Believe it or not, it’s June! Besides meaning 2019 is halfway over already, it’s also the month that heralds summer and the longest day of the year: the summer solstice, aka Midsummer. Midsummer, (which happens tomorrow night), is the official start of the harvest season in the northern hemisphere, and as such many cultures celebrate fertility and fecundity on the longest day of the year. For humans, this means one thing: Sex.
To many of us, “Midsummer” calls to mind the image of a bunch of Swedes dancing around a Maypole. (Is it just me, or does a Maypole kinda look like an enormous phallus?) The Nordic celebration of the solstice, known as Midsommar, also involves heavy drinking. When you combine drinking and dancing, what do you get? Well, Swedish ethnologist Jan-Öjvind Swahn puts it this way: "A lot of children are born nine months after Midsummer in Sweden.” In keeping with the romantic themes buzzing about Scandinavia at the end of June, traditionally, unmarried girls traditionally eat the saltiest fish they can find (or simply collect flowers) so as to dream of the faces of their future mates.
A bit farther west, at the landmark for pagan celebrations, Stonehenge, thousands of people gather to celebrate the summer solstice. For Druids, the longest day of the year represents the union of the sun god, Lugh, and the earth goddess, Danu. (For the other thousands who show up, it represents a raging party a la Burning Man.) Almost all Druid celebrations involve fertility, but the night the sun and the earth get it on? That’s a big deal.
Elsewhere in Scotland and the UK, Christendom coopted all pagan holidays, turning the summer solstice into the Feast of St. John. Though the Christians tried to turn the longest day of the year into an excuse to pray for 24 hours (sexy!), Sir Walter Scott felt the sensual vibes and wrote The Eve of Saint John, a ballad about the Lady of Smailholm, who is visited by her secret lover every night while her husband is at battle. Upon his return, she learns he killed her lover on the first night, and each night since she’d been making love to a ghost.
St. John’s Day is also what they call the solstice celebration in Greece these days, but the Greeks have managed to maintain some of their pagan traditions. Like the unmarried Swedish girls, young Greek maids are thought to be able to dream of their future beaux by placing a special personal item in a pot under a fig tree overnight. They then dig up the now-magical items while their friends recite erotic couplets about the owner’s future love life. After all this sexual tension buildup, the girls join the unmarried boys and they all jump over bonfires. Naturally.
Rounding out this tour of Midsummer in Europe, the Slavic people also jump over fires as part of Kupala Night or Ivan-Kupala Night. Young couples who are able to continue holding hands when they traverse the flames are destined to be together forever. Those who don’t have sweethearts come Kupala Night gather around the river where girls send wreaths of flowers downstream where boys are eagerly awaiting them—capturing a girl’s flowers is one step closer to capturing her flower.
Closer to home, in the States, we celebrate Juneteenth. No, this holiday isn’t tied to the solstice, or to bonfires, or to sex. But it does celebrate bodily autonomy in a much more tangible way. Juneteeth—the 19th of June—is a commemoration of the emancipation of the slaves in the United States (specifically, the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, which was slow to carry out the Emancipation Proclamation). These days, Juneteenth is a celebration of Black pride. Black Americans celebrate with readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and from black writers like Maya Angelou, and with parades, barbecues, rodeoes, and beauty-slash-scholarship pageants. Juneteenth can be seen as a marker of the longest day of the year, after a long, dark night in America’s history.
Wherever you are and whatever you celebrate, I hope you have an amazing summer!