Midsummer Day: A Once and Future Holy-Day?

By Kenny Smith 

In Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays, Leigh Eric Schmidt (Professor of American religious history at Harvard University) traces out some of the economic forces that have shaped the American understanding and experience of sacred time over the past three centuries.  In 17th century Puritan New England, he notes, holy-days were carefully segregated from the economic pursuits of the workaday world. The weekly Sabbath stood at the center of Puritan sacred time–they did not celebrate Christmas, Easter, or other traditional Christian holidays that smacked of Catholicism or Anglicanism–and represented an interruption of economic markets and the labors of ordinary life, directing the community toward prayer, personal reflection, religious education, and thanksgiving. 

By the early 19th century, Puritan understandings of holidays had given way to something quite different.  In the wake of the industrial revolution, a vast array of commodities had become available for consumption, “from pottery to pets, from clocks to cutlery, from leisure and entertainment, to shaving and soap.” Alongside expanding inventories, “ever-expanding forms of advertising” emerged in order to match increased supply with increased demand. This larger economic context, Schmidt argues, exerted a powerful influence upon the ways in which holidays were culturally constructed and lived.  Instead of representing a break with commercial endeavors, holidays offered heightened opportunities to move merchandise and maximize profits. More, national holidays that were celebrated in a uniform and predictable manner (e.g., Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Valentines Day, Independence Day, etc.), provided a reliable source of annual revenue for merchandisers, and thus became preferable to those that varied according to regional or ethnic affiliations. So strong did the link between holidays and commercial markets become that, by the early 20th century, a number of still more holy-days (such as Candy Day, Sweetness Day, Poppy Day, Baby Week, Teacher’s Day, to name but a handful) had been proposed by industry advocates specifically to increase demand for related commercial products. To get a sense for how these dynamics play out today, one need only visit the local grocery and note the many “4th of July” cakes, cookies, pies, napkins, drinking cups, hamburger patties, table clothes, party decorations, candles, T-shirts, and so forth, conveniently available for maximizing one’s enjoyment of the upcoming Independence Day celebrations. 

That our modern-day holidays have been shaped by economic forces can prove a rather unsettling notion. We might find ourselves wondering not only about the new holidays we gained, but those we may have lost, in the commodification process. At the same time, it is worth acknowledging that cultural institutions are, like Heraclitus’ river, always in flux, always changing, and subject to any number of forces, economic, political, theological, astronomical, and even meteorological.   

As British historian Ronald Hutton points out, ancient Northern European cultures celebrated, albeit in varied ways, the culmination of the summer months as sacred time. For many such peoples, divination, healing, and fertility practices (on both personal and collective levels), were rendered maximally productive during this time. Midsummer, Hutton writes, 

represented the end of a solstice, the period in which the sun… [was] at the height of its strength, light at its longest… just before the days began to shorten again as the sun moved southward. In response to the swelling of heat and light, foliage and grasses were now likewise at their fullness… No wonder that it seemed to be a magical time to ancient Europeans (The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain). 

While it is impossible to determine precisely when Midsummer was first marked as sacred time, it is almost certainly of distant pre-Christian origins. What is also virtually certain is that the early church developed its own liturgical calendar in ways that self-consciously appropriated and redefined (or usurped and distorted, depending upon one’s point of view) pagan Midsummer practices.  Interestingly, both pagan and later Christian Midsummer rites included the lighting of festive fires and feasting as a popular custom, suggesting some manner of continuity.  In any case, in the early centuries of Christian history (no later than the early 6th century), pagan Midsummer was recast as The Feast of St. John, or St. John’s Day (although it continued to be known as Midsummer Day). The new Midsummer celebrated the birth of the biblical figure John the Baptist, said to have been born six months prior to Jesus of Nazareth (whose birthday was also set by the early church as falling on the winter solstice in December). 

Although Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant churches celebrate St. John’s Day, a Midsummer holiday has not gained widespread purchase within mainstream American culture. Wiccan and other Neo-Pagan communities are, of course, actively engaged in re-creating pre-Christian, pagan practices, cosmologies, and ways of being-in-the-world, which include Midsummer celebrations. For such communities, Midsummer (or Litha, as it is often called) is an exceptionally festive and mystical time. As one Wiccan website explains, 

it celebrates the arrival of Summer, when the hours of daylight are longest… [and the] Sun is now at the highest point… The joyous rituals of Litha celebrate the verdant Earth in high summer, abundance, fertility, and all the riches of Nature in full bloom. This is a madcap time of strong magic and empowerment, traditionally the time for handfasting or weddings and for communication with the spirits of Nature. At Litha, the veils between the worlds are thin; the portals between “the fields we know” and the worlds beyond stand open. This is an excellent time for rites of divination. http://twopagans.com/holiday/Litha.html 

