By Maryann Readal, HSA Secretary
Many years ago farmers called June 24th “Midsummer Day,” as it marked the halfway point between planting and harvesting. As such, it was a time to celebrate.
Midsummer Day is also St. John’s Day and according to the Bible, the day John the Baptist was born. And it heralded the birth of Christ just six months later. For this reason, June 24th was an important day for early Christians. St. John’s Day and Midsummer Day occur near the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, which for its own reasons was celebrated since Greek and Roman times.
In pre-Christian times, turning points in the year were thought to be magical. The evening before Midsummer Day was especially so. It was thought that this was the time when magic was more powerful and the spirit world was close. It was the porter’s wife in Washington Irving’s Old Christmas who said that this was a time “when it is well known all kinds of ghosts, goblins, and fairies become visible and walk abroad.”
In Medieval times, it was common to celebrate Midsummer Eve with bonfires and to collect special herbs. These herbs included the perennial herb St. John’s wort, Hypericum perforatum. St. John’s wort was believed to have special protective powers. It could protect one against demons and witches. Carried in your pocket it would protect you from thunder. Smelling the leaves or drinking a potion made from the plant would cure you of madness. In Medieval times, it was hung over doors, windows and religious icons to keep witches and evil spirits away. One needed to have some on hand on Midsummer Eve.
St. John’s wort was also considered a special plant on this day because its bright yellow flowers looked like the sun, which was a significant coincidence around the longest day of the year. Even the Greeks and Romans thought this to be important. The flowers have five petals and long stamens that look like the rays of the sun. The stamens are topped with little golden balls of pollen giving the appearance that each flower is a sunburst. Also, it is said that the flowers are heliotropic, following the sun from east to west as it crosses the sky, which was considered a supernatural phenomenon in olden days. Some even claim that squeezing the petal of the flower will produce a red juice, reminiscent of the blood of John the Baptist, although I have not found that to be true in the species growing in my garden.
Still today in European countries, St. John’s Eve is celebrated with bonfires and is marked with the gathering of the herbs of midsummer. Indeed in some Spanish villages, special bouquets called herbas de San Xoán are made up and sold for this day.
In northern Spain’s Galicia, it is the custom for women to place St. John’s wort and other herbs in a bowl of water after sunset on St. John’s Eve. The bowl must be left outside all evening so that dew can collect, adding its special magic to the water. According to Lithuanian custom, the dew on Midsummer Day was said to make young girls beautiful and old people look younger. On St. John’s Day, women splash the scented infusion on their face and let it dry. It is said the infusion will stop all wrinkles. A very dear Spanish friend says that it won’t cure existing wrinkles but it will prevent future ones. Who knows if it works, but the women in the north of Spain, in Galicia ARE the most beautiful in the country – so says my friend’s husband!
Whether you are celebrating Midsummer Day, the Summer Solstice, or St. John’s Day, do enjoy the sun on this the longest day of the year. Enjoy the cheerful uplifting blooms and the history of St. John’s wort and remember that it could make you beautiful, too.