On this day, the noon of the year, light and life are abundant. This is the longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice, when the sun has reached the Tropic of Cancer. The Lord of Light has reached his penultimate zenith of strength and as he crests, must give way to his twin, the Lord of Shadows, godking of the dark half of the year. Though still in the throes of plenty, the year begins its waning journey to winter.
As with so many other Pagan celebrations, Midsummer was also adopted by the Christians. Proclaimed as St. John the Baptist’s feast day, this particular Christian adaptation ran counter to other feast days, in that it celebrated St. John’s earthly birth, rather than the normal commemoration of the saint’s death (and subsequent rebirth into the kingdom of God). Thus, with the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas, the Church kept intact the essence of the old Pagan celebration of these two solstices. The Oak King (St. John) and the Holly King (Christ), battle for seasonal rulership, whether the ritual celebrant be Pagan or Christian. Their births divided by 180 degrees on the Wheel of the Year, Christian lore has it that St. John was a prophet born six months prior to Christ, in order to announce Christ’s arrival. St. John’s association with wilderness and wooded areas, as well as many old statutes portraying him as bearded and often with horns, reinforce his association with the Oak King. This association is strengthened even more when one looks upon the stone faces of St. John gazing down from the walls of old church architecture; the mask of the saint looks amazingly similar to the foliate masks of our own Green Man, Pan.
Many customs are associated with this night’s celebration. Large bonfires were lit in England, thus “setting the watch” as the wards on city boundaries were renewed, with celebrants jumping over, through, or between bonfires for good luck. Revelers wandered from one bonfire to another, known as the “marching watch,” and were often attended by morris dancers. Shades of these old customs are still practiced today in England.
Contrasted with Yule when we look inward in meditative silence, Midsummer sets us to a time when our focus is turned outward, joyfully experiencing the delights of the Lord and Lady’s abundance. We delight in the first fruits of the season and revel in the company of others, dancing with wild abandon in a blissful celebration of the season.