Category Archives: St. John’s Eve

Glad Midsommar

No matter what we humans do through our policies and laws and actions to each other and to our planet, still that planet keeps to its tilted-axis spinning and keeps its course around the sun. Yesterday morning at 6:07 Lake Worth time, which is currently Eastern Daylight Time, we reached the point where that tilt translated to the greatest amount of sunlight for the Northern Hemisphere. Longest day of the year, longest amount of sunlight: the Summer Solstice. It was the opposite situation in the Southern Hemisphere, which experienced its longest night. This vast celestial clockwork of tilted planet orbiting its star amongst the billions of heavenly bodies orbiting other heavenly bodies: this is what creates our seasons and our understanding of life as we know it on our small planet. Our lengthening and shortening days a manifest distillation of all the mechanics of the universe.

Bringing things back home, we find ourselves at an auspicious juncture of the year. Although we don’t do much here in the States to celebrate the Summer Solstice (we are not, by and large, a very celebratory people), in other places these are very important days, especially in Europe, and especially in Scandinavia, which is no wonder: there are places near the Arctic Circle that are bathed these days in almost continuous sunlight. The Church early on understood the significance of these days and their rich symbolism, and so the birth of John the Baptist was assigned to the Summer Solstice and the birth of Christ was assigned to the Winter Solstice. No one knows for sure when exactly these two historical figures were born, but placing the birth of Christ at the Winter Solstice is potent symbolism for the darkest nights of the year (a light in the darkness) and placing the birth of the prophet who would pave the way for that light at the Summer Solstice reaffirms that symbolism. Both events occur just a few days after their respective solstices, and here now comes St. John’s Day on the 24th of June, with a celebration that begins with St. John’s Eve on the 23rd. It is the mirror in the wheel of the year to Christmas. And just as the magic that accompanies Christmas is focused primarily on its Eve, so the same with St. John’s Day. It is long considered in popular folklore a portal night, a night when the pathways between worlds is most permeable. It is the night of William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for this, by traditional reckoning of time, is Old Midsummer, just as Christmas comes at Old Midwinter, for although the solstices bring the start of summer and winter by the almanac, our ancestors in their particular wisdom saw light increasing each day until the Summer Solstice and then decreasing afterward, as it does. To them, the solstice was the height of summer, and so they called it as they saw it: Midsummer. We are on the downward side of the solstice from here on out. Each day a little bit of sunlight will be shaved off our daily tally… by the equinox three months from now day and night will be balanced; three months later at the solstice of Midwinter, we will experience our darkest night. I contemplate all these things and find beauty in the symbolism as well as in the logic.

As for the portals: 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, have their Haltijas. I feel as if I’ve caught some glimpses of this particular kind of magic in my day, perhaps through the view that is available through a sideways glance, which maybe is one available portal. And if a night like St. John’s Eve can make those portals more open, well, again… I am all for bridges and understanding. I’ve been on a mission these days to read books in my bookcase that I bought over the years and never opened, and one I am reading right now is about parallel universes. The book was printed in 1988 and so a lot has progressed since then in the realm of quantum physics, but as I read each chapter I am reminded of how vast and truly bizarre our universe is. At this point, I am pretty much open to anything.


Image: “Glad Midsommar” is Swedish forHappy Midsummer.” That’s a card I designed and printed letterpress for some midsummer event or other. Nearby to us this St. John’s Eve we’ve our choice of a midsummer bonfire at the Finnish American Club west of town or a Midsommar celebration and Smörgåsbord at the Swedish coffee house in neighboring West Palm Beach. I’ll have spent the afternoon teaching the first of two Book Arts 101: Midsummer Night’s Dream workshops at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts, so I will, most likely, be beat, and Seth will probably light a fire in the copper fire bowl in the backyard and we’ll sit there shirtless in the summer heat, with a glass of something, watching the flames as they illuminate the brief and breezy Atlantic night. And that’s not so bad, is it? Seats are still available in the workshops, by the way. You should join me.


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.


Midsummer Magic

Midsummer, and all here is now hustle and hubbub as we prepare for the Midsummer Makers Marketplace at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts this Saturday. We’ll be there with a dozen other local makers and small creative businesses celebrating the local, the seasonal, and the handmade. We plan to show our full selection of culinary herbs and herbal teas from the Sabbathday Lake Shakers, our own framed letterpress prints, and copies of our book Putting Up Mangoes, for we are in the thick of mango season here in Lake Worth. I think we’ll bring a basket of mangoes, too, for it is that time of year when the magical fruits begin piling up, in the sink, in bags, in every nook of the refrigerator. An embarrassment of riches. I hope you can come see us; the marketplace runs Saturday June 25 from 10 AM to 4 PM at the Jaffe Center’s satellite book arts studios on the Florida Atlantic University campus in Boca Raton at historic building T6, near the FAU Football Stadium. There will be Makers Marketplace roadsigns to guide you in. Admission is free and so is parking.

Tonight, Old Midsummer, St. John’s Eve, Seth and I will light a fire in the backyard and we’ll have some celebratory something with it, joining in the fire tradition with people all over this globe. Perhaps you can join us in your way, too. Here, for your Midsummer night’s planning, is a reprint of a Book of Days chapter on St. John’s Eve from a year or so ago. Read it again, and connect with Midsummer traditions near and far. Happy Midsomer. ~ John


Viola Tricolor

St. John’s Eve, tonight, brings Midsummer. In the seasonal round of the year, we now sit directly opposite Midwinter and Christmas. The celebrations for both Midwinter and Midsummer are old celebrations, older than you or I or anyone can recall, older even than the events assigned to them by the early Church, for the Church early on recognized that honey draws more flies than vinegar, and in that spirit, old pagan celebrations continued but with new names and new focus. Hence the birth of Christ was set at the winter solstice and the birth of John the Baptist, the voice crying in the wilderness, setting the path straight for the savior, was set at the summer solstice.

St. John is unusual in that he is remembered not just on the day of his death (which is the case with all the other saints) but also on the day of his birth. And as is often the case with traditional holidays, it is the eve the night before when the real celebration occurs. My take on this is that there is a certain magic to nighttime events: perceived magic if not real, though our ancestors thought nights like Midsummer and Midwinter full of real magic and open to the realm of fairies and sprites and other folks of parallel universes. You need only look to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set on this very night, to grasp the beliefs.

But no matter whether you give credence to these other realms or not, there is no denying the air of mystery that accompanies a celebration at night. We hang fairy lights in the trees, we light candles and beseeching fires, we walk amongst flowers that bloom only at night and spice the air we breathe. We take our celebration outdoors and the stars and moon are above us and this is infinitely more mysterious than the ceilings in our homes. This, too, is magic, as powerful as any other.

Midsummer and St. John’s Day are not much celebrated in the States, much to our loss. But in other places, this is a night to spend out in the open air. In Scandinavia, with the sun at its northernmost point in the sky, this is the time of the Midnight Sun (how magical is that?). It is a night there 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. 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 (again, magic). 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.

It is a night to go and gather plants for their magical properties: fern seed 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. Make the most of it. Happy Midsummer.

Image: Viola Tricolor, Plate No. 227 in Bilder ur Nordens Flora by C.A.M. Lindman, published in 1905. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.