for life-sized paper-mache Peters in fishing boats. At sunset, the townsfolk, dressed in black, march to the beat of drums, following an empty coffin draped with flowers and lace. Some carry candles and others poles topped with large realistic wax heads representing the beloved dead of the town. Onlookers strew their path with rushes and mint and thyme. Later, they drink green wine, run about with torches, dance around huge bonfires and jump through the flames, feast on fresh grilled sardines and set off fireworks.

Primula veris

Obviously this celebration has acquired some of the aspects of midsummer as well as acknowledging St Peter’s role as the gatekeeper of Heaven. He is often shown holding two crossed keys. The primula veris is also known as St Peter’s wort because it is said to resemble a bunch of keys. He is also associated with the yellow rattle and wall-barley which is called St Peter’s corn in Germany.

This is another day for weather oracles. A French proverb says that if it rains on this day, it will rain for thirty more dangerous days. Folklorist Alexander Carmichael who collected folk customs from the Scottish Highlands and compiled them in a book called  Carmina Gadelica records a saying used by fishermen to predict the weather from the winds on this day:

Wind from the west, fish and bread;
Wind from the north, cold and flaying;
Wind from the east, snow on the hills;
Wind from the south, fruit on the trees.

Pennsylvania Dutch farmers had a little rhyme about this day: Peter und Paul mach die Wurzel faul or “Peter and Paul makes the root crops rot,” indicating that it usually rains on their day. [Yoder]

In the Vodou tradition, Elegba is honored on the same day since he is also a messenger between the two worlds.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc, Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Book of Days, Oxford University Press, 2000
Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987
Teish, Luisah, Jambalaya, Harper & Row 1985
Yoder, Don, Groundhog’s Day, Stackpole Press

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Midsummer Night’s Eve

This is the eve of St. John’s Day, which replaced the more ancient celebrations on Summer Solstice with a Saint’s Day.

In a Victorian book of spells and incantations, I found this divination which is supposed to be performed on Midsummer’s Eve, around sunset. An odd number of women (three, five or seven) go into a garden and each picks a sprig of red sage. They put these into a basin of rosewater setting on a stool in the middle of a room they have set aside for this purpose. Then they tie a line from the stool to the wall and each woman takes off her shift and hangs it, inside out, on the line. I assume this leaves them naked. Then they sit, silently (no matter what happens), in a row on the other side of the stool. Around midnight, each one’s future mate will take her sprig out of the water and sprinkle her shift with it.

Cagliostro, attributed to, Spells and Incantations of Yesteryear, from an earlier edition by J Fletcher & Company, 1876, reprinted by Metheglin Press

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Celebrating Summer Solstice

by Waverly Fitzgerald

Photo by Julie Coningham

The summer solstice is the time when the sun is in its glory. This is the longest day of the year and the shortest night. The date of the summer solstice varies slightly from year to year. This year it falls on June 21st. Summer solstice customs are also associated with a fixed date: June 24 the Midsummer’s Day. June 23rd is Midsummer’s Eve.

As the name “Midsummer” indicates, this is considered the height of the summer. Yet there is an undertone of darkness in the light. While we celebrate the power of the sun, we also note its decline. From now on the hours of sunlight will decrease.

The Fire and the Sun

The great solar festival of the year is celebrated from North Africa to Scandinavia with fire. This is a traditional time for a bonfire which is lit as the sun sets. People dance around the fire clockwise and carry lit torches. In some places, they set fire to wheels of hay which are rolled downhill.

Flowers and May Day wreaths are tossed into the fire. They burn and die just as the heat of the summer consumes the spring and brings us closer to the decline of autumn and the death of vegetation in winter. As we begin the decline, it’s important to remember that the wheel of the year is a circle. The spring will come again. The sun will triumph over the darkness again. Thus, the circle is an important symbol. Wreaths are hung on doors. People gaze at the fire through wreaths and wear necklaces of golden flowers.

Before the calendar was changed in the 18th century, Midsummer fell on 4th of July. When you celebrate Fourth of July, think of all those brilliant fireworks and blazing Catherine wheels as devotions in honor of the sun.

St John and Honeymoons

Midsummer’s Eve is also called St John’s Eve. The official version says that St. John was assigned this feast because he was born six months before Christ (who gets the other great solar festival, the winter solstice). Actually it may have more to do with the story of St John losing his head to Salome. In ancient times, a ritual sacrifice was made to the goddess of midsummer.

Other midsummer symbols also accumulate around St John. He’s the patron of shepherds and beekeepers. This is a time to acknowledge those wild things which man culls but cannot tame, like the sheep and bees. The full moon which occurs in June is sometimes called the Mead Moon. The hives are full of honey. In ancient times, the honey was fermented and made into mead. According to Pauline Campanelli in The Wheel of the Year, this is the derivation of honeymoon.

