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Welcome to the David Victor Vector blog. This is blog that covers religious observances around the world international affairs and global business. This blog describes religious holidays for most major religions as well as raising issues dealing with globalization, international business ethics, cross-cultural business communication and political events affecting business in an integrated world economy. I look forward your discussion and commentary on these articles and subjects. Enjoy!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Midsummer's Day, Litha and Saint John's Eve


Midsummer's Day falls on June 21.  This is the summer solstice, meaning this is the longest day and shortest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. The summer solstice has since ancient times held religious significance in pre-Christian European religious, representing the point when the sun seemed to have stood still (in Latin, solstitum from which the word "solstice" derives means "sun stands still"). It has been tracked by wood or stone circles (such as England's famous Stonehenge) and celebrated with bonfires.

In Wicca (and several modern neo-Pagan religions, this is a major holiday and is known as Litha (sometimes Lithia) or the Midsummer Sabbat.

In Roman Catholicism, the evening of June 23 is St. John's Eve. This date was chosen because in ancient Rome, the solstice was calculated as June 24, and was a day holy to Juno and Vesta.  In Catholicism, this generally remains a minor holiday with major celebrations in several cultures. In predominantly Roman Catholic Lithuania and the Canadian province of Quebec, Midsummer's Day is a national holiday. Even in several primarily non-Catholic nations (such as Lutheran Denmark, Latvia and Sweden or Eastern Orthodox Estonia, this is a national holiday).  In New Orleans and Haiti, St. John's Eve is a time of worship in Voodoo religious practice.

In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church attempted to co-opt the pagan rituals by setting the evening of June 23 as St. John's Eve. To this day, in much of Europe, Midsummer's Night Eve is widely celebrated with bonfires.

Midsummer and Litha Rituals

Wiccans and neo-Pagans view Midsummer as a boundary holiday, in this case separating the realms of light and dark. As the longest day of the year, Midsummer marks the farthest extent of the realm of light and the beginning of the return of the realm of darkness. This is sometimes misinterpreted by those outside the tradition, a misunderstanding particularly notable in medieval Christianity where darkness was seen as a symbol of evil.  By contrast, in the Wiccan and Pagan world view, light is seen as symbolizing growth and activity while darkness is seen as symbolizing rest and reflection. Wiccans and neo-Pagans believe that Midsummer marks the endpoint of an extreme after which a return to balance begins, in this case the balance of light and dark.

Sunflowers on Midsummer altar 

As with all Wiccan and neo-Pagan Sabbats, worshippers set up altars. These altars are usually set up in one home but can also be set up in an outdoor setting, preferably in a forested area.

Because Midsummer is a boundary holiday, Midsummer and Litha altars are set with clear boundaries. This is often done with a piece of string or a cord across the altar, although any sort of boundary separating is possible.

The altar usually includes symbols of the sun (such as children's drawings of the sun), since this is a holiday marking the sun's longest day. Sunflowers -because they follow the sun across the sky -- are particularly popular as symbols on Midsummer altars.

Candles are generally lit for the entire day, symbolizing the long reign of the sun at Midsummer. These are often 24-hour candles, although many people simply use the waning candle to light the next candle so that a candle remains lit at all times for the holiday.


Midsummer talismans are made at this time of year. These are kept inside the home for the entire year that follows. At the next Midsummer solstice, these talismans are thrown into the holiday bonfire and replaced with new ones for the coming year.

Talismans are made of plants that thrive at this time of year. In many ancient pagan traditions (still followed by many modern neo-Pagans), this consisted of a sack filled with the plants or a garland woven from them and often worn in the hair. In all traditions, the talismans consist of nine specific plants. While the composition of these plants is widely variant, the number nine is fairly universal., since in most pagan traditions (as well as in Wicca and many modern neo-Pagan traditions), the number nine represents change and growth (and Midsummer is the apex of the influence of the sun, the ultimate generator of growth).

St. John's Wort takes its name
from talismans made for the holiday
Of the nine plants used in the talismans, five were (and continue to be) largely agreed upon: heartsease, lavender, mistletoe, vervain and St. John's Wort. Of these, St. John's Wort (Hyericum perforatum) merits particular attention, since its use was so important at this time of year that its common name is actually taken from the Christianized version of the holiday (St. Johnsmas).

