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The Summer Solstice: A day to celebrate and appreciate midsummer’s gifts and traditions

The Summer Solstice: A day to celebrate and appreciate midsummer’s gifts and traditions

On the 21st of June, we celebrate the longest day of the year here in the United Kingdom. Known as the summer solstice—or by its Celtic or pagan names Litha and Alban Hefin—this day represents midsummer and has been celebrated on the British Isles since at least the Neolithic era.[1] The summer solstice represented a critical moment in agricultural calendars for ancient Britons, signaling the beginning of the second half of year and of the growing season. For modern residents, it is an opportunity to celebrate and appreciate the folklore, traditions, foods and plants associated with this time of the year.

Bonfires

Celtic peoples were well known to light bonfires on the summer solstice as a symbol of the sun’s strength and ability to bring about abundant harvests. A tradition of jumping over the flames was originally meant as a blessing to ensure a long growing season and healthy crops. As the fires burned down, farmers would run their herds through the embers to protect them from bad luck and disease. The Reverend Donald McQueen described the solstice bonfires in Ireland in 1795: “It was told me we should see at midnight the most singular sight in Ireland which was the lighting of Fires in honour of the Sun. Accordingly exactly at midnight the fires began to appear…I saw on a radius of thirty miles all around, the fires burning on every eminence which the country afforded.”[2] Bonfires are still a common site at midsummer, connecting us to ancient agricultural traditions.

Henges and Magic

The solstice has long been seen as a time when magic is at its peak and the normal laws of nature abandoned. The mystical nature of the solstice is perhaps most famous for its association with stone circles and henges, with thousands of people gathering at Stonehenge each year to welcome the midsummer sun. Pagan traditions and religions associated with the solstice continue to exist, with modern-day Druids still ‘keeping watch’ until sunrise on midsummer’s eve, at which time they joyously welcome the golden hour with chants, cheers or the sounding of a Celtic trumpet.

Examples of solstice magic—such as spirits crossing realms, fairies emerging from the woodlands, and even the sun standing still in the sky—are common in British tradition and folklore. In a painting from 1885 (pictured), the Scottish artist William Bell Scott depicted one of the most common midsummer beliefs, that pixies and fairies come out on this night, and they can be seen dancing in the firelight of Scott’s painting on one such midsummer’s eve.

Plants and Food

Collecting summer herbs and flowers is an important solstice tradition, seen today as in antiquity in flower crowns and garlands. Historically, people would gather plants on the solstice to be used throughout the year, for the strength of the sun was believed to imbue plants with heightened powers. One of the most powerful solstice plants, St. John’s Wort or ‘chase-devil’, was particularly cherished for its supposed ability to ward off evil spirits[3]—so much so that on the Isle of Man it was believed fairies would lead people astray to prevent them from trampling these precious plants.[4] Other mystical elements collected at midsummer included fern seeds that would imbue its owner with invisibility and waters thought to contain the healing powers of the solstice sun.[5]

Midsummer was and remains a time for foraging from the abundant fields, forests and hedgerows of the British Isles.* Summer plants like elderflowers are abundant in June, perfect for making wine, cordials and fritters; sweet and fragrant honeysuckle provides edible blossoms to infuse into teas and deserts; and abundant wild roses are ready at the solstice to be blended into sugars, made into jam or tea, or the petals used to adorn salads or cakes. Wildflowers such as lilacs, violets, daisies and hawthorn and apple blossoms can be collected now for garlands and alters, much like in the celebrations of yore. Other native or naturalized wild plants associated with and plentiful at midsummer include mugwort, oak, and vervain.[6]

Celebrate and Give Thanks

The summer solstice is at time to welcome and celebrate the transition of one season into the next, the subtle change from spring into summer. To cherish the sweet and nutrient-rich plants that adorn these lands. To remember and pass on the cultural and natural traditions of our ancestors, or to come up with new ones. And perhaps most importantly, to slow down on this longest day of the year to appreciate what summer brings and what the Earth gives, and our role in preserving traditions, foods, wild plants and places for the generations to come.

*Please forage safely and responsibly. Never eat anything without being 100% certain of its identification. For more on foraging in the UK, visit the Woodland Trust and National Geographic.

Lizzy Rainey is a graduate student at the University of Sussex studying Food and Development. She also works for an international fruit-tree planting charity and is a certified Master Gardener in the United States. Her academic and professional interests include supporting indigenous food knowledges, local food systems and alternative ways of understanding and communicating about food. Follow her on Instagram @lizzyrainey and her nonprofit work at @fruittreeplantingfoundation.

The Slow Food blog welcomes contributions on the topics of Food, Farming and Agriculture. The contents may not entirely match the views of Slow Food, but reflect the journeys of the authors. To write for us please click here

Image: Pixies Dancing in a Ring by the Firelight by William Bell Scott, 1885. Credit: National Trust Images.


[1] The National Trust

[2] Dark Side of the Sun: A Brief Guide to Midsummer Lore in Britain & Ireland, 2020

[3] Historic UK

[4] Ibid

[5] For more on the topic, see Chronicle of Folk Customs by Brian Day, 1998; The Summer Solstice by John Matthews, 2005; British Folk Customs by Christina Hole, 1976.

[6] Outdoor Apothecary

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