Wytch Hazel Cottage

Reclaiming Our Ancestral Folkways

Category: An Old English Summer

Midsummer’s Eve Traditions

Midsummer’s Day marks the longest day and shortest night of the year, when the sun finally reaches its highest point in the sky and we can all enjoy over sixteen hours of daylight. Celebrations that take place at this time of year have their roots deeply embedded in Neolithic times when stone tombs and circles were built in alignment with the rising and setting of the sun at Midsummer.

On Midsummer’s Eve in most parts of Britain, our ancient ancestors would light fires on top of hills as darkness fell. These fires were originally called bonefires because they were often entirely made up of bones, but as time passed, oak, furze, bracken, coal and even tar were used; the gathering of which began the month before.

In Cornwall, lit torches crafted from pieces of material soaked in tar and then tied to a long pole or chain were carried in a procession. People danced and sang around a chain of fires while holding hands as a way of protecting themselves from evil spirits or witches. The first fire was lit in St Ives and then all through the night one by one fires were lit across the whole county from west to east. A young girl was chosen to be the ‘Lady of the Flowers’ and she would throw a sickle shaped bunch of flowers and herbs into the flames while saying an invocation. The Cornish called this time of year ‘Goluan’ meaning the light and joy of the Cornish Folk.

Here and elsewhere, when the fires began to die down, some people leapt across them hoping to ensure protection, purification, fertility or luck. It was common for courting couples to hold hands and jump over the dying flames three times, for it was believed that this would ensure a long, healthy and prosperous marriage with many children. Young men jumped over the flames to prove their courage and strength whilst young women jumped over the cooling embers with the hope of attracting a potential husband as well as boost her fertility. Cattle were guided over the fires’ embers while their backs were singed with a burning hazel twig. Burning gorse or furze were also carried around the animals to again bless and protect them from illness and misfortune.

In Ireland, the oldest woman in the community walked around the fire reciting prayers of protection and homes were decorated with birch, fennel, St John’s Wort and white lilies.

Another custom was to scatter what was left of the ashes around the outside of the home, as well as throwing some of them into the hearth. In the minds of our ancestors, the charred remains of these fires held protective powers so they crafted charms out of them for protection from injuries and bad luck. The ash from the Midsummer’s fires was also scattered around the fields to protect and encourage the crops’ growth and any remaining ashes were kept to form the foundation of the following year’s fire. Some people even lit hazel twigs from the fires and raced one another back home with them. The first person to arrive home was believed to receive blessings of prosperity for the coming year.

In earlier times, the Celts bound cart wheels with straw and set them alight before rolling them down the side of a steep hill. For them this symbolised the turning of the year and it was believed that if the cart wheel arrived, still lit, at the bottom of the hill, then the next harvest would be a good one.

Mistletoe was revered by the druids and was regarded as being particularly potent if found growing on an oak tree. Although we associate mistletoe with Midwinter, it was often ceremoniously gathered at this time of year when the plant was considered to be at the height of its power; and some of the cuttings were made into protective amulets. The Druids’ Midsummer’s rituals did not take place at Stonehenge as many people are led to believe today. There is no evidence to suggest that Druids had a connection to this megalithic stone circle.

In later times, the ceremonial fire was lit on the village green and children would dance around the ring first before the adults followed suite. As the sound of fiddles carried off in the night sweets were given out to the children.

The full moon in June is traditionally called the Honey Moon and was named after the mead drink that is readily available during the summer months. Mead played an important part in handfasting ceremonies that took place during Midsummer and was believed to be a divine solar drink that possessed magical and restorative properties.

The day before the Ferry Fair in South Queens-ferry, West Lothian Scotland, there was a very strange custom the origins of which are a mystery. For over 800 years the Burry Man walked the streets of South Queens-ferry, a figure covered from head to toe with thistle and teazle burrs and his face was concealed with flowers. It was tradition that no one recognise who the Burry Man was. He carried a staff in each hand as he silently walked through the streets receiving money from the homes he visited. This gesture was thought to bring good luck. Some believe that this tradition remembers the escape of King Malcolm III of Scotland, who evaded the English by covering himself with burrs and flowers. Another theory is that the Burry Man was originally someone who collected market or fair tolls.

