Fourth of July as Midsummer

I like to think of Fourth of July as a secular version of pagan Midsummer festivals.

Like many historical holidays, Fourth of July seems to have co-opted many of the symbols of the earlier celebrations at this time of year. For centuries at Summer Solstice, people stayed up all night, dancing around bonfires and rolling burning wheels down the hillsides, to honor the sun. On Fourth of July, we set off pinwheels in the street (evoking the circle, the symbol of the sun), wave sparklers around in the darkness (they look like the embers dancing up from a bonfire) and gaze at fireworks blazing overhead late into the night.

Many families spend the daytime hours on Fourth of July, at parks and lakes, enjoying a picnic lunch and eagerly waiting for the sun to set on the longest day of the year. We worship the sun and may pay for our devotion with sunburns.

Both Midsummer and Fourth of July are associated with heavy drinking. In fact, Fourth of July is one of the deadliest holidays in America due to alcohol-related traffic accidents. The traditional Fourth of July BBQ combines many of these elements: drinking and fire and spending hours outdoors with friends and family.

Midsummer has always been a time of revelry and romance. A Swedish proverb says “Midsummer’s night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” The Fourth of July places a little more emphasis on family than on coupling, but there’s no denying the romance involved in lying in your lover’s arms in a grassy park while watching fireworks burst overhead.

Of course, there are many differences between Fourth of July and Midsummer. Midsummer festivals also celebrate flowers and herbs, and often include the element of water (which we acknowledge here in Seattle by setting our fireworks off over Lake Union). Still, when I’m annoyed by the drunken crowds or frightened by the sound of firecrackers exploding, I remind myself this is just the traditional way to celebrate the height of Summer and the glory of the Sun.

First published July 3, 2010

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St John the Baptist/Midsummer Day

St John the Baptist by Titian

The date for celebrating the summer solstice, which fluctuates (from June 20th to June 22nd) since it is based on astrological calculations became fixed on the Saint’s Day of St John the Baptist, thus enabling the Catholic church to associate many of the ancient summer solstice customs (for instance, bathing in water) with the worship of this saint.

His emblem is a lamb; he is the patron of shepherds. Because he lived on locusts and wild honey, he is also the patron of beekeepers. He is often shown in the skin of a lion, recalling the earlier hero myths of Hercules and Samson.

He is also the patron saint of Jordan, Florence, Genoa and Turin and, probably because of his association with water, the patron saint of spas. Some wish to nominate him as patron saint of motorways, because of his words: “Make straight the ways of the Lord.”

John was born six months before Christ and thus his birth is celebrated (at summer solstice) six months before the birth of Christ (at winter solstice). He is honored with customs derived from older summer solstice celebrations, like lighting bonfires and immersion in water.

Many plants are associated with him, the foremost being St John’s wort (hypericum perforatum). This wild plant has small yellow flowers which “bleed” (produce a red oil) when you press them. If the plant doesn’t bleed, you are dealing with the ornamental St John’s wort, a different species, which does not share the magical properties of its namesake. St John’s wort is a herb of protection and a symbol of the sun.

The carob is sometimes called St John’s bread since he supposedly ate it while he wandered in the wilderness.

In Lazio, Italy, St John was considered a protector of witches, who flew into Rome on broomsticks to cavort throughout the night, returning at first light to the walnut tree in Benevento at which they gathered. In contemporary Rome, Italians gather near the church of San Giovanni in Laterano to feast on snails on this day.

Italians also harvest green walnuts on the feast of San Giovanni to make a special liqueur called nocino. The green walnuts are placed in alcohol along with sugar, cloves, lemon zest and cinnamon. At some point, the alcohol is strained off and the liqueur is bottled. It is usually first opened and drunk on All Saints Day (Nov 1). I wrote a blog post about my experience making nocino.

In Mexico, this is El Dia de San Juan, a day when people run around splashing each other with water.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc, Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Book of Days, Oxford University Press, 2000

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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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St Barnaby

Barnaby bright, Barnaby bright
Light all day and light all night.

The rhyme for this day shows that Barnaby is associated with the summer solstice. In the pre-Gregorian calendar, this holiday fell 11 days later and thus coincided with the solstice.

St Barnabas was invoked as a peacemaker. On his day, it was customary to deck churches and houses with Barnaby garlands of roses and sweet woodruff. Sometimes the garlands also included the pink ragged robin.

When Barnabas smiles both night and day
Poor Ragged Robin blooms in the hay
At St Barnabas, the scythe in the meadow.

St Barnaby also had a thistle named after him: St Barnabas’ Thistle (centaurea solstialis), the second name of which confirms his association with the solstice. This plant is also known as the Yellow Starthistle: it has a radiant yellow flower and yellow spikes.

In Denmark, this was the end of the contract year and masters and servants were free to renegotiate their contracts or part ways. It was also called The Devil’s Birthday

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

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St Columba

Day of Colum Cille the beloved
Day to put the loom to use
Day to put sheep to pasture
Day to put coracle on the seas
Day to bear, day to die
Day to make prayer efficacious
Day of my beloved, the Thursday.

