7/07/2013

Midsummer

Midsummer, is the period of time centered upon the summer solstice, and more specifically the European celebrations that accompany the actual solstice or take place on a day between June 21 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures.  Midsummer is especially important in the cultures of Scandinavia, Finland and the Baltics where it is the most celebrated holiday apart from Christmas and New Year's Eve. In Sweden the Midsummer is such an important festivity that there have been serious discussions to make the Midsummer's Eve into the National Day of Sweden, instead of the 6th of June.

Background

European midsummer-related holidays, traditions, and celebrations are pre-Christian in origin. They are particularly important in Northern Europe - Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – but are also found in Germany, Ireland, parts of Britain (Cornwall especially), France, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Ukraine, other parts of Europe, and elsewhere - such as Canada, the United States, Puerto Rico, and also in the Southern Hemisphere (mostly in Brazil, Argentina and Australia), where this imported European celebration would be more appropriately called "Midwinter".
Midsummer is also sometimes referred to by Neopagans and others as Litha, stemming from Bede's De temporum ratione which provides Anglo-Saxon names for the months roughly corresponding to June and July as se Ærra Liþa and se Æfterra Liþa (the "early Litha month" and the "later Litha month") with an intercalary month of Liþa appearing after se Æfterra Liþa on leap years. The fire festival or Lith- Summer solstice is a tradition for many pagans.
Solstice celebrations still center around the day of the astronomical summer solstice. Some choose to hold the rite on June 21, even when this is not the longest day of the year, and some celebrate June 24, the day of the solstice in Roman times.
In Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Quebec (Canada), the traditional Midsummer day, June 24, is a public holiday. So it was formerly also in Sweden and Finland, but in these countries it was, in the 1950s, moved to the Friday and Saturday between June 19 and June 26, respectively.
In Wicca, practitioners celebrate on the longest day and shortest night of the year which has not had a set date since the retirement of the 13 month Celtic calendar.

History

The celebration of Midsummer's Eve was from ancient times a festival of the summer solstice. Some people believed that golden-flowered mid-summer plants, especially Calendula, and St. John's Wort, had miraculous 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 southward again. In later years, witches were also thought to be on their way to meetings with other powerful beings.
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, as it is customary for cultures following lunar calendars to place the beginning of the day on the previous eve at dusk at the moment when the Sun has set. In Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Estonia, Midsummer's Eve is the greatest festival of the year, comparable only with Walpurgis Night, Christmas Eve, and New Year's Eve.
In the 7th century, Saint Eligius (died 659/60) warned the recently converted inhabitants of Flanders against the age-old pagan solstice celebrations. According to the Vita by his companion Ouen, he'd 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."
As Christianity entered pagan areas, midsummer celebrations came to be often borrowed and transferred into new Christian holidays, often resulting in celebrations that mixed Christian traditions with traditions derived from pagan Midsummer festivities. The 13th-century monk of Winchcomb, Gloucestershire, who compiled a book of sermons for the feast days, recorded how St. John's Eve was celebrated in his time:
Let us speak of the revels which are accustomed to be made on St. John's Eve, of which there are three kinds. On St. John's Eve in certain regions the boys collect bones and certain other rubbish, and burn them, and therefrom a smoke is produced on the air. They also make brands and go about the fields with the brands. Thirdly, the wheel which they roll.
The fires, explained the monk of Winchcombe, were to drive away dragons, which were abroad on St. John's Eve, poisoning springs and wells. The wheel that was rolled downhill he gave its explicitly solstitial explanation:
The wheel is rolled to signify that the sun then rises to the highest point of its circle and at once turns back; thence it comes that the wheel is rolled.
On St John's Day 1333 Petrarch watched women at Cologne rinsing their hands and arms in the Rhine "so that the threatening calamities of the coming year might be washed away by bathing in the river." This practice of ritual bathing was a common practice of the Norse and is mentioned in the Icelandic Galdrabok Grimoire.

