Bonfires and other Bizarre Midsummer Rituals

There are many bizarre rituals and superstitions associated with Midsummer. Midsummer or summer solstice is celebrated in many cultures as the longest day of the year.

Why do people in different cultures have rituals like bonfires at midsummer?

In fact, have you thought why people in different cultures celebrate natural phenomena? Some would say that these rituals are reminders of an ignorant “pagan” past. But are they; in fact, our attempts at finding answers to questions about our origin and destiny, and discover our role in the big picture of creation?

Midsummer or summer solstice is celebrated in many cultures as the longest day of the year. From Finland to Spain, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, midsummer is often associated with huge public bonfires. In many European countries, people gather when bonfires are lit at night. The fires are usually fed with old and unwanted wooden furniture, junk, and broken boats. The younger and more agile people jump over the fire while making wishes. 21st June is celebrated as midsummer in most countries since the Gregorian calendar reform, though 24th June is technically the longest day of the year. But, neo-pagans celebrate summer solstice on June 24th in places like Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland.

Over the centuries Christianity assimilated most “pagan” festivals into the Christian calendar of festivals. The rowdy Roman harvest festival at winter solstice became Christmas. According to the Catholic Encyclopaedia, 1911 edition, “Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church…the first evidence of the feast is from Egypt, around AD 200 when it was celebrated on 20th May.” Midsummer also got assimilated into the Christian calendar. In England midsummer became “St. John’s Eve.” In many countries, it is “St John’s Day” or the Feast of John the Baptist. In Russia it is Ivan Kupala Day, in Poland it is Noc Kupały or Noc Świętojańska and so on.

The ancient Germanic, Slav and Celtic tribes in Europe celebrated Midsummer with communal bonfires. At midsummer night, the sun does not sink even at midnight in the northernmost areas of the Northern Hemisphere beyond the Arctic Circle. These areas had fire festivals, love magic, and divination at midsummer. Agile people jumped through the flames believing that the crops would grow as high as they could jump. Maidens tried to know about their future husband, and spirits and demons were banished through the magical powers of the bonfire.

Many Midsummer Night’s superstitions and customs are similar to those observed on Christmas Eve. A girl will supposedly marry the man who she will see in her dream walking along the straw placed across the bowl of water under her bed. In another version, the man will dry his face on the towel placed beside her bed. In one tradition, the future husband will come from the direction in which the girl notices the first bonfire on Midsummer Night. Dew collected during Midsummer is believed to have special healing powers. Young girls wash their faces with the dew to make themselves beautiful, older women to make themselves younger.

One of the magical elements in midsummer is a belief in the intersection of the visible and invisible worlds during that night. The modern Wiccans, like the ancient Celts, believe that at Litha or the Feast of the Faeries at twilight in midsummer, the gates between the visible and invisible worlds open and faeries enter our world to bring joy, love, prosperity and wisdom to people who welcome them.

Fire has been among humans since lower Palaeolithic times (2,5 million – 100,000 years ago). Our ancestors from pre-Homo Sapiens times seem to have given fire a ritual significance. At excavations in Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel, there are traces of controlled fire about 800 000 years old. The link between fire and midsummer is also pretty old. There is evidence of Midsummer festivals in Newgrange in Ireland from around 3000 BC. There is further evidence of midsummer celebrations among the Essenes, a Jewish sect from 1st century A.D., the ancient Hopi and the Nachez people in the Americas as well as among the Chinese. For the Chinese the summer solstice ceremony is the birthday of the feminine force yin, when they celebrate the earth. At winter solstice, the Chinese celebrate the heavens, masculinity and the birth of the yang forces. Different peoples of North Africa, in Morocco and Algeria, especially the Berbers also celebrate midsummer even today.

In the Scandinavian country of Finland, midsummer is the main festival of the year. People start their summer holidays and go to their countryside cottages. People gather around the kokko or bonfires usually on the shore of a lake. It is a popular day for weddings and churches have to be booked months or years in advance. In earlier days, unmarried young girls went naked to the meadows the night before midsummer to collect seven different wild flowers, which they placed under their pillows. They hoped to dream of the man who would become their husband. Nowadays these rituals are not practised, but there are communal dances as also; unfortunately, excessive drinking, and drowning, and accidents.

Many of the early communal rituals have lost their significance in modern urban settings. Alienation or loneliness and depression have become extremely common afflictions for people in the affluent countries of the world. Counselling and medication are both fighting a desperate battle to help. Is this a sign that overtly rationalizing and standardizing human life impoverishes it and we fall ill? Nowadays many religions also have lost touch with the lives of millions of people. The ancient myths and symbols don’t speak to modern man. Should we blame modern man for this lack of communication or should religions update their myths and symbols?