Making Light

Back when I was a starry-eyed camp counselor in the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, “Christmas in July” was a chic (in as far as Christians can be chic) trend. Kids lucky enough to be at camp that week were treated to a neo-Christian holiday that included a half-birthday for Jesus and cheap gift-giving. (The fact that Jesus’ birthday, in as much as it can be determined, is mid-way between December and July seemed a strangely mute point.) Our “gifts” were generally manufactured from natural products found in the woods and were a diversion to help the homesick campers concentrate on the truly Christian practice of getting stuff. Interestingly, here on Midsummer (the solstice is actually the first day of astronomical summer, but our pagan forebears were more into astrology, it seems, than astronomy) we are on the second most-celebrated holiday in the northern latitudes. With its midnight sun in the far north, and warm temperatures starting to make a regular appearance, light outweighs darkness for just a little bit, and life is never easier than this. No wonder Midsummer appeals to the archetypal mind.

Of course, Christianity could not accept a purely natural holiday, attributed as it was to the beneficence of heathen gods. In an even more dubious exercise than fixing the date of Jesus’ birth, Midsummer became the nativity of John the Baptist, or St. John’s Eve. While some scholars dispute the historical existence of Jesus (not terribly convincingly), the case against John the Baptist might be a little stronger. The prototypical forerunner, the herald announcing something greater than himself is so uncharacteristic of religious folk that it lends itself to considerable doubt. John is described like Elijah, one of the greatest prophetic figures of biblical times. John’s birthday? Anybody’s guess. Since he is second to Jesus, put his birthday on the opposite solstice. (I realize the solstice was June 20; at this early hour of the morning, I think today may also qualify.)

Back at Easter, historically near the vernal equinox, I found myself at Stonehenge. Knowing I was missing Druid priests by a full set of quarter days, it was still an exhilarating experience. Ancient people welcomed the return of increasing light with religious fervor. The effort it took to move these monoliths to the barren plains of Salisbury is nearly unimaginable. They represent, at some level, the invincible nature of the sun, our warmth and light. In physical, astronomical, terms they had no idea what the sun might be. It was, undoubtedly, the source of light and warmth, and even every lizard and turtle sunning itself on a rock participates in welcoming its return. So we’ve come to the solstice once again. It is the high point of the year. Now we begin our slow descent back into nights that will grow longer until the winter solstice once again reverses the trend. We don’t need Christmas in July–we already have it in June.

A Midsummer’s Daydream

Solstices and equinoxes are among the earliest religious festivals in the world. While there is no means of proving this, the signs are fairly indicative; ancient peoples were close watchers of the sky. Like many other species of animals, they used subtle clues to help them determine which direction to go at what time of year. Once agriculture developed, the sky contained the key of when to plant and when to harvest and when to thank the gods. It is no surprise that when the classical religions developed many of their festivals centered around, especially, the equinoxes and the winter solstice. Did they even bother with the summer?

The summer solstice tends to get lost in most modern festive calendars: it is summer, a time when we are busy relaxing—the crops are in the ground, firewood need not be gathered just yet, and life is perhaps just a tiny bit easier (except for those poor kids who still have to finish out the school year!). No cause for wonder that this particular holiday (traditionally Midsummer) is most evident in northern Europe where in just six months days will be dreadfully short and very cold. Midsummer celebrates light, fertility, and healing. Some traditions claim that witches meet on Midsummer as the sun begins, once again, its inexorable journey south (from the northern hemisphere perspective) nearly to disappear in the dark December.

The modern day Midsummer celebration held by reconstructionist Neo-Pagans is Litha. The name is borrowed from the Venerable Bede but the observance of the solstice is certainly authentic. It is often celebrated with fires to shorten the already apocopated night. It is the time when darkness is at bay. It is perhaps telling that the major religions have little to add to days of relatively carefree existence. People need their religion when things go bad, but when the struggle is minimized we might leave angry gods behind for a while and just bask in the ease of it all. But, as the Neo-Pagans and witches know, the longest day of the year also foreshadows the darkness that, until this day next year, will never again allow us as much light.

Northern European Midsummer's bonfire