Just as the Pagan Midwinter celebration of Yule was adopted by Christians as “Christmas” (December 25), so too the Pagan Midsummer celebration was adopted by them as the Feast of John the Baptist (June 24). Occurring 180 degrees apart on the wheel of the year, the Midwinter celebration commemorates the birth of Jesus, while the Midsummer celebration commemorates the birth of John, the prophet who was born six months before Jesus in order to announce his arrival.
In England, it was the ancient custom on St. John’s Eve to light large bonfires after sundown, which served the double purpose of providing light to the revelers and warding off evil spirits. This was known as “setting the watch”. People often jumped through the fires for good luck. In addition to these fires, the streets were lined with lanterns, and people carried cressets (pivoted lanterns atop poles) as they wandered from one bonfire to another. These wandering, garland-bedecked bands were called a “marching watch”. Often they were attended by morris dancers, and traditional players dressed as a unicorn, a dragon, and six hobbyhorse riders. Just as May Day was a time to renew the boundary of one’s own property, so Midsummer’s Eve was a time to ward the boundary of the city.
At the very least, most young folk plan to stay up throughout the whole of this shortest night. Certain courageous souls might spend the night keeping watch in the center of a circle of standing stones. To do so would certainly result in either death, madness, or (hopefully) the power of inspiration to become a great poet or bard. (This is, by the way, identical to certain incidents in the first branch of The Mabinogion.) This was also the night when the serpents of the island would roll themselves into a hissing, writhing ball in order to engender the “glain”, also called the “serpent’s egg”, “snake stone”, or “Druid’s egg”. Anyone in possession of this hard glass bubble would wield incredible magical powers. Even Merlyn himself (accompanied by his black dog) went in search of it, according to one ancient Welsh story.
Snakes were not the only creatures active on Midsummer’s Eve. According to British faery lore, this night was second only to Halloween for its importance to the Wee Folk, who especially enjoyed a ridling on such a fine summer’s night. In order to see them, you had only to gather fern seed at the stroke of midnight and rub it onto your eyelids. But be sure to carry a little bit of rue in your pocket, or you might well be “pixie-led”. Or, failing the rue, you might simply turn your jacket inside out, which should keep you from harm’s way. But if even this fails, you must seek out one of the “ley lines”, the old straight tracks, and stay upon it to your destination. This will keep you safe from any malevolent power, as will crossing a stream of “living” (running) water.
This is a time to acknowledge those wild things which man culls but cannot tame, like the sheep and bees. The full moon which occurs in June is sometimes called the Mead Moon. The hives are full of honey. In ancient times, the honey was fermented and made into mead.
This is a traditional time for honoring water, perhaps because it plays such a vital role in maintaining life while the sun is blazing overhead. Several of the goddesses honored at midsummer — Matuta, Anahita and Kupala — are associated with moisture and dampness.
Midsummer Eve is also known as Herb Evening. This is the most potent night (and midnight the most potent time) for gathering magical herbs, particularly St John’s wort, vervain, mugwort, mistletoe, ivy and fern seed.
This is also a time for lovers. An old Swedish proverb says “Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.