Since pre-Christian times, the summer solstice has been celebrated with seasonal rituals of major importance. Here are six fun facts you might not know about the summer solstice:
- The summer solstice is the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. A scientific explanation.
- In earlier times, the summer solstice was called Midsummer – not the start of summer as it is now.
- The eve of summer solstice was considered among the year’s scariest days — a time when fairies and evil spirits ran amuck. “Midsummer Eve is counted or called the Witches’ Night: and still in many places … they make Fires on the Hills.” John Aubrey, Remains of Gentilism, 1688
- It was customary to build giant bonfires on the solstice. People danced around the fires, and led their livestock, sons and daughters over the flames to keep them safe. Wheels of fires were rolled down hills to represent the sun. Even King Henry VII and Henry VIII of England had solstice fires in the great halls tended by pages and grooms.
“…there were usually made bonfires in the streets,
every man bestowing wood or labour towards them:
the wealthier sort … would set out tables …
furnished with sweet bread and good drink.”
John Stow, 16th century
- The timing of the solstice (late-June) was key. As Ronald Hutton writes in The Stations of the Sun, the solstice “preceded the season at which crops would be most vulnerable to weather or blight, and livestock to their diseases. It also ushered in the months in which insects multiplied most widely and in which, therefore, humans were most likely to contract bubonic plague, typhus, and malaria. The fires . . . were therefore deployed against serious dangers, and anxieties.”
- Certain flowers and herbs were said to have protective powers. St. John’s wort, mugwort, rosemary, elder, plantain, ivy and yarrow were some plants made into garlands and hung on the door to keep the home safe.
“The virtue of St. John’s Wort is thus. If it be put in a man’s house,
there shall come no wicked sprite therein.”
Banckes Herbal, 1525
More information from Seasonal Wisdom about the summer solstice.