A Midsummer’s Eve Celebration

| June/July 1996


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:

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