Welcome to Midsummer – that's the time of year, not the TV village where all those murders happen!
Midsummer is a period of time centred on the summer solstice and traditionally celebrated in Northern Europe between June 19th and 25th. In the UK the summer solstice – the longest day – is usually on June 21st, but was a day early this year because it's a leap year, with an extra day in February.
Most cultures have traditionally celebrated midsummer, with many ancient pagan festivals later adopted and adapted by organised religions. The Christian celebration of St John's Day, on June 24th, is devoted to St John the Baptist, but widely recognised as an evolution of much earlier pre-Christian summer solstice festivals which worshipped the sun.
Modern day pagans, druids and practitioners of Wicca (a 20th century 'new religion' also called Pagan Witchcraft) still celebrate the summer solstice – also known as 'Litha' – and midsummer in a variety of ways. Notably, the ancient monument of Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, draws thousands of people for the dawning of the longest day, some involved in devout rituals, some in deep meditation and many others in more 'informal' celebrations!
Similar dawn celebrations are held at other ancient monuments and historic sites around the UK, and this year the closing of the summer solstice day also held a special significance. For the first time since 1967 the summer solstice coincided with a full moon, romantically called a "Strawberry Moon" because some North American cultures believed that June's full moon signalled the start of the strawberry picking season.
Many celebrations involve the lighting of bonfires, some say because the smoke and flames drove off evil spirits, but just as likely because a large fire was the obvious focal point for any ancient celebration. Ancient rituals were said to involve lots of dancing, drinking, feasting, chanting and 'lewd behaviour', although such shenanigans were discouraged as more organised religions 'hijacked' the ancient festivals.
Writing in the seventh century, Saint Eligius, warned the recently converted inhabitants of Flanders that: "No Christian on the Feast of St John... performs sloestitia (summer solstice rites) or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants."
In recent decades, with organised religion no longer exerting such a powerful hold over society, many of the old traditions have been revived in some form or other. The Chester Midsummer Watch Parade was briefly banned by the Protestants in the 16th century and although it later returned in a watered down form it wasn't formally revived until 1995, now taking place on the weekend closes to Midsummer.
Bonfires are still lit on several high hills in Cornwall, a tradition revived by the Old Cornwall Society and a week-long 'Golowan' festival is held in Penzance, culminating in 'Mazey Day'. In Yorkshire it was the custom for any family who had moved into the parish in the past year to put a table outside their house on St John's Eve with bread, cheese and ale on it, all offered freely to passers-by. If nothing else, it was a good way to meet the new neighbours!
There is, of course, one downside to Midsummer; from now on the days will begin slowly shortening, all the way Wednesday December 21st, when the winter solstice – the shortest day – will be marked. So make the most of these long summer days while they're here!