The Mid-Summer Festival
By Springwolf, D.D., Ph.D. 🐾
The Summer Solstice is a pre-Christian holiday and has been celebrated throughout Europe and many parts of the world for eons. The solstice itself has remained a special moment of the annual cycle of the year since Neolithic times.
In Anglo-Saxon form, the holiday is known as Litha. A Germanic word for June and meaning mid-summer. In Irish form Meitheam. (From Old Irish mithem (“midsummer, June”), from Proto-Celtic *medjo-samīno- (compare Welsh Mehefin)).
Today Solstice celebrations center around the astronomical timing of the summer solstice. But many pagans still hold to traditional lunar calendar celebrations holding the rite at sunset on June 20th, the 21st or June 24, the day of the solstice in Roman times.
Like most pagan holidays, the early Christian Church assimilated the holiday into their calendar and original Celtic celebrations slowly faded. The “new” holiday is associated with the nativity of John the Baptist, which is observed on, June 24. Knowing that pagans followed a lunar calendar and began their celebrations at sunset on the eve before the Gregorian calendar date, the early church established St John’s Eve on the evening of June 23. This is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of St John the Baptist.
The Pagan Solstice
Like Ostara, the Mid-Summer festival was not one of the original Sabbats honored in early Celtic shamanistic days before and during the realm of the Druids. At least not in a reverent spiritual sense. In that context it is a relatively new celebration honoring the abundance of summer and ringing in the waning celestial year. The holiday is more of an Anglo-Saxon and Welsh tradition that has been slowly incorporated into many craft traditions throughout Europe. No doubt that other cultures, even the Irish Celts had some form of observance, even if it wasn’t spiritual in nature.
The solstice is an important time of the growing season in the Northern Hemisphere. But this holiday probably got its start from Bendigeid Vran (also known as Bran) who is often associated with this holiday as the representation of the Holly King, the ruler of the waning year. Bendigeid, is often confused with Brân, because both are seen as a Hero of Ireland.
Bendigeid was the son of the giant Llyr and Penardun, the patron of Britain. His name means ‘raven’, which is associated as a messenger from the Great Spirits and as a symbol of transition. Not always a messenger of foreboding events, but of change in general. Which is fitting for any solstice event.
Bendigeid’s legend begins when he gives his sister Branwen to Matholwch, King of Ireland as his bride. As a wedding present Bendigeid gives his new brother-in-law a magik cauldron. Unfortunately, while in Britain, Matholwch was insulted by Bendigeid’s half-brother, Efnisein and doesn’t forget the insult.
After Matholwch returns to Ireland with his new bride, he took his revenge for Efnisein’s insult out on the beautiful Branwen. Hearing of his sisters distress and suffering, Bendigeid crossed from Wales into Ireland and a mighty battle erupts between the two Kingdoms. At first Matholwch held the upper hand as a result of the magik cauldron. At the end of a days fighting, he ordered the dead of his army to be collected from the battlefield. He then placed each soldier into the cauldron which restored them to health and readied them for a new day of battle.
Sneaking into the Irish encampment during a fierce day of fighting, Efnisein was able to destroy the cauldron. It was not long before Bendigeid’s army gained the upper hand and won the day against Matholwch. But Bendigeid was mortally wounded by a poisoned dart and ordered his men to cut off his head and bury it on White Mount in London. The head was to be placed facing North as a magikal guardian for Britain. And legend has it, as a hero and guardian to Bendigeid’s soldiers
As a result, Bendigeid becomes the wise old king who forever more watches over his realm. It is this last act that associates Bendigeid as the wise Holly King and associates him with the God of the waning year.
In another tale of the God that rules over the season, the God comes in two forms. The Oak (associated with Bel who is honored during Bealtaine as the king of the waxing year) and the Holly King (Bendigeid as the king of the waning year). Just as these two battled for supremacy during Yule, they begin their battle again during the Summer Solstice to rule over the land of men.
There are several views of this story. The first says the Holly King wins and the days begin to get shorter and slowly the world moves into winter. The other says the battle just begins, but the Oak King fights to hold on to the Sun and warmth for several more months. In this later version the battle continues through the summer and is seen in the summer lightning storms as the two Kings fight in the skies. It’s not until August and the time of Lughnasadh that the Holly King finally wins the war and brings the waning of the celestial year.
Still another version of this later story of the continued battle, wages on until August. But in this version, the battle has scorched the land and threatened the crops needed by mankind to survive. The Oak King feeling great compassion for his people sacrifices his life and blood to fertilize the land so that his people will survive through the cold winter months. One version of this tale says the Oak King falls on his own sword and sacrifices his life. Another version says he lowers his sword and allows the Holly King to win in battle by killing him which also sacrifices the Oak King for mankind.
