This feast goes by many names -- Litha, Summer Solstice, St. John's Eve, and Midsummer among them. This is the time of the Summer Solstice, and this festival can occur - depending on how leap year arranges things - between June 20-23. Since by Celtic calendrical reckoning the season of summer begins on Beltane, May 1st, Midsummer is exactly that -- the middle of summer! What that looks like depends on your locale, but where I live this is a gloriously beautiful time of the year. Oh yes, we do have our sea fogs here along the coast, but most of the days are bright, sunny, and mildly warm. Flowers are everywhere in bloom, peaches, apricots, and cherries are showing up at the Farmer's Market, and all nature seems a glorious and beautiful burst of growth.
The Summer Solstice embodies a mystery and a paradox. The sun has reached its northernmost point in the sky, and now begins its six-month journey southward. This day marks the year's longest day and shortest night, the time of the sun's greatest power. Yet, paradoxically, it also marks the time when the power and light of the sun begin to wane. From this day on the hours of daylight grow shorter, and the year darkens.
This is a day that many people have celebrated in many ways through out the ages. To our European ancestors it was a time to take advantage of the sun's strength and power for protection. In many places throughout Europe the solstice - under its Christian name of St. John's Eve - was celebrated by night-time vigils, bonfires, and the blessing of cattle, crops, and children. Such a time of brightness and flowering abundance was also a time of great faery power, and people were on guard against such a danger, as it was well-known that this was the faeries' favorite time of the year for kidnapping beautiful women and children to take back to their realm. Often herbal charms, using such things as St. John's Wort flowers, were made to help ward off this danger. But the power of fire - in the form of bonfires and the brilliance and warmth of the summer sun - was thought to be the most powerful shielding-power against any danger.
Inherent in these and other Summer Solstice beliefs is the knowledge that, always, light contains the seed of darkness, just as darkness contains the seed of light - a mystery which is acknowledged at the opposite time of the year, the Winter Solstice.
Several years ago, while pondering what kind of ceremony our famly and friends should do for the Solstice, it came to me quite strongly that what was required was a ceremony of thanksgiving to the elements, the faeries, the nature spirits, and the God and Goddess for the bounty and beauty of this gorgeous, uplifting and bountiful time of the year. So when all gathered later that night at my home, I placed a few items in a picnic basket, grabbed a blanket, and we took ourselves off to the beach - only a short distance away.
Our basket contained flowers, sage, sweetgrass, cornmeal and tobacco, as well as cookies and tea. Once we'd found our spot on the beach we built a bonfire and watched as the sun began to set. Walking out to the shoreline, we frolicked in the shallow waters as tiny wavelets rippled around us, and an occasional large wave surprised us with a big, cold splash....
After the sun had dipped below the waves of our western sea, we began to make offerings. We prayed to the God and Goddess, and gave thanks. We took out our sage, lit it from the bonfire, and passed it around, purifying ourselves with its smoke. We took out the sweetgrass and lit it, and passed it around, blessing one another with its sweet fragrance. Then we took out the tobacco and cornmeal, and made offerings of these to the Air above us; the Fire - in the form of our bonfire; the Water - the nearby ocean; and the Earth beneath our feet, with prayers and love to the Spirits of these Elemental Powers. After this we offered a portion of our cookies, tea and flowers, as well. During this we spoke from our hearts, giving thanks for the gifts of light, life and comradeship, as well as for the beauties of the Earth.
When this was done several of us felt the need to walk to the shoreline again -- to be in that magical place between land and water, just as the sky seemed to be between day and night, and we seemed to feel between the worlds of human and spirit. Finally, we returned to our bonfire, and spent the remainder of the evening sharing mysterious, magical and otherworldly stories as the darkness deepened around us, and the moon rose high into the sky.
It was such an altogether satisfying night, that we've repeated this particular ceremony every year since then!