Traditional customs for June centre on the summer solstice – midsummer, as it has been known in English since the Anglo-Saxon period. The precise date of the solstice falls between June 20 and 22, but in Christian tradition it became fixed at an early date to the feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist, June 24. Today we might associate solstice celebrations with dawn crowds at Stonehenge, but that custom is a fairly recent revival; though people have marked the summer solstice for thousands of years, throughout the Middle Ages and long afterwards it was fully merged with the celebration of St John’s feast. Midsummer festivities have largely died out in Britain, but it’s still a popular festival in many parts of Europe.
John the Baptist is the only saint in Christian tradition, other than the Virgin Mary, to have a feast commemorating his birth as well as his death. The Church has traditionally seen the dating of the June feast as meaningful because John, “the forerunner”, was born six months before Christ, and their births are celebrated at the four key points of the solar year. Just as Christ was conceived at the spring equinox and born at the winter solstice, so John was conceived at the autumn equinox and born at the summer solstice.
The Venerable Bede explained the theological significance of this: “It was fitting that the Creator of eternal light should be conceived and born along with the increase of temporal light, and that the herald of penance, who must decrease (John 3:30), should be conceived and born at a time when the light is diminishing.”
So if you want to mark Midsummer Eve, do it with light and fire. In the medieval period midsummer was a popular communal celebration: houses were decorated with lamps and greenery, there were parades with pageantry and music, people feasted with their neighbours, and bonfires were lit in the streets. It was believed that these bonfires had protective powers, able to purify the air and drive away evil spirits. According to the 14th-century writer John Mirk, bonfires were appropriate for John the Baptist because the saint himself was a “lantern burning”, seen from afar like a beacon of fire.
After the Reformation, midsummer bonfires were suppressed as Catholic superstition, though in some regions they survived as late as the 19th century. But numerous customs lingered in later folklore that preserve the idea of Midsummer Eve as a magical time: a night when you might encounter ghosts, when unmarried girls could try love-divination to find out about their future husbands, and when anyone who kept watch in the church porch at midnight would see the spirits of those fated to die in the coming year. It was said that a rose picked on Midsummer Eve would last until Christmas, while St John’s wort – which gets its name because it flowers at this time of year – was used to decorate houses at midsummer, and shared the healing and protective powers attributed to St John’s bonfires.