‘Bawming the Thorn’ is one of England’s oldest summer traditions (bawming means to anoint or adorn). Instead of dancing around a maypole like at Beltane, the people of Appleton, Cheshire, danced around a hawthorn tree that had been decorated with flowers. It was believed that this tree was a cutting from the original Holy Thorn of Glastonbury. The villagers began the day with a procession through the streets including the children who were covered in garlands. Once they arrived at the tree the town’s folk would decorate it with offerings of flowers and ribbons. They also decorated the protective iron railings that surrounded it. After the tree had been decorated they danced around it. The custom of honouring trees goes back to the very beginning of mankind and our ancestors believed that trees were sacred and held a god or spirit within their branches. In early times they understood the wisdom of trees and village councils would meet under them to dispense justice.

Cornwall is a county that has always had a strong belief in fairies, spirits and witches. One of the best times for fighting the forces of evil was believed to be Midsummer’s Eve. At St Cleer, near Liskeard, a huge fire used to be lit on a hill and a witch’s broom and hat were thrown into the flames as a warning to witches to stay away from the area for a year. To break a spell that a witch may have cast, forty types of herbs and flowers were cast onto the fire. A wooden sickle, cut from oak was also thrown onto the fire; perhaps a symbol of the human sacrifice that was offered up in ancient times.

A very strange and old belief was that fern seed (fern spore) if found, could render a person invisible, as well as protect them from demons and witches. The seed also allowed the person to divine successfully. However, the seed was thought to only become visible on St John’s Eve and that it was guarded by the Queen of the Fairies. It was believed that the devil and his imps, as well as witches and fairies did everything they could to stop humans from finding it.

Midsummer’s Eve festivities, with the arrival of Christianity, became known as Midsummer’s Day or St John’s Day. The church wanting to discourage any pagan practices had the celebrations the following day instead and because in the bible John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus, Midsummer was the perfect time for his feast day.

The following are very old English divination practices that were used at this time of year.

An ancient form of love divination was the sowing of hemp seeds on Midsummer’s Eve by a young girl as she walked around the churchyard or the village at midnight. This was popular in Sussex, Herefordshire, Oxfordshire and Devonshire. In Norfolk a hole was dug and the hemp seeds sown inside.

“At eve last Midsummer no sleep I sought, but to the field a bag of hemp seed bought: I scattered round the seed on every side and three times, in a trembling accent cried-‘This hemp seed with my virgin hand I sow, who shall my true love be, the crop shall show.’ I straight looked back and if my eyes speak truth, with his keen scythe, behind me came the youth”. (The Shepherd’s Week, 1714).

‘The Church Porch Watch’ was a custom where people used to sit in the church porch all night on Midsummer’s Eve, in order to see the spirits of the living who would die in the next twelve months. If any watcher fell asleep during this time then it was believed he would die before the next night watch.

The following were used to be popular sayings, beliefs and more divination of days gone by.

“It is unlucky to let the fire go out on Midsummer night”.

“St John’s Wort is a preventative against the efforts of witches and demons.”

“If it rains on Midsummer Eve the nuts will be spoiled.”

“Demons and witches are especially active on St John’s Eve.”

“The beasts in the field go down on their knees at midnight of Midsummer Eve.”

“On Tarberry Hill, Harting, Sussex, the fairies dance in the Pharisees’ rings on Midsummer Eve.” (Pharisee is an old Sussex name for fairy).

“Pluck a rose at midnight and wear it to church and your intended will take it out of your button-hole.” (Western Antiquity, vol. 3, 1884).

