Dates for assembly: June 24 Midsummer Day

David Self

The summer solstice (longest day) usually falls on June 21, but Midsummer Day is traditionally observed three days later.

Outline script for assembly leaders

In pre-Christian times, Celtic people believed nature was ruled by two kings - the Oak King and the Holly King. Twice a year they met in battle, once near Christmas (which Pagans call Yule) and once on Midsummer Day (the pagan name for which is Litha). At Yule, the Oak King always won the battle; at Litha, the Holly King was victorious. This meant the Oak King ruled over the half of the year in which daylight gets stronger, and the Holly King over the half in which darkness increases. The time of the Oak King was said to be a time for growth; the Holly King's time was for rest and learning.

Some people believed that the two kings were simply different sides to the same god whom the Celtic people called the Green Man. He dressed in leaves and other greenery and his name can still be seen on pub signs.

Midsummer Day is in June (when the warmest weather is just beginning), because our Celtic ancestors counted May Day (May 1) as the first day of summer and August 1 (known as Lammas) as the last day. Counted this way, it is almost the mid-point of summer. It is also when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky and daylight lasts longest. In the most northerly parts of the British Isles the sun is just below the horizon even at midnight, and it never gets completely dark.

Because this is when the sun is at its strongest, midsummer was regarded as a magical and healing time. Girls used to get up at dawn to wash their faces in the midsummer dew to make themselves beautiful. Older people did the same to make themselves look younger. Even today (and despite the risks of skin cancer) we believe the sun's rays will make us more attractive.

Follow-up

* Encourage students to estimate the time of day, increasingly precisely, without recourse to timepieces. How can this be done in a rural or isolated location? How accurately can they deduce the time of year by observing nature?

* A detailed account of midsummer observances can be found by visiting www.mysteriousbritain.co.ukfestivalsmidsummer.html

* Research the dangers of excessive sunbathing and sunbed use.

* Research the history and derivation of local pub names.

DAVID SELF

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David Self

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