6 Fiery Festivals and Ancient Midsummer Traditions

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Midsummer has long been a time when myth and reality converge, when deities dance in woodlands and fiery festivities mark the advent of Midsummer’s Day.  Primarily a European tradition, different countries have their own unique and often colourful take on this festival.

Images by: Edward Robert Hughes (left); Robert Calef (top right); Edwin Austin Abbey (right lower); Andrew Dunn (bottom)

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While the Summer Solstice falls on June 21st, celebrations often occur on Midsummer’s Day (June 24th) – the solstice during Roman times and considered the middle of summertime.  Midsummer’s Eve (June 23) has long been connected to magical beings such as fairies (popularised in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), while stone circles are said to come alive with ancient folk who melt away into the dawn of Midsummer’s Day.  Originally a pagan holiday, Christianity labelled June 24th as the feast of John the Baptist.  The resulting celebrations are often an odd cocktail of Christianity and paganism, dedicated to John through the use of very pre-Christian rites and imagery.

Jāņi, Latvia

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When it comes to Midsummer the Latvians sure know how to party!  Known as Jāņi (meaning John), the festival is celebrated on a large scale by almost everyone in Latvia and people of Latvian origin abroad.  People eat, drink and get merry via traditional Jāņu cheese, guzzling beer and singing traditional folk songs.  Latvians also keep a bonfire burning all night and jump over it, wearing wreaths of flowers (women) and leaves (men) – fire and beer… a good combination?  Even cars make an effort, adorned with oak branches and leaves during Jāņi.

Noc Świętojańska, Poland

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Midsummer in Poland tends to be celebrated on Midsummer’s Eve (June 23).  Known as Noc Świętojańska (St John’s Night), festivities begin around 8pm and locals dance ’til dawn.  Polka dress is the traditional garb with flower wreaths thrown into the Baltic Sea, lakes and rivers.  Organised events abound in big Polish cities, with Wianki (meaning wreaths) a traditional favourite in Kraków (above).

juhannus, Finland

Images by Pekka Vainio

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Midsummer was called Ukon juhla, after the Finnish god Ukko, before 1316.  Bonfires burned side by side, the biggest known as the “bonfire of Ukko”.  When Christianity came, Midsummer was renamed juhannus after John the Baptist.  The holiday has been held on a Saturday since 1955, and many workplaces are required to close at noon.  Bonfires commonly burn at lakesides, while two young birch trees (koivu) sit at the sides of front doors to welcome visitors.  Swedish-speaking Finns often celebrate by erecting a midsummer or maypole.  The midnight sun is also an important feature of Midsummer. Finland’s location at the Arctic Circle means nights close to Midsummer Day’s are short or non-existent, contrasting with the darkness of winter.

Chester Midsummer Watch Festival, England

Left image from Book of Days by Robert Chamber; right by Stan160

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Midsummer’s Eve in Britain has commonly been a time of fairies and other outlandish beings, which never sat well with the Christian elite.  But other midsummer festivities – even those based on biblical events, such as the Chester Mystery Plays – were unpopular with the Reformed establishment due to their roots in Catholicism, and were duly banned.  The Chester Midsummer Watch Parade, beginning in 1498, were held every Summer Solstice when the mystery plays were not performed.  Key characters in the parade included giants and unicorns, which was banned with costumes destroyed by 1675.  Today though, the plays are back, and have enjoyed a healthy rejuvenation.

Golowan, Cornwall, England

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Traditional Midsummer bonfires are still burn on high hills in Cornwall, such as Carn Brea and Castle an Dinas, St. Columb Major. The Old Cornwall Society revived the tradition in the early 20th century. Bonfires in Cornwall were once common as part of Golowan, now celebrated at Penzance. The week long festival normally starts on the Friday nearest St John’s Day, and culminates in Mazey Day – a revival of the Feast of St John (Gol-Jowan) with fireworks and bonfires.

Midsummer Carnivals, Ireland

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Many towns and cities in Ireland have Midsummer Carnivals with fairs, concerts and fireworks.  Festivities are usually held on Midsummer’s Day or the nearest weekend – a good idea considering that Irish propensity to make merry!  In rural places, bonfires are occasionally lit on hilltops, similar to Cornwall.  This tradition has its roots in pagan times, with traditional offerings traditionally made in County Limerick to deities connected to Midsummer, like Áine.

Ivan’s Day, Russia and Ukraine

Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki

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The Russian Midsummer Night is known as Ivan’s Day (Ivan Kupala being the old Russian name for John the Baptist), and is one of the most flamboyant folk holidays in Russia and Ukraine.  It is a pagan fertility rite that has been accepted into the Orthodox Christian calendar.  Midsummer rites are often connected to water, with girls floating flower garlands in rivers and telling their fortunes from their movement.  Skinny dipping is common, as is jumping over bonfires.  Some practises once driven out by the Russian Empire, Russian Orthodox Church and latterly the Communist Party have since been encouraged.


About the author: Tom


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