Today, June 21st, is the summer solstice! For those of you that don’t know, the summer solstice is a traditional Pagan holiday that marks the longest day of the year. It also marks the first official day of summer!
The history behind this holiday is very interesting: legend has it that on Midsummer’s Nights Eve (sound familiar, Shakespeare fans?) golden-flowered plants with holy healing powers were picked. In addition, people lit bonfires to ward of evil spirits that congregated when the sun was setting. Although this holiday was converted into a Christian day (as most Pagan things were) it is still celebrated around the world, particularly in Northern Europe. While you’re catching some rays and lighting fires today, here’s some crazy festivals from around the Northern Hemisphere that celebrate the summer solstice:
1. Stonehenge (UK)
In England lays the remains of Stonehenge, a mystical (and perhaps magical) circle of stones that weigh tons. Why are they there? What was their purpose? Who built them? We still don’t have definite answers to any of these questions, but still thousands of people gather at this UNESCO site to celebrate the summer solstice. In what can be described a gathering of the hippies, the Neo-Pagans and New Agers celebrate by chanting, playing music, lighting fires (and smoking weed) all through the night and into the morning of the solstice.
[photo: Green Tea Design]
Before Christianity came in and changed everything, the midsummer holiday was called Ukon juhla (Ukko’s celebration). Ukko was the Finnish God of sky, harvest and thunder, and the tradition mandated bonfires burnt side by side at lakeshores and by the ocean. Maypoles were also erected, and birch trees were placed by entrances to homes to welcome guests. People now take vacations in the countryside to enjoy the midnight sun and nice weather, a stark contrast to complete never-ending darkness in winter time. Because of Finland’s location near the Arctic circle, the midsummer night sometime is very short or nonexistent, so they party all day (night? dusk?) with bonfires, cookouts and saunas. Like many other places, the theme of potency is prominent and many young ladies seek suitors because of the fertility and appearance of will-o’-the-wisps and ferns in bloom. Nice.
[photo: Share Latvia]
Jāņi is the name of the summer solstice festival celebrated in Latvia. Traditionally this festival celebrated the Latvian pagan god Janis, the “Son of God.” Jani is also the most popular name given to males at birth in Latvia (equivalent to “John” in English), and so everyone with the name Jani is given an oak wreath because they hold a special honor. It is believed that the summer solstice is the day when the line between the living world and the spiritual world is the thinnest, and thus witches were rumored to fly around and people protect themselves by putting rowan branches on their homes and land. Today the most popular decorations are birch, oak, flowers and ferns and livestock are also decorated. Cows are beautiful too, you guys. Additionally, a festival fire is kept burning from sunrise to sunset and people jump over it to promote fertility and prosperity. In connection with the Pagan rituals, it’s believed that this is the best day to gather herbs because they retain magical powers. Specifically, people search for the mystical fern-flower, a symbol for secret knowledge and very fertile relationships. Go “search for that flower” you silly kids!
Believe it or not, this is the most important holiday in Sweden. Although the maypole doesn’t have its roots in this holiday, it’s also erected during Midsummer and danced around in this traditional way after its covered in foliage. The menu consists of potatoes, soused herring, pickled herring, chive, sour cream, beer, snaps and strawberries and are accompanied by drinking songs. It’s believed that magic is at its peak strength this day and people take this opportunity to look into the future. Young people pick bouquets 7 to 9 different flowers and put them under their pillow in hopes of dreaming of their future lover. Additionally, the tradition of decorating homes and barns with greens and herbs continues, even though most people don’t believe in the magical healing powers of the plants. Because the earth becomes particularly fertile, its believed that that energy is transferred to young people as well, who become particularly passionate during midsummer and the result is high birth rates in March. Go get some!
Today the midsummer solstice is called Santos Populares (Popular Saints) and combines several holidays celebrating Christian Saints. Streets are adorned with balloons and bright paper, people dance and sing in costume throughout the city and ask for good fortune. The traditional food that’s served is cabbage and potato soup as well as grilled sardines. In Lisbon, between 200-300 marriages are celebrated in that day alone! And following the theme of love, it’s tradition that declare your love for someone at the festival by giving them a potted basil plant and a love poem. In Porto and Braga, people party in the streets and carry a whole plant of flowering garlic or a small plastic hammer and hit their neighbors with it for good luck. Like in Latvia, people jump over the bonfires to ensure protection during the rest of the year. Love, music and smoke is in the air!
The Summer Solstice is a pretty big deal in the Northern Hemisphere, and even in the US we have some European adopted traditions, such as bonfires, naked cyclists (you read it right), maypole raisings and parades. The largest celebration is the NYC Swedish Midsummer, which celebrates the solstice and Swedish culture. We encourage you to adopt some of these worldly traditions, but don’t blame us if your neighbors gets mad when you hit him with a garlic plant or if the girl of your dreams doesn’t like basil. Still, we think your chances are pretty high for romance. May the ferns be with you!