Author’s note: an oldie but a goodie. Happy Midsummer!
I spent summers as a kid at a place called the Finn Camp in the woods of suburban Detroit. The summer program was swim lessons in the morning, drama rehearsals in the afternoon, saunas on the weekends, and a lot of tag played on and underneath the docks of the lake. At the end of each school year, I lived in great anticipation for the start of all this in mid June, after the solstice party called Juhannus.
Solstice celebrations, which happen between June 19 and 21, are curiously named “Midsummer” events. In the U.S., summer is tightly linked to the school year, and most children’s seasonal school year ends near the beginning of June. So, why isn’t it the Begin Summer celebration?
The summer solstice occurs when the earth’s tilt is at maximum toward the sun in your hemisphere. In the north, we’re as close to the sun as we’re going to get during the year on that day. Daylight will be the longest–maybe you’ve felt the sky lightening earlier in the morning as you get your coffee or seen the sun peeking through the kitchen window long after dinner. After tomorrow, the daylight hours will start getting shorter again. In that sense, you could say that we’re at the “mid” point; the year is all downhill from here.
The Happy 23.44° Tilt
Thank goodness for the tilt, though! Imagine a different planet. The sun rises and sets, but always traces the same arc across the sky. Trees are always green; they don’t lose their leaves and sprout new ones, at least not once a year. No getting warmer or colder. All cold climates would stay that way and probably not harbor humans; hot climates would be perpetual deserts. Humans would live in a very narrow band of latitudes, mostly tropical, fending off insects that don’t ever leave. Even if we survived, our brains would have evolved very differently. What kind of culture would exist with no seasons at all? It would be a lot harder to track changes, harder to tell one year from another. No winter or summer? Something in humanity would rebel at the idea at so little change.
One theory is that the Earth collided with a Mars-sized object in the early solar system which knocked off our Moon and gave Earth its 23.44 degree tilt. Much obliged, Twin Mars! Half the fun of Christmas is making merry in spite of the cold. Most of the joy in summer is feeling that it will be warm days to come, even if it is the top of the annual roller coaster. The good is sweeter when it comes after some bad.
Trading the Sun with the Animals
About 10,000 years ago, our human ancestors survived by adapting to the changing climate that the seasons brought. They hunkered down and bundled up through winter’s cold and tried to fend off starvation through the late spring, for they were hungriest just before summer. Summer meant the deer returned and the fruit ripened, so it was no wonder they hailed the seasons, especially the beginning of summer. In an excellent book I am currently reading about those early humans, titled Shaman, the tribe celebrates the sound of river ice breaking because it means they will soon eat. One elder tells the story of how seasons were created:
Raven said, we should steal summer from the summer people
Summer is on the other side of the sky
We only have to break through the sky…
So wolverine brought back part of summer to the animal side,
And broke the bag open and all the summer things came out…
So now when the animals have summer,
The people have winter.
–Kim Stanley Robinson, Shaman
It’s not much of a stretch to know that ice melting meant full bellies soon. The shamans could put notches on a stick. Even with primitive accounting, they would notice that the same number of days passed from one year to the next. A few more centuries pass, you raise a few megaliths, put ’em in the circle like a big clock, and when the sun hits the zenith in the sky, everyone can come over to your Stonehenge to celebrate.
When Exactly Was John Born?
The pre-Christian Europeans celebrated with feasting, special dances, special foods, and lots of rituals. As happened with many pagan festivals, the early Catholic leaders cleverly co-opted the holiday by linking it to a saint. My friend John Q. Wikipedia tells me that the Bible book of Luke mentions that John the Baptist was born roughly six months before Jesus. Thus, the midsummer holidays became the Feast of St. John–Juhannus–Sankthans–Jaanipaev–San Giovanni–Fete de Saint Jean. (The Germans, more practical, just called it Sommersonnenwende which literally means reversal of the sun.)
Now, what month Jesus was actually born in is a bit debatable since, among other reasons, if shepherds were abiding in their flocks by night, it was probably spring lambing season and not December. That would instead put John’s birthday somewhere in September–the equinox? early fall? late middle harvest? not quite lauds? cocktail hour? Who knows? Let’s keep it in June and have a summer party.
As the Council of Nuremberg said, in 1653:
Where experience herefore have shown, that after the old heathen use, on John’s day in every year, in the country, as well in towns as villages, money and wood have been gathered by young folk, and there upon the so-called sonnenwendt or zimmet fire kindled, and thereat winebibbing, dancing about the said fire, leaping over the same, with burning of sundry herbs and flowers, and setting of brands from the said fire in the fields, and in many other ways all manner of superstitious work carried on — Therefore the Hon. Council of Nürnberg town neither can nor ought to forbear to do away with all such unbecoming superstition, paganism, and peril of fire on this coming day of St. John.–Wikipedia
I mean, who wants to pass up a chance for some good winebibbing?
As the Council of Nuremberg pointed out, a big part of the summer celebration is the bonfire at the end of the feast. At the Finn Camp, the bonfire, which is called the kokko, was (still is) built in a clearing near the lake. the fire was as large as a small house–much bigger than any campfire I’ve ever seen since. I remember in the mid 1970s when they finally had safety regulations (or insurance requirements?) that brought the nearby Wixom Fire Department to stand at the ready. That became extra fun for us kids to climb on the fire truck and talk to the big burly guys in the funny hats. Usually, they surreptitiously sipped a beer with the rest of the adults. There would be music, a lot of jokes, laughing, a little light dancing, but nothing particularly organized. No fire leaping that I can remember.
One reference claims that “bonfire” refers to a good–bon–fire, but I prefer the Wikipedia quote:
…Men waken at even, and maken three manner of fires: one is clean bones and no wood, and is called a bonfire; another is of clean wood and no bones, and is called a wakefire, for men sitteth and wake by it; the third is made of bones and wood, and is called St John’s Fire..
In our American melting pot culture, we downplay the religious holidays (although we do have them), yet we like our summer sunset barbecues, with music and dancing on the grass. Lucky for us, those fellows in Philadelphia all those years ago signed the Declaration of Independence in July. We call it a patriotic holiday, but it’s really an excuse for a good summer party, especially when the highlight is the fire in the sky.
I went looking at pictures of the Finn Camp Juhannus from recent years, and the pictures look pretty much the same every year, and exactly as I remember it from decades ago. Seasonal celebrations are like that.
Or, as young Loon says in Robinson’s book:
Same jokes every year, same everything; and that was very, very satisfying.Kim Stanley Robinson, Shaman