The time of the summer solstice, of greatest light and greenery, has always been one of the naturally numinous points of the year for humans living outside the tropics. Britain’s most famous prehistoric monument – Stonehenge – is orientated on the midsummer sunrise, and there is ample evidence for the celebration of the season from ancient times onwards in these islands. Today a solstice is an event which can be scientifically pinpointed to a particular minute in the calendar. Until the 19th century that was not possible, and instead it was a process. As is well known, for most of the year the sun rises and sets at different places on the horizon, which is why days get longer and shorter; but in June and December, this movement slows down. At sunset on the 20th of both months it appears to stop moving altogether for a few days, a period in which “the sun stands still”, which is what “solstice” (in the original Latin) actually means. This is an island in time, in which the normal laws of the cosmos may be suspended, and unique opportunities and dangers presented. All this enchantment was thought to increase until the final night of the solstice, Midsummer Eve, 23 June, and on Midsummer Day, the 24th, the sun seemed to start moving again and the solstice was over. As every Catholic knows, the importance of that moment was recognised after the official triumph of Christianity by dedicating Midsummer Day to one of its greatest Biblical saints, John the Baptist. Its eve, the culmination of the solstice, therefore became the Eve of St John, and what followed, St John’s Night.
Midsummer Eve has had various associations throughout the millennia: among them with fairies (hence Shakespeare’s play) and with greenery and flowers, especially birch branches, roses and St John’s wort, with which homes and holy places were decorated. Its greatest, however, was with fire: from Ireland to Siberia, and Norway to Algeria, it was the main fire festival of the northern world. On Midsummer Eve, across this huge area, people would kindle and bless sacred flames, and then dance round them, jump over them, drive their flocks and herds around or between them, and carry torches lit from them around their cornfields. The purpose of these rites is very clear, from ancient to modern times: to protect. The fires were always sacred and benevolent, and the Christian appropriation of them usually consisted of consecrating them, at the moment of lighting, in the name of St John, often by the parish priest.
So the question must be asked: of what were ancient, medieval and early modern humans so afraid in the three months after midsummer, that they needed such a swathe of ceremonial protection? The answer is: lots of things. As any pet owner or country person knows, late summer and early autumn is the time in which insects are most abundant. That now only carries a risk of being bitten or stung. In previous centuries, however, fleas harboured bubonic plague, lice typhus and mosquitoes malaria, all lethal and epidemic diseases which generally peaked at this season. In addition, the crops had now grown tall enough to be destroyed by freak storms, or epidemics of their own, and other illnesses might by now have spread among the animals driven out into the summer pastures. On top of all that, the low rivers, calm seas, dry roads, warm air and long daylight meant that this was the prime period for armies, warbands and robbers to be active, making other humans more of a threat than at any other time of year. Put all this together, and it represents an awful lot of anxiety.
This historical backdrop provides a powerful message to modern people, Christian or not. We can still enjoy the better associations of the festival: greenery, blooms, sacred fires and associations with the fair folk. We can remember the primeval mystery and thrill of the solstice time, and honour St John. In addition, however, the removal of so much fear from this season, and its transformation instead into the prime family holiday period, in which we can enjoy the natural peace, comfort, abundance and beauty of the season to the full, is a considerable improvement on how things used for so long to be. It is surely a comforting note on which to end – as comforting as a good fire – to say that we can now have the best of both past and present.
Ronald Hutton is a Professor of History at Bristol University
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.