Monthly Archives: June 2017

Old Midsummer

The summer solstice has passed, that longest day, shortest night. And just as at the opposite side of the year the winter solstice is followed quickly by Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so now come St. John’s Eve and St. John’s Day. These are the celebrations known as Midsummer. We don’t pay much attention to them here in the States, but there’s a lot we don’t pay attention to, and we are the poorer for it. In other places, though––Italy, for instance, and Scandinavia especially––these are high celebratory days. St. John’s Eve, on the evening of June 23rd, welcomes in St. John’s Day on June 24th. With the understanding that there is probably little community celebration you will find if you live in the United States (unless, like me, you live near transplanted Arctic peoples like Swedes and Finns), here are some suggestions on how to honor these days with simple yet reverent ceremony.

  1. Blow the dust off a copy of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and read it. Read it aloud with family and friends or read it to yourself. Tonight, St. John’s Eve, is the very night in which this magical comedy is set, steeped in Midsummer lore and traditions.
  2. Watch the film. There have been numerous film versions, but my favorite is the 1999 Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Michael Hoffman. It features Rupert Everett as Oberon and Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania with Stanley Tucci as Puck. Seth and I watch this one most every year around Midsummer. Oh, but if perchance the play is being performed near you… go see it. That’s an even better option.
  3. Listen to Felix Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  4. Tonight, build a little fire in your back yard and sit and enjoy it. Or light a candle. Our ancestors loved to build beseeching bonfires for nights like this; there is something undeniably magical about it.
  5. If you’re a local, here’s a wonderful thing to do Saturday night for St. John’s Day: attend the Midnight Sun Festival at Kerhotalo: the American Finnish Club. Seth and I plan to be there. Festivities begin at 7 PM and the bonfire is lit around 9. There will be food available and there will be music, and it’s $5 to get in, from what I can tell. (Most all the literature from the American Finnish Club is in Finnish with just a smattering of English, so I always have to make assumptions about the salient points.) It’s usually not a big crowd, but it is a welcoming one, even if you don’t speak the language. The American Finnish Club is west of Lake Worth at 908 Lehto Lane, Lake Worth, Florida 33461. From Lake Worth, head west on 6th Avenue South, which becomes Melaleuca Lane once you’re outside the city limits. Not much past Kirk Road, you’ll see Lehto Lane on your right. If you get to Military Trail, you’ve gone too far west.

I hope these things help you to have a wonderful evening. Oh but here’s one more: just get outside. Take a nighttime ramble. Enjoy the evening. Perhaps you’ll find flowers that bloom only at night, spicing the air. Or maybe you’ll see fireflies or above, stars and satellites. Or maybe just fall asleep, and dream. Happy Midsummer.

 

Image: “Midsommardans” (which translates from the Swedish to “Midsummer Dance”) by Anders Zorn. Oil on canvas, 1897 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. Note the Midsummer Maypole with the circles in the upper right corner.

 

Solstice

In the Northern Hemisphere, just past midnight tonight, arrives the summer solstice. The precise moment is 12:24 AM here in the Eastern Daylight Time Zone, but if you’ve been reading the Convivio Book of Days for any length of time, I think you know how I feel about precision. I am more of a roundabout kind of guy. Be that as it may, come 12:24 AM here in Lake Worth, it will, officially by the almanac, be summer.

Though I may not care much for precise moments in time, still it is important to have precision in our lives, and so here comes yet another apology from your humble Book of Days author, for I have been leading you astray for years now in yet another matter, a scientific one. This time it turns out I’ve been absolutely wrong about the celestial mechanics of our great planet. I have always pictured the planet rocking back and forth as it orbits the sun, like a great pendulum, thereby creating our seasons. I was so wrong. Here’s what I’ve learnt, only since the last solstice in December: our great planet remains fixed as it spins, always tilted at 23.5 degrees, and it is this constant tilt of the planet that creates the seasons. We travel around the sun; a journey that lasts for one year. For half the year the Northern Hemisphere receives more sunlight thanks to this tilt. And for the other half of the year, the Southern Hemisphere receives more sunlight. So, thanks to this 23.5 degree tilt, we in the Northern Hemisphere receive more sunlight from the vernal equinox in March through the autumnal equinox in September.

