Friday 19 June 2009

Midsummer - A question of dates

Someone emailed me a question the other day:

"I’m trying to find out the date of the next witches meeting, is it on the longest day/shortest night and is it the 24th/25th June this year?"
Witches' summer festival takes place on 20/21st of June, which is the date of the Summer Solstice - or the longest day - each year. Wiccan witches call this festival Litha, which means summer in Saxon.

It is one of their eight solar holidays in the Wheel of the Year - others being the equinixes, when night and day are equal length; Imbolc, or the start of spring; Beltane, or May Day; Lughnasadh, or the harvest; Samhain, or Halloween; and Yule, or midwinter.

Litha is a festival to mark the marriage of the God and Goddess and is also a popular day for handfastings - pagan weddings, in which the couple to be married are symbolically joined by a chord around their hands.

However, for hundreds of years most people in Europe have celebrated midsummer on June 24, the Christian Feast of John the Baptist. This is only a few days after the solstice and just before the days start to become noticeably shorter.

According to Ronald Hutton's well-regarded book Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, mid to late June appears to have been a popular time for festivities in many parts of Europe. These often involved fire - with bonfires, torchlit processions and sometimes rolling burning wheels down a hill.

These fires were often seen as a form of purification and to ward off evil, but may also have symbolised the fire of the sun, particularly as a burning wheel is a common sun symbol. Ronald Hutton believes there is enough evidence to suggest midsummer fire festivals stretch back to pagan times. He states:

"The dossier seems to be complete enough to speak confidently of a pre-Christian seasonal ritual of major importance."
This year, with the solstice falling at a weekend, most pagans will be definitely celebrating midsummer on the 20th or 21st of June. However, when that date is midweek, most witches will celebrate on the closest weekend - which may sometimes be nearer to the 24th of June, or traditional midsummer.

To find out about organised pagan events this solstice, have a look at What to do this summer solstice.

Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

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