Traditions vary regarding the other four. In Ireland, Great Britain, Bretagne and Spanish Galicia, two of the remaining plants were oak leaves (the holiday represents the end of the reign of the Oak King, ruler of the waxing year in Celtic tradition) and honeysuckle (symbolizing the beginning of the reign of the Holly King, ruler of the waning year in Celtic tradition). While the number of plants used is always nine, considerable variation exists for the remainder including (among others) rosemary, yarrow, tarragon, mint, red heather, white heather, meadowsweet, aniseed, hazelnut, fennel, chive, rosemary, parsley and mistletoe.

Midsummer Night's Eve, because it represents the highpoint of the masculine force, also is associated with fertility and suitors pursuing eligible women. In some traditions, notably those of Finland, this involves the finding of the "fern in bloom" -- a mythical plant, since ferns do not bloom. Still, placing ferns on charmed flowers in gifts or on the bed of a desired lover is still held to have power in folk traditions.


The best-known traditions involve bonfires. These are often burned on Midsummer Night's Eve.
Midsummer bonfire, Finland
Traditionally people gathered to dance around the bonfires and threw into the fire the talismans gathered from the previous Midsummer.

Wiccans and neo-Pagans light bonfires at Midsummer. Some traditions are to light the bonfire at Midsummer's Night Eve. Others traditions are to light the bonfire at noon, the point of the sun's greatest influence. It is customary to bless the fire and, as mentioned before, to throw the previous year's talismans into the fire.

Many secular traditions throughout the Christian World continue to hold bonfire traditions. The bonfires are either formally dedicated to St. John the Baptist (hence St. John's Day) or just as often lit without any overt Christian overlay. In Bulgaria, the Baltics and Scandinavia, the bonfires at Midsummer are major national festivities and attract large crowds of tourists as well as celebrants.

Many national traditions are associated with St. John's Mass, but an almost equal number are directly tied to Midsummer's Night Eve. These traditions no longer make even a superficial reference to a religious observance. Both of these traditions are described below in the description of St. John's Mass.

Stone Circles

The Midsummer pagan religious traditions predate recorded history in northern Europe and the Middle East. To ensure that the bonfires were lit on the proper day (both for the summer and winter solstices),  prehistoric people erected standing circles of stone or wood to calculate the rising of the sun.

Göbekli Tepe, Turkey
The oldest known stone circle dates to roughly 9000 BCE. This is Göbekli Tepe ("navel hill") near Urfa, Turkey. The oldest stone circle in Europe is Portugal's Cromleque de Almendres. This actually is a double stone circle, with a circle within a circle and dates to 4000 BCE. 

Newgrange, County Meath, Ireland
The oldest stone circle in Ireland is Newgrange in County Meath. Newgrange, with its central burial structure, dates to 3200 BCE. To put these dates in perspective, the Great Pyramid at Giza was only completed in 2560 BCE.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England
There are over 1000 stone circles and 80 stone henges in Britain and Ireland alone.  While Newgrange is by far the oldest, its circle focuses on the Winter Solstice,  Probably the most famous circle for the summer solstice is at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. Though much less old (ca. 2200 BCE) than many other circles in the region, Stonehenge's fame rests largely on it size, completeness and denseness of the associated burial mounds.

Today, many of the stone circles --  including Stonehenge -- remain a site of neo-Pagan and neo-Druidic worship today. Stonehenge was closed to mass gatherings for two years during the Coronavirus pandemic. Stonehenge livestreamed the sunrise, a practice they have continued. When Stonehenge re-opened for the summer solstice in 2022, an estimated 6000 people attended (still lower than the peak number of 10,000 visitors in the past). 

Pagans and druids attend
the Stonehenge annual solstice celebration
Photo: Andrew Matthews, BBC

Gilgal Refaim, Israel

Stone circles often were significant sites co-opted by later monotheistic religions. It is arguably not a coincidence that Saul was crowned the first king of ancient Israel at Gilgal, the site of the Gilgal Refaim stone circle. Saul was crowned King (1 Samuel 11-12) roughly around 1079 BCE while the Gilgal Refaim stone circle had been a site of pagan worship for predicting the solstices dating back to roughly 4000 BCE.

The Callanish Stones of Scotland supposedly represent the petrified bodies of giants who refused to convert to Christianity, and who St. Kieran then turned to stone. The stones, however, are now known to date to 2900 BCE, so the previously held belief is now passed down as folklore. The folklore tradition surrounding Long Meg and Her Daughters Stone Circle near Penrith, Cumbria is that this was a witch and her daughters turned to stone for their sins. The stone circle near Newbridge, Scotland (the largest on mainland Scotland) was simply repurposed and given the name of the "Twelve Apostles Stone Circle."