It is interesting to note the ways in which contemporary Litha mirrors the scholarly account of ancient Midsummer offered above by historian Ronald Hutton. This is hardly accidental, as Neo-Pagans commonly look to the work of specialist scholars in re-creating ancient pagan traditions. To think comparatively, imagine a group of contemporary Christians who, rather than insisting that their own practices must surely have been those of Jesus of Nazareth and the early church (usually accomplished by a highly selective reading of the biblical text), actually looked to the work of scholars who possessed the requisite historical and linguistic skills to really know something about the early Christian world (such as Elaine Pagels, to cite but one stellar example) in attempting first to re-construct, from empirically grounded historical studies, how early Christians actually thought and practiced and lived, and then built their Christianities upon that. 

This is not to suggest that all Wiccan and Neo-Pagan groups have carved out a privileged place for academic work, much less conflated the sacred and the academic. Most include the use of spiritually-guided intuition in their re-creative efforts, and emphasize the need to adapt ancient ways to the modern world in which they live. Some engage in what journalist Margot Adler has called “The Myth of Wicca,” the belief that the Wicca (or some other Neo-Pagan tradition) practiced today represents an unbroken religious tradition stretching back to Paleolithic times, about 35,000 years ago. Virtually all of the Wiccans and Neo-Pagans I have spoken with over the past decade, however, think about their traditions in a more sophisticated manner, recognizing that no religious tradition remains unchanged as the decades, much less the centuries or millennia, pass by.  More, they are typically not frightened by scholarly studies that document the tremendous diversity within the ancient pagan world, or those elements that have been introduced into their traditions by modern founders such as Gerald Gardner (all of which of course suggests that what pagans do today is different than what was done in the past). Most start with the assumption (which is also argued by scholars such as Hutton) that their tradition represents something like what the ancients did, but surely differs in important ways as well. 

I would like to press this point further still. Consider, for a moment, the further description of Midsummer rites offered below. 

Those who celebrated Litha did so wearing garlands or crowns of flowers, and of course, their millinery always included the yellow blossoms of St. John’s Wort. The Litha rites of the ancients were boisterous communal festivities with… dancing, singing, storytelling, pageantry and feasting taking place by the village bonfire and torch lit processions through the villages after dark. People believed that the Litha fires possessed great power, and that prosperity and protection for oneself and one’s clan could be earned merely by jumping over the Litha bonfire. It was also common for courting couples joined hands and jump over the embers of the Litha fire three times to ensure a long and happy marriage, financial prosperity and many children. Even the charred embers from the Litha bonfire possessed protective powers – they were charms against injury and bad weather in harvest time, and embers were commonly placed around fields of grain and orchards to protect the crops and ensure an abundant reaping. Other Litha customs included carrying an ember of the Litha fire home and placing it on one’s hearth and decking one’s home with birch, fennel, St. John’s Wort… and white lilies for blessing and protection. http://twopagans.com/holiday/Litha.html 

While this account displays nice continuities with Hutton’s description of ancient pagan practices, it also contains elements suggestive of Christian associations (e.g., references to St. John). My point here is that, in attempting to revive elements of an ancient paganism that was long ago blended with Christianity, might such re-creations inevitably contain some Christian elements? One suspects that they would. Of course, this need not pose a religious problem for Wiccans and Neo-Pagans (no more than Christian acknowledgements that ancient paganisms contributed much to their own spiritual path). Most acknowledge that history is a messy affair, and that it would be naïve to present one’s reconstructed tradition as “precisely how the ancients lived in pre-Christian times.” 

So, what might be the likely future of Midsummer celebrations in America? While Neo-Pagan traditions are among the fastest growing in America over the past thirty years, and are currently estimated at 1.2% of the population (comparable to other sizable religious minorities, such as Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews), last week’s Midsummer was largely invisible to the broader culture. Still, given (as I have argued elsewhere) the longstanding American interest in pragmatic forms of religious-magic, and its ability to blend religious and cultural resources of different kinds, it seems at least plausible to imagine a Midsummer American holiday dedicated to personal and national prosperity, abundance, and fertility of various kinds. Thinking historically, perhaps the deciding factor will be its capacity to market and move merchandise: cakes, cookies, pies, napkins, drinking cups, hamburger patties, table clothes, party decorations, candles, T-shirts, and so forth, conveniently made available for maximizing one’s enjoyment of the Midsummer celebration.

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