It’s all about geometry, which is probably why it’s taken me so many years to grasp this basic understanding. I checked out from math somewhere along the time that geometry was introduced to my studies. My loss, I know, but apparently yours, too, if you’ve been reading all these years and believing what I’ve been telling you.

But now that we are all in the know and have a different (ahem, accurate) depiction of our planet’s celestial mechanics, let us focus on the social customs of the summer solstice, this longest day. The solstice marks the furthest north the sun will appear in the sky. The sun will appear to stand still there at its northern zenith, and that’s the origin of the word solstice, from the Latin sol stetit, “sun stands still.” The days have been lengthening since the winter solstice in December, but now once again daylight begins to wane. Each day after the solstice there will be a few seconds less sunlight than the day before, and so it will go until the winter solstice comes once more next December. Each day slightly different than the one before and the one to follow: the constant rearrange. Even for those of us who do not like change, the understanding that change is forever happening.

It is the start of summer by the almanac, but by traditional reckoning of time, summer began at the start of May with the arrival of May Day. This older approach to time places the solstices and the equinoxes at the middle of each season, which is a considerably more logical approach. At least I think so. Looking at things as our ancestors did, it begins to seem odd to mark the start of summer with this last of the lengthening days, and the start of winter with the last of the lengthening nights. These days are, more naturally, midpoints of the seasons.

And so our ancestors thought of this time as Midsummer, with Midwinter at the winter solstice. Pagan festivals grew up around these celestial events and eventually, with the spread of Christianity, so did Church festivals. To Midwinter the Church attached the birth of Christ; to Midsummer, the birth of John the Baptist. And while we don’t celebrate these holidays precisely on the solstice, they are both solidly connected to the celestial events and the times of sol stetit with both Christmas and St. John’s Day just a few days after their respective solstice, the sun appearing to stand still at both.

Across cultures, these transitional times were long considered magical. Witches and fairies and sprites were more active, animals gained powers of speech. Our friend William Shakespeare was well attuned to this lore: his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I have long loved, is set on St. John’s Eve. In the play, the realm of the fairies and the realm of the mortals blend as one, at least for a night or two. This is the magic that can attend these days, as the balance of light and dark on our planet begins to shift again. Summer is here, but it’s been here a while already. Magic is here, too, revealed to us if we are open. I love this, and these are some of my favorite days each year, even though they are not much celebrated. I think that’s too bad. I hope you’ll come back and read more about them here at the blog come St. John’s Eve on the 23rd: Old Midsummer Eve. For now, though: Solstice Greetings.

 

Image: Voyager Golden Record. It’s the gold aluminum cover designed to protect the Voyager 1 and 2 “Sounds of Earth” gold-plated records from micrometeorite bombardment. The cover also serves a double purpose in providing the finder a key to playing the record. The explanatory diagram appears on both the inner and outer surfaces of the cover, as the outer diagram will be eroded in time. Flying aboard Voyagers 1 and 2 are identical “golden” records, carrying the story of Earth far into deep space. The 12 inch gold-plated copper discs contain greetings in 60 languages, samples of music from different cultures and eras, and natural and human-made sounds from Earth. They also contain electronic information that an advanced technological civilization could convert into diagrams and photographs. Currently, both Voyager probes are sailing adrift in the black sea of interplanetary space, flying towards the outmost border of our solar system. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 1977 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Rain Cooled Air

Here comes Father’s Day, or, as my dad liked to call it: Jack Ass Day. As you might surmise, he wasn’t very sentimental about it, and he thought it a rather silly day. Perhaps this was because Father’s Day only came into its own during my father’s lifetime: the holiday itself has its roots in Mother’s Day traditions. Anna Jarvis had successfully established Mother’s Day in the first decade of the 1900s, although she came to hate the eventual commercialization of the day she created. It was 1910 when Sonora Smart Dodd, who, after hearing a sermon about Anna Jarvis and her mission to establish a day honoring mothers, sought to do the same for fathers. The first Father’s Day celebration took place in Spokane, Washington that June, on the third Sunday, just as we celebrate it now.

