"Solstice" is derived from "sol," meaning sun, and "sistere," to stand still. As the summer solstice approaches, the noonday sun rises higher and higher in the sky on each successive day, but on the day of the solstice, it rises an imperceptible amount compared to the day before, and so it is said to stand still. In some languages solstices and equinoxes begin or separate the seasons; in others, they are the center points. This is so with the Summer Solstice, also known as Midsummer. The exact date and time of the Summer solstice varies every year, occurring on or about the 21st of June when the Sun enters zero degrees Cancer. This year solstice occurs today (June 21st) at 12:45 AM EST. Due to the Celtic tradition of counting days from sundown to sundown, it is customary to begin feasting the night before the holiday. In the Christian religion, June 23rd is St John's Eve, commemorating the birthday of St John the Baptist. He is the only saint remembered for his birth day rather than the day of his death, but this date was adopted by early Christian clergy in an effort to attract more parishioners just as the date of Christmas was adopted to detract from Yule.
Summer Solstice or Midsummer's Eve is the longest day of the year and the shortest night. There are many other names for this holy day however. Midsummer's Eve is only one of the most common. The name of Litha is a fairly recent appellation based on a Saxon word simply meaning opposite Yule. Alban Hefin, Alben Heruin "Light of the Shore", All-couples day, Feast of Epona, Feill-sheathain,Gathering Day, Johannistag, Mean Samhraidh, Sonnwend, and Thing-Tide are other names. In Spain, this night is called "Night of the Verbena (vervain)."
In England, large bonfires are lit after sundown which serve the double purpose of illuminating the revelers and warding off evil sprites. Next to Samhain, Midsummer's Eve is one of the favored times of the "Other Folk." One can assume that the bonfires, also called the "Fire's of Heaven," were originally meant to strengthen the sun, whose time in the sky begins to diminish now as the days pass. Such bonfires are also referred to as Need-Fire, Living-Fire, and Wild-Fire. Kindled with fern and pine needles, a combination of nine woods combine to make the fire. These include hazel, oak, apple, alder, birch, holly, willow, aspen, and ash. Other traditions like the flaming wheel and swinging a burning tar barrel may also be seen as an attempt to strengthen the dying sun.
The practice of lighting the Midsummer's Eve bonfires was referred to as "setting the watch," and people would leap over the flames for luck. In many cultures, it is customary to burn a straw effigy over the fires. This may be emblematic of the funerary rights held for Balder and other dying gods of the season. In Norway, the bonfires were called Balder's Balefires. Herds of cattle are driven through the ashes to bless them and keep them free from harm. Later, the cold ashes from the bonfires were scattered over the fields to ensure their continued health and future productivity. A procession of people known as the "marching watch" carrying cressets (pivoting lanterns atop poles) and accompanied by Morris Dancers, six hobby horse riders, and other players dressed as a unicorn and a dragon would wind from bonfire to bonfire.
At this time of year, it is customary to gather certain herbs for drying. Many can benefit from being dried over the Midsummer's Eve bonfire or at least being passed through its smoke. Birch, fennel, St John's wort, and white lilies are traditional decorations used in the warding of the home against evil, and they are best hung over the door. Five plants are thought to be most powerful if gathered Midsummer's Eve. These are roses, rue, St John's wort, vervain, and trefoil. Mistletoe is also of special import at this time. As the instrument of Baldur's death, the Norse god of summer, Mistletoe is most powerful at Midsummer, the day of his death. Other powerful herbs are chamomile, chickweed, chicory, cinquefoil, figwort, heartsease, hemp, lavender, meadowsweet, and mugwort. It was typical to dry nine herbs over the Midsummer's Eve fires, and these could be selected from the herbs above.
This is also one of the best times of the year to collect a variety of magickal paraphernalia. The June full moon is called the Honey Moon because this is one of the most appropriate times to collect the bees' gold. Sound familiar? June is named for Juno, goddess of weddings (among other things). The Honey Moon was typically the time for newly weds to celebrate, drinking mead as an aphrodisiac. Mead is brewed from the collected honey at this time (about 10 days before the solstice) and drunk during the celebration. Honey can also be kept on the alter during June rituals, and you may use it to dip your cakes.
