Illustration from a vintage edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (public domain
“Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” – Swedish proverb
I’m sure you think of this summer as being new and young, but tonight is Midsummer Night’s Eve, also called St. John’s Eve. This holiday goes back to the time of Old English and the Anglo-Saxon calendar that divided the year into only two parts instead of our 4 seasons. On this calendar with only summer and winter (each being 6 months long), summer ran from April through September) makes now midsummer. It also placed the time at or near the solstice.
St. John is the patron saint of beekeepers and this was a time of full hives and the time to use that honey to make honey wine, popularly known as mead. We believe that it was Irish monks during medieval times who learned to ferment honey and make mead.
The June Full Moon was called the Mead Moon and mead supposedly enhanced virility and fertility and was an aphrodisiac. This led mead to be part of Irish wedding ceremonies, and contributed to the idea of a honeymoon, referring to the literal moon and also the first sweet month of those June marriages.
Many people know the holiday because of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is set on this night. The comedy of two young couples who wander into a forest outside Athens on this night which is known for magic proves’ Shakespeare’s premise that “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
In England, this night was once an established holiday celebration. For the fairies, this night was second only to Halloween in importance. These “Faeries” enjoyed making mischief with humans.
This may be a short night (the summer solstice being the shortest night) but celebrants made the most of it. They would light bonfires after sundown. This “setting the watch” kept bad spirits at bay, and gave light to the revelers who also might carry cressets (lanterns atop poles) d bedecked in garlands, along with dancers, and some dressed as a unicorn, a dragon, and the six hobby-horse riders.
Flowers of St. John’s Wort
Having a party at your home tonight? Decorate the door with birch, fennel, and the herb St John’s wort. That herb is so named because it commonly produces blossoms that are harvested at this time. “Wort” is a Middle English word (wort, wurt, wyrte) simply meaning a plant, that in Old English wyrt was used for any herb, vegetable, plant, crop, or root. Tonight or on St. John’s Feast Day (June 24) hanging this herb on doors would ward off evil spirits, harm, and sickness for man and beast.
The plant is in the genus name Hypericum is possibly derived from the Greek words hyper (above) and eikon (picture), in reference to the tradition of hanging these plants over religious icons in the home during St John’s Day.
In modern times and still today, many people use St. John’s Wort as a medicinal herb as a mild antidepressant. The plant itself is actually poisonous to livestock.
Tree worship was also part of Midsummer festivities and trees near wells and fountains were decorated with colored cloths. This was especially true for oak trees, as the Oak King ruled the waxing of the year and the oak tree symbolizes strength, courage, and endurance.
The Oak has always been particularly significant at Litha, the name Germanic neopagans use for the summer solstice festival Litha. In their ancient calendar, June and July were se Ærra Liþa and se Æfterra Liþa (the “early Litha month” and the “later Litha month”).
The Celtic name for Oak is ‘Duir’ which means ‘doorway’ and so this was the time when we enter the doorway into the second, waning part of the year.