Sunrise over the trees and hedgerows in the Forest

Celebrations and mysticism at the summer solstice

28 May 2024
Heart of England Forest

On 20th June this year, the sun will rise at around 4.30 in the morning to welcome the longest day and herald the summer solstice. Many people in the northern hemisphere will be marking this oldest of festivals with traditional midsummer celebrations, and a lot of the ancient traditions and modern festivities focus on reconnecting with nature and trees.

Ancient midsummer traditions

Midsummer has been observed for thousands of years, with celebrations rooted in both pagan and religious tradition. At a time when food and nature are in abundance, festivities often focus on fertility and the life-giving powers of the sun. 

The people of pagan Europe would light bonfires and dance all night on Midsummer’s Eve, accompanied by rituals led by druids. Customs included bonfire-jumping, with the highest jump believed to predict the height of the year’s crop. 

In ancient China, the summer solstice was an important festival when workers were given the day off to celebrate. Ceremonies honoured the earth and the feminine force known as yin. Similarly, the ancient Romans’ celebrations focused on Vesta, goddess of the hearth, home, and family.

Midsummer remains an important festival in many countries. Many people stay up on Midsummer’s Eve to welcome the sun as it rises. Modern druids still famously gather at Stonehenge. Other people light bonfires and celebrate with outdoor feasts, singing and dancing. 

Mysticism and magic

Midsummer celebrations are interwoven with mysticism and magic. It is a time when both are believed to be at the height of their powers. Tradition states that ghosts can cross from the afterlife to this world and, as in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is thought that the fairy world is close by, bringing mischief and chaos to us mortals. Flower crowns are traditionally worn to ward off the more malevolent spirits. 

Trees and traditional beliefs

Sun shining through tree leaves

Many midsummer traditions focus on reconnecting with nature. So, it is no surprise that trees and tree worship feature heavily in both ancient and modern festivities. 

The oak tree is at the centre of midsummer celebrations. The Celtic word for oak, duir, means doorway, and oak, as the King of the Forest, is seen as a doorway to both the mystical realms and the new, darker cycle of the year that is about to begin. Mistletoe, long believed to have healing and fertility powers, is thought to harness the soul of the tree and be at its strongest when it grows on oaks at midsummer. 

The beech tree, brightening the forest with its fresh lime green leaves, is seen as the Queen of the Forest and consort to the oak king. To the druids, it symbolised ancient wisdom and it was the sacred wood of the summer solstice. In folklore, it is believed that if you write a wish on a beech twig, then bury it, your wish will come true as the twig decays. 

Hazel trees are believed to have magical properties and to protect against evil spirits. They were a symbol of fertility in medieval times. Stirring jam with a hazel twig is thought to stop those mischievous fairies from stealing it! 

The shimmering, trembling leaves of the beautiful aspen were believed to carry messages from this world to the afterlife. Wearing a crown of aspen leaves allowed the wearer to travel to the Underworld and back. Traditionally, shields were made from aspen wood as it was thought to protect against evil, so its symbolism was important at the mystical time of midsummer. 

A time to celebrate trees

Whatever your beliefs, there is no better time to celebrate trees in all their glory with an uplifting walk in the woods. The mud is drying up, we are (mostly) liberated from our wellies and, as the sun casts dappled light through new green leaves on long summer days, it is easy to feel real wonder at the natural world. And, this year, if you would like to celebrate midsummer by dancing around one of our oak trees, you will be very welcome! 

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‘Small plants, leaves and buds, growing in the soil. O fiery sun, may your rays of light and warmth bless us with abundance, and allow these plants to blossom with life.’
Pagan prayer for midsummer