Midsummer fire in Finland

This is a traditional time for honoring water, perhaps because it plays such a vital role in maintaining life while the sun is blazing overhead. Several of the goddesses worshipped at midsummer — Matuta, Anahita and Kupala — are associated with moisture and dampness. St John baptized with water while Christ baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit. In Mexico, St John presides over all waters. People dress wells and fountains with flowers, candles and paper festoons. They go out and bathe at midnight in the nearest body of water. In the city, they celebrate at the bathhouse or pool with diving and swimming contests.

Herbs and Lovers

Photo by Alyss Broderick

Midsummer Eve is also known as Herb Evening. This is the most potent night (and midnight the most potent time) for gathering magical herbs, particularly St John’s wort, vervain, mugwort, mistletoe, ivy and fern seed. In some legends, a special plant, which is guarded by demons, flowers only on this one night a year. Successfully picking it gives one magical powers, like being able to understand the language of the trees.

This is also a time for lovers. An old Swedish proverb says “Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” According to Dorothy Gladys Spicer in The Book of Festivals, Irish girls drop melted lead into water and interpret the shapes it makes. In Spain, girls do the same with eggs. In Poland, they combine three of the symbols of the holiday for a divination. Girls make a wreath of wild flowers, put a candle in the middle, set it adrift on the river and tell the future by observing its fate.

Celebrating

This is a great festival to celebrate outdoors. Go camping. Go out into the woods or up into the mountains or down to the beach. Find some place where you can build a bonfire and light it when the sun sets. Bring along plenty of flowers (especially roses or yellow flowers like calendulas, St John’s wort, or marigolds). Fashion them into wreaths, wear them as you dance around the fire and throw them into the fire at the end of the night. Bring along sparklers too (but use them carefully). Indoors, use whatever symbols represent light and warmth to you: golden discs, sunflowers, shiny metal trays, chili pepper lights.

Gather magical and healing herbs at night on June 23. Hang St John’s wort over your doors and windows for protection; toss some on the fire as well. Harvest your garden herbs now so they will be extra potent.

To acknowledge the gift of water in your everyday life, decorate the faucets in your house. Z Budapest in The Grandmother of Time suggests walking to the nearest body of water, making a wish and then throwing in a rose you have kissed to carry your wish home. She provides the following wishing poem:

Yes, you are here in the soft buzzing grass.
Yes, you are listening among the flowering gardens.
Yes, you are shining from the most royal blue sky.
Yes, you are granting me what I wish tonight.
Grant me a healthy life rich with high purpose,
A true partner to share my joys and my tears,
Wisdom to hear your voice giving me guidance,
Wealth to give to others as you have given to me.

Honoring Your Strength

The sun is associated with will, vitality, accomplishment, victory and fame. As you throw your flowers into the fire, acknowledge your accomplishments. Write about these at length in your journal, perhaps while sipping a cup of tea sweetened with honey, or gather your friends in a circle and go around several times with each person boasting about their strengths. Assign a different topic for each round, for instance, aspirations, courage, achievement, competence. Toast each other (with mead, if you can find it). This is your night to shine.

This is an excerpt from my book, Celebrating the Seasonal Holy Days, which also contains ideas and suggestions for the other seasonal holidays like Lammas, Autumn Equinox, Yule and so forth. It is available for purchase at my store.

The same material, much expanded, can be found in my Midsummer packet, available at my store.

The attributed photos were taken by School of the Seasons readers who contributed them for my Leaves on the Tree of Time weekly planner.

Some cool links I found while looking for images:

A great article from Max Dashi on Midsummer dances.

A lovely entry about Latvian Midsummer celebrations.

Article about a Polish Midsummer celebration in Washington D.C. showing girls throwing their flower wreaths into the Reflecting Pool.

First published June 20, 2010.

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Making Midsummer Wreaths

Until I bought a copy of Elizabeth Jane Lloyd’s, The Enchanted Circle, I did not think I had the ability to create a wreath. All my attempts were pitiful things, limp and disheveled with bits and pieces sticking out here and there. Looking at the photographs of the gorgeous wreaths Lloyd created I was inspired. Reading her directions on how to create a wreath, I recognized that it was a craft, like baking, which is best done when following directions. Although I know people who can bake a cake from scratch without a recipe, I am not one of them.

I failed to realize, in my early attempts, that a wreath needs a firm base. The base serves as the framework for the decorative material. You then match the delicacy of the materials to the appropriate base. There are many materials you can use for a wreath base but here are the three most common:

Wire
You can make a wire wreath by bending an old coat hanger into a circle, which has the benefit of providing a hook at the top. You can also use various strengths of wire you buy at a hardware store. Two circles of wire joined can provide a strong framework for heavy materials, like evergreens. Very thin florist’s wire should be used for a more ethereal wreath, for instance, for making a chaplet of orange blossoms. To hide the wire base, you might want to wrap the wire with ribbon or florist’s tape. The one disadvantage of a wire wreath is that you cannot throw it on the Summer Solstice bonfire because of the wire it contains.

