Although the media will be filled with announcements that summer has begun on Summer Solstice, this date should really be considered Midsummer, an older name for this holiday, as the sun is at its height on Summer Solstice. Afterward, it begins a slow decline as the hours of darkness creep forward.
Summer Solstice is determined astronomically these days, while Midsummer found itself attached as the name of a holiday to June 24, the day of Saint John the Baptist. It’s a nice pairing, as Saint John is born six months before Christ, according to the Gospel.
Celebratory customs that are associated with Saint John no doubt had more ancient origins. Fires known as Saint John’s fires were lit on mountaintops, perhaps to emulate or encourage the light of the sun. People danced around these fires or leaped over them. In some places flaming wheels were rolled down hills or torches were carried in procession.
Saint John baptized people, including Jesus Christ, in the river Jordan, and his festival is also celebrated with water. In Mexico, people swim in streams and swimming pools filled with flowers (reminding me of the floral baths that are used for shamanic healing throughout the Andes) while bands play and coffee and tamales are served.
Herbs and flowers acquire magical powers on Midsummer’s Day (think of the Shakespearean play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where a flower has the power to incite lust in fairies and humans alike). I like to gather Saint John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) on this day (named after the saint, supposedly because the bright yellow petals bleed when pinched, but most likely because it blooms around this time). Saint John’s wort has the magical property of repelling thieves, and I have used it in this way for years, putting up sprigs over my doors and windows for years, to great effect.
I like to combine all three of these symbols in one. I go with friends to the beach and we build a bonfire within a circle of flowers. We burn old wreaths and dried herbs (sometimes I burn my Christmas tree). We watch the sun set over the water, and toss in flower petals as an offering. Although this is a happy holiday, there is always a tinge of melancholy as we recognize that the light is fading.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”