Here we are again at the eve of Midsummer, the Summer Solstice or Litha (also called Alban Hefin, Sun Blessing, Gathering Day, or St. John's Day in various cultures). Tomorrow is the longest day of the year, the Sun at its zenith or highest point in the northern hemisphere and seeming to stand still for a brief interval before starting down the long slippery slope toward autumn, and beyond to winter.
The word for this week has to be solstice of course, and that word has been around since the thirteenth century at the very least, coming down to us from Middle English and Old French, thence the Latin sōlstitium, a combination of sōl (sun) and -stit/stat - both stit and stat are variant stems of the verb sistere, meaning to make something stand still.Thus, solstice means simply "sun standing still". Of course, it is our little blue planet that is in motion, and not the burning star at the center of our universe. The idea that the sun is in motion is a holdover from the ancient geocentric model (or Ptolemaic system), which held that Earth was the center of all things, and everything else in the cosmos was revolving around it.
Whither has the year flown? It feels as though summer has just arrived, but it's all downhill from here, at least for six months or so. After today, sunlight hours will wane until Yule (or the Winter Solstice) around December 21 when they begin to stretch out again. Longer nights go along on the cosmic ride during the latter half of the year, and that's something to celebrate. The Old Wild Mother strews starry moonrises by generous handfuls as the year wanes, spectacular star spangled tapestries of night growing longer with the passage of every twenty-four hour interval.
How does one go about marking this sunlit moment between the lighter and darker halves of the year? My notion of midsummer night skies as a vast cauldron of twinkling stars is appropriate, and it's magical too. The eight festive spokes on the old Wheel of the Year are all associated with fire, but the summer solstice more than any other observance. Centuries ago, all Europe was alight on Midsummer eve, and ritual bonfires climbed high into the night from every village green. The flowers of this day were all about light too - the elders always included the yellow flowers of St. John's Wort in the festive circlets they wore on the eve of Midsummer (Litha).
According to Marian Green, midsummer festivities included morris dancing and ballads, games and storytelling, feasting and pageantry, torch lit processions after dark. Prosperity and abundance could be ensured by jumping over Midsummer fires, and those who could leap probably did so. Charred embers from the communal fire were charms against injury and bad weather at harvest time - they were placed on the perimeters of orchards and fields to protect crops and ensure good harvests. Embers from the same fire were put on family hearths for protection and doorways were decorated with swags and wreaths of birch, fennel, St. John's Wort and white lilies.
My own midsummer observance is simple and pretty much the same as any other morning of the year, a little more thoughtful perhaps. I make it a point to be outside or near a window with a mug of Jerusalem Artichoke tea (or Earth Apple as it is called here) to watch the sun rise. There's a lighted candle on the old oak table and a burning wand of Shiseido incense (Plum Blossom) in a pottery bowl nearby. The afternoon holds a few hours of pottering about in flea markets with family and friends and a quiet meal with loved ones as the sun goes down and night falls.
Happy Midsummer! May the sun light up your day from sunrise to sunset and your night be filled with stars from here to there. May all good things come to you.