“Whatever is dreamed on this night, will come to pass.” —
William Shakespeare, A MidSummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare wrote of the enchantments of summer solstice. Each year, on a day between June 20-June 24, we have solstice — the longest day of the year. This day has been celebrated throughout history as a day of magic. Many countries in the northern hemisphere receive 24 hours of daylight. Let’s look into the mystery of this celebration and see how Midsummer was experienced in Tudor England.
The word solstice derives from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). This reflects what our ancestors knew about the sun and its travels across the sky. The summer solstice was used to establish noon and to mark the middle of the year. When people watched the movement of the sun across the sky, they were seeking knowledge about time. This knowledge also helped predict when to plant and harvest. To watch the sun’s movements, they watched the horizon and noted where the sun would appear at a given time each day. According to the English Heritage website, “The Stonehenge we see today is aligned on the midwinter setting sun and the midsummer sunrise.” The summer solstice has the most hours of daylight but it is the one day of the year when the sun is at its highest point in the sky.
Midsummer marked the accomplishments of the year. The earth was pregnant with her soon to be delivered harvest and the sun was in his glory, in the height of his power. Midsummer was the day the wheel of the year turned onward toward harvest then Yule, the shortest day.
The summer solstice was one of the pagan festivals taken over by the early Christian church, which aligned it with the feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24th. By the sixteenth century, Midsummer Day had an interesting mixture of Christian and Pagan meaning.
“Tudor festivals played a major role in 16th-century life,” says Rachel Costigan, Visitor Experience Officer at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire, England. “They gave our Tudor ancestors something to look forward to in their everyday life. Midsummer was a mix of celebrations which took place between St John’s Night and the Feast of St Peter and St Paul. It also marks the Summer Solstice, and was considered by Tudor people to mark the middle of summer, which started on May Day and finished with the first harvest or ‘Lammas’ at the beginning of August.”
SUN AND FIRE
Fire was the theme of Midsummer celebrations as it symbolized the sun. There was an impulse to make merry in the sunlight at Midsummer, before the year waned into autumn. People made bonfires using the charred logs from the previous year. Often bones were tossed in for good fortune. (The term for bonfire derives from late Middle English: bone + fire; fire with bones for fuel.) The fires were thought to lure the sun to stay longer in the sky. People danced and leapt between the flames while feasting.
This was a time of merry making, of settling differences between neighbors, and giving to the poor. In the country, bonfires were particularly valued to protect crops and livestock. Fires were lit on the windward side of crops and animals, so the smoke would blow over them. In some places, people even drove animals through the embers of the fires. This practice was possibly used as a protection against disease. Causes of diseases in animals and plants were not understood then. They believed that any contagion was airborne, hence the fire was a cleansing agent against disease. Giants and hobby horses went through the streets on ‘Marching Watches’. (The origins of the hobby horse originated in the medieval era when they were used for jousting practice. By the Tudor era, it was believed they brought good luck to festivals.)
Of all the Tudor midsummer activities, the most expensive activities were the Marching Watches, which were parades accompanied by lit torches. These events sound sensational. In London one is recorded as including four thousand marchers. There were Morris dancers, giant straw puppets and hobby horses, and pageants. Even though this was considered a religious festival, you understand how the celebrations retained hints of their Pagan past. Often festivals had mythological or historical themes. In 1521, the Lord Mayor’s Guild in London put on five pageants: The Castle of War, The Story of Jesse, St. John the Evangelist, St. George, and Pluto. They were all carried on platforms and the Pluto pageant included a serpent that spat fireballs. There was also a model giant called Lord Marlinspikes, Morris dancers and naked boys dyed black to represent devils. Dragons and firework displays were popular additions to the marches. In 1541, the Drapers’ Guild procession including a dragon that burned aqua vitae. (Aqua vitae is Latin, defined literally as “water of life.” It was a term for unrefined alcohol. In England in the 1540s, the term was used for brandy and whiskey.)
Fire and the sun are the main themes for Midsummer, in whatever form they derived. The Fire Wheel is an ancient British ceremony. The wheel is based on four equal parts which represent the four seasons. The wheel was set on fire and rolled down a hillside. This is another ritual with obvious pagan roots, with the wheel representing the sun as it passed through each season. If the fire burned until the wheel reached the bottom of the hill, it was thought to bring good fortune to the entire community.
