For daily wit & wisdom, sign up for the Almanac newsletter.
Are you familiar with Midsummer Day (traditionally June 24) and Midsummer Eve (June 23)? We’ll explain why it’s called “Midsummer” when the day is so near the first day of summer (the solstice), why it’s also St. John the Baptist Day, and some fun traditions!
What Is Midsummer?
Swedes and many northern peoples celebrate a solstice holiday known as Midsummer Day. It’s an ancient day that many people still enjoy because summer calls for celebration! In mid-June, school is out, and nature has burst into life. It seems like the Sun never sets. In fact, in the north of Sweden, it doesn’t, and in the south, only for an hour or two.
Historically, this day marks the midpoint of the growing season, halfway between planting and harvest. It is traditionally known as one of four “Quarter Days” in some cultures.
The night before Midsummer Day is called Midsummer Eve (June 23), which is on or near the shortest night of the year! Celebrations for Midsummer typically begin on Midsummer Eve. Dancing, feasting, bonfires, and general merrymaking are hallmarks of the night!
The First Day of Summer …
Astronomically speaking, summer begins on the solstice. In 2023, the solstice arrives on Wednesday, June 21. At this moment, the Sun reaches its highest and northernmost points in the sky, and Earth’s North Pole tilts directly toward the Sun.
In fact, the Sun’s path of declination appears to stop before reversing direction. “Solstice” is a combination of the Latin words sol for “sun” and stitium for “standing.” (In late December, the Sun appears to stand still again, when we experience the winter solstice—the shortest day.)
Weatherwise, some folks (especially farmers) recognize the days around the solstice as the height, or middle, of summer. Crops were well under way and looking promising, so growers celebrated their anticipated harvest at Midsummer festivals.
St. John the Baptist Day
At some point, Christian church authorities assigned June 24 as the birthday of St. John the Baptist, who foretold the birth of Christ (which would occur 6 months later in the calendar, during the darkest days) and later baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. Celebrations with bonfires, bathing in water, and watching the sunrise were traditional. In this way, the period took on both secular and religious symbolism, giving everyone reasons to celebrate.
For ancient pagan Celtic peoples, who inhabited the British Isles, and modern Scandinavians, who experience almost continuous sunlight at this time of year (think “Land of the Midnight Sun”), the summer solstice is a magical time, one of new beginnings celebrated with bonfires and festivals.
In agricultural communities, fine weather on Midsummer Day portends a fruitful season. This year, start summer or mark its midpoint by adopting, or adapting, one or more of these practices.
In Sweden, Midsommar is a national holiday, second only to Christmas. All Swedes take to the countryside and make their own Midsummer flower garland. This is then followed by a lunch of pickled herring with potatoes, dill and chives, drinking nubbe (vodka schnapps), and dancing around a tall pole adorned with fresh-picked flowers.
In Latvia, folks feast on bacon pie and sweet beer, and, in the dark hours of the short night, search for a fern blossom believed to be a lucky charm for lovers. Choose your lucky charm and organize a search party.
In Lithuania, this day is also called St. John’s Day or Rasos (Dew Holiday). Traditions include singing and dancing on Midsummer Eve, jumping over bonfires, searching for the magic fern flower at midnight, and washing the face with morning dew to greet the midsummer sun.
In Estonia, this day is known as Jaanipäev (“Jaan’s Day”) and is celebrated on the night prior (June 23). On this evening, there is much dancing, singing, eating, and drinking, as well as the main event: jumping over the bonfire to dispel bad luck!
In Greece, locals re-enact a 2,500-year solstice tradition: They hike to the peak of Mt. Olympus, with an elevation of 9,573 feet. Take a walk!
In Britain, folks surround the ancient Stonehenge monument and dance and play drums to mark the Sun’s solstice peek—and peaking appearance—between slivers of rock. Stop whatever you’re doing while the Sun pauses overhead. See more about Stonehenge and ancient seasonal markers.
In Kraków, Poland, girls make flower-and-herb wreaths and float them down the Wisla River. If a boy takes up a girl’s garland, the belief is that they will marry. (If the wreath sinks, it is believed that the girl will die young!) Wreaths that connect while afloat symbolize two girls’ lifelong friendship. Fashion a flower or vine wreath.
Italy has regional midsummer traditions: In Rome, people eat snails. It is believed that these horned creatures will protect the consumer from devilry. In northern Italy, cooks prepare dishes with aged balsamic vinegar; this is the time when the year’s grapes are entering a critical stage of development. Sprinkle balsamic vinegar on a salad.
On Midsummer’s Eve, Danes dine with family and friends, then celebrate with bonfires into which they throw effigies of witches made of hay. Light a candle!
Watch this silly video for a bit of fun.
Do something to mark these moments because soon, you will see shadows grow longer as the day length begins to decline … and you might wish that you had.