Midsummer is a traditional holiday celebrated throughout many of the world’s cultures, with ancient origins. It is the celebration of the summer solstice, an important astronomical date on the annual cycle. It is celebrated on or near the 21st of June. In many Celtic communities it is commonly celebrated on June 24th.
Due to its connection with the agricultural cycle, Midsummer is most often celebrated on the 21st of June by modern Heathens and neo-pagans as one of the eight sabbats. In Revival Druidry it is called Alban Heruin and is one of the four high holidays.
The summer solstice is the longest day of the year, with the sun at its strongest, therefore Midsummer represents the triumph of light over darkness. The solar hero born at Yule and celebrated as the child of light is now at his peak. He overthrows the oppressive king of winter and takes his rightful place upon the throne of the earth. Just as in our time today, in ancient days marriages often occurred at Midsummer.
As an agricultural holiday, in many parts of the world this is the earliest time that a harvest can be made since the springtime sowing; therefore it is a festival of first fruits. Traditional Midsummer rites are often centered on bonfires. New fires would be kindled and offerings of flowers were made to them. In many communities an effigy of a person would be burned in the bonfire. Similarly to Beltane, cattle would be driven through the smoke of the fires as a means of blessing, protecting and enhancing the livelihood of the tribe and community. Torches were lit from central bonfires and carried home where the hearth was lit. Participants would dance around these fires and tend them throughout the night. This all-night affair was commonly called “the watch,” and it was an integral part of the festivities. Near the early morning when he fires had died down some, some of the revelers would jump over the flames for good luck and to encourage the crops to grow.
Similar traditions are found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Native American communities such as the Creeks, Seminoles, Cherokee, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and many others of the Eastern Woodland traditions celebrate the Green Corn rite: the new fire ceremony, the New Year, the greatest fast culminating in the first feast of the year.
At this time in the environment, the wild flora is also at its peak, especially of the medicinal variety, so this holiday also has a focus on gathering and honoring medicine. Blackberries and wild plums are also ripening, making for natural symbols of this season. On the Muskogee calendar, June is Kvco Hvse or “Blackberry Sun.”
In many Germanic countries the Maypole is celebrated at Midsummer. In some communities the Maypole was left up from Beltane and burned at Midsummer. Midsummer is the height of the spiritual year. Medicine is strongest at this time. Spirits of nature and of the ancestors, both good and malevolent are very active on a Midsummer’s night which inspired one of Shakespear’s most classic works; A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
These woods are like home to me. Whenever I return it is as if I have come back to my spiritual center. This is where it truly began for me. I was a misguided youth full of angst and hostility, disillusioned by the world, and spiritually injured. But these woods are a place of healing and renewal, and they changed me. Over the years I’ve seen other people changed by these woods as well.
The medicine is strong along this creek. The waters are crisp, clear and purifying, and I swear I can hear the voices from generations of spirits echo through the clay-bank valleys, enticing me to release the stresses and pains of my mortal existence, bringing my spirit back to light.
I had my first powerful vision here, where I was healed and transformed into something that could be of better service to my people; something I’m ashamed to admit I had strayed too far from over recent years.
I have experienced giving, sharing, and loving in these woods that are too rarely found in the outside world.
We’ve had gatherings of great souls, teaching circles, solstice and equinox festivities. Barefoot hippies, country kids, urbanites rediscovering themselves and an assortment of other wanderers have met here as family to share in each other’s good graces. Bonfires and drums, maypoles, and moonlight dancing bringing people together in love and laughter. Here, we are free.
I remember a stew once made. A dozen camps contributed to it. The missing ingredient to tie it all together, an onion was nowhere to be found. Then down the trail came some new arrivals for the evening, and packed in their gear was just such an onion which they gladly contributed. “I don’t even know why I packed it.” He said. “I just grabbed it and threw it in my cooler because I thought it might come in handy.” So into the stew pot it went, to simmer over the open flames. A dozen camps were fed from this stew and there was an abundance that never seemed to end. It was like a true “loaves and fishes” story.
Here we were free to be in our spirits, and the only law was love. Not a law to be rigidly enforced, but simply lived. This is where I learned to love openly. I felt the darkness I carried with me lifted and I was made new. It was beautiful. It is beautiful. And it is where I learned to see beauty in this world that I had for so long been so cynical about.
This is why these woods and this river are the place I return to when my spirit needs healing, or if I just need to get away from the noise and distractions that cloud my visions and confine my inner light. Meditation is stronger here. Prayers become reality and love can be embraced.
Though I have experienced many great lands and beautiful environments, I’ve never known another place quite like this.
Yule is an ancient Germanic midwinter celebration better known today by the name Christmas. Being associated with the winter solstice, Yule is traditionally a twelve-day festival centered near the days of December 21st. Although Yule is a holiday of Germanic origin, the traditions and symbolism associated with it have been absorbed by the Christmas holiday and practiced in variations throughout the world. Similarly the Romans celebrated the Saturnalia: a festival of great significance on December 25th, the date that was adopted as the official date for Christmas. Due to Christianization, these similar holidays are now united throughout most of Western society as Christmas, but many of the traditions associated with it are of pre-Christian, and Heathen origin.
Over the centuries through colonialism, missionary infiltration, and technological development unrelated and often foreign mythologies were grafted onto the significant dates so that the original meanings and reasons for our oldest holidays have been all but forgotten in popular culture. It’s not just coincidence that the Yuldetide falls at the solstice time. That is precisely the point.
