Sláinte! Midsummer’s
Eve: St. John’s Day

Summer solstice, the longest day of the year, was absorbed into the Church calendar as St. John's Day – photo courtesy of Irish Tourist Board.

By Edythe Preet, Columnist
June / July 2001

One of summer’s finest gifts is its long hours of sunshine. This is especially true the farther one travels from the equator where a midwinter’s night is so long that only a few hours of pale gray twilight feebly light the day. Halfway around the seasonal wheel, the sun blazes forth in the same locale for nearly a whole 24-hour period.

This phenomenon has a very scientific basis. Instead of spinning around the sun straight up and down like a top, Earth is skewed 25 percent off the vertical. During winter, the globe leans away from the sun. Days are short; light is wan and weak. In summer the opposite is true. Earth tilts toward the sun, days are long, and the sun’s rays can fry our frail skin to a crisp at high noon. Simple, straight stuff when viewed with 21 st-century astrophysics knowledge, but for our forebears, the sun’s periods of light and shadow were unexplainable magic.

Imagine a fellow whose important task it was to sit on a hill observing the sun. The entire agricultural cycle depended on getting seeds into the ground in time to produce a good harvest. Else winter would arrive, crops would wither, famine would ensue, and people would perish.

Every dawn the tracker noted how the sun rose over a slightly shifted horizon point until for a few days during winter and again in summer, Sol seemed to rise and set in the same position. “Sol stice!” cried the Romans. “The sun stands still!” They feared it might be stuck.

If the sun stayed winter-low, nothing would grow again. If it remained summer-high, crops would burn up.

But the hill-watcher has observed a pattern to the sun’s march across the sky. The populace is warned solstice is approaching. Rituals are performed to coax the sun into behaving. Days grow longer or shorter as required. Everyone is saved from an untimely death. There is much rejoicing.

One famous sun-clock has been keeping watch in England for over three thousand years. Long before Rome’s legions marched into Britain, Stonehenge was a Druid ceremonial site. The ring of massive boulders is positioned so that on Summer Solstice, the first rays of sunlight illumine the circle of silent sentinels. To honor the celestial light-giver, huge bonfires were lit throughout the surrounding countryside.

In Ireland, where even on a fine winter day the sun is usually wan and weak, the Celts were especially in tune with solar events. Near Dublin, the massive Neolithic site at Newgrange predates Stonehenge and was constructed so that its innermost chamber is lit by the sun’s first rays as it creeps over the horizon on Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. Anthropologists theorize the happening had tremendous importance by pointing to the Celtic calendar’s other days of celebration: Imbolc (February), the Vernal Equinox (March), Beltaine (May), Summer Solstice (June), Lughnasa (August), the Autumnal Equinox (September), and Samhain (October). All occur when the sun’s light is measurably longer or shorter.

Once Christianity became Ireland’s primary faith, most of the pagan festivals were absorbed into the Church calendar and renamed. Imbolc and Samhain became St. Brigid’s Day and All Hallows Eve. Beltaine was dedicated to Christ’s mother Mary. The Autumnal Equinox became St. Michael’s Day, and Midsummer was set aside to honor St. John who wrote the fourth gospel.

St. John’s Day (June 23rd) is especially dear to Irish fishermen — perhaps because Christ encouraged his disciples to become “fishers of men.” In many communities, it is when boats and nets are blessed. Fishermen along the River Bush in Portballintree, County Antrim celebrate with a Salmon Dinner. The menu features fish soup, freshly caught broiled salmon, and plenty of locally produced Bushmill’s Irish Whiskey.

Many St. John’s Day customs and superstitions concern magic. On that night, the fairies come out of hiding to dance in circles under the stars, and any human who wanders onto the scene may be whisked away to the magical land of Tir na nOg, where no one ever ages. There the hapless mortal will forever make merry among the fairy folk, but will never be allowed to return to the land of the living.

One such man was Ossian. While out rambling on Midsummer’s Eve, he encountered the Fairy Queen’s band of revelers cavorting in the moonlight. Smitten by Ossian’s beauty, the queen chose him for her dancing partner, and when dawn arrived she spirited him away to Tir na nOg. Ossian lived there happily for a while, but eventually he became homesick and begged to visit his friends. The queen cautioned Ossian he was not as he had been and things had changed while he had been away, but Ossian insisted and the queen relented. She gave him a magnificent white stallion and warned him not to dismount the fairy steed until he returned, no matter what the circumstance.

