Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Midsummer merriment

The bad news for those of us who live in the Northern hemisphere is that the days are already starting to get shorter. On June 21, the Sun reached its maximum distance from the equator. Ancient observers noticed that at this point the Sun (‘Sol’ in Latin) appeared to come to a standstill (‘status’ in Latin) before reversing its course, and so this extreme point of the year was called the ‘solstitium’, from which we get our word ‘solstice’.

June 21 is also commonly referred to as ‘midsummer’, marking as it does the longest day. The Chambers Dictionary's entry for midsummer records some delightful expressions connected with this time of year. The lunar month containing the summer solstice was traditionally called the ‘midsummer moon’ and was believed to bring on bouts of erratic behaviour known as ‘midsummer madness’. This was also the time when girls are said to have used the leaves of the plant roseroot in various rituals to discover the identity or fidelity of their lovers, as a result of which the plant acquired the charming name of ‘midsummer-men’.

Somewhat surprisingly for a modern reader, the dictionary records the date for Midsummer’s Day as being June 24, three days after the solstice. It appears that in ancient times the solstice occurred on the 24th – the discrepancy with the current date being due to anomalies in the reckoning of the calendar – and the traditional midsummer celebration was fixed on this day. The date also coincided with the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, and so the midsummer festival combined Christian and pagan traditions in the same way as did the midwinter feast of Christmas.

So although June 21 may be the signal for Druids to descend upon Stonehenge, some people would say that it is on Saint John’s Eve – the night of the 23rd – that the real midsummer celebration should take place.

Ian Brookes

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1 comment:

Teresa Alvarez said...

Midsummer celebrations do take place the night of the 23rd in Spain, where bonfires dominate the landscape in every town that night (“la noche de San Juan”) to celebrate the start of the summer season. However, this has led many people to believe that the night of the 23rd of June is indeed the shortest night of the year, belief that I have shared myself until I read this post!

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