June 24: Midsummer

16th June 2006 at 01:00
For our Celtic ancestors (and people throughout northern Europe), this was a magical highlight of the year: a time for fortune-telling and blessings.

Outline script

If you get up early on Midsummer Day's morning and walk through dewy grass, your skin will always remain soft. If a girl washes her face in the morning dew, she will become more beautiful. If an older person does the same, he or she will not age in appearance.

Another traditional custom is the "need fire" or "blessing fire". Ignited by friction, it was considered both lucky and health-giving. Cattle would be driven through its flames to preserve them from illness. If young men and boys leapt over the fire, it was said the crops would grow as high as the village lads could leap. It was also said that the youth who jumped highest was the most virile.

As its flames died down, young men and women would leap together over the embers to bring them future happiness. Herbs passed through the fire would have their healing power enhanced and toadstools burned in it were a protection against evil spirits. In Denmark, bonfires are still lit on beaches and on lakesides to celebrate Midsummer, while in such northerly countries as Sweden and Finland, Midsummer Eve is as important as Christmas.

Although we now consider June, July and August as the summer months, our pagan ancestors believed summer began on May Day (May 1, known as Beltane) and ended with the beginning of the harvest at Lammas (August 1) - so the week containing the longest day was known as Midsummer. In fact the summer solstice (when the sun reaches its northern zenith and appears to stop before it again moves lower in the sky) usually occurs on June 21. The word solstice comes from the Latin ("sol" meaning sun and "stice" to stand still).

The Church "Christianised" the festival by naming it St John the Baptist's day; John being six months older than his cousin Jesus.

Follow-up

Collect herbs and research their traditional medicinal properties. Which plants are in flower on Midsummer's Eve? Create a classroom display.

Estimate the time of day without recourse to timepieces. Can this be done in urban as well as rural locations? How accurately can the time of year be deduced from the natural world?

A traditional Midsummer sport is tug-of-war.

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