A brief look at Midsummer traditions in northern Europe

It’s midsummer weekend, the time of year when it finally starts to look a bit like summer is putting in an appearance and I get next to no sleep. Midsummer is not celebrated now in England but it was once, and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to see whether other countries have traditions. I know that in Finland, at least, midsummer weekend is a public holiday. I know this because one of my friends is Finnish and she complains about the excessive drinking.

After doing a tiny amount of research I’ve found it is or was a fairly common festival in northern Europe; in some countries, especially Scandinavia, it is the most important holiday after Christmas and New Year. A common feature of these celebrations is their association with St John the Baptist and bonfires.

The bonfires are older than the St. John connection by all accounts. There are 4th century references to the Aquitainian custom of rolling a fire wheel down a hill, there are 13th century references to bonfires and fires wheels on Midsummer Eve in England, as well as references from the later centuries to bonfire traditions, and contemporary Scandinavian practice. The significance of the bonfires has been given as a blessing, a means of purifying livestock and people. The best I’ve read, from the middle ages, is that it’s a great way to scare off dragons.

The only connection to Saint John is that his saint’s day, 24th June, is coincidentally at the same approximate time as the midsummer solstice. It has been suggested, repeatedly, that this is a deliberate association made by the Christian authorities during the conversion period in order to convince people to convert from their own religions to Christianity. I happen to think there is a grain of truth in this suggestion. Since John the Baptist was supposed to have been born six months before Jesus, and the birth of Jesus had been decided on as the 25th December, ergo John the Baptist must have been born 24th June. In addition there was an order given by Rome that temples should be reconsecrated as churches and feast days re-dedicated from ‘devils’ to the honour of the Christian god.

This subject is going to need much more research than I have time for this evening, so after this incredibly brief look at the Midsummer traditions of northern Europe, I’m going to get back to my books. Mountains of books to read and review. Maybe I’ll have a proper essay written for next midsummer.




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