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 Thomas Eve

This is another eve for love charms according to the tradition described by Charles Kighly in the Perpetual Almanack of Folklore. For a prophetic dream, stick a pin in the exact center of an onion and put eight more pins around the first in a circle while saying:

Good St Thomas, do me right
And let my true love come to-night
That I may see him in the face
And in my arms may him embrace.

sunsymbolThen sleep with the onion under your pillow. What I find interesting about this folk custom is that both onions and the circle surrounding a dot are sun symbols, so this seems to be a charm relating to the sun, which is born again on Winter Solstice.

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The Advent Wreath

[Excerpt from the Yule holiday e-book]

by Waverly Fitzgerald

Gertrud Mueller Nelson in To Dance with God talks about how people in the far north removed wheels from their carts during the depth of winter. They brought these wheels into their homes and decorated them with evergreens and candles. This, Nelson says, is the possible origin of the Advent wreath. Although a charming story, I suspect it was invented after the fact to explain the circular shape of the Advent wreath.

An Advent wreath is a circle of evergreens with places for four candles. When I was growing up, our Advent wreath had three violet candles for penance and one rose-colored one (lit on the third week, which is called Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday) to symbolize the coming joy. Nelson says her family uses the traditional red candles and red ribbon to decorate their wreath.

Helen Farias in The Advent Sunwheel, her book of suggestions for pagans wanting to celebrate Advent (which can be ordered at my website), points out that the Advent wreath, made of greens in a circle shape and lit by candles is a potent symbol. The circle with the dot inside has long been a symbol for the sun and is still used that way in astrology. Helen suggests putting a fifth candle in the center of the Advent wreath, to be lit on the solstice, to make the symbolism more apparent.

I make my Advent wreath on Wreath-Making Day, the Saturday before the first Sunday in Advent, by going on a walk through my neighborhood, collecting evergreen boughs. Often there’s a big windstorm around this time which knocks off branches so I don’t have to cut them. When I do cut branches, since I will be using them with a spiritual intent, I always ask permission of the tree and leave an offering (usually cornmeal) at the base of the tree.

Many years ago I bought a circular styrofoam wreath form which is the base for my Advent wreath. I hollowed out cavities just the width of standard candles and I cover the styrofoam with tin foil and then with evergreens, usually bound to the form with wire, ribbon or ivy. I like to use candles in the colors of the four directions: yellow for east, red for south, blue for west and green for north.

There is another kind of wreath which is found in Germany and Scandinavia, made of apples and dowels (chopsticks would work too). Three apples with dowels connecting them in a triangle form the base and the fourth apple is suspended by dowels above the rest, forming a pyramid. The triangle and pyramid are also both sun symbols.

This is an excerpt from the Yule holiday e-book which contains much more information about winter holidays, including folklore, recipes, instructions for making luminarias and pomanders and Yule songs. To order go to the Living in Season store.

First published November 2010

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