I first saw a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on an outdoor stage with the stars—easily imagined as sixteenth-century stars—shining on the audience and performers, and the breeze inviting all of us to become a part of the magic of Midsummer’s Eve. The fairy Titania urges us to
Hop in his walks and gambol in his eyes,
Feed him with apricocks and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries;
The honey bags steal from the humble-bees,
And, for night-tapers, crop their waxen thighs,
And light them at the fiery glow-worm’s eyes.
With that vision of a summer night and a mischievous fairy, Titania draws us into her world, in which forest inhabitants let the trees, plants, and the power of magic take over their senses and control their actions. How wonderful it would be to be a fairy, I thought, even if for one night. Thoughts began to circle in my mind of ancient people and their celebrations of Midsummer’s Eve.
The summer solstice is the longest day of the year. The ancients, knowing that the days would become shorter from then on, feared that the light might continually decrease until it was gone completely, and so on the eve of the longest day, they built huge bonfires to warm the heavens and hold the heat in the sun.
When Christianity swept Europe, midsummer celebrations in many countries were timed to correspond with the feast day of St. John the Baptist, June 24. Midsummer’s Eve became the Eve of St. John. The bonfires around which villagers gathered to sing, dance, and pray became known as St. John’s Fires. Early Christians adopted as a symbol the herb St.-John’s-wort, which is native to Europe and is in bloom at the time of the Eve of St. John. Chaplets—wreaths worn on the head—of St.-John’s-wort and other herbs such as vervain and motherwort were made for the midsummer ceremonies. An anonymous poet wrote:
Then doth the joyful feast of John
The Baptist take his turne,
When bonfires great, with lofty flame,
In everie towne doth burne;
And young men round about with mades
Do dance in everie street
With garlands wrought of Motherwort
Or else with Vervaine sweet.
So many rituals were associated with the Eve of St. John that the night couldn’t have been long enough for the ancient people to have completed all their magical escapades and symbolic ceremonies. Many of the magic rituals had to do with finding a husband or lover. In Italy, a young girl would gather buds of houseleek on Midsummer’s Eve and name a bud for each suitor; in the morning, the most fully opened bud bore the name of her future husband. When a girl set an orpine (sedum) plant in her window on Midsummer’s Eve, she would be able to tell from which direction her future husband would come by the way the stalk had turned by morning. In Denmark, two sprigs of St.-John’s-wort were placed between rafters of a house; if they grew together, a wedding would take place.
Some happenings on the Eve of St. John were meant to ward off evil spirits and witches, while others were thought to give a person magical powers. Ferns were believed to bloom only at midnight on Midsummer’s Eve; they produced invisible seeds that witches used to render themselves invisible for carrying out their antics. If an ordinary person took twelve pewter plates into the woods, legend says, the fern seed would fall through the first eleven and drop on the twelfth, and if the person were naked except for his shirt, the magic seed could make him invisible as it did the witches.
In some cultures, people held bunches of larkspur up to the bonfire flames and looked through them, which was supposed to give them good eyesight for the rest of the year. When the fires began to subside, herbs and flowers were thrown on the embers while participants chanted, “May ill luck depart, burnt up with these.”
Ceremonies varied, but the Fires of St. John were common to all the countries of Western Europe. In Sweden, the fires filled the air with flying witches on their way to see the Great Witch in the mountains. On this night, the spirits came forth to dance until the flames drove them back into hiding for another year. Midsummer’s Eve is still celebrated in Sweden, where the summer solstice coincides with the presence of the midnight sun; the festivities draw thousands of participants, who are entertained with maypoles, dancing, traditional meals, and tales of supernatural happenings.
Planning a magical evening
This year, the summer solstice occurs on June 20 at 10:24 p.m., eastern daylight time. A modern Midsummer’s Eve celebration, which might with justification be held on any evening between June 20 and 24, can include the same element of magic that the ancient night held. Whether you plan a quiet celebration for two or a party of thirty friends, make it a nighttime gathering in your garden and use the symbols and traditions of the long-ago events of the Eve of St. John. Let me offer a few simple suggestions on how to give the occasion the hint of mysticism that it deserves.
Include a sprig of thyme with each invitation along with this quote from Vernon Quinn’s “Leaves”: “Young faries perched in Rosemary Branches, / while their elders danced in the Thyme.” Indicate that it will be an evening filled with magic and mystery, when seeing fairies dancing in the thyme just might be possible.
If a bonfire is not practical, a smaller outdoor fire, even in a barbecue pit, can stand in for the symbolic fires of old. Keep any artificial light to a minimum. Remember Titania’s advice: “. . . For night-tapers, crop [the bees’] waxen thighs, / And light them at the fiery glow-worm’s eyes.” So bring out all your candles or set torches in the ground in safe spots around the garden.
If you grow St.-John’s-wort or can find some along roadsides or in fields, gather the stalks to make chaplets for your guests to wear. Arrange the yellow flowers in vases or scatter them on a table set up in the garden to hold food and beverages. The food may be simple or elaborate, depending on the type of celebration you choose, but plan the menu around some key herbs that were traditionally used and have special meanings on Midsummer’s Eve.
Some say that the word “borage” comes from the Latin words cor, “heart”, and ago, “I bring”, and the herb is said to cheer up the sad. It was thought in some cultures to be an aphrodisiac, which would be appropriate on Midsummer’s Eve. Try borage in a wine punch, or use crystallized borage flowers for decoration. Because thyme reputedly allows one to see fairies on Midsummer’s Eve, use it liberally in the food you serve or steep it for a tea. Rosemary is commonly known as the herb of memory, but it was also used to bring good luck and prevent witchcraft. Sweet basil, according to the English herbalist Gerard, “taketh away sorrowfulness and maketh a man merry and glad.”
For a final touch to your celebration, provide some background music. The occasion calls for something quiet and timeless—classical guitar, Celtic harp, or flute music perhaps—to encourage guests to dance around the fire and talk to the spirits. Give guests pouches of potpourri so that as the evening winds down, they can follow the ancient custom of throwing herbs onto the dying fire while chanting, “May ill luck depart, burnt up with these.” All of you should be safe from evil spirits for another year.
For many years, Caroline Glass has held Midsummer’s Eve celebrations in her garden in Philomath, Oregon.