Birds of all sort, especially water birds, are sacred as solar symbols, as are stags, oxen, and horses. Water as a healing elixir is also a solar symbol, carrying the energy of the sun for those who need it. In ancient times, offerings of glass, pottery, coins, stones, wooden figures, and gold charms were given at sacred springs, lakes, and wells, and their accompanying sacred trees were decorated with flowers and ribbons while people danced and feasted. These sacred waters were used for divination as well as healing, and the water was gathered to sprinkle over the fields and gardens for the blessing of rain and health. If you don't have access to sacred springs, ocean water is one source of magickal water which can be used on your altar. Rain water can be collected if you are not near the sea. The more electrical energy in the storm, the more powerful the water will be. (NOTE -Keep your water in a glass or porcelain jar (avoid metal), and store it on a shelf. Keeping it on the floor will ground it and make it useless for your purposes.) Adding shells, rocks from the sea, and other non-perishable sea items will keep the energy in the water higher longer.
Spells to divine your future mate are typical for Midsummer's Night. One of the simplest spells involves wearing goldenrod during the waxing of the June moon. You will glimpse your future love the following day. To divine more about your future lover, you might try twisting off the stem of an apple while reciting the alphabet. When the stem finally breaks, the letter you end on is the first letter of your true love's name. Dipping an article of clothing in "fair water" (very clear or rose water) is another way to receive a vision of your future mate. Turn it inside out and lay it on a chair in front of a fire. Place some wine and a bit of salt near the fireplace. If you remain silent, eventually the image of your true love will appear to turn your clothes around and drink a toast to you. Men, don't feel left out. At midnight, a man may go to a churchyard or holy place with a sword. Circling the area nine times (presumably clockwise though my references don't specify), he must say, "Here's the sword; where's the sheath?" On the ninth turn, his beloved is said to appear and steal a kiss.
Another tradition at this time of year was to attempt to make vigil for this, the shortest night of the year. Success was a mixed blessing. Death was one possibility, madness another, but poetic inspiration was the ultimate goal, some might say a form of divine madness all its own. Keeping vigil in an ancient stone ring was often recommended for such an undertaking, but drawing a circle to sit in could work as well.
Snakes were particularly active at this time. In ancient Britain, it was said that as they gathered to mate, they would roll themselves into a tight ball, and a ball of hardened foam was the result. Called the glain naidr "serpent's glass," "serpent's egg," or "druid's egg," it is very powerful, allowing its owner to gain access to kings and win lawsuits. In the reign of Claudius Caesar, a Roman citizen was put to death for carrying such a charm to court. Obtaining the charm was no easy matter however. The snakes did not give it willingly. As they writhed, they would throw the ball into the air. The prepared observer could catch the ball in his cloak before it had a chance to shatter, but he had to be fleet of feet. The snakes would quickly turn on him. Only running water would bar their path. Pliny described the serpent's egg as about the size of an apple, "with cartilaginous skin covered with discs." Many folklorists and scholars consider this a fossil echinus (sea urchin), which has been found in many Gaelic tombs and which may indicate a snake cult of some kind. Rings or beads of glass found in Wales, Cornwall, and the Highlands have also been called "serpent's glass" and were thought to have been formed in the same way. These along with ancient spindle-whorls called "adder stones" were said to have the ability to ward off snake attacks.
Along with snakes, the fay folk were very active on this night. In order to see them, you could gather fern seed (pollen) at midnight to rub on your eyelids. Rue carried in your pocket would protect you from their tricks and being "pixie-led." Turning your jacket inside out was another way to protect yourself. Keeping to the ley lines or crossing living (running) water also protected against malevolent spirits. In Norway, a type of toadstool was thrown into the bonfires by the spectators in order to protect against trolls. If any trolls are nearby, the toadstools will reveal them.