Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Savoring a Midsummer Day.

In this never-to-be-forgotten year, we have reached the midpoint – called, quite literally in Europe – Midsummer Eve. June 23 or 24th is the ancient celebration of the beginning of summer, and the traditional celebration of Midsummer Day. This is the mid-point of the calendar year, on or around the summer solstice – the longest day of year when the sun is at its northern-most point in the sky. These are the days when the light lingers long in the sky and hesitates to give up its warmth or it's clarity.

Considered by many Northern and Eastern European countries as one of the greatest festivals of the year, Midsummer Eve origins date from neolithic times. It has always been focused on new life and the fertility of growing things, although in the Christian era there has been an attempt to add a veneer of modern religion to it as the Feast of st. John the Baptist.

Every country has its own customs, but every one of them has some aspect of light in the celebration. This is the time for great fairs and feasting. Enormous bonfires are built and to them are added savory grasses and herbs. In the north, Midsummer is also called “White Nights” because the sun, which hid away during the dark winter, returns. So far north is the sun toward the Arctic Circle during those weeks, that in cities like St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Helsinki and Oslo, it never really sets at night.

Tradition says that this is the time of year when magic is at its strongest; it's a time for Will-o-wisps and fairies, witches and the legends of the fern blossoms. Shakespeare recognized its influence so much that he named his famous play “A Midsummer Night's Dream” after it.

In Norway Midsumer's Eve is called Sankthansaften. In Finland Ukko-kokko. In Russia and Ukraine, Midsummer is Ivan Kupala day, when girls float garlands in the rivers and from the direction they drift, tell their marital fortunes. People build great bonfires and then dance around them and leap over them as night falls. In Sweden, dancing to traditional music around a maypole (majstång or midsommarstång) is a family activity and many wear traditional folk costumes. As in Russia, the year's first potatoes, pickled herring, sour cream, and if possible the first strawberries of the season are on the menu.

This year I arrived at Midsummer Eve breathlessly, because the schedule for the past several days has been breakneck. Swim meets, Father's Day, a special family wedding shower for my soon-to-be daughter-in-law. College orientation for my daughter. A mad dash across part of the state through thundering storms to coordinate rides to a wedding in the mountains.

We have certainly been celebrating. Last night, we did a bit of dancing and feasting as well. What we haven't done, is to reflect on this very special summer. We haven't paused to savor the flavor and texture of the precious moments that make up our days. Rushing, rushing, always rushing, our days go by and before we know it – those days that seemed as if they could last forever – those days are gone. For me, at Midsummer, I am choosing to pause – and consider the deep magic of the moments given me. I invite you to do the same.

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