When working with a wire base you will probably be adding materials in clusters. You can gather a group of flowers, or pieces of greenery, and place them against the wire frame, then use a thin, supple florist’s wire to hold them in place. Don’t cut the wire, but overlap the join with another cluster of flowers or greens, and continue wrapping your way around the frame.

In some wreaths, materials are arranged in a continuous circle, with all the clusters facing the same direction. To finish this sort of wreath you just need to tuck the join of the end cluster under the first cluster. In other wreaths, you might work down both sides to have the clusters meet at the bottom. With this arrangement, you will end up with a bare spot which you can cover with a ribbon or a rosette of your materials.

Wire wreaths, because they are usually delicate, tend to be used for light materials, like feathers or ivy or snowdrops. You can use a sturdy piece of wire and thread it directly through chilis (leaving them lengthwise) or apples to create interesting wreaths.

Vine
I love using vines for a wreath base since it makes the wreath totally organic. Honeysuckle, wisteria, willow and grapevine are the usual vines used for wreaths. If you can find fresh materials, twine them into a circle and let them dry. If you’ve purchased or been given vines that aren’t fresh, soak them in water until they’re pliable and can be shaped.

When working with a vine base, you can often tuck the flowers and leaves into the many nooks and crannies in the wreath, without using wire or tape. If you want to use a fastening device, but be able to keep the wreath organic, use raffia or string. For a truly organic binding device, I use bindweed (morning glory). When picked fresh, it retains that elastic, spiraling quality that makes it such a menace in the garden. Jane Lake (who has a great article on how to create a vine wreath) uses another common weed local to her area: Virginia Creeper.

Janet Lloyd uses vine bases for wreaths featuring hops, lime twigs and leaves, rose hips, berries, jasmine, roses and freesias. I tuck freshly picked hydrangea blossoms into my vine base, then add more to fluff it up as the first blossoms dry and shrivel in size.

Straw
Straw makes a sturdier but heavier base. You can buy straw wreaths at most craft stores or make one yourself by wrapping straw in a circular form and binding it with string or straw. The advantage of a straw base is that you can spike things into the straw, either using florist’s picks (sort of like bobby pins for flowers) or the stems of your plant materials. You can also use a glue gun to affix items but then your wreath will be permanent, whereas the other items can be removed when you want to change your wreath.

Lloyd uses straw bases for wreaths featuring dried flax and sandalwood flowers, dried herbs and flowers, dried poppy heads and bunches of wheat, oats and barley. Straw serves as an appropriate backdrop in both color and feel for these items. Lloyd also shows a very dramatic and effective wreath made by gathering several strands of straw into three thick strands and plaiting these into one thick braided wreath.

It is, of course, possible to make a wreath completely out of natural materials (think daisy chain) but these tend to have the same floppy nature as a daisy chain. Lloyd also shows examples of wreaths made by gluing dried flowers or seashells on a cardboard base; plaiting the stems of onions or garlic into a circle, and placing live plants in a circle of sphagnum moss.

I challenge myself to make wreaths for each seasonal holiday using only items I can find within a few blocks of my home. This keeps me aware of all the changes in vegetation in my neighborhood, constantly scanning for the materials for my next wreath.

First published June 20, 2010

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Midsummer in Wales

Posting this for Sara Polke-Johns who sent it to me via email:
Midsummer’s Day was the 15th anniversary of my Buddhist Ordination. I’ve always been delighted that I was ordained on such an auspicious day. Last evening my husband and I celebrated by toasting the sun lengthening the shadows on the fields  from our Welsh garden, with of course strawberries 🙂

Throughout we were loudly serenaded by our resident Song Thrush. When it eventually became cooler we watched the film of Midsummer Night’s Dream. All immensely lovely 🙂

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Midsummer Sun

In my latest newsletter, I mentioned that I was overwhelmed by the prospect of writing eight or nine articles every month for my Living in Season magazine, and all sorts of readers have stepped forward, offering to share with me their ideas and writing. I am slowly making my way through the responses, and learning so much as I go.

For instance, Debra Redalia sent me a link to her blog, Rooted in Nature, and I loved her last blog entry about a new web site she discovered, Gaisma, (the name is Latvian for “light”)which provides stunning graphs showing the amount of sunlight at different times of the year. I’ve found this information on other web sites but not with such clear visuals.

I played around with several scenarios, including my location (Seattle) and Costa Rica near the equator. In Costa Rica, the difference between the amount of sunlight at Midsummer and Midwinter is 1 minute. In Seattle, it’s 7 and 1/2 hours. I like sunshine but I’m not sure I would like living in a place where the amount of light was so even all year around.

Photo of Golden Gate Park taken during my recent trip to San Francisco.

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