Friday, June 24, 2011

Summer Christmas: St. John the Baptist Eve, June 24th

The Summer Solstice, or Midsummer, is celebrated by many cultures throughout the world. Although it is the longest day of the year, within the great circle of the seasons Midsummer also marks the time when days become shorter, leading us out of summer and into fall. To mark this event, early cultures would light fires on Midsummer eve to speak to the sun, convincing it to reach its zenith and continue on its yearly journey. As John Matthews reminds us in his book The Summer Solstice, the light of the fires were thought to call the sun back to earth, to warm it and to bring the promise of life renewal to the lands. It was a purification of the land and its people, and a cleansing of negative forces in general.

 St. John the Baptist

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Biblical reckoning places the birth of John the Baptist six months before the birth of Jesus. Therefore, the early Church, in the way it had incorporated Winter Solstice celebration into Christmas, adapted Summer Solstice celebrations to the festival of Johnsmas, or the birthday of John the Baptist. This holiday also came to be known as Summer Christmas.

The ancient act of lighting cleansing fires on Midsummer’s Eve easily translated to celebrating St. John the Baptist, who was said to have brought Jesus out of the world of darkness with his baptism, purifying his soul and mission. So it is for Christians that St. John’s Eve is a night of purification and the fires an act or beacon of light.

Customs Associated with St. John’s Eve

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Flowers and greenery also figure in the festivities. Houses and revelers alike would be decked in fresh blossoms and greenery. While many plants were simply for decoration, some such as St. John's Wort, were also thought to bring protection and were left in place. Bouquets of significant herbs and flowers would be tossed into the bonfire.

Plants and light combine to a natural celebration of the pinnacle of the sun's journey. John Stow, in his 1603 Survey of London noted on Johnsmas eve "Every man's door being shadowed with green Birch, long Fennel, St John's wort, Orpine, white lilies and such like…some hung out branches of iron …containing hundreds of lamps lit at once."

Celebration Suggestions

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In celebration of St. John the Baptist’s Eve, consider personal devotions and contemplations, as well as customs that promote personal renewal and growth. There are many symbolic ways to celebrate, including:

o     Burn a bonfire in honor of St. John and throw onto the fire a traditional mix of midsummer flowers and herbs, including: Lilies, Birch, Fern, Yarrow, Verain, and St. John’s Wort.

o    Write down any transgressions of the past year on a piece of paper and burn it in the fire of St. John, symbolizing your commitment to start anew for the coming year.

o    Spend a quiet evening in your garden, lighting (protected) candles at sundown, and contemplate the gifts of light and of dark.

o    Decorate your home with summer flowers and blossoms.

Finally, celebrate with friends and family, since this “Summer Christmas” is the perfect time to renew connections and friendships.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Summer Solstice

Spend a Day at the Beach with a Selkie

The Midsummer festival of the Summer Solstice (June 21) is a time of transformation.  If Samhain is known as the period where the veil between the living and the dead is at it thinnest, then the Summer Solstice is when the veil between the realm of humans and fairies all but disappears.  It is at this time, and this time only, that you can call a Selkie to your side. For those willing to walk into the magical and risky faerie realm, consider inviting a Selkie to sit with you on the beach while observing the sunrise and sunset. 

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Who are the Selkies

The Selkies, who mostly appear in their seal form, are often confused with merpeople or “finfolk,” but are better placed within the faerie world.  Essentially, they are beings that can shed their seal skin for human form.  Originating from the Scottish waters off the coast of Orkney, the Selkies and their human offspring (spotted by their dark eyes, hair and webbed feet or hands) are also said to populate the waters of Wales and Ireland.  Scottish mythology tell how the Selkie folk were originally angels fallen from heaven, condemned to spend their lives in the waters that were fished and mined by humans.  Others recount how the Selkie Folk were humans, condemned and cursed to live as seals.  Whatever their origins (and we shall likely never know, for the Selkie keeps her secret as close as she keeps her seal skin) Selkies have been known to fall in love with humans, giving up the life of the sea and their seal form for, at least, a while.

Legendary accounts tell us that the best way to spot a Selkie is to see her or him on the rocks basking in the Midsummer sun.  If a Selkie thinks that it is alone, he or she will often dare to commune with the world above the sea.  But Selkies know this is a grave risk that they take. If a human were to take its seal skin, that Selkie would be condemned to live the life of a human, away from the beloved sea, ever searching for their skin.  Such an occurrence was said to have happened in Orkney many years ago, when a good, but selfish, man came across the skin of a Selkie who had been sunning on the rocks at midsummer.  Upon seizing the skin, the beautiful Selkie in naked human form cried out to the man, begging for mercy:

O bonnie man!  If there’s onie mercy i’ tee human breast, gae back me skin!  I cinno’, cinno’, cinno’ live i’ the sea without it.  I cinno’, I cinno’, cinno’ bide among me ain folk without my ain seal skin.  Oh, pity a peur distressed, forlorn lass, gin doo wad ever hope for mercy theesel.’

The good Orkney man did not give up the skin, and although he and the sea-lass eventually found great love, married and started a family, the Selkie could never be entirely happy. She searched day in and day out until she had found where her husband had hidden her skin.  Once she found it, the Selkie dressed herself in her skin and left her human family for her home in the sea.

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The Selkies are deeply feeling and loyal creatures, but they are also bound by their devotion to the sea, and no human love, no matter how great, can keep a Selkie on land for long.  Keep this in mind should you dare to summon a Selkie, an act that can only be done around Midsummer.

The Summons

On the eve of Midsummer, find a place on the beach where seals are known to frequent, and where you will be alone (Selkies cannot abide crowds).  Reach deep into your heart and summon pure emotion and allow these feelings to be expressed by the production of seven perfectly formed tears.  One by one, drop each of your seven tears into the sea.  With your eyes now saddened and joyful and reflecting the deep compassion of the sea, look to the waters and wait for a Selkie to arrive.  You will see her or him swim to you in seal form, waiting for you to offer your solemn oath, upon your life, that you will not attempt to steal the seal skin when he or she joins you on the beach.  Once you have taken the oath, watch the magic of Midsummer, as the Selkie becomes your human companion for the rest of the day.

Quotation from: The Scottish Antiquary, Or, Northern Notes & Queries. Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable, 1890. Print.