Nowadays we do little to celebrate the Summer solstice, or ‘Midsummer’. A celebration of the longest day of summer, rooted in ancient traditions and surrounded by mythical tales, it brings to mind Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, fairies and supernatural beings. The precise date of the solstice falls between June 20 and 22, but in Christian tradition it became fixed at an early date to the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, June 24.
The news reports often comment on the numbers attending Stonehenge and a recent stay on a rather lovely caravan site below Glastonbury Tor enlightened me to the fact that much music and merriment still prevailed in that area! However, in the past Midsummer was rife with customs, mostly focused managing the superstitions that might affect securing a good harvest. We through it might be fun to explore a few that have disappeared into the shades of history.
Traditions included dancing feasting and general merrymaking with villages lighting bonfires as a focus for the celebrations. Vigils were kept to see the sun up and ward off evil spirits. Competitions undertaken encouraging athletic revellers to leap over the bonfires. Supposedly, the highest jump of the evening predicted the height of crops for the new harvest season. The celebrations, have however, slowly faded into the mists of time, frowned upon and quashed by the Christian church post the Reformation.
A Christian monk wrote in the 13th century:
In the worship of St John, men waken at even, and maken three manner of fires: one is clean bones and no wood, and is called a bonfire; another is of clean wood and no bones, and is called a wakefire, for men sitteth and wake by it; the third is made of bones and wood, and is called St John’s Fire.
An item that played a big part in the customs, and has had a bit of a resurgence at garden centres of late, is the humble besom broom. Made from the Silver Birch with a stout hazel handle it was the ‘besom’ of choice in times past. The birch is harvested in the late winter before the tree starts to green, while the sap is low. Any later and it will lose its ‘spring’ and become brittle. Straight birch is best for a heavy outdoor broom and ‘pendula’ for an indoor one. The birch is bundled and held fast in a broom squire’s vice while it is bound with bark. A hazel handle is the driven into the centre. A good besom makes short shift of the dust and debris of a hard or dirt floor. Besom makers loved Midsummer as this is when they made their most money. Besoms have many customs associated with them, placing them over a doorstep …jumping over them as part of the old ‘hand fasting’ ceremony and at Midsummer it was custom to cast out your old besom onto the Midsummer bonfires. The ashes of these fires were scattered on the fields with a wish for a good harvest…providing some good fertiliser me thinks! However, once you’d thrown your old besom out you obviously needed a new one…hence the Besom maker’s love of the festival.
Flowers have always played a big part in the celebrations. People decorated their houses and adorned themselves with garlands. This custom did revive itself a little in the late 19th century, with a report from the town of Bluntisham in Cambridgeshire describing a midsummer festival, with stalls selling sweets and gingerbread, and a garlanded hoop hung over the street. This may have stemmed from the very early traditions in the use of St John’s Wort, also known as ‘chase devil’. People wore garlands made of it to ward off evil, as they believed that the ‘veil’ between this world and the underworld was very thin at the solstice. This is an ancient belief that is probably more familiar to today’s society halfway between the autumn equinox and winter solstice, marked by Halloween.