“It is said that if a young woman, blindfolded, plucks a full blown rose on Midsummer Day, while the chimes are playing twelve, folds the rose up in a sheet of white paper and does not take out the rose until Christmas Day, it will be found as fresh as when gathered. Then if she places it on her bosom, the young man to whom she is to be married will come and snatch it away.” (Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, Anna Eliza Stothard, 1879).

“Midsummer Eve night is the pretty maid’s night of night. If the moon is growing, it is the time of her life. She must go into the churchyard and wait for the clock to strike twelve. In her hand she must have rose leaves or some herb like rosemary. When the first strike of the bell sounds, she must start to run round the church, scattering the leaves and singing softly: “Rose leaves, rose leaves. rose leaves I strew; he that will love me come after me now.”

To divine her marriage prospects, a young woman picked some St John’s Wort on Midsummer night and if it was not as fresh as when she had picked it, then the forecast was a sad one.

An old custom was for a girl to plant two Livelong plants, also called Midsummer Man, together side by side on Midsummer Eve. One plant represented her and the other her lover and if his plant turned towards her then he would be faithful (Trans. Herts.Nat. Hist. Society, vol.4, 1887).

In some counties especially Cornwall, Devon and Sussex, a well known form of divination was to wash a night shirt and turn it inside out to dry on a chair near the fire. It was hoped that the future husband would enter the room and turn the night shirt back the right way.

Egg divination was another form of divination practiced in Devon, where an egg was broken into a glass mug at noon on Midsummer’s Day and signs were read of a future husband (Trans. Devon. Assoc, vol.9 Plymouth, 1877).

An unmarried woman who fasted on Midsummer Eve and at midnight laid a clean cloth with bread, cheese and ale and began to eat was supposed to see the figure of her future husband appear at the door she had left opened on purpose as the clock striked twelve (History of the Fylde of Lancashire, John Porter, 1876).

“Exactly at twelve on Midsummer Day, pour some fully molten pewter into a bowl of water. when it is cold, take it out and you will find emblems of your future husband.” (The Royal Fortune Teller).

“Make a new pin-cushion of the very best silk velvet, black (none other will do) and in one side stick your name in the smallest pins you can buy; on the other side, make a cross with some large pins and surround it with a circle. Put the cushion into your right stocking when you take it off at night and hang it at the foot of your bed. All your future life will pass before you in a dream.” (Nummits and Crummits, Sarah Hewett, 1900).

Painting by Edward Robert Hughes, Midsummer Eve, 1908

Old English May Day Traditions

Although summer doesn’t officially start until June, the first of May, really does mark its awakening. Much of the vibrant old European traditions associated with this day have largely disappeared, but ancestral folk memory dies hard and has managed to keep a tight grip on some of these ancient customs. Many of those who have celebrated the first of May over the past few centuries have had absolutely no idea of the true meaning behind these celebrations.

May Day celebrations have their origins in an ancient Roman festival dedicated to Flora, the goddess of flowers and fruit, which was held each year about this time. The festival itself dates back even further to a time of magic and myth, perhaps as far back as the Palaeolithic. Cave paintings show evidence of practices designed to encourage the fertility of the land as well as shamanistic rites that would ensure a successful hunt. The cult of Flora was brought to Britain by Belgic invaders towards the end of the first century B.C and in later times Christianity took this celebration over and adapted it to its own needs, but it has never completely lost its pagan roots.

For hundreds of years, especially during the Middle Ages, it was the custom to go ‘a-Maying’. Just after midnight, to the sounds of cow horns and drums, young men and women went to the woods where they collected tree branches and decorated them with flowers. They also re-enacted the blessed union of the god and the goddess so as to ensure the fertility of the land. Any children that were conceived during these ‘Green Marriages’ were known as ‘Merry Begots’ and were seen as a blessing. Today we celebrate May Day eleven days earlier than our ancestors did before our calendar was changed in 1752.

