Category Archives: Solstice

Midsummer & St. John’s Eve

Just as the Northern Hemisphere’s midwinter solstice is accompanied a few days later by Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so our midsummer solstice is accompanied a few days later by St. John’s Eve and St. John’s Day, and we find ourselves today at the polar opposite of Yuletide and Christmas. The solstices are a matter of celestial mechanics––the workings of our planet orbiting the sun on a tilted axis. That tilt of 23.5 degrees is all it takes to bring us our seasons. The tilt means that as we travel around the sun, our north/south hemispheres receive different amounts of sunlight. And at this time of year, the hemisphere that is pointed toward the sun (Northern) is in summer, the hemisphere that is pointed away (Southern) is in winter. The difference in sunlight across the planet ranges from none at the equator to the extreme at the two poles. Places like Scandinavia and Alaska and Northern Canada right now are experiencing incredibly long days, the days that earn these places nicknames like “Land of the Midnight Sun,” while Antarctica is in almost constant darkness.

Oh but let’s get back to Christmas and St. John’s Day. Historically, the Church has rarely been concerned about celebrating birthdays. The feast days of saints are all focused on when they died––their birthdate into the next world. But there are three cases where they do focus on earthly birthdays: with Mary, whose birth was placed near to the autumnal equinox (September 8, at the grape harvest), and Jesus, whose birth was placed at the midwinter solstice (“Jesus, the Light of the World” (as the song goes) comes at the darkest time of year). At the midsummer solstice, we have John the Baptist, born just as light begins to wane. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” we read in John 3:30. And so there: the beautiful metaphoric connexions that the early Church loved, linking the story of Christ to the natural rhythm and wheel of the year.

Midsummer and St. John’s Day are not much celebrated in the States, much to our loss. But in other places, St. John’s Eve is a night to spend out in the open air. In Sweden, where this night is called Juhannus, it is a night for bonfires and meals of pickled herring and new potatoes with sour cream. Further south in Italy bonfires are also part of the night, but the meals vary by region. In Rome, the Midsummer meal centers around snails; local belief holds that eating snails, horned as they are like devils, will protect you from Midsummer mischief of the Midsummer Night’s Dream variety. In the towns of Northern Italy, Midsummer is a time to break out balsamic vinegar, aged as long as a hundred years. Every part of the meal has some of this nectar of the gods in it, for the lore of the land says that this is the time of year when the must enters the grape on the vine, and it is the must that will eventually become both the wine and the balsamic vinegar––a transformative magic all its own. The must is the juice, crucial to both, for good balsamic vinegar is made from must just as is wine. It is then aged all those years in casks of various types of woods: at least a dozen years, but, as mentioned above, sometimes a hundred years or more.

St. John’s Eve has a long history in popular folklore as a portal night, a night when the pathways between worlds is most permeable. It is a night to go and gather plants for their magical properties: fern seed, for example, and St. John’s Wort. The latter will protect you from evil, the former, if gathered properly, is believed to confer the power of invisibility. But not without some peril: the seeds are fiercely guarded by the fairy folk who know more of these secrets than do we. The magical properties of plants also play into Shakespeare’s comedy. Have you ever wondered what is the “herb” (a little western flower, Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound) that Oberon instructs Puck to fetch and squeeze the juice of onto the eyelids of Titania and then of the lovers? Well, these are the things I wonder about. Oberon goes on to tell us that maidens call it “love-in-idleness,” but in modern terms it turns out the herb is a flower known as Viola Tricolor, also known as Heartsease or Wild Pansy. You may have some blooming now in your summer garden. So much magic, so close to home.

As for the portals on this portal night: our mostly logical 21st century minds don’t subscribe much to magic, but magic can take many forms and can mean different things to different people. If you want to think of magic in terms of calling down joy to your life, in transforming the events of each day into positivity through an open and giving attitude, well, I am all for that magic. This is a powerful alchemy, a magic we all have access to. There are places, though, where folks insist they run into magic of a more ethereal kind, still today in this logical world we live in. Those in Ireland and Britain have their faeries; the Icelanders have their Huldufólk; the Finns, who are so prominent here in Lake Worth, have their Haltijas. And of course we have Shakespeare. I happen to love A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I just can’t get enough of it. Some scholars place the action of Shakespeare’s play at May Eve, but this is not an idea with which I agree, and I firmly believe our pal Will set the play squarely in the heart of the mysteries of St. John’s Eve.

Be that as it may, the night passes and St. John’s Eve ushers in St. John’s Day on the 24th. As for St. John himself, he is sacred to Puerto Rico, Québec, and Newfoundland. He is a patron saint of beekeepers, tailors, innkeepers, and printers like me. Tradition would have us cut and fashion divining rods on his day, for hidden treasures are thought to reveal themselves on St. John’s Day. Explore lonely places, it is said, and there these treasures shall be, awaiting any lucky finder. The magic passes with the day. It is customary to eat strawberries on St. John’s Day, and in Estonia and Finland, a special St. John’s Day cheese is made, flavored with caraway seeds. Luckily no one has made a tradition of eating the foods that St. John himself is known to have eaten: “And his meat was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). Try serving that at your next Midsummer dinner and watch your guests clear out in a hurry.

Image: The start of an early St. John’s Eve fire in the yard, June 22, looking a bit like a wheel.