Solstice time is significant to human society for a number of reasons. Since the beginning of autumn as the earth has tilted on its axis, the sun’s rays have begun to hit the earth’s northern hemisphere less directly causing the air to cool off and the seasons to change into winter. Winter in Northern Europe was a perilous time for the ancient tribal peoples of Northern Europe with average daily temperatures consistently below freezing. Crops will not grow. The herds are thin and wild animals that were so abundant in the summer are scarce. The grass is brown with death and trees stand naked, stripped bare save for the evergreen which has taken on the symbolism of everlasting life. For our ancestors, the people fared little better. We have a term for this time of year, “the dead of winter.” Since the harvest, death has seemed to surround the tribe.
During winter the daylight hours appear dimmer and get progressively shorter and the nights longer and colder. Winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. It is the longest night and symbolically at least, the coldest of the winter nights. It sounds depressing doesn’t it? For a lot of people it is. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real winter-induced condition that has otherwise been colloquially called the “winter blues” and has been documented in Northern Europe since the 6th century. Recommended treatments include Light Therapy, exposure to bright light. And what is Christmastime without Christmas lights? These LED bulbs that we cover our houses, yards and Christmas trees in are easily traced back to festive Christmas candles and most anciently and significantly the hearth fire, the social and spiritual center of the traditional Western home.
Notice the Yuletide is the annual time for good cheer. Why the middle of winter instead of any other time of year? Because during no other time of year are people in need of such uplifting sentiment and behavior than in the dead of winter in Northern Europe. Of course it is the darkest and often most depressing time of the year that the people would choose to lighten the mood with shimmering lights and “making spirits bright.” This ages old Yule tradition of decorating the house with lights, wreaths, ribbons, and shiny, joyous symbols is a wonderful way to lift the mood when it’s needed most.
And these festivities center and culminate around these particular dates in December for specific astronomical reasons. At this point the Earth begins to tilt on her axis in a manner that allows for more of the sun’s rays to shine directly upon the northern hemisphere, allowing the days to grow longer and the frigid nights to grow shorter. These are the first stirrings of the coming summer. In contrast with the atmosphere of death that has surrounded the people through the autumn, we can now look forward once again toward spring and summer, the time of life and abundance. It is almost as if the new year has been born again and we are saved.
Joseph Campbell took great effort to document the depth and breadth of the solar hero motif in its various forms from the divine child to the dying god, and metaphorically, poetically it’s a powerful image. This distinct relationship between the earth and the sun is likened to a procreative act that bares life and provides the conditions for abundance. The winter solstice bares the New Year sun like a child who will grow into a hero and eventually die before being reborn over and over again. The hero’s life is a personified metaphor for the annual cycle. The birth of the solar hero, the sun god, the god of the tribe is the first step toward the fulfillment of an annual prophecy: a divine promise that the summer will come again, that life will flourish once more on the earth. The passing of these last days of the most deadly time of winter is celebrated with revelry at the birth of the sun, the personification of the sacred year.
Over thousands of years the prominence of one mythology over another distanced the people more and more from the astronomical significance and the agricultural affects associated with the winter solstice. Depending on the region of the world different characters are associated with the holiday. For many people today Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. For others the central figure is Santa Claus, a popularly marketed fusion of an old Christian Saint Nicholas and Odin, the Nordic Allfather. In other countries there a witches, demonoid monsters, and logs that represent the winter holiday. Otherwise the oldest and most traditional symbols of the Yuletide remain pretty consistent with their seasonal significance.
When we consider the Yuletide and are faced with deciphering the meaning of it all, or the reason for the season it’s important to remember it is the astronomical relationship between the earth and the sun which has caused the northern hemisphere to experience conditions antagonistic to survival. It’s cold. It’s dark. It can be depressing. So we light up and try to spread good cheer to each other during these times. At the worst part of the year is the winter solstice and for the most part the worst of the winter is behind and we have the joys and abundance of summer ahead. That is something worth celebrating.
Toasting is a peculiar custom in Western society. Nearly everyone who has a drink makes toasts, but few realize that they are taking part in an ancient custom with roots in the old pre-Christian religions of Northern and Western Europe: the Sumble.
The Sumble is an ancient communion rite that was historically practiced by Germanic and Celtic peoples. This rite is portrayed in the epic poem Beowulf and other sources of Germanic and Nordic folklore. Sumble is closely related to the English tradition of Wassailing, popular especially as part of the Yuletide.
The majority of those whom actively participate in Sumble today are religious Heathens, practitioners of the old Germanic and Celtic religions. They base their rite directly off of the 11th and 12th century Nordic customs as recorded in their respective texts. In its most basic elements it consists of a gathering into a drinking hall, or a circle, a blessing or consecration is recited over the drink, a libation, and a sharing of the sacrament by the participants from the same vessel.
The sacrament is usually ale or mead, and historically it was served with toast. This is where the term toast originates, as in drinking a toast. A series of rounds of toasting take place. In rites in which the Sumble is the central or sole focus there are typically a minimum of three rounds. In traditional Heathenry it is standard for the first round to be dedicated to gods, the second round is dedicated to heroes and the third round is dedicated to ancestors.
The leader of the ceremony typically makes the first toast to a patron deity, takes a drink from his drinking horn. Then, the next person in order makes his toast. This continues in order until all have had a chance to toast. Then that round is ended and the second round begins. After the third round the rite may come to an end or it may continue.
If the Sumble continues any number of themes may be proposed. Common themes are boasts in which the participants are allowed a chance to tell a tale of their own great successes. Oaths may be sworn, goals may be professed, and gifts may be exchanged. Open rounds may also be called in which anything of value may be offered to the community: stories, songs, poems, or prayers. This may continue to a specified number of rounds, until the sacrament is completely consumed or until the participants have nothing more to contribute.