At sunrise, the young couples returned from the woods and began decorating cottage doors and windows with flowers and birch and larch branches, especially of those who were unable to go to the bonfire festivities. Inside the cottages, hawthorn branches were hung up to ward against witchcraft while nettles and alder branches were kept for the unpopular villagers who didn’t agree with these goings-on!

Some of the young men who didn’t go into the woods would go ‘May Birching’ instead. This tradition involved them placing mountain ash and hawthorn branches on the doors of girls they loved. Unfortunately, if you were a girl that a boy didn’t love, you might have woken up to find thorns on your doorstep instead.

Around sunrise, young women bathed their faces in the morning dew to ensure a beautiful complexion and others laid down cloths on the grass which they wrung out into bottles so as to be able to use them to cure ailments such as rheumatism, consumption and spinal weakness. Younger girls, not so worried about their looks, would make May garlands. They did this with two hoops, one at a right angle inside the other and decorated them with leaves and flowers. Sometimes they put a flower especially to represent the goddess of spring. In some parts of England it was customary for groups of children to carry May garlands around the village, singing, “Good morning, lords and ladies, it is the first of May. We hope you’ll view our garland, it is so very gay.” Afterwards they would hold out a collecting box.

During the rest of the day, there was dancing on the village green, archery contests and feats of strength among the men. Milk maids would also dance around garlands decorated with valuable items.

The highlight was of course the crowning of the ‘May Queen’, the human representation of the goddess Flora. It was traditional for this young girl to be regally sat on a bower decorated with flowers and to watch the festivities, but not take part. In Medieval times the young girl sometimes wore white muslin decorated with ribbons. With the arrival of Christianity the young girl was replaced by a statue of the Virgin Mary and the whole month of May was dedicated to her. So the wild and fertile was replaced by the pure and chaste.

The ‘Lord of the May’ (also known as the ‘May King’ or the ‘May Groom’) was once as important as the ‘May Queen’ and he would have had silk handkerchiefs tied round his legs and arms while carrying a sword. Summer itself was represented by a dancing man covered entirely with greenery. He was called ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ or ‘Jack-in-the-Bush’. In other parts of Europe he was known as ‘Green George’, the ‘Wild Man’, ‘Leaf Man’ or the ‘Green Man’. ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ can sometimes be seen in old church carvings, often with a face covered in leaves and twigs. This mysterious character was adopted by chimney sweeps whose annual holiday was on the first of May and he was a prominent figure in their processions. A single green figure covered in brightly coloured ribbons and tinsel among the black faced chimney sweeps.

One of the greatest symbols of May Day is undoubtedly the maypole which was a tall thin tree with all of its branches cut off. It was painted in different colours and was carried in processions with musicians playing before it. It was erected on the village green or in the market place where it was then decorated with garlands, ribbons and flowers and was the focal point of the festivities. There are no records of what kind of dances were performed around the maypole, but plaiting the maypole originates from southern Europe, where maypoles were shorter and the dances eventually became more and more ‘ladylike’.

The earliest recording in England of a maypole was in a charter granted by King John where it was called a ‘mepul’. Maypoles were made of pine, larch, elm, birch or ash and lasted for many years. They were only ever replaced if the wood at the bottom began to rot.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, a Puritan called Philip Stubbs wrote how the maypole (a stinking idol) was drawn by twenty or forty oxen with flowers tied to the tips of their horns. He described the maypole as being decorated with flowers and herbs bound with strings from top to bottom. It was followed in a procession by two to three hundred men, women and children. Once erected, the handkerchiefs and flags that were tied to the top would stream in the wind as everyone danced and leapt around it. Maypoles were increasingly seen as immoral by the Protestants and during the reign of Edward VI many were destroyed.

The most famous maypole to be destroyed was originally erected in London in the Strand in 1661 and stood there for more than fifty years. It was over 130 feet high and was so heavy that it took twelve sailors using pulleys and anchors and four hours to raise it. Many London parishes had a maypole and in 1552 the one outside St Andrew’s church was also taken down and chopped up after a local preacher declared that it was a pagan symbol and that the congregation were all idol worshippers.