This is the luckiest day of the year when it falls on Thursday.  St Columba was one of the most beloved of Celtic saints. The magical herb, St John’s Wort, which flowers around summer solstice, was said to be his favorite herb. He wore it underneath his armpit to ward off all kinds of evil. If find some accidentally and you say this charm when you pick it, you can use it the same way:

Arm-pit package of Columba the kindly
Unsought by me, unlooked for
I shall not be carried away in my sleep
Neither shall I be pierced with iron
Better the reward of its virtues
Than a herd of white cattle.

In Norway, this is considered the day the salmon start leaping.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc, Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Book of Days, Oxford University Press, 2000
Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica, Lindisfarne Press

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Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon Boats in Taipei. The Dragon Boat festival takes place on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month.

The fifth day of the fifth Chinese month is also known as the Feast of the Summer Solstice or Upright Sun. People flock to the banks of rivers and lakes to watch brightly-colored dragon boat races. It was believed that this would encourage the dragons in the heavens to fight, thus bringing rain at a time when it is needed for the crops (although now this is often the end of the rainy season).

The traditional food is triangular rice dumplings (zongzi) wrapped in bamboo leaves. In ancient China, they were stuffed with cherries, mulberries, peaches, apricots, and other seasonal fruits. Wikipedia has a great article about zongzi.

Some people tie bunches of the dumplings together with thread and hang them from their children’s backs to ward off demons. Another way to protect children is to paint their foreheads, noses and ears with realgar mixed with wine and dried in the sun. Realgar is a reddish mineral that when burned emits a yellow smoke and a foul odor (like sulphur).

In some places, people eat and exchange cakes imprinted with images of the Five Poisonous Creatures (centipede, scorpion, snake, lizard and toad) as these will protect the eater from bites. In other parts of China, old women cut red paper into the shapes of these poisonous creatures and put them, along with a cut-paper tiger, into a gourd, to prevent them from harming human beings. Latsch mentions buying cloth tigers filled with fragrant herbs (probably mugwort) during this festival.

Blackburn, Bonnie and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, Oxford Companion to the Year, Oxford University Press 1999
Latsch, Marie-Luise, Chinese Traditional Festivals, Beijing: New World Press, 1984, pp. 60-68
Simonds, Nina, Chinese Seasons, Houghton Mifflin 1986

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Flower Carpets for Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi is the name of a Catholic festival, which takes place on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday (which is the Sunday after Pentecost which is the Sunday 50 days after Easter). It was first established by the Council of Vienna in 1311 to promote the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation (the belief that the host consecrated in the Mass actually becomes the Body of Christ). It was really promoted during the Reformation as a demonstration of Catholic solidarity.

I still remember celebrations of Corpus Christi from my Catholic childhood. It was an opportunity for pomp and pageantry. There is usually a procession during which the priest displays the host in a monstrance, a golden vessel which is shaped like a sunburst.  I often consider, since this festival falls so close to summer solstice, that the two holidays share a common underlying symbolism.

In France, this holiday is called Fete Dieu or the Feast of God. The priest wears red and gold lavishly embroidered garments. The monstrance is a golden vessel shaped like the sun. It is usually shielded by a canopy of silk and cloth of gold. Streets are scattered with flower petals and householders decorate their homes, often by pasting flower petals on a sheet and hanging them up.

Small altars are created along the roads. In France, they’re called reposoirs and are built at crossroads. They are decorated with flowers, garlands and greens and covered with canopies of interwoven boughs. The priest goes around and blesses them.

Corpus Christi is also a time for plays and pageants (although these were originally associated with Whitsunday). Fantastically dressed performers accompanied the processions and acted out scenes from the Bible and the lives of the saints at stops along the way. In medieval times, each guild sponsored a scene in a grand play showing the whole scheme of Salvation. Some of the dramas were so long they could not be performed in their entirety: the Coventry cycle took two years.

Carol Field describes the way Corpus Christi is celebrated in Spello, Italy, where people transform the main street into a carpet of color using flower petals (infiorate). Collecting the flowers takes as long as two weeks. The oldest women are given the job of taking the flowers apart, petal by petal, and separating them by the subtle differences of hue. Pine needles, ivy leaves, camomile and fennel are ground up to make green. Poppies are used for red, broom for yellow and white from daisies. The designs are complicated, and often reproduce famous paintings, usually religious ones. The priest when he emerges from the cathedral holding up the Host walks down the length of flower carpet, and the petals scatter to the breezes. It is a display of beauty and richness that is as ephemeral as it is extravagant.

Julie Ardery of Human Flower Project wrote a column about the flower carpets of another Italian town, Genzano.

In keeping with the theme, my friend, Joanna Powell Colbert, recommended the spiritual and creative practice of making a flower mandala in her recent newsletter and illustrated it with this lovely example.

 

 

 

References

Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, Morrow 1990

Painting of Corpus Christi procession by Carl Emil Doepler (found at Wikipedia’s article on Corpus Christi)

The photo of flowers at Spello comes from the French version of Wikipedia

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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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