From Academic Kids
Midsummer is the period of time centered upon the summer solstice. Midsummer-related holidays, traditions and celebrations, all of which, apart from the designation "St John's Day", are secular in origin, are particularly important in Finland and Sweden, but found also in other parts of Northern Europe, Great Britain and elsewhere. Midsummer is an important Neopagan holiday.
Solstitial celebrations still center upon June 24, which is no longer the longest day of the year. The difference between the Julian calendar year (365.2500 days) and the tropical year (365.2422 days) continue to move the day associated with the actual astronomical solstice forward approximately one day in approximately every seven centuries.
In the 7th century, Saint Eligius (died 659/60) warned the recently-Christianized inhabitants of Flanders against these pagan solstitial celebrations. According to the Vita by his companion Ouen, he would say:
- "No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [summer solstice rites] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants."
Indeed, as Saint Eligius demonstrates, Midsummer has been Christianized as the feast of Saint John the Baptist: notably, unlike all other saints' days, this feast is celebrated on his birthday and not on the day of his martyrdom, which is separately observed as the "Decollation of John the Baptist" on August 29. The day of Saint John the Baptist is not marked by Christian churches with the emphasis one might otherwise expect of such an important saint.
The celebration of Midsummer's Eve was from ancient times linked to the summer solstice. People believed that at midsummer plants had miraculous and healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night. Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southwards again. In later years, witches were also thought to be on their way to meetings with other evil powers.
The solstice itself has remained a special moment of the annual cycle of the year since neolithic times. The concentration of the observance is not on the day as we reckon it, commencing at midnight or at dawn, but the pre-Christian beginning of the day, which falls on the previous eve. Midsummer's Eve is in Sweden and Finland considered the greatest festival of the year, comparable only with Walpurgis Night, Christmas Eve, and New Year's Eve.
In Denmark the solstitial celebration is called Sankt Hans aften ("St. John's Eve"). It was an official holiday until 1770 and in accordance with the Danish tradition of celebrating a holiday on the evening before the actual day, it takes place on the evening of June 23. It is the day where the medieval wise men and women (the doctors of that time) would gather special herbs that they needed for the rest of the year to cure people.
It has been celebrated since the times of the Vikings and of Odin and Thor, by visiting healing water sources and making a large bonfire to ward away evil spirits. Today the water source tradition is gone. Bonfires on the beach, speeches, picnics and songs are traditional, although bonfires are built in many other places where beaches may not be close by (i.e. on the shores of lakes and other waterways, parks, etc.). In the 1920s a tradition of putting a witch made of straw and cloth on the bonfire emerged as a remembrance of the church's witchburnings from 1540 to 1693 (but unofficially a witch was lynched as late as 1897). This burning sends the witch to Bloksbjerg, the mountain 'Brocken' in the Harz region of Germany where the great witch gathering was thought to be held on this day.
Like in Denmark, Sankthansaften is celebrated on 23 June. The day is also called Jonsok, which means "Johannes wake," important in Catholic times with pilgrimages to churches and holy springs. Right up to 1840 there was, for instance, a pilgrimage to the stave church in Rųldal (southwest Norway) whose crucifix was said to have healing powers.
In parts of Norway a custom of arranging mock marriages, both between adults and between children, is still kept alive. The wedding was meant to symbolise the blossoming of new life. Such weddings are known to have taken place in the 1800s, but the custom is believed to be older.
In the last century Midsummer's Eve was largely celebrated in the local communities, but during the 1990s it has developed into a more private party with family and friends gathering round a bonfire to dance.
In Sweden, Midsummer's Eve and Midsummer's Day is moved to the third Friday and Saturday of June, in order to make a dependable long weekend. The main celebrations takes place on the Friday, the traditional events include raising and dancing around a huge (phallic) maypole. Before the maypole is raised, greens and flowers are collected and used to cover, to "may", the entire pole.
Raising and dancing around a maypole is primarily an activity which attracts families, even though it traditionally was a fertility ritual. Dancing around the pole is often accompanied by traditional music and the wearing of traditional folk costumes. The year's first potatoes, pickled herring, sour cream, and possibly the first strawberries of the season are on the menu.