Where Jarvis chose to battle the forces of commercialization for the holiday she championed, Dodd did not, and instead welcomed the commercialization of Father’s Day as a way to help establish the holiday, which was not gaining much traction on its own. The backing of trade groups worked, too, but it took time. The presidential proclamation designating the third Sunday of June as Father’s Day did not occur until Lyndon Johnson did it the honor in 1966, and it was Richard Nixon who made Father’s Day a permanent national holiday in 1972.

By Father’s Day 1972 I was already 7 years old and I’m sure by then it was becoming increasingly apparent that I had not inherited my dad’s natural prowess with hand tools and machinery. It was last year’s chapter for Father’s Day where I told you about my dad’s patience (or lack of it) while we attempted to do things together like change the oil on my truck (Dad: “Turn it to the left!” Me: “Which left?” Dad: “LEFT!” Me: “But I’m upside down and on my back. Is it the same left for you as it is for me?” Dad: “Darrrh!”)

But there was one task we had down pat together, over the years: Mowing the lawn.  Dad loved his manicured lawn, and these are some of my favorite memories of him: mowing, clipping, sweeping. He had a specific manner of sweeping: first with a corn broom along the freshly cut edges of the grass along the sidewalk, and then with a push broom down the center. He’d gather up all the clippings in a bushel basket, the kind you find apples in at the farmstand, with the wide strips of wood painted red and green. When I was a kid, I’d be the one with the dustpan, collecting all the grass clippings that Dad swept into the pan.

Over the years I got just slightly better with tools and machinery; good enough that I could handle some of the lawn responsibilities. But Dad kept cutting the lawn, on a rider mower eventually, and even just a few months ago he was still mowing his own lawn, while I took care of the edger and the weedwacker and still, the broom. He had a blower but it didn’t always work and me, I’m more of a broom guy, anyway.

Come June, when summer here in Florida gains its foothold, there are two things you can typically count on: the Royal Poinciana trees blooming red and orange, and the rainy season beginning in earnest. All summer long, between the constant heat and the daily thunderstorms, the grass would grow and grow and grow. We would have to mow the lawn weekly, Dad and I, usually on Saturdays. He would wait impatiently for me to wake up, and then we’d get out there. Very often, the thunderstorms would build to the west as we worked. We would hurry to finish, get all the machinery tucked away as the wind picked up, and then, task completed, we would sit in the garage, garage door open, as the thunder pealed and the lightning crackled and the rain began to fall. It usually came in hard and sometimes lasted just a bit and other days kept on for the rest of the afternoon. But we would sit there, Dad and I, while the wind blew around us rain cooled air. It was the unspoken satisfaction of a job well done.

I had forgotten all about that until yesterday, when my nephew John and I met up at the house to cut the lawn. It was long, three weeks worth of summer growth. John rode the mower, while I did the rest. I used the blower instead of the broom; the rain was fast approaching. But we finished, and though we didn’t sit, we stood there in the garage, leaning on the car, garage door open, wind blowing. Instead of Dad and me it was me and John. It took me right back to those rain cooled afternoons with Dad, and it was nice, kind of like another visit from Dad. He didn’t care much for Father’s Day, my dad… but I know he loved those afternoons. And to have one again yesterday, well… that was just what my nephew and I needed. Happy Father’s Day then to all our dads: those given, those chosen, those here in front of us, and those present in rain cooled air or whatever form they’ve chosen to come and bestow their love upon us.

 

Image: Early 1970s, I’d guess, based on the cars and the hair. There’s Dad with his corn broom, but with a galvanized trash bin instead of the bushel basket. That’s at our home on Victor Street in Valley Stream, New York.

 

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