Contemporary national traditions

Denmark


Danish bonfire with the traditional burning of a witch

Danes celebrating Midsummer by singing the Midsummer hymn by the bonfire
In Denmark, the solstitial celebration is called sankthans or sankthansaften. 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 23 June. 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 by visiting healing water wells and making a large bonfire to ward away evil spirits. 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 witch burnings from 1540 to 1693. This burning sends the "witch" away to Bloksbjerg, the Brocken mountain in the Harz region of Germany where the great witch gathering was thought to be held on this day. Some Danes regard the relatively new symbolic witch burning as inappropriate.
In 1885 Holger Drachmann wrote a midsommervise (Midsummer hymn) called "Vi elsker vort land..." ("We Love Our Country") with a melody composed by P.E. Lange-Müller that is sung at every bonfire on this evening.

Faroe Islands

On the Faroe Islands St. John's Eve (jóansøka) is generally not celebrated. However, on the southernmost island of Suðuroy it is observed by lighting a bonfire. Only one bonfire is lit on the island as one of the two biggest towns hosts the celebration alternately every other year.

Finland


Midsummer bonfire in Seurasaari. Bonfires are very common in Finland, where many people spend their midsummer in the countryside outside towns.
Before 1316, the summer solstice was called Ukon juhla, ("Ukko's celebration") after the Finnish god Ukko. In Karelian tradition, many bonfires were burned side by side, the biggest of which was called Ukko-kokko (the "bonfire of Ukko").
Since 1955, the holiday has always been on a Saturday (between June 20 and June 26). Earlier it was always on June 24. Many of the celebrations of midsummer take place on midsummer eve, when many workplaces are closed and shops must close their doors at noon.
In the Finnish midsummer celebration, bonfires (Finnish kokko) are very common and are burned at lakesides and by the sea. Often two young birch trees (koivu) are placed on either side of the front door to welcome visitors. Swedish-speaking Finns often celebrate by erecting a midsummer or maypole (Swedish midsommarstång, majstång). Some Finlandswedes call the Holyday for Johanne after the Finnish term Juhannus.
In folk magic, midsummer was a very potent night and the time for many small rituals, mostly for young maidens seeking suitors and fertility. Will-o'-the-wisps were believed to appear at midsummer night, particularly to finders of the mythical "fern in bloom" and possessors of the "fern seed", marking a treasure. In the old days, maidens would use special charms and bend over a well, naked, in order to see their future husband’s reflection. In another tradition that continues still today, an unmarried woman collects seven different flowers and places them under her pillow to dream of her future husband.
An important feature of the midsummer in Finland is the white night and the midnight sun. Because of Finland's location spanning around the Arctic Circle the nights near the midsummer day are short or non-existent. This gives a great contrast to the darkness of the winter time. The temperature can vary between 0 °C and +30 °C, with an average of about 20 °C in the South.
Many Finns leave the cities for Midsummer and spend time in the countryside. Nowadays many spend a few days there, and some Finns take their whole vacation in a cottage. Rituals include bonfires, cookouts, a sauna and spending time together. Heavy drinking is also associated with the Finnish midsummer.
Many music festivals of all sizes are organized on the Midsummer weekend. It is also common to start summer holidays on Midsummer day. For many families the Midsummer is the time when they move to the countryside to their summer cottage by the sea or lake. Midsummer is also a Finnish Flag Day where the flag is hoisted at 6 pm on Midsummer's Eve and flown all night till 9 pm the following evening.

Germany


Bonfire in Freiburg im Breisgau

The day of sun solstice is called Sommersonnenwende in German. On June 20, 1653 the Nuremberg town council issued the following order: "Where experience herefore have 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 have been gathered by young folk, and there upon 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."
Bonfires are still a custom in many areas of Germany. People gather to watch the bonfire and celebrate solstice.

Norway


Midsummer mock wedding of two children in Norway, c. 1924

Norwegian St. Hansbål (bonfire) in Bergen.

As in Denmark, Sankthansaften is celebrated on June 23 in Norway. The day is also called Jonsok, which means "John's wake", important in Roman Catholic times with pilgrimages to churches and holy springs. For instance, up until 1840, there was a pilgrimage to the stave church in Røldal (southwest Norway) whose crucifix was said to have healing powers. Today, however, Sankthansaften is largely regarded as a secular or even pre-Christian event.
In most places, the main event is the burning of a large bonfire. In Western Norway, a custom of arranging mock weddings, both between adults and between children, is still kept alive. The wedding was meant to symbolize the blossoming of new life. Such weddings are known to have taken place in the 1800s, but the custom is believed to be older.
It is also said that, if a girl puts flowers under her pillow that night, she will dream of her future husband.