In the 13th and 14th Century, many stone circles were knocked down as well as given names associating them with Devil worship. Thus, the stone circle in Oxfordshire was named the Devil's Quoit. The 5000-year-old stone circle were only restored to their standing position between 2002 and 2008. The Stanton Drew Stone Circle in Somerset was thought to be the result of wedding dancers turned to stone by the Devil.  Similarly the stone half-circle near Avebury, England was renamed the "Devil's Branding Irons" and the standing stones at Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire were named the "Devil's Arrows."

St. John's Day and Secular Midsummer Traditions

St. John's Day Traditions

St. John's Day or St. Jonsmas is June 24. Since the 5th Century, this has been the Roman Catholic feast day of Saint John the Baptist. In the Gospel of St. Luke (Luke 1:36, 56-57), it is explained that St. John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus. The coinciding of the date with the Midsummer pagan holiday is therefore coincidental, but the celebration of the holiday primarily through lighting bonfires and the gathering of healing plants into traditionally associated with pagan practice (St. John's wort and verbena, most notably) is a direct repurposing of the pagan practices.  In many traditions, an effigy of a witch is thrown into the fire along with the talismanic herbs.

As the patron saint of Florence, the city annually holds its Festa di San Giovanni with much pageantry. A morning procession of candles carried by the city's leaders runs from the Palazzo Vecchio to Piazza
Festa di San Giovanni Procession, Florence
Duomo where the Archbishop receives the lit offerings and blesses those in the procession at the Baptistry. In the afternoon, a second parade runs through the city's four main quarters  as a lead up to the Calcio Storico Fiorentino. The Calico Storico is an annual athletic event that has taken place on the day since the 1500s and matches teams from the city's four quarters: Santa Maria Novella (the reds), San Giovanni (the greens), Santa Croce (the whites) and San Croce (the blues). The day ends with the "Fochi di San Giovanni" -- the fireworks of Saint John, set off over the River Arno from the Piazzale Michelangelo.
The Fochi di San Giovanni, Florence

In Denmark, Sankthansaften (Saint John's Eve) was the day that medieval healers and doctors would gather their year's supply of healing herbs, so even the tradition of keeping the gathered plants for the coming year was maintained.

Official St. John's Day Eve bonfires are set in communities across not only Denmark, but also Brazil,
St. John's Eve Bonfire
Quimper, Bretagne
Croatia, Denmark, Ireland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Portugal.

Annual St. John's bonfires are also set in certain regions of some countries. These include the Vosges, Bretagne and Meurthe-et-Moselle regions of France; the Wachau Valley of Austria; Catalonia and the Basque Regions of Spain; the province of Quebec in Canada; the US-owned territory of Puerto Ricothe Shetland Islands in Scotland; and the Jersey Islands of the UK.  Observances of the holiday are also integrated with the Voodoo rites associated with Marie Laveau in New Orleans centered on Saint John's Day.

Jumping over beach bonfires
on the Noche de San Juan, Spain
The Noche de San Juan is one of Spain's largest festivals, especially in Catalonia and the Basque Regions, although activities are present throughout the country.

The tradition since ancient times has been not only to build bonfires but to jump over them at (or near) midnight. The bonfires are most common on the beaches where it is customary to run into the sea thus combining purification by water and by fire at the symbolic striking of midnight. The custom long predates Christianity buy was syncretized by the Spanish Church to provide a more religiously acceptable overlay with the fire representing Christ and the water representing baptism.

Secular Midsummer Traditions

Bonfires, however, are more widespread than just those dedicated to St. John. Bonfire traditions and many make no attempt to clothe the celebration in a Christian tradition.

Bulgaria: While Bulgarians do celebrate an Eastern Orthodox version of St. John's Day, the folk traditions related to fire called Nestinarstvo long predate Christianity and openly carry many non- Christian traditions.The Nestinarstvo involves the sacrificing of an animal (usual a sheep) then cooking it over a bonfire in the town square around which the entire village dances in a circular horo. Once the fire has reduced to burning coals and embers, special people called nestinari or anastenari fall into a trance and then to the music of a sacred drum dance barefoot on the hot coals. The practice Nestinarstvo was designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Nestinarstvo Fire Dancing, Bulgaria
is also observed in five cities in Greece near the Bulgarian border, although Greek Orthodox Church has condemned the practice as idolatrous. In 2009, the

Finland:  Bonfires, midsummer poles (akin to the spring Maypole) and searching for the "fern in bloom" are all Finnish traditions associated with fertility. Since Finland is also far to the north, many activities honor the midnight sun. In addition to bonfires, many Finns celebrate with midnight open-air cooking, girls wearing flowers in their hair, and family gatherings in a rented cottage.