In all these tales, the underlying message is that change is inevitable. The skies are moving, the Earth is alive and you can listen to the messengers and work with the change. Or you can cover your ears and block out the calls of the Raven/Crow and fight in vein to keep things the same.
The biggest symbol of the mid-summer festival is the Sun. And it is honored by staging a raging bonfire. Many areas of the world still build large bonfires on hill tops as a beacon to the Sun God or the Oak King. The fire represents and encourages the Sun to remain and extend its warmth to Mother Earth for a few more months to promote growth of the fields and flocks.
Celebrations include dancing by the light of the fire, chants and songs that recount the battles of Matholwch and Bendigeid; or similar tales from Norse or Welsh mythology are shared. Because this solstice occurs in summer, it was (and is) a time for Skyclad dancing (dancing naked by the light of the fire). Today’s Puritan view of nudity was not something early pagans were concerned with, so this isn’t really a big deal to pagans. Skyclad dancing honored the creation and beauty of the human form and it’s relation to the natural world around it. The phrase “skyclad” is sometimes associated with the Gods/Goddesses who were often seen as the perfect representations of creation. In areas where skyclad was not observed, costumes are worn representing the Holly and Oak trees. As well as, the Raven/Crow as the messenger of the Sun.
In many Germanic countries mock weddings were, and still are held, to represent the rebirth of the growing season. Not only from Mother Earth, but also through the growing herds and flocks from spring births. These celebrations honor the divine creation and symbolize prayers or petitions to regional deities to continue the summer growing season in hopes of providing a bountiful harvest in the fall.
In some ancient pagan traditions this is also the time to communicate with the Faery Folk. Customs suggest that on this night the nature fairies interact and mingle among humans. If you are kind to them, they may grant a wish or two if you ask. Of course you need to show a little appreciation in return by leaving a plate of food and drink for them in your garden. If you don’t have a garden, a flower box will do as well. But leave the plate out for them all night, as Faery folk often fly around and need to replenish their tummies to keep going.
For the individual, and like all Sabbats, this is a time of reflection. Taking stock of the celestial year to date, and making note of where you are. What plans have worked and what might be altered in order to meet your goals for the year.
There are as many ways and suggestions for conducting such a ceremony as there are people on this planet. Each culture has developed their own traditions of celebration in both secular and religious or spiritual ways. Many areas have dropped both the pagan and early Christian symbolism and focus on a holiday of mid-year celebration.
For those wanting to continue the original pagan significance to the night/day, you can begin your festivities at sunset the night before the solstice. Prepare a simple altar where you can honor the passing strength of the Oak King and the movement of the Divine God into the representation of the wise Holly King.
This night is a good time to focus on yourself and the current status of your goals. Make sure your spiritual grimoire (or book of shadows) is handy to review your records for the first part of the year and plan what ever changes are necessary for the remainder of the year.
During the evening hours you can continue the festival with a formal holiday ritual. Create your own bonfire. Provide an offering of fruits and veggies for the faeries that spend time in your yard or garden. Sing songs or tell stories to your children and carry on the oral traditions of your culture.
If you don’t know any stories, consider purchasing a book on legends and lore for the area you live in, or the culture you feel connected to. Read the stories around the fire and share a few s’mores while you’re at it!
On the day of the solstice, begin your day with a small blessing ritual. Thanking the Oak King for the blessing he has brought to you thus far. Focus this ritual on just the Oak King.
Spend the morning harvesting your early summer vegetables. Or take a drive to the country and a fresh farm market. You’ll be looking for corn on the cob, green beans, cantaloupe, watermelon, early tomatos and strawberries. Take your grand parents along for the trip and talk with them about how life was when they were children.
One of my most memorable afternoons was with my paternal grand mother, a video camera and a list of questions. My oldest sister and I interviewed her about her early childhood, her memories of her parents, their first car, first radio, first TV. What it was like living through the depression, the first and second world wars. Her marriage, raising her children and so on. I love this video and now that she has passed, it’s a wonderful memory that I replay again during the solstice.
Prepare a simple feast for the evening. A light chicken salad with the fruits and vegetables you collected during the day would be a good example. Try to share this meal with your elders as a special thank you for their company and great wisdom. Make sure you listen to their stories and parables. You can learn much from these folks.
Happy Summer Solstice to one and all!
You can find more about the High Holy Days: The Pagan Sabbats, to discover why they’re observed at sunset and their timing through the year.