As I have thus far undertaken the task of informing my dear readers about the occurence of significant astronomical dates, I do so here again. Yesterday, June 21, was the Summer Solstice, or Midsummers' Day - the longest day of the year. I make particular mention of it because in many cultures it is not only the longest day, but also the most magical.
From what my little tidbits of research have revealed (thank you, Wikipedia), most countries around the world celebrate some form of Midsummer ritual - particularly any countries in which either (or both) Paganism or Christianity in some form has been present. The Christians celebrate it as a saints day - the day of St. John the Baptist. The Pagans had something else in mind.
I have found that in much of modern English, the words "pagan" and "heathen" have become synonomous (or at least very similar). There was a time when the were used as synonyms, back in the day when the Catholic church was trying to rid the continent - indeed, the known world - of Pagan traditions. However, Paganism wasn't all evil, or all heathen. They were simply polytheistic in a world where monotheism was begining to take the stage. They worshiped many gods, worshipped primarily through ritual, and possessed a deep-seeded belief in magic.
To the Pagans, Midsummers day was special. It was the halfway point between the equinoxes, the farthest away you can get from Midwinter before you start coming back. It was a time to celebrate life (the survival of one winter) and to pray for future good fortune (plentiful harvest and a good winter to come). They often celebrated by lighting bonfires, jumping over the bonfires, telling fortunes, performing fertility rituals for the young women (midsummer being a good time to conceive so that children will be born the following Spring), and in general eating, dancing, and making merry. Midsummer was also said to be a time when magic could be used at its highest potency. Sorceresses, magicians, alchemists, healers, and potion makers would go out in the darkness before sunrise and collect their herbs and ingredients for a new year, believing that the presence of the Midsummer sunrise would give their spells and potions added power. Midsummer's eve was also a night to have great caution, as it was said to be the night when devils and evil spirits roamed free upon the earth.
Some of these traditions have carried on into modern times. People from most countries (including the United States, as it happens) still participate in bonfire festivals - with and without fire-jumping. Women in Russian and the Ukraine take part in fertility rituals and tell their fortunes by casting their flower garlands onto the water and reading the petals. Eating, dancing, and overall merriment still prevail. Some places, sorceresses and healers still roam the hours before sunrise, collecting herbs.
I, for one, took part in my own celebration. I sat in the sunshine and read books, my feet dangling into the kidie pool. I drank cold lemonade (though not with mint leaves, unfortunately). I laid myself out on the dew-covered lawn and looked at the millions of stars that adorned the night sky, trying to find constellations in their midst. I even danced on the grass in my bare feet, in the light of a setting sun.
It's not a bonfire. It's not remotely ritualistic. And it probably won't produce any magic whatsoever. But it's my way of celebrating the coming of summer, and to rejoice in the warm days, full harvests, and magical memories to come.
Happy Midsummer, my friends. 'Til next time...