Why Midsummer Could Be The New Christmas
“the most wonderful time of year,” you hear repeatedly... in the cold, dark months of December. You know, just when you’re frazzled and skint and don’t want to spend another minute being elbowed in a crowded shopping centre. If you’re not worrying about how you’re going to pay off your credit card, you’re worrying about how you’re going to cope for twelve hours in a contained space with your in-laws, or wishing that you didn’t have to set your alarm for 4am on Christmas Day to get the turkey cooked.
No, I’m sorry, but surely now is the most wonderful time of year? Think light evenings where you seem to have so much more energy for country walks and bike rides; beautiful English gardens overflowing with colour and the delicious, lingering scent of lavender; drinking rosé in the sunshine with friends. I may be a bah humbug in the winter, but I just adore the summer.
I have two children, and have always put on a good show at Christmas for their sakes, but as they grew older they began to realise that my heart wasn’t truly in it. I’ve always felt rather guilty about this and a few years ago, I had an idea... “Right, you lot!” I cried, in my best galvanising-the-troops voice. “Since I know I moan a lot at Christmas, we’re going to have a new annual celebration – a Midsummer party!” (or words to that effect; it was quite a long time ago).
The roots of Midsummer festivities go back to pre-history. Until Tudor times, people celebrated with bonfires, feasting and dancing; but increasingly, the Christian Church became intolerant of this wild behaviour and during the Reformation, the date was appropriated as the Feast of St John. The church had already incorporated the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice into Christmas and many of its traditions, such as decorating with holly and ivy, are deeply symbolic to pagans. In the ancient past, people believed that the winter sun was ‘dying’. The Romans celebrated the ‘return of the sun’ (its re-birth) with the ‘Feast of the Unconquerable Sun’ on 25 December. One theory is that an early Roman Bishop chose this date so that persecuted Christians could celebrate the birth of their Saviour without risk of revealing their true religious conviction. Sadly, the Feast of St John didn’t catch on in the same way, and Midsummer now passes by unremarked, and uncelebrated, by English cultural tradition…
Which is a shame, because in other countries they do still celebrate Midsummer. All over Northern Europe they light bonfires and party into the night. In Sweden, Midsummer there have been serious discussions about turning it into a national holiday. Perhaps the British affection for summer festivals stems from an unconscious, primitive desire to reclaim the biggest Medieval party of the year.
Maybe I read Dodie’s Smith’s I Capture the Castle at too impressionable an age. I was smitten with Cassandra Mortmain, and wanted to copy all her preparations for Midsummer celebrations, adapted from her childhood book on ancient folklore. I was only about fourteen at the time, and wanted to weave wild flowers in my hair, and dance around a ‘votive fire’ (I still don’t know what a votive fire is, but doesn’t it sound romantic?). A few years later I saw Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream performed in the most dreamy setting possible: at the edge of woodland, at twilight on a balmy June evening. My love for Midsummer was complete.
Liberated from the constraints of Christmas (does anyone really like dry turkey and sprouts? ) I began to plan our summer party. We would have a bonfire; we would have a BBQ, the grown-ups would drink fizz and we would toast marshmallows. But I would also reinforce some spiritual values (good Christian ones of respect and thankfulness, arguably lost in the modern day materialism of Christmas) and I asked each of my family to write down on a piece of paper three things we were grateful for, and three things we wanted to achieve over the coming year. We then read them out and tossed them into the fire. For some dramatic effect (my family sweetly humoured me) I read out a Midsummer poem, too.
The children and my husband do think I’m a little strange, but we all had a magical time and have repeated the whole thing every year ever since. So to quote Andy Williams and his famous Christmas song: at this ‘most wonderful time of the year... there will be parties for hosting, and marshmallows for toasting,’ but for one family they will be in June, in the sunshine, in the garden. Heavenly.