Tuesday, June 14, 2005

On St John´s Eve

Midsummer is the period of time centered upon the summer solstice. In the old Germanic calendar, it was referred to as "Litha", a term still in use today but seemingly limited to modern Pagans (called "neopagans"). Midsummer-related holidays, traditions and celebrations, most of which are considered secular, are particularly important in Finland and Sweden, but found also in other parts of Northern Europe, Great Britain and elsewhere. Solstitial celebrations still center upon June 24, but the difference between the Julian calendar year (365.2500 days) and the tropical year (365.2422 days) moved the actual astronomical solstice forward several days between 45 BCE (when Julian calendar was established) and 325 CE (First Council of Nicaea). This movement forward continued, but Gregorian calendar turned the situation to that of the First Council of Nicaea.

In the 7th century, Saint Eligius (died 659/60) warned the recently-Christianized inhabitants of Flanders against these pagan solstitial celebrations. According to the Vita by his companion Ouen, he would say:

"No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [summer solstice rites] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants."

Indeed, as Saint Eligius demonstrates, Midsummer has been Christianized as the feast of Saint John the Baptist: unlike all other saints' days, this feast celebrated on his birthday and not on the day of his martyrdom, which is separately observed as the "Decollation of John the Baptist" on August 29. The day of Saint John the Baptist is not marked by Christian churches with the emphasis one might otherwise expect of such an important saint. Midsummer is also a Neopagan holiday.

The celebration of Midsummer's Eve was from ancient times linked to the summer solstice. People believed that at midsummer plants had miraculous and healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night. Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southwards again. In later years, witches were also thought to be on their way to meetings with other evil powers.

The solstice itself has remained a special moment of the annual cycle of the year since neolithic times. The concentration of the observance is not on the day as we reckon it, but the pre-Christian beginning of the day, which falls on the previous eve. Midsummer's Eve is in Sweden and Finland considered the greatest festival of the year, comparable only with Walpurgis Night, Christmas Eve, and New Year's Eve.