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