By Clover Carroll
We need more magic in our lives. If you agree with this statement, you will be pleased to know there is a strong magic forecast for the month of June. Try going outside on Midsummer’s Eve and looking for signs of fairies, gnomes, and elves all around you. According to ancient beliefs, not only are fairies abroad at Midsummer, but it is also a potent time to perform romantic and fertility rituals. Put some fern seed in your shoe and wish upon a star, or perform a love divination such as this one: with your right hand, throw seed over your left shoulder while saying “hemp-seed I sow, hemp-seed I sow, And he that must be my true love, Come after me and mow” (oxfordreference.com). On the ninth repetition, you will see your lover coming toward you—or hear your death knell. Decorate a maypole with leaves and flowers, weave yourself a wildflower crown, and dance around it. Build a bonfire to keep away the witches. Look for solstice celebrations by the local dancing community. When I was in elementary school (so long ago!), we performed the maypole dance every spring, weaving many-colored ribbons into a lovely braid that hugged the pole when we were through.
As I wrote in a previous column, when my mother learned she was pregnant with me she encouraged my five-year-old sister to put a fern in her shoe on Midsummer’s Eve and to wish for a baby sister or brother to keep her company. When her wish for a blond, blue-eyed baby sister came true the following February (you do the math), my sister thought I was a magical gift for which she felt a special responsibility. My sister and I were lucky to be raised to believe in magic and to develop our imaginations, and I miss the sense of wonder this gave to my childhood—a dimension that seems largely missing from modern American life. Dodie Smith’s charming 1998 book I Capture the Castle highlights this contrast of cultures when wealthy Simon, newly arrived in England from America, and narrator Cassandra share their first kiss on a magical Midsummer’s Eve as, wearing flower garlands and dancing around the bonfire, they perform “the rites” of throwing herbs on the fire and eating ceremonial cake. He is bewitched by the romance and magic of the mist-shrouded, dilapidated British castle where Cassandra’s family lives and which she embodies. Their romance blossoms—in spite of his engagement to Cassandra’s sister!
What we call the first day of summer is known in Europe as Midsummer—Midsommar in Sweden, or Sommer-sonnenwende in Germany. The summer solstice on June 21, the longest day of the year, is celebrated in many countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Britain, Ireland, Germany, Quebec, Bulgaria, Russia, Latvia, Estonia, and even Brazil as a major holiday, often the biggest holiday of the year besides Christmas. In some areas of Scandinavia that may be only a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle, nighttime is short or nonexistent at this time, leading to all-night revels under the “midnight sun.” This pagan celebration dates back to Viking times, when farmers would appeal to the gods for a generous harvest, and mark the break between spring sowing and summer hay-making. Later Christianized in some countries as the nativity of St. John the Baptist (Juhannus in Finland, Johannesnacht in Germany, and Ivan’s (John’s) Day in Russia), the two traditions have blended into a major festival that often kicks off the summer holidays. In the Swedish celebration revellers wear traditional folk costumes and wildflower crowns as they dance around a garlanded maypole or midsommarstang. They feast on traditional foods such as pickled herring in dill sauce and smoked salmon with mustard sauce, drink aquavit (water of life)—a vodka-like liquor spiced with cardamom, cumin, or dill—and sing traditional songs such as “Sma Grodorna” and “Helan Gar” (enjoy them on iTunes or YouTube). They light bonfires to ward off evil spirits and young people try to jump over to gain protection. In Austria, a spectacular procession of ships sails down the Danube River through the Wachau Valley as fireworks light the sky and bonfires blaze in the vineyards. In Bulgaria and Spain, sorceresses and enchantresses gather medicinal plants such as fern, rue, rosemary, and foxglove at midnight or sunrise to make charms to cure disease. And in one town in Latvia, according to Wikipedia, people run through the town naked at 3:00 in the morning!
The fairy folklore and ancient association of Midsummer’s Eve with romance and fertility did not need Shakespeare to make them famous, but it is in this tradition that he wrote perhaps his most popular comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its fairy king and queen, mischievous Puck, love potions, and romantic entanglements that end with multiple weddings. “O, what fools these mortals be!” Puck giggles, affording us a new perspective on romantic affairs! The “secret shadows and mystic lights” of this season are also celebrated in “Ballade of Midsummer Days and Nights” by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), best known for his poem “Invictus.” This ballad, or song with a repeated refrain (envoy), needs no explanation—just enjoy it! Approach this year’s summer solstice with more awareness of the magic that is all around us. As Roald Dahl admonishes, “those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”