10 things you didn’t know (and probably don’t need to know) about Midsummer
- Credit: PA
Today marks the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year above the equator and the turning point after which the sun starts rising later and setting earlier.
I don't work on Mondays, so they never feel like the longest day of the year or even the week: they feel like the shortest of all days because everything I can't do when I'm working has to be fitted into one 24-hour period. This is what it's like being a woman who has it all – you become a woman who'd like to take some of it back for a refund.
Solstice comes from the Latin solsitium which means 'sun stands still', an illusion which occurs on the longest day of the year when the Earth is as tilted as far as it can towards the sun.
Celebrated since ancient times, people around the world celebrate the day in a range of ways: I will be celebrating today by doing the washing, cleaning the toilets and wrestling with the recycling bins but elsewhere, there will be feasting, dancing, bonfires, drinking, hopping (see below) and horse worshipping (ditto).
Ancient Britons erected Stonehenge as a national calendar in around 2500BC, the French worshipped a Mare Goddess who personified fertility, Native American tribes held ritual dances to honour the sun while painted red, blue, yellow, white and black, the Polish threw wreaths into the sea and the Russians jumped over bonfires.
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And the celebrations are still very much alive and kicking in Europe where the Swedish plan to hop round a maypole in the style of frogs singing a Midsummer song, Sma Grodorna, which includes the lyrics 'little frogs are funny to look at, they don't have ears or tails' while in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Midsummer Day is a public holiday.
In the Latvian town of Kuldiga, Midsummer night is marked by people running naked through the streets at 3am – if that's not a compelling reason to vote 'remain' on Thursday, I don't know what is. Happy Midsummer Night's dreaming.
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• 10 things you didn't know (and probably don't need to know) about Midsummer
1. Midsummer is traditionally celebrated on June 24, three days after the longest day of the year. It marks the middle of summer and first step towards winter. There's a cheering thought - you've barely dusted off your bikini and it's already time to think about your thermals. To put it even more simply, tomorrow marks the first day of the death of summer - every day from now on grinds inexorably towards the impenetrable darkness of winter and the relentless expense of Christmas. Still, chin up, eh?
2. On the eve of Midsummer's Day many moons ago, bonfires were lit across the country in praise of the sun. With days shortening, people believed the sun was getting weaker and that fires would strengthen its power. You'd struggle to get that logic past today's Health and Safety officials who would prefer it if you showed a video of a fire rather than an actual fire and will claim to you that this will appease the Sun Gods equally. It won't.
3. June is the month most associated with marriages, although I have it on good authority that the coolest people get married in April, instead (ahem). Midsummer lore says placing nine kinds of flowers under your pillow tomorrow night will reveal the identity of your future spouse in a dream. It may well also reveal a few spiders, ladybirds and caterpillars if you've forgotten to run your flowers under the tap before bedtime or reveal a costly chiropractor's bill when you wake up the next morning with a locked neck after sleeping on a massive bouquet. It is considered poor form to use witchcraft to divine the identity of your future spouse if you are ostensibly happily married to your present spouse.
4. After Christianity was adopted, Midsummer became known as St John's Day; the birthday of St John the Baptist. On St John's Eve, it was believed all-night vigils at sacred sites could (best case scenario) empower you with magical skills or (worst case scenario) leave you completely insane, dead or spirited away by the fairies. It was a potentially high price to pay for being the Middle Ages' equivalent of Paul Daniels (RIP) but one has to make one's own entertainment when there's no telly.
5. Midsummer weddings were traditionally followed by a month of drinking honey wine to ensure long, fruitful marriages. This 'staying drunk for 30-days straight' policy cunningly ensured a plentiful supply of March heirs, nine months later and is also where the phrase 'honeymoon' is believed to come from. It derives from ye olde expression 'hangovermoon'. Maybe. Please take a moment to appreciate my 'March heirs' play on words: gold dust.
6. One of Shakespeare's most-performed plays is A Midsummer Night's Dream. The word Midsummer isn't mentioned once in the play, bizarrely, and Samuel Pepys gave it short shrift when he saw it in September 1662. His review was cutting: 'we saw 'Midsummer's Night's Dream,' which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure.' Clearly a man who can spot comedy when he sees it (and when he doesn't).
7. Shakespeare weaved the fairy legends and lovers' traditions into A Midsummer Night's Dream, where quarrelling lovers, both human and otherworldly, madden each other using a magical herb potion - the medieval forerunner of alcopops.
8. Many of Britain's stone circles and ancient monuments are aligned to the sunrise on Midsummer's Day, most famously at Stonehenge in Wiltshire. My Mum once camped next to the stones at Stonehenge when that kind of thing wasn't frowned upon by English Heritage. There is no more to this particular anecdote, which really disappointed me. I was hoping for a few hallucinogenic episodes and chanting but actually it appears it was just a bit cold and uncomfortable.
9. It's said that any rose picked on Midsummer's Eve will keep fresh until Christmas. Then again, the same wise sage that offered this tip also claimed fern seed picked at Midsummer made people invisible and guided them to buried treasure, so don't hold out too much hope.
10. The Portuguese celebrate Midsummer by bashing their neighbours over the head with a whole garlic plant for good luck. Vampires and people who don't take kindly to being assaulted by an allium are therefore advised to avoid Portugal in late June, for obvious reasons.