Midsummer magic of flaming June

editorial image

by Heather Elvidge

How amazing the nights are in mid-June. The sun is not far below the horizon, so the sky can never be truly dark. If it stays cloud-free, that beautiful twilight lasts all night.

The longest day is on Saturday. This is the summer solstice, when the sun will reach its highest point at midday. Just to confuse things, Midsummer Day is on June 24, the birthday of St John the Baptist. Church fathers chose the 24th to rival the solstice fire customs.

Even so, some old habits proved hard to give up. Eighteenth-century folklorists found midsummer bonfires in Northumberland, the Pennines, and the Yorkshire Wolds. England’s last sun-wheel blazed in 1954, when villagers in Widdecombe revived the custom after a 100-year gap.

For us June is a happy month, but for medieval folk it was a worrying time. Crops and livestock were vulnerable to disease. People were at risk of plague, typhoid, or malaria. It made sense to use fire to invoke protection when the greatest fire of all, the sun, was at the height of his powers.

So bonfires blazed, and animals were driven through the smoke to purify them. When the flames died down people jumped over the embers to ensure good health. Flaming wheels were rolled down hillsides, imitating the sun’s path across the sky.

Similar fire customs survive today in some European countries. In Britain, midsummer traditions are given new life by pagan groups and Morris sides.

An obsession with sunlight is understandable in Scandinavia, where Midsummer is a great occasion. Houses are decorated with greenery and families enjoy a celebration meal outdoors, taking advantage of the midnight sun. Midsummer is a national holiday in Sweden where it’s the custom to make, and wear, a garland of flowers.

Midsummer magic

In England, this is a busy time for standing stones. Pagan groups flock to Stonehenge to greet the solstice sun, while other stone circles attract their own devotees. Maybe they should visit on Midsummer Eve.

Tradition says that’s when standing stones come alive. They gossip, walk around, or nip to the nearest stream for a drink. At Oxfordshire’s Rollright Stones, the Whispering Knights will tell your future – if you can catch what they’re saying.

Midsummer Eve is when you might see the Faery Rade, Queen Mab and her retinue riding through the woods to the sound of horns and jingling bells. Or you could end up stuck in a bog, a victim of Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck. There’s nothing he likes better than playing tricks on humans.

Don’t be fooled by those pictures of cute little folk. Real faeries are tall and powerful. They’ll tempt you with food or drink, but you’ll be bound to them forever if you accept it. Should you manage to escape with some faery gold, it will turn into withered leaves in the light of day.

Still tempted to go faery spotting in the twilight? Be sure to take a bunch of St John’s wort. Before it was linked to the saint, this native plant with starry yellow flowers was associated with the sun god. It’s said to protect against malign forces, especially troublesome faeries.