Around June 21
Alban Heruin, or “The Light of the Shore,” is also referred to as Litha, Midsummer’s Day or The Summer Solstice. The longest day and the shortest night of the year, is a time of triumph for the light. It is the time when the Sun reached its zenith and cast three rays to light the world. Technically, a solstice is an astronomical point and, due to the procession to the equinox, the date may vary by a few days depending on the year. Astrologers know this as the date on which the sun enters the sign of Cancer. Again, it must be remembered that the Celts reckoned their days from sundown to sundown, so the June 24th festivities actually begin on the previous sundown (our June 23rd).
However, since most European peasants were not accomplished at reading an ephemeris or did not live close enough to Salisbury Plain to trot over to Stonehenge and sight down its main avenue, they celebrated the event on a fixed calendar date, June 24th. The slight forward displacement of the traditional date is the result of multitudinous calendrical changes down through the ages. It is analogous to the winter solstice celebration, which is astronomically on or about December 21st, but is celebrated on the traditional date of December 25th.
This holiday represents the Sun King in all his glory. In many Wiccan celebrations, this is when the Oak King, who represents the waxing year, is triumphed over by the Holly King, who represents the waning year. The two are one; the Oak King is the growing youth while the Holly King is the mature man. Healings and love magick are especially suitable at this time. Midsummer Night’s Eve is supposed to be a good time to commune with field and forest sprites and faeries.
It was traditionally celebrated out in the forest with picnics and games. n England, it was the ancient custom on St. John’s Eve to light large bonfires after sundown, which served the double purpose of providing light to the revelers and warding off evil spirits. This was known as ‘setting the watch’. People often jumped through the fires for good luck. In addition to these fires, the streets were lined with lanterns, and people carried cressets (pivoted lanterns atop poles) as they wandered from one bonfire to another. These wandering, garland-bedecked bands were called a ‘marching watch’. Often they were attended by morris dancers, and traditional players dressed as a unicorn, a dragon, and six hobby-horse riders. Just as May Day was a time to renew the boundary on one’s own property, so Midsummer’s Eve was a time to ward the boundary of the city.
Customs surrounding St. John’s Eve are many and varied. At the very least, most young folk plan to stay up throughout the whole of this shortest night. Certain courageous souls might spend the night keeping watch in the center of a circle of standing stones. To do so would certainly result in either death, madness, or (hopefully) the power of inspiration to become a great poet or bard. (This is, by the way, identical to certain incidents in the first branch of the ‘Mabinogion’.) This was also the night when the serpents of the island would roll themselves into a hissing, writhing ball in order to engender the ‘glain’, also called the ‘serpent’s egg’, ‘snake stone’, or ‘Druid’s egg’. Anyone in possession of this hard glass bubble would wield incredible magical powers. Even Merlyn himself (accompanied by his black dog) went in search of it, according to one ancient Welsh story.
Other customs included decking the house (especially over the front door) with birch, fennel, St. John’s wort, orpin, and white lilies. Five plants were thought to have special magical properties on this night: rue, roses, St. John’s wort, vervain and trefoil. Indeed, Midsummer’s Eve in Spain is called the ‘Night of the Verbena (Vervain)’. St. John’s wort was especially honored by young maidens who picked it in the hopes of divining a future lover. The young maid stole through the cottage door, And blushed as she sought the Plant of pow’r;
‘Thou silver glow-worm, O lend me thy light, I must gather the mystic St. John’s wort tonight, The wonderful herb, whose leaf will decide If the coming year shall make me a bride.’
The Pagan mid-summer celebration was adopted by Christians as the feast of John the Baptist (June 24th). Occurring 180 degrees apart on the wheel of the year, the mid-winter celebration commemorates the birth of Jesus, while the mid-summer celebration commemorates the birth of John, the prophet who was born six months before Jesus in order to announce his arrival.
St. John himself was often seen as a rather Pagan figure. He was, after all, called ‘the Oak King’. His connection to the wilderness (from whence ‘the voice cried out’) was often emphasized by the rustic nature of his shrines. Many statues show him as a horned figure (as is also the case with Moses). Christian iconographers mumble embarrassed explanations about ‘horns of light’, while modern Pagans giggle and happily refer to such statues as ‘Pan the Baptist’. And to clench matters, many depiction’s of John actually show him with the lower torso of a satyr, cloven hooves and all! Obviously, this kind of John the Baptist is more properly a Jack in the Green! Also obvious is that behind the medieval conception of St. John lies a distant, shadowy Pagan deity, perhaps the archetypal Wild Man of the Wood, whose face stares down at us through the foliate masks that adorn so much church architecture.
According to British faery lore, this night was second only to Halloween for its importance to the wee folk, who especially enjoyed a riddling on such a fine summer’s night. In order to see them, you had only to gather fern seed at the stroke of midnight and rub it onto your eyelids. But be sure to carry a little bit of rue in your pocket, or you might well be ‘pixie-led’. Or, failing the rue, you might simply turn your jacket inside-out, which should keep you from harm’s way. But if even this fails, you must seek out one of the ‘ley lines’, the old straight tracks, and stay upon it to your destination. This will keep you safe from any malevolent power, as will crossing a stream of ‘living’ (running) water.