By many swedes this holiday is seen as a holiday of partying, and as the start of the summer. Also, quite interestingly, many swedes would rather have Midsummers Eve as their National Day.
Before 1316, the summer solstice was called Ukon juhla, after an old Finnish god Ukko. In Karelia, people had many bonfires side by side, the biggest of which was called Ukko-kokko (the "bonfire of Ukko") Now in Finland the midsummer holiday (Juhannus — or midsommar for the Swedish-speaking minority), is a notable occasion for drunkenness and revels. As in Sweden, maypoles have been transferred to the midsummer festivities, and pickled herring is the hallmark of the coastal areas, where also the Finland-Swedish language and culture have their stronghold. In the rest of Finland, a bonfire (kokko) take the place of the maypole, and smoked fish from the nearby lake is eaten instead of pickled herring.
Midsummer in Finland is celebrated at least as intensely as in Sweden. Many people get indecently drunk and happy. The statistics of the number of people drowned and killed in accidents is morbidly counted every year. Also statistics of assaults demonstrates a peak for this weekend.
- Midsummer in Finland (http://virtual.finland.fi/finfo/english/juhannus.html)
- "Finnish Midsummer" (http://www.uta.fi/~th63387/juhannus.html)
In Latvia, midsummer is called Jani. Every year, wherever you go in Latvia, you'll see solsticial bonfires.
In the Soviet era, midsummer celebrations were not banned in Latvia.
Latvians consider Jani about as important as Christmas, but unfortunately, just like Christmas, Jani has been commercialised in recent years.
In summary, midsummer is celebrated on a large scale by almost everyone in Latvia. Celebration consists of lot of traditional elements (eating Jani cheese, drinking beer, singing hundreds of Latvian folk songs dedicated to Jani, jumping over the bonfire, wearing wreaths/crowns made of flowers (for the women) and oak leaves (for the men)) together with modern commercial products and ideas. You can easily see the significance of the celebration for the nation, as it is even a national holiday.
- Latvian seasonal holidays (http://www.li.lv/en/?id=25)
At the beginning of the 20th century, solstitial bonfires were common all over Lithuania, but Soviet years have repressed such customs.
- Lithuanian folk customs connected with Midsummer (http://www.lfcc.lt/publ/thelt/node20.html)
ItalyThe feast of Saint John the Baptist has been celebrated in Florence from ancient times, certainly in the Renaissance, with festivals sometimes lasting the three days from 21 to 24 June. Saint John the Baptist was, and is, the patron saint of the city, which was such an important State in the XI-XV-XVI centuries.
On June 20th 1653 the Nuremberg town council issued the following order: :"Whereas experience heretofore hath shown, that after the old heathen use, on John's day in every year, in the country, as well in towns as villages, money and wood hath been gathered by young folk, and thereupon the so-called sonnenwendt or zimmet fire kindled, and thereat winebibbing, dancing about the said fire, leaping over the same, with burning of sundry herbs and flowers, and setting of brands from the said fire in the fields, and in many other ways all manner of superstitious work carried on---Therefore the Hon. Council of Nürnberg town neither can nor ought to forbear to do away with all such unbecoming superstition, paganism, and peril of fire on this coming day of St. John."
- "Need-fires" and other German custom explained (http://www.northvegr.org/northern/book/religious014.php)
In Britain from the 13th century Midsummer was celebrated on Midsummer Eve (St. John's Eve, June 23) and St. Peter's Eve (June 28) with the lighting of bonfires, feasting and merrymaking. The tradition largely fell to the Reformation, but persisted in rural areas up until the nineteenth century before petering out. See also Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The NYC Swedish Midsummer celebrations in Battery Park, New York City, attracts some 3,000-5,000 people annually, which makes it one of the largest celebrations after the ones held in Leksand and at the Skansen Park in Stockholm.
- Midsummer (http://dmoz.org/Society/Holidays/Midsummer/) at the Open Directory Project
- The Stations of the Sun, Ronald Hutton, Oxford 1996ang:Middansumer