In full sulk at my desk, I searched (and sulked), searched (and sulked) and apart from the very famous and rather glorious Trooping of the Colour on 14 June this year (that has been a tradition in one form or another since around the 1700’s); I wondered what other festivals Britons celebrate in summer and established that Midsummer seems to be quite a big, fat hairy deal in some regions.
Midsummer has long been a time when myth and reality converge, when deities dance in woodlands and fiery festivities mark the advent of Midsummer’s Day. Primarily a European tradition, different countries have their own unique and often colourful take on this festival.
While the Summer Solstice falls on June 21st, celebrations often occur on Midsummer’s Day (June 24th) – the solstice during Roman times and considered the middle of summertime. Midsummer’s Eve (June 23) has long been connected to magical beings such as fairies (popularised in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), while stone circles are said to come alive with ancient folk who melt away into the dawn of Midsummer’s Day. Originally a pagan holiday, Christianity labelled June 24th as the feast of John the Baptist. The resulting celebrations are often an odd cocktail of Christianity and paganism, dedicated to John through the use of very pre-Christian rites and imagery.
Midsummer Carnivals, Ireland
Many towns and cities in Ireland have Midsummer Carnivals with fairs, concerts and fireworks. Festivities are usually held on Midsummer’s Day or the nearest weekend. In rural places, bonfires are occasionally lit on hilltops, similar to Cornwall. This tradition has its roots in pagan times, with traditional offerings traditionally made in County Limerick to deities connected to Midsummer, like Áine.
Golowan, Cornwall, England
Traditional Midsummer bonfires still burn on high hills in Cornwall, such as Carn Brea and Castle an Dinas, St. Columb Major. The Old Cornwall Society revived the tradition in the early 20th century. Bonfires in Cornwall were once common as part of Golowan, now celebrated at Penzance. The week-long festival normally starts on the Friday nearest St John’s Day, and culminates in Mazey Day – a revival of the Feast of St John (Gol-Jowan) with fireworks and bonfires.
Chester Midsummer Watch Festival, England
Midsummer’s Eve in Britain has commonly been a time of fairies and other outlandish beings. But other midsummer festivities – even those based on biblical events, such as the Chester Mystery Plays – were unpopular with the Reformed establishment due to their roots in Catholicism, and were duly banned. The Chester Midsummer Watch Parade, beginning in 1498, was held every Summer Solstice when the mystery plays were not performed. Key characters in the parade included giants and unicorns, which was banned with costumes destroyed by 1675. Today though, the plays are back, and have enjoyed a healthy rejuvenation.
I’ve hatched a cunning plan. I’m going to build a bonfire around the water coolers in the office, hire a fairy costume and prance around between all the water coolers on 24 June all by my toddlesome – one fairy can a Midsummer make in my opinion!