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Midsummer Day

The holiday, in fact, is not the Midsummer Day, June 24, but the evening and night preceding it. The holiday coincides with the summer solstice. At the beginning of the 20th century it was observed all over Lithuania, now it is more popular in the northern and central parts of the country. Although St. John the Baptist occupies a very important place in the hierarchy of saints, the Church does not attach any great importance to the celebration of his nativity, which falls on the Midsummer Day. It is a festival of simple people, connected with the veneration of fire. Young girls adorn their heads with flower wreaths. A tall pole with a wooden wheel soaked in tar or filled with birch bark is hoisted at the top of the highest hill in the vicinity. Men whose names are Jonas (John) set the wheels on fire and make bonfires around it. In some places a second pole is hoisted with flowers and herbs. Young people dance round the fire, sing songs about rye, play games, men try to jump over the fire. The burning wheels on the poles are rolled down the hill into a river or a lake at its foot, men jumping over it all along. On the Midsummer Day people weed the rye and burn all the weeds.

On Midsummer Day's morning witches acquire special powers, they drag towels over the dewy grass to affect cows' milk. To save their cows from the witches' magic farmers shut them in cowsheds for the Midsummer Night and stick bunches of nettle in the door to scare the witches away. On Midsummer Day cows are driven out to pasture in the early after- noon when there is no more dew on the grass. Horses, however, are left to graze in the open throughout the night, or the witches magic has no effect on them.

On Midsummer Day dew has special healing powers. Young girls wash their faces in it to make themselves beautiful, older people do the same to make themselves younger. It is good to walk barefoot in dew on Midsummer Day's morning, for it saves the skin from getting chapped.

Midsummer Day and the time immediately preceding it is believed to have special powers. Medicinal herbs collected from June 1 to the Midsummer Day can cure 12 (some say 99) diseases. There are girls who save their Midsummer Day's wreaths all the year round. Great importance is attached to the Midsummer Day's fire. Its embers are brought home to make the hearth fire, and its ashes are spread in the fields.

There are numerous stories about the fern, which comes into blossom in the thick of the woods on Midsummer Night. He who finds a fern blossom becomes a wise, rich and happy man. But it is not easy to find a fern blossom, for horrible monsters and witches try to scare everybody away so that they could snatch the blossom themselves. Everybody who wants to find a fern blossom must know that only nine-year-old ferns can burst into blossom, that it is necessary to spread a silk kerchief under the clump for the blossom to fall onto, to draw a circle around oneself with a rowan stick hallowed in church, light a candle and pray in defiance of the monsters around. The blossom that drops onto the kerchief looks like a speck of gold. It is best to saw it under the skin of a finger or the palm, then nobody will steel it from you.

Only a very good man can hope to find a fern blossom and it can happen only once in his lifetime, Sometimes the fern blossom drops into a poor man's bast shoe unawares and suddenly the man acquires knowledge of the hidden treasures, of the speech of animals and birds, trees and bees. But when the man comes home and takes off his shoes, the fern blossom falls out, all the man's knowledge disappears.

Young people play games all through Midsummer Night until sunrise or until dew falls out, Girls float wreaths on rivers to find out their prospects for marriage. The farther their wreaths float the sooner they will get married. It is also very important which bank the wreath will stop at. Sometimes a burning candle or a bowl filled with burning tar is fixed in the middle of the wreath. A great number of Midsummer Night's superstitions and customs are similar to those observed on Christmas Eve. A girl will marry the man whom she will see in her dream walking along the straw placed across the bowl of water under her bed or who will dry his face on the towel placed beside her bed. The future husband will come from the direction in which she notices the first bonfire on Midsummer Night.

On the eve of Midsummer Night people adorn the wayside shrines which contain figurines of St. John. They also honour all Johns they know. This they do in various ways, for example, by fixing a wreath of oak leaves around his door. This is usually done in secret and the man thus honoured must guess whose job it was (or catch him doing it) and give him a treat.

The research done by the author of the present book in the past five years has convinced him that the customs of Christmas Eve and Midsummer Night, which coincide with the winter and summer soltices, are very closely connected. Sometimes the Christmas Eve table is covered exclusively with the hay mown just before Midsummer Night. Superstitions and customs of the two feasts are very similar. Christmas Eve customs are dominated by darkness, veneration of death and the dead, expectation, feeding of birds in a cart wheel, running round the house with a bowl of pudding, walking round the orchard. Those are all symbols of time. The summer soltice - Midsummer Night - is dominated by symbols of the sun, such as burning cart wheels hoisted high on poles which are adorned with wreaths of herbs and flowers, symbols of growth. In honour of the sun the fire from the bonfires is brought home to light the hearth, the fields are sprinkled with ash. Later these customs blended with those of Easter. The lighting of bonfires is the privilege of men who are called John. Sometimes it is the privilege of the oldest of all Johns in the vicinity. Those and other details in the celebration Of Midsummer Night testify that in the pre-Christian period Midsummer Night was celebrated as a feast of the sun.


next previous contents
Next: FAMILY CUSTOMS Previous: Easter

J. Kudirka "THE LITHUANIANS"

Copyright , 1996 Lithuanian Folk Culture Centre.