Promising to heed the queen’s warning, Ossian rode off. He arrived at his village and found the houses tumbled down and no one about except one old man. Having been the fairies’ guest for what seemed to be only a few weeks, Ossian said, “Where are the villagers? I am Ossian and I have come looking for my friends.” The old man turned pale. He crossed himself and shrieked, “Ossian disappeared one hundred years ago on Midsummer’s Eve!” and hobbled away as fast as his feet could carry him. Forgetting the queen’s warning, Ossian leaped off the stallion to follow, but the moment his boots touched the ground he crumpled into a pile of dust that was blown away by the wind.

Not every Midsummer’s Eve happening has such dire consequences. Herbs gathered then are believed to be especially powerful. St. John’s Wort, which when crushed smells like church incense, was said to be a protection against witchcraft, and poultices of the herb were applied as a treatment for rheumatism, wounds, and bruises. A tea made from St. John’s Wort was given to people suffering from “airy fits” (depression), and science has proved the herb is indeed an effective remedy for anxiety.

As at other solar events, fire was a central element of the St. John’s celebration. Bonfires lit at sunset extended the light of the longest day through the night. Despite the blessing of long sunshine hours, it was a time fraught with worry. The previous year’s potato harvest was dwindling, new crops were not mature, and the Hungry Month (July) was approaching. Even so, people roasted some of their few remaining potatoes in the holy fire and sipped a hot milk drink called scailtin while they sat around the blaze telling stories and waiting for dawn. As the new day’s first rays appeared, livestock were driven across the spent fire’s warm ashes so the animals would not be “overlooked” by the grace of the Almighty and they too would survive until new hay had been cut.

Since St. John’s Day could bring blessings to those who observed it, people longing for marriage spent the last hours before dawn dozing on pillows filled with rosemary hoping they would dream of their future spouses. If you too are longing for a constant love, try placing a few fresh sprigs of the herb under your pillow. If, however, you long to see the fairies, sip a tea brewed from rose and marigold petals (free of pesticide sprays) and go for a wander in the moonlight. But remember what happened to Ossian and don’t join in the dance. Sláinte!

RECIPES

Anraith Eisc – Fish Bisque

4 medium size fish fillets (flounder, cod or other white fish)

1 quart milk

salt

2 medium carrots, sliced thin

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

1 large leek, well cleaned of dirt and chopped

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped fine

3/4 cup white wine

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon flour

pinch of nutmeg

1 cup half and half cream

seasoned croutons

Cut up one of the fist fillets, put in a saucepan with the milk and a little salt and bring to a boil. Add the carrots, celery, onion, leek and parsley. Bring to a boil, cover, lower heat, simmer for half an hour, strain off the liquid and reserve. Discard the spent fish and vegetables.

Poach the remaining fillets in the wine in a shallow covered pan until the fish is opaque. Remove fish to a blender, add half the butter and whirl to a paste. Strain the poaching liquid and reserve.

Heat the remaining butter until it foams, stir in the flour and cook for one minute stirring constantly. Add the two poaching liquids and stir until it boils. Lower heat, whisk in the fish puree and season with salt and pepper. Add the rest of the chopped parsley and a pinch of nutmeg. Stir in the half and half cream and heat gently to just below the boiling point.

Pour into warm bowls and serve with croutons. Makes four generous servings.

Irish Traditional Food by Theodora Fitzgibbon

Broiled Salmon

4 salmon steaks

melted butter

salt

pepper

Brush salmon steaks with melted butter and season to taste with salt and pepper. Broil just until the flesh is opaque, approximately 10-15 minutes depending on thickness. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings

Scailtin (Milk Punch)

3 1/2 cups hot milk

1/2 cup Irish whiskey

3 tablespoons melted butter

sugar

cinnamon

Mix hot milk with Irish whiskey and melted butter. Stir in sugar and cinnamon to taste. Serve immediately in heated mugs. Makes 4 servings (or 1…depending how your day was). ♦

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