FLOWERS AND SYMBOLISM
As the sun was represented by fires, so flowers represented the earth in the festivities. It was traditional to decorate one’s home — especially the main entry door — with garlands or wreaths. The colors of the flowers used were red, yellow, orange, all colors identified with the sun, and green for fertility. The circular shape of the wreaths suggested both the sun and the cyclical nature of the seasons, again harking back to old Pagan beliefs. John Stow, a seventeenth century writer, remembered green birch being hung on all the local signposts. He wrote:
“Every man’s door being shadowed with green birch, long fennel, St John’s Wort, Orpin, white lilies and such like, garnished upon with garlands of beautiful flowers.”
These plants had powers which were thought to be associated with their religious symbolism. Birch symbolized protection, exorcism, and purification. Fennel was a healing and protective herb. Another protective plant was trefoil. Its three-part leaves suggested the Holy Trinity. The white lilies Stow mention derived their power from their association with the Virgin Mary — they are still called Madonna lilies.
The yellow flowers of St. John’s Wort were seen as an emblem of the sun, and thought to have magical powers. In Tudor England, this plant was connected with St. John because its leaves were flecked red and symbolized the blood of the martyred saint. It is the association with St. John which made this herb so important at Midsummer. Wreaths of St. John’s Wort were placed on the horns of cattle, and even their sheds were decorated with it. All wreaths were left outdoors and allowed to ‘die’ with the sun. Fern spores collected at Midsummer gave miraculous knowledge and power, and it was believed that these could even make you invisible. All herbs were particularly potent under the midsummer sun, so it was the most powerful time of the year for making potions and medicines.
Witches and the fairy folk were considered to be overly active at Midsummer. This is why Midsummer celebrations began at sunset the evening prior to Midsummer. In folklore, the hours between dusk and dawn are said to be closer to the underworld and a time when fairy activity is at its peak. This time was believed to be the time when witches harvested their magical plants. This magical influence is referenced in Tudor stories and immortalized by William Shakespeare in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”.
Perhaps the figure most depicted as a traditional fairy is the character of Puck, “the oldest of the Old Things” due to his depiction in folklore. Pouk, or Puca, was the term used on the British Isles for the Pagan Sun deity also known as the Stag King or the Horned God. In other cultures, this archetype was represented by deities such as Bacchus, Pan, and Hermes. The Puca was a respected yet vengeful fairy creature. Puca evolved into a medieval term for the Devil. Yet, Puca also had a mischievous side in English folklore and was known as Robin Goodfellow. An expression for being lost is “Robin Goodfellow has been with you tonight.” Reference to this quote are recorded in Tudor manuscripts as early as 1531.
As history and literature records, Shakespeare gave Puck some great PR and an image makeover in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”. He became the mischievous sprite who causes mayhem with a few droplets of a magical flower. (Note: Shakespeare introduces Puck in Act 2, Scene 1 as Robin. This is a reference to the mischievous prankster, Robin Goodfellow.)
Midsummer Eve was seen as the most advantageous time of the year for enchantments, since the sun and plants were at the height of their powers. Enchantments to reveal who your new lover would be were wildly popular. Lovers looked for ways to spend this magical night in each other’s arms.
Divinations for love, prosperity and health were practiced throughout the island. However, for some people, the importance of midsummer festivities wasn’t about magic, it was about community. Tudor England also viewed Midsummer as a chance for Christian charity, for merry making, and for neighbors to make amends. It was a holiday celebrated much as we celebrate today on New Year’s Eve. It was a time for the fulfillment of wishes and desires, and the beginning of new dreams.
Midsummer was an expensive holiday. The feasting and drinking lead authorities to fear civil unrest. In 1539, Henry VIII banned the Midsummer Watch in London due to the exorbitant cost and drunken crowds. This action outraged his subjects. The Midsummer celebrations were reinstated in 1548, and we can imagine from “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” that by the reign of Elizabeth I a good time was had by all at the Midsummer celebrations.
Then as now, may your dreams come true this Solstice night.
Alison Sim, Pleasures and Pastimes In Tudor England
Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain
Margaret Baker, Folklore and Customs of Rural England
All photographs courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.