Sweden


Midsummer celebration, Årsnäs, Sweden

Midsummer Dance by Anders Zorn, 1897

In modern Sweden, Midsummer's Eve and Midsummer's Day (Midsommarafton and Midsommardagen) were formerly celebrated on 23 June and 24 June, but since 1953 the celebration has been moved to the Friday and Saturday between 19 June and 26 June with the main celebrations taking place on Friday. It is one of the most important holidays of the year in Sweden, and probably the most uniquely Swedish in the way it is celebrated. When Sweden got its National day (6 June), discussions were held about making Midsummer the Swedish national day because of the strong civil celebration on this day.
Raising and dancing around a maypole (majstång or midsommarstång) is an activity that attracts families and many others. Before the maypole is raised, greens and flowers are collected and used to cover the entire pole. People dancing around the pole listen to traditional music and sing songs such as Små grodorna associated with the holiday. Some wear traditional folk costumes or crowns made of wild springs and wildflowers on their heads. The year's first potatoes, soused herring and pickled herring, chives, sour cream, beer, snaps and the first strawberries of the season are on the menu. Drinking songs (snapsvisor) are also important at this feast, and many drink heavily.
Because Midsummer was thought to be one of the times of the year when magic was strongest, it was considered a good night to perform rituals to look into the future. Traditionally, young people pick bouquets of seven or nine different flowers and put them under their pillow in the hope of dreaming about their future spouse. In the past it was believed that herbs picked at Midsummer were highly potent, and water from springs could bring good health. Greenery placed over houses and barns were supposed to bring good fortune and health to people and livestock; this old tradition of decorating with greens continues. To decorate with greens was called att maja (to may) and may be the origin of the word majstång, maja coming originally from the month May. Other researchers say the term came from German merchants who raised the maypole in June because the Swedish climate made it impossible to find the necessary greens and flowers in May, and continued to call it a maypole. Today, however, it is most commonly called a "midsommarstång" (literally midsummer pole).
In earlier times, small spires wrapped in greens were erected; this probably predates the maypole tradition, which is believed by many to have come from the continent in the Middle Ages. Others argue that some form of Midsummer pole occurred in Sweden during the pre-Christian times, and was a phallic fertility symbol, meant to impregnate the earth, but as there were no records from those times it cannot be proven, and this idea might just be a modern interpretation of the pole's form. The earliest historical mention of the maypole in Sweden is from the Middle Ages. Midsummer was, however, linked to an ancient fertility festival which was adapted into St. John's Day by the church, even though it retained many pagan traditions, as the Swedes were slow to give up the old heathen customs. The connection to fertility is naturally linked to the time of year. Many young people became passionate at Midsummer, and this was accepted, probably because it resulted in more childbirths in March which was a good time for children to be born.
In Denmark and Norway midsummer is referred to as the eve of Skt. Hans but it's only in Sweden that it has kept its original name.
In Sweden and parts of Finland, the tradition of bonfires is not part of Midsummer but rather of the "Valborg's" evening festivities, when winter leaves are burned for summer.

Neopaganism

As forms of Neopaganism can be quite different and have very different origins, these representations can vary considerably, despite the shared name. Some celebrate in a manner as close as possible to how they believe the Ancient Pagans observed the tradition, while others observe the holiday with rituals culled from numerous other unrelated sources, the Germanic culture being just one of the sources used. In Neo-druidism, the term Alban Hefin is used for the summer solstice. The name was invented by the late 18th century Welsh Romantic author and prolific literary forger Iolo Morganwg.

Norse paganism

Midsummer, or altes mittsommer.  Midsummer here is not the summer solstice. But old mid summer, and that was according to the set dates of the Norwegian prime staff, and old folk customs on the 14th of July, at the beginning of the month of Heyannir
There is no evidence that there was a great blótveizla in the summer. In the story of Asbjørn Selsbane in the Saga of Olav Haraldsson, Snorri writes:

As long as heathenism prevailed, Sigurd usually had three sacrifices every year: one on winter-night’s eve, one on mid-winter’s eve, and the third towards summer.
The lack of a dedicated public blótveizla in the summer can be explained. There was also another function of society that took place in the summer. The Allþing. So any huge religious celebration may have coincided with or been a part of the þing at this time of the year.


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