Over the course of time and span of distance, different cultures and religious traditions have had different names for the summer solstice. In Northern Europe, it’s often referred to as Midsummer. Wiccans and other Neopagan groups call it Litha, while some Christian churches recognize the summer solstice as St. John’s Day to commemorate the birth of John the Baptist.
This Midsummer Festival was both celebrated and influenced by all of these different cultures of the ancient world which helped to shape our modern celebration of the Litha, one of the 8 Sabbats on the Wiccan calendar.
The most common question about the midsummer festival of Litha is’ why is it called ‘mid’ summer when it is taking place at the beginning of summer?
The Northern Hemisphere receives more daylight than any other day of the year on the summer solstice. This day marks the start of astronomical summer and the tipping point at which days start to become shorter and nights longer.
Although to us, it seems like the summer is just getting into swing, but crops are growing and a good harvest is anticipated. The Solstice is the longest day, and the shortest night of the year, so astronomically speaking that makes it midsummer. In the Northern Hemisphere this takes place between June 21 and 24 and varying with the year.
The word “solstice” comes from the Latin words “sol” (sun) and “stitium” (still or stopped). The ancients noticed that as summer progressed, the sun stopped moving northward in the sky, then begin tracking southward again as summer turned to autumn.
Continue reading below to see how the different cultures of the ancient world celebrated this magical time of the year.
Traditionally, Midsummer was a pagan celebration of fertility and of light defeating darkness. That is still the backbone of Scandinavian Midsummer, and is evident in the method of celebration, including bonfires, feasts, and dancing! Activities still enjoyed by modern pagans as they continue to celebrate this magical time of the year.
Midsummer in Scandinavia is a time to celebrate light, warm, and connect to nature. It is the festival for the summer solstice. Midsummer is, by far, the largest annual non-religious celebration to take place across Scandinavia (Christmas and Easter being the largest religious celebrations, even if they are fairly secular in the Nordics).
Scandinavians celebrate Midsummer in a variety of ways, but most celebrations include a bonfire and are outdoors. Midsummer is the longest day of the year, so Scandinavians are celebrating the long days of natural light, as well as the turning of the season; after Midsummer, the days become shorter.
There’s something special about Midsummer celebrations in Scandinavia; the bright light long into the night, the blue skies, the flowers, the food, and the joy. It takes you back to the Viking age with its elemental celebration of light and nature.
Traditionally, Midsummer was a pagan celebration of fertility and of light defeating darkness. That is still the backbone of Scandinavian Midsummer, and is evident in the method of celebration, including bonfires, feasts, and dancing.
One popular form of divination used in Northern Europe at midsummer is where young girls float garlands of flowers containing their wishes, either whispered to the flowers themselves or written on paper, on the surface of a river or lake. Depending on how the garland moves or whether it sinks was said to predict the outcome of the request.
Some versions of this custom say you are not meant to look at the garland or even go back to the offering as you are handing your wishes to the gods, goddesses and spirits to determine.
In the 8th century, the writer, Bede, included a list of old Anglo-Saxon names for the pagan festivals and months, including the name Litha for midsummer. Today, some pagans and witches use this name to refer to the summer solstice as part of the wheel of the year.
As far as traditional folklore is concerned, observing the time of midsummer and the solstice draws attention to the cyclical nature of life and time. The fairy lore and spiritual aspects allow people to see beyond these earthly bonds and into the realm of eternity and timelessness.
Of course, there was also a connected magical element to the fires lit on midsummer as they banished bad luck and evil spirits. This is a time when a person might also inadvertently cause offence to the good people of the other realm, the fairies and sprites, without even realizing it. The wearing of flowers in a persons hair and hanging garlands upon doorways was a way to thwart bad luck in this respect.
Noun, \ ˈfer-ē\ (also fay, fae, fey, fair folk, or faerie) is a type of mythical being or legendary creature found in the folklore of multiple European cultures (including Celtic, Slavic, Germanic, English, and French folklore), a form of spirit, often described as metaphysical, supernatural, or preternatural. also spelled faerie or faery, a mythical being of folklore and romance usually having magic powers and dwelling on earth in close relationship with humans. It can appear as a dwarf creature typically having green clothes and hair, living underground or in stone heaps, and characteristically exercising magic powers to benevolent ends; as a diminutive sprite commonly in the shape of a delicate, beautiful, ageless winged woman dressed in diaphanous white clothing, inhabiting fairyland, but making usually well-intentioned intervention in personal human affairs; or as a tiny, mischievous, and protective creature generally associated with a household hearth.
“Midsummer is seen as the start of summer and with it begins the rule of the Oak King, His power having been won in an endless cycle of battle with the Holly King.
The Oak King and The Holly King were the representation and personification of the seasons of summer and winter in several ancient traditions. The endless battle these kings were engaged in is the representation of struggles faced by our ancestors in the and the yearly cycles between the seasons.
The Oak King represented the time of growth light and fertility, while the Holly King was the representation of death, darkness, and hibernation. During Midsummer the Oak King’s strength was at it’s fullest. As the Autumn equinox approaches, the Holly King begins to regain his strength which then peaks at the Midwinter solstice (Yule) where he defeats the Oak king and regains his full power.
The Oak king’s strength will begin returning to him on the Spring equinox, known as Ostara.
At some point, Christian church authorities assigned June 24 as the birthday of St. John the Baptist, who foretold the birth of Christ (which would occur 6 months later in the calendar, during the darkest days) and later baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. Celebrations with bonfires, bathing in water, and watching the sunrise were traditional. In this way, the period took on both secular and religious symbolism, giving everyone reasons to celebrate.
Farmers Almanac, https://www.almanac.com/content/midsummer-day
Scandinavian Standard, https://www.scandinaviastandard.com/what-are-all-of-the-scandinavian-midsummer-traditions/.
Secret Ireland https://secretireland.ie/summer-solstice-and-midsummer-folklore/