The May Day festivities were always rounded off with the lighting of the hilltop fires that were once a sacrificial rite. Beltane, meaning bright fire or bel-fire was the Irish Gaelic celebration in honour of the god Bel or Belanus meaning ‘Bright One’. Bonfires were lit on top of hills and sheep and cattle were driven through them to prevent disease and to ensure fertility. Young men leapt over the fires to show their prowess and women jumped across in the hope of securing a husband or for the safe arrival of an unborn child. It was customary for newly wed couples to jump over the fire for luck and to conceive healthy children. For others, stepping over the dying embers symbolised safe travel or a new partner in their lives.

In Dorset England, the 180 foot Cerne Abbas Giant is believed to be a Celtic hill carving. Couples used to lay on his 8 foot penis in the belief that this would help them conceive a child. Some historians believe that this act was part of an ancient Celtic fertility rite because the sun directly aligns with the figure at this time of year.

Another fertility rite involved women riding brooms hobby horse style across the fields and leaping in the air was believed to encourage crops to grow tall and strong. Menstruating women would also dance naked in newly sown fields because, unbelievably, they knew that menstrual blood was beneficial to the soil.

Something that still survives today but barely is Morris dancing. The first of May was the starting date for the year when the Morris dancers would perform at fairs and festivals throughout the summer and Christmas time. There are many theories about the origins of this traditional dance; from a Moorish tradition to perhaps being brought to England from Spain, France or Belgium. Whatever the truth, we can safely say that it is a pagan dance, one that celebrated the rebirth of spring and ensured a successful harvest as well as the fertility of flocks and herds.

The dancers who were all men, stamped, kicked and clapped, enticing the crops out of the ground. And the bells that were attached to their costumes tinkled loudly to wake up the earth spirits. Some dances even required staves, swords or handkerchiefs.

At the beginning of the 16th century, a Robin Hood play came into being and got mixed up with Morris dancing. The main characters in the play were of course Robin Hood, a Christianised form of Robin Goodfellow god of witches and Maid Marian, who perhaps was associated with a moon goddess. During the play Robin dies and comes back to life again; encouraging the crops to grow and the summer to return. There is possibly a connection between Robin Hood and the Green Man.

Sword dances were also part of the May celebrations. Brought to England from Denmark they were later relics of an ancient tradition that replayed the battle between the old year and the new one. They were usually performed in the winter and involved a sacrifice that returns to life (an ancient belief of survival, sacrifice and rebirth). During the industrial revolution these forms of dance gradually faded away as more and more rural communities began to break up.

In Cornwall and other parts of the country there used to be a Hobby Horse Festival held on the first of May. The Hobby Horse was a strange figure of a man standing inside a hoop which was covered in cloth with a handcrafted horse’s head and tail. Accompanied by singers and musicians, the Hobby Horse would go from house to house with people wishing each other good luck and happiness. Galloping after young women the Hobby Horse would trap them under its material covered hoop for luck (luck meaning having plenty of healthy babies!). Does this descend from an ancient pagan fertility rite? The women’s faces at one time were also smeared with soot as part of the initiation.

The Furry Dance that took place in Helston Cornwall was a remnant of a Celtic spring festival that honoured the goddess of spring. It was once a festival that took place in May, but eventually became associated with St Michael. ‘Furry’ probably comes from the old Celtic word ‘fer’ which meant ‘fair’. This day was a holiday and anyone caught working was forced to pay a fine or had to jump across the widest part of the river. Early in the morning young people went off foraging for wild flowers and greenery including hawthorn. Throughout the day there were specific dances just for servants, children and the more wealthy of the town. A group of dancers would also dance and sing their way through people’s homes who left their front and back doors open. Having these dancers make their way through your home was believed to bring the luck of summer into the household.