Sun Stand Still

It’s the 21st of June and the summer solstice arrives here in Lake Worth, which is currently in Eastern Daylight Time, at 11:54 AM. More or less––the precise moment will depend upon where you’re at within your time zone. But roundabout measurements work fine in these cases, in my opinion. With the solstice, summer, for us in the Northern Hemisphere, will arrive by the almanac. It marks the moment when the sun reaches its highest point at the Tropic of Cancer, and it all has to do with our planet, tilted as it is on its axis, traveling around the sun. Our hours of daylight in the North have been increasing little by little since the December solstice, and now, our hours of daylight will begin their decrease. Our planet makes sure no day is exactly like the one that preceded it or the one that follows––a fine lesson in impermanence, even for those of us who are not fond of change. For a couple of days, though, the sun will appear to stand still at its highest point in the sky as the transition takes place and we begin working our way again toward winter. That appearance of standing still is what gives us our word solstice: it’s from the Latin sol stetit, sun stand still.

The days at this solstice tide are long and the further north you go, the longer they are. Up at Lapland and other places near the Arctic Circle, the sun barely dips below the horizon. That is some palpable magic. It is the opposite––the polar opposite, truth be told––of the long nights of winter. And just as the winter solstice is accompanied soon after by Christmas, so is the summer solstice accompanied soon after by St. John’s Day. Legendary magic attends both: at midnight on Christmas Eve, animals are said to speak or kneel and pray, and St. John’s Eve is the setting for William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (some say it’s set at May Day, but I disagree). Here in Lake Worth, the Finnish-American Club west of town will be having a Midsummer bonfire on Saturday night, just before St. John’s Eve. It’s an old old custom of Scandinavia––a magic all its own on a brief midsummer night.


Image: An example of Huichol string art from Mexico, used under a Creative Commons license, by Jebulon, 2011.


Obliquity & Antiquity: the Longest Night

And so the shortest day arrives, and with it, the longest night. It is the solstice of Midwinter, this deepest, darkest night, this 21st of December. The vast celestial mechanics of our Earth spinning on its axis, tilted at about 23.5 degrees, as it spins and makes its rotation around the sun: these are the source of our seasons. There’s a name for this tilt: Obliquity. It is what gives us spring and summer, fall and winter, the source of our annual round, our wheel of the year. The beauty of the balance and the gift of change––even for those of us who like things to stay the same––is almost impossible for me to fathom sometimes. It is the source of what we do and when we do it and of so many of our connexions to the past, to our ancestors, to antiquity. Without obliquity, this Book of Days and all our daily ceremonies would have little meaning, little connexion to the planet we live on and the stars in our heavens.

Tonight, at 5:23 PM Eastern Time, the Earth will reach its semi-annual moment of extreme, and with it, the Northern Hemisphere will experience its longest night, while the Southern Hemisphere will experience its shortest. There, it is summer. Here, it is winter. And while the tilt does not change (I used to think it did), the orientation of our planet’s tilt toward the sun does change. For half the year––half our orbit around the sun––the Northern Hemisphere is tilting away from the sun. Today we find ourselves at the midpoint of that half year’s journey. From now on, days will grow longer, until we reach the next midpoint, its opposite, in June, when the Northern Hemisphere will be tilting toward the sun. These midpoints are the solstices: Midwinter and Midsummer.

The celebrations surrounding these events are perhaps the most ancient ones we know, going back long before the time of Christ, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. No one knows for sure when the historical Christ was born, but the church that arose from his legacy early on assigned two important events to the times around the solstices. And while the Church generally does not celebrate births, the birth of St. John the Baptist was assigned to the Midsummer Solstice… and still we celebrate St. John’s Day on the 24th of June. The Midwinter Solstice––the time of our greatest darkness––was given to the birth of his cousin, Jesus Christ. “Jesus, the light of the world,” goes the old Christmas hymn. Potent imagery.

Here’s what we will do to mark the night in our quiet home: From a forgotten corner of our yard, we will gather up last year’s Christmas tree. It’s been there, quiet, since Candlemas Eve last year, at the start of February, for that is the night we typically remove all the last vestiges of Christmas greenery from our home. That part––the removal of Christmas greenery at Candlemas Eve––is an old old tradition, one not widely followed these days. But we like it. It was only two days ago that we brought this year’s Christmas tree into the house… and who knew there was a Christmas tree shortage this year, but apparently there is. The shortage has something to do with the financial crisis of 2008 and how it put many farmers out of business and so not many Christmas trees were planted that year and as it takes ten years for a Christmas tree to mature, well, this year there are quite a lot fewer available. We bought our tree from the tree lot in West Palm Beach, with not many to choose from, and the next night we passed by again and the tent was dark, the lights unplugged, not a tree to be found. My grandparents, who used to get their tree on Christmas Eve, would have been out of luck, and I wonder how many people will have to make do with something other than a Frasier Fir or a Noble or what have you.

Oh, but back to tonight. Tonight we will gather up last year’s tree, which has been drying all these months, and we will use it to fuel the fire Seth will build in the copper fire bowl in the back yard. We will light that fire and tend it and watch the smoke rise into the Solstice Night air to meet the stars and to carry on through the neighborhood. The smoke will carry our wishes for peace and goodwill on this longest night, this darkest night, when we are called on to be a light in the darkness. These darkest nights bring some deepest joys, and this, for us, is one of them. And so we bid you peace and goodwill, too, on this longest night and through the year.