Category Archives: Summer

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.

 

As a Vapour, or a Drop of Raine

Tonight, this last of April, brings a welcome to summer. The setting sun will bring us Walpurgis Night, the Eve of St. Walpurga’s Day. These are obscure celebrations in the States, as is May Day, but the common thread tonight and tomorrow is that we are springing now into summer. Life is exploding everywhere around us as trees leaf out and bloom and as bulbs beneath the earth erupt into flowers that carpet the ground. In the Northern Hemisphere, we approach the gentle time of year.

What’s traditional to this night? Bonfires (translated easily to a backyard fire or an illuminated candle), and gravlax (a delicious cured smoked salmon from Scandinavia) and sparkling wine enjoyed outdoors. Outdoors is key, and for many, Walpurgis Night, or May Eve, is a night to spend entirely outdoors, gathering blossoms and greenery with which to decorate our homes tomorrow on May Day. It’s another of the holidays that the Puritans really disliked, for who knew what mischief folks would get to out in the woods alone at night? One result of this Puritanical distrust is that maypoles and May Day celebrations never took root here in this country quite to the extent that they had in Europe, much to our loss as a nation, and these traditions were tough to recover even in England, where the Puritans were in power from 1649 to 1660. During their reign, May Day was banned (along with maypoles and even Christmas). The most joyous place for a May Day celebration would seem to be Scandinavia, where winter’s darkness is most severe, and where one can imagine a day to welcome summer would be heartily received.

For the Celts, this is the entry into Beltane (pronounced bowl-tan-a). It is the cross-quarter day opposite Samhain, which comes at Halloween and All Souls Day. Being the opposite spoke in the wheel of the year, our perspective is opposite, as well: While at Samhain we were gathering in and shifting sights inward, now we are emerging and shifting sights outward. It is the time of growth and openness, a rebirth into the world: bursting forth, bursting forth. Rivers running, leaves and flowers exploding onto the scene, filling spaces in the sky and the landscape that were not long ago stark with winter’s emptiness.

A fire, a candle, gravlax, and sparkling wine. If you’ve none of these things with which to celebrate––or if you have them all––here is a good thing for your celebration. It’s a poem by our Book of Days hero Robert Herrick. It’s from his book Hesperides, first published in 1648, as the Puritans were rising to power in England. Read it silently to yourself, read it aloud to yourself, read it to someone you love. It is one of my favorite poems, a thing of beauty, a thing of this earth, and love, of course, calls us to the things of this earth.

 

CORINNA’S GOING A MAYING
by Robert Herrick

Get up, get up for shame, the Blooming Morne
Upon her wings presents the god unshorne.
                     See how Aurora throwes her faire
                     Fresh-quilted colours through the aire:
                     Get up, sweet-Slug-a-bed, and see
                     The Dew-bespangling Herbe and Tree.
Each Flower has wept, and bow’d toward the East,
Above an houre since; yet you not drest,
                     Nay! not so much as out of bed?
                     When all the Birds have Mattens seyd,
                     And sung their thankful Hymnes: ’tis sin,
                     Nay, profanation to keep in,
When as a thousand Virgins on this day,
Spring, sooner than the Lark, to fetch in May.

Rise; and put on your Foliage, and be seene
To come forth, like the Spring-time, fresh and greene;
                     And sweet as Flora. Take no care
                     For Jewels for your Gowne, or Haire:
                     Feare not; the leaves will strew
                     Gemms in abundance upon you:
Besides, the childhood of the Day has kept,
Against you come, some Orient Pearls unwept:
                     Come, and receive them while the light
                     Hangs on the Dew-locks of the night:
                     And Titan on the Eastern hill
                     Retires himselfe, or else stands still
Till you come forth. Wash, dresse, be briefe in praying:
Few Beads are best, when once we goe a Maying.

Come, my Corinna, come; and comming, marke
How each field turns a street; each street a Parke
                     Made green, and trimm’d with trees: see how
                     Devotion gives each House a Bough,
                     Or Branch: Each Porch, each doore, ere this,
                     An Arke a Tabernacle is
Made up of white-thorn neatly enterwove;
As if here were those cooler shades of love.
                     Can such delights be in the street,
                     And open fields, and we not see’t?
                     Come, we’ll abroad; and let’s obay
                     The Proclamation made for May:
And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying.

There’s not a budding Boy, or Girle, this day,
But is got up, and gone to bring in May.
                     A deale of Youth, ere this, is come
                     Back, and with White-thorn laden home.
                     Some have dispatcht their Cakes and Creame,
                     Before that we have left to dreame:
And some have wept, and woo’d, and plighted Troth,
And chose their Priest, ere we can cast off sloth:
                     Many a green-gown has been given;
                     Many a kisse, both odde and even:
                     Many a glance too has been sent
                     From out the eye, Loves Firmament:
Many a jest told of the Keyes betraying
This night, and Locks pickt, yet w’are not a Maying.

Come, let us goe, while we are in our prime;
And take the harmlesse follie of the time.
                     We shall grow old apace, and die
                     Before we know our liberty.
                     Our life is short; and our dayes run
                     As fast away as do’s the Sunne:
And as a vapour, or a drop of raine
Once lost, can ne’r be found againe:
                     So when or you or I are made
                     A fable, song, or fleeting shade;
                     All love, all liking, all delight
                     Lies drown’d with us in endlesse night.
Then while time serves, and we are but decaying;
Come, my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying.

 

Image: “The May Queen of New Westminster’s Annual May Day,” possibly by S.J. Thompson, British Columbia, Canada. Photograph, c.1887. The photograph comes with the following information: “The May Queen and her court. Girl at top left is Adelaide Ewen born in 1877. She was the daughter of Alexander and Mary Rogers Ewen. Isabel Macmillan Latta, the donor of the photo, was the daughter of Isabella Ewen whose sister is in this photo.” [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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