Well dressing ceremonies were very common at this time of year with wells being decorated with flowers and other greenery. This practice goes back thousands of years to a time when people believed that wells were the dwelling places of spirits, nymphs or deities who all required offerings or sacrifices. They dipped torn pieces of cloth into the sacred waters and hung them onto nearby tree branches as healing prayers. They believed that when the cloth completely rotted away the illness would leave the person’s body. With the arrival of Christianity the pagan gods of these sacred wells were given saints names or were named after the Madonna and eventually baptisms began taking place here. Frames depicting biblical scenes and wooden figures covered in clay, moss, petals, leaves and berries were left by many people who would continue visiting them throughout the summer.

The belief in faeries was strong and it was thought that the faery folk were able to show us a glimpse into their world around this time. If the Queen of the Fae was to ride past someone on her pure white horse while they were sitting under a hawthorn tree, it was said that the person had to close their eyes and turn their head away so as not to be lured away for seven long years. It was also believed that faery children were often substituted for human children and were called ‘May Changelings’. To protect their homes from faeries on May Eve, people would place rowan branches around their doors and windows as well as over the entrance of the cow barn because it was believed that faeries would steal the milk and butter. Bannock cakes, honey, milk and left over food were often left outside for the faeries in the hope of winning their favour.

Many centuries previously, the Anglo Saxons called the month of May ‘Thrimilci’, which means the ‘three-milk month’. This would have been the very first time after an extremely long winter that cows could be milked three times a day. It was a grand occasion for our ancestors who could at last have themselves a full larder which signalled the end of having to ration food supplies.

The ancient Norse didn’t have a celebration equivalent to Beltane because summer arrives later in Scandinavia. However, they did have Maypole dancing and celebrations at Midsummer. The maypole was a much later edition to the Midsummer festivities arriving from Germany during the late Medieval period.

I have included the following European traditions because they are just too interesting to leave out. And lest we forget, many of our European traditions all stem from the same Indo-European roots.

In Romania, the first day of May is called Arminden. The Romanians decorate their homes and pillars with spring garlands and many women and children still practice the tradition of wearing spring amulets called ‘Martisoare’. They believe that their wishes will come true if they tie them to a blossoming tree. A special bread is also baked and decorated with poppy seeds and leaves. The Romanian version of the maypole is the Armenden Tree which is considered to be a sacred symbol made from birch, beech or hornbeam. It is customary to cut down one of these trees on May Eve and tie it to a gate post.

In Germany, the month of May was known as ‘Wonnemond’ meaning the ‘month of lovers’. The ‘Maibaum’ or the ‘May Tree’ was a symbol of marriage and was decorated with streamers and ribbons and was placed in front of the bride’s house. Unmarried men would also perform dances in the hope of attracting a future wife.

In many parts of Bavaria a maypole was put up in the middle of the village and it was customary to steal the maypole of the neighbouring village whilst protecting your own village’s maypole. If a maypole was successfully stolen it was held for ransom in exchange for two barrels of beer. Another Bavarian tradition was ‘maypole climbing’ (Maibaumkraxeln) where men tried to see who could climb up the smooth trunk the fastest. It was necessary for them to put tree sap or pitch on their hands to get a good grip. A prize of pretzels and sausages awaited the winner at the top of the maypole and hopefully a group of awestruck young girls at the bottom. These maypoles were extremely high; about 46 metres!

It is so heart warming to see these traditions being revived in Europe and our ancestral roots growing strong and deep once more.

Now the bright morning star, day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flow’ry May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.
Hail, bounteous May! thou dost inspire
Mirth and youth and fond desire;
Woods and groves are of thy dressing,
Hill and dale doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early song,
And welcome thee and wish thee long.
Traditions, Superstitions And Folk-lore, Charles Hardwick, 1872
A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978
British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936
A Year Of Festivals, Geoffrey Palmer, 1972
The Painting is called The Procession of the May Queen by Herbert Wilson Foster (1846-1929).