Whilst the summer solstice (or longest day) falls on or close to June 21, Midsummer Day is traditionally observed three days later at roughly the mid-point between May Day (May 1) the Celtic first day of summer and Lammas (August 1) the traditional last day.
Midsummer celebrations were later absorbed into the Christian calendar with June 24 coming to mark the feast of St John the Baptist (Patron Saint of Bees amongst other things…). It was also one of the quarter days. The quarter days were traditionally the four dates in each year on which servants were hired, school terms started, and rents were due. They fell roughly three months apart and close to the two solstices and two equinoxes.
The significance of quarter days is now limited, although leasehold payments and rents for land and premises in England are often still due on the old English quarter days. The quarter days, observed at least since the Middle Ages, ensured that debts and unresolved lawsuits were not allowed to linger as accounts had to be settled, a reckoning had to be made and then be publicly recorded on the quarter days.The English quarter days are: Lady Day (25 March) / Midsummer Day (24 June) / Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas (25 December).
Midsummer Night’s Eve celebrations, though still popular in northern Europe, are now relatively rare in the UK. They inevitably centred around a fire festival. The fire symbolised both the fleeting ferocity of the mid-Summer sun and acknowledged, in the embers, the slow beginning of the days growing shorter as they progressed towards another winter.
Midsummer was regarded as a magical and healing time. Girls would get up at dawn to wash their faces in the midsummer dew in the belief that it would to make them more beautiful. Older people did the same to make themselves look younger. Perhaps this has a modern cultural resonance in many people’s belief that, despite the risks of skin cancer, a sun tan will make us more attractive? And a Midsummer Fire festival – surely that’s just the Festival of Barbecue by another name?!?