Iceland: Each year since 2013, Iceland has celebrated Midsummer with a three-day music festival called the Secret Solstice. Performances continue non-stop throughout the three days, enabled by the 24-hour midnight sun in the country.

Latvia: The annual Midsummer celebrations in Latvia are nationwide. Men traditionally wear wreaths of oak leaves called Jānis) and women wear garlands of wildflowers (called Līga). People wear traditional regional clothing as well. Was LSM (Latvia's public broadcast network) puts it: "The chief activities include drinking beer by the bonfire; grilling meat; eating the traditional Midsummer cheese (with lots of cumin seeds) and singing and dancing in the open air." As in Spain, bonfire jumping is part of the activities. Finally, wandering the woods in the half-light in search of the rare "fern flower" is a common Midsummer tradition.
Latvian woman wearing Midsummer Līga and traditional clothing

Norwegian Midsummer Barnebryllup 
Norway: Though called Sankthansaften, Saint John's Eve is generally recognized as a secular holiday x of Røldal for its supposed healing power present on this day ended in 1840. Today, the tradition of bonfires is accompanied by barnebryllup or "midsummer's weddings" These are not actual weddings but rather play-acted weddings held by the bonfire and conducted not only among adults but also among children. The weddings are symbolic of starting a new life with the Midsummer's power. Other customs include the search for seven special herbs to imbue health, collecting dew to place in one's eyes (its magic improves vision) and erecting the maistangens or Maypole (decorated in late-blooming Norway not in May but on Midsummer's Eve). 
in Norway.  

Romania: The Romanian tradition of Sânziene is an annual celebration of the Romanian nature fairies. Unmarried women dress in white and collect flowers and herbs during the day, one of which
 Romanian girls picking flowers for the Sânziene
must be the Lady's Bedstraw (Gallium 
velum). They then braid these around their hair in a crown of flowers and come to the communal bonfire in the evening. There they dance with young men and especially those whom they are engaged. If the flowers stay on their head without falling, good health will follow for the year. If the flowers fall off, however, bad luck will come to their households. Other beliefs include the use of magic love potions and a warning against young men walking alone in the woods (lest they be struck with madness by wondering fairies).


As with all of my posts, these comments are made only with the attempt to encourage understanding and appreciation. As always, I welcome your input and comments.

Happy Litha and Midsummer's Day.


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Midsummer solstice: http://merlinspath.wordpress.com/2010/07/01/week-7-litha-ritual/

Midsummer bonfire, Finland: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midsummer#mediaviewer/File:MidsummerNightBonfire2.jpg

Litha altar with sunflowers: http://fc01.deviantart.net/fs70/i/2012/185/7/c/mead_moon_altar_by_carlavk-d560ewi.jpg

Saint John's Wort: http://www.stuartwilde.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/st-johns-wort.jpg

Göbekli Tepe, Turkey: http://www.ancient-wisdom.co.uk/turkeygobekli.htm

Newgrange, Ireland: My own photograph

"Pagans and druids regularly attend the annual solstice celebration," Photo by Andrew Matthews, BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-wiltshire-61876944

Jumping over beach bonfires on the Noche de San Juan, Spain: https://www.euroweeklynews.com/2019/06/19/san-juan-fiesta-one-of-spains-biggest-celebrations/#.XQ04Ynt7nkE

Festa di San Giovanni Procession, Florence Italy, VisitFlorence.com: https://www.visitflorence.com/florence-events/june-24-feast-day-in-florence.html

The "Fochi di San Giovanni", Florence, Italy, VisitFlorence.com: https://www.visitflorence.com/florence-events/june-24-feast-day-in-florence.html

1 comment:

  1. Happy summer solstice! Thank you for the wonderful guide on celebrating this special holiday for me. It was especially interesting to learn how other nations celebrate this event. Since ancient times, the sun has occupied an important place both in religions of different nations, and in astrology.According to astrology, the mighty Sun helps us open ourselves and encourages us to strive for independence. Each Zodiac sign changes completely during the entry of the sun. Be like the sun - shine!