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Carolina Oliveira
1 month ago
Summer Solstice Celebrations Around Europe

 

Midsummer celebrates the June solstice, the official beginning of summer and both the longest day and the shortest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s also one of Europe’s most celebrated and spiritual evenings, long associated with pagan rituals, and the Christian Saint John the Baptist.

 

According to Roman estimations, Saint John's Eve falls on June 24, six months before the birth of Jesus Christ. But summer solstice in many cultures goes way before Christianity, associated with pagan celebrations of nature, love, agriculture, and fertility. In ancient times, the June solstice was used to organize calendars and as a marker for when to plant and harvest crops.

 

Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, might be evidence that ancient humans used the June solstice to organize their calendars. Some historians believe that Stonehenge's unique stone circle establishes the date of the June solstice. Viewed from its center on the day of the summer solstice, the Sun rises at a particular point on the horizon, attracting, until today, many people to witness this magical event.

 

In ancient Gaul, where modern-day France and some parts of its neighboring countries are, the Midsummer celebration was called “Feast of Epona”, upon a fertility goddess. In ancient Germanic, Slav, and Celtic tribes, pagans celebrated Midsummer with bonfires. After Christianity spread in Europe and other parts of the world, many pagan customs were absorbed by the Roman religion. So, in most countries of Europe, the solstice celebrations continued around the time of St John’s Eve, June 24.

 

In Finland, Juhannus is a very special day to be with friends and family, gathering in cottages and around lakes to enjoy the longer days. With grilled sausages, salmon and herring, new potatoes, rye bread, and many fresh berries, Juhannus was originally a celebration for Ukko the supreme god of weather and harvest. Then, the bonfires (or “kokko”) were lit to keep evil spirits away and ensure a good harvest. It was a time for making rituals that still resist until the present days – such as collecting herbs and flowers and making good wishes for love and luck.

 

The neighbors from Sweden have their Midsommarstånd festivities that are much more rooted in paganism. Traditional foods for the day are pickled herring, salmon, and potatoes, enjoyed while singing and dancing to folk songs around maypoles. In Denmark, bonfires are also the most popular celebration, historically to fend off witches. The origin of this custom is a Danish folk belief that the eve of the 24th of June is the night of a witches' meeting on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains in central Germany.

 

But the June solstice festivities are not exclusive to the countries in the north of Europe. In Greece, the holiday is associated with bonfire jumping and foraging wild oregano before dawn. St John is also known by the epithets Riganas (the oregano bearer) and Lampadiaris (the bonfire bearer). The French have the "Fête de la Saint-Jean" (feast of St John), traditionally celebrated with bonfires in certain parts of the country. A huge bonfire was formerly a practice in Paris until 1648, with Louis XIV being the last King of France to officiate the celebration.

 

Irish summer solstice, also known as Litha, has ancient pagan traditions around wishes for a bountiful harvest, with bonfires to bless the crops. Farmers would jump over the fire to ensure tall crops, and the ashes of the fires scattered over the fields for good luck. In Italy, the Eve of St John is celebrated in many cities, including Florence since medieval times. Nowadays, people gather in street celebrations in Cesena, Genoa, Florence, and Turin, where Saint John the Baptist is the patron saint, celebrated with food markets, bonfires, and fireworks.

 

Another city where St John is recognized as a patron is Porto, Portugal. The city has a unique celebration where bonfires are not the main attraction, but paper balloons that lighten up the skies, and small barbecues around town to grill sardines to feed people all night long. Another tradition is to carry plastic hammers (or leeks) to bump each other in the head to attract good luck or even romance.

 

This week is all about celebrating, as summer brings us the expectation of new beginnings, happiness, and love, to leave behind darker days, and to welcome brighter and sunnier months. Tell us, what are you doing this summer?

 

 

Photos: Celebrations in Sweden / Solstice in Stonehenge / Fireworks in Florence, Italy / St John festivities in Porto, Portugal / Bonfire in Finland.

Edited 1 month ago
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