Burn, Baby, Burn: Folklore Inferno

St. John's Eve Bonfire in Valencia, from www.amidsummercasebook.wordpress.com

It’s going to be a long day.  And I mean that literally. Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. Twice a year the sun goes to extremes as the Earth tilts on its axis, tilting away from or towards the sun and giving us the longest night of the year at the winter solstice (which Persians call Yalda and celebrate with delicious feasts that go heavy on the pomegranate) and the longest day, today.

I have mixed feelings about the winter solstice–on the one hand, too many hours of darkness depress me. On the other, it always seems hopeful to me that we’ve made it through the darkest days and are now going to get more sunlight every day. (Yes, that is a sign of my natural optimism coming through, I guess.)

The longest day seems like a no-brainer, nothing but barbecues and good times, what’s not to like? I remember playing kick the can in our yard in Massachusetts while growing up, when the game had to end when it got dark and we were all called inside. In the middle of summer, the games could go on and on; it seemed to never get dark.

But now that I’m 8 months pregnant, I have severely mixed feelings about the longest day, too. It’s not the light so much as the heat. This Sunday was so humid that when I weighed myself Monday morning I was seven pounds less than the day before; I had swollen that much in the heat and humidity. It was not a pretty sight and did not make it easy to move around, nor leave me full of vim and vigor.

Today is another hot day and I woke up with tired, lazy, achy arms and legs and a taut, raring-to-go stomach that seems to contain the Kibbles ‘n’ Bits puppy, trotting along headlong into the day. It’s really Amalia, of course, but she’s doing jazz hands and tap dancing to some song in her head that must go something like “I love mornings. I love MORNINGS! [shuffle ball-change, jazz-hand] YEAH!” She loves the summer solstice, too, I guess. Me, I’ve been up three hours and am ready for a nap.

So, to re-ignite my natural optimism I’ve decided to make a list of good things about the summer solstice, to get us all in the mood, flexing our own invisible jazz hands.

1.) Sunlight staves off nearsightedness. Kids who play outside are less likely to develop nearsightedness than those who don’t. For real. It’s in the the New York Times today. Next year, Amalia can take her jazz hands into the courtyard.

2.) It’s one of the most magical times of the year, according to Wiccans and pagans. I’m not sure why, but I think these extremes are believed to make the boundaries between day and night, heaven and earth, our world and others beyond it, more porous. Before the switch in calendars, the longest day of the year used to be June 24th, and, as so often happens, a Christian holiday–the feast day of St. John the Baptist–was layered over the pre-Christian celebration (the summer solstice). When I lived in Greece, a family friend told me that if I woke up the morning of St. John the Baptist’s day and, before I spoke to anyone or anyone spoke to me, I collected some water from a well or spring, and then did something else I can’t recall involving a mirror, I would see the reflection of my future husband, or maybe see his initial or something? I can’t remember exactly, which makes me think I didn’t do this particular ritual; I probably overslept.

AP photo of Summer Solstice at Stonehenge.

3.) As a pregnant lady, I am exempt from going to any of the many music festivals that take place on the longest day of the year. I like music. I like cool people. But I don’t love mud or damaged hearing. And, this year, I don’t have to pretend to do so. In fact, I might not have to attend such an event ever again; I’m that old.

4.) As an Orthodox Christian, I don’t have to attend a solstice re-enactment with Druid priests at Stonehenge or another venue. Again, I love a re-enactment, and I have vague, warm feelings towards the Druids. But the AP reported that 18,000 people gathered at Stonehenge to watch the sunrise today. And 4/5th of a person already has me exhausted so that’s 17,998.20 more people than I can handle.

My beautiful sister and the May wreath.

5.) Playing with fire! So, this time two years ago I was researching an article about the Ionian Islands for Budget Travel. One of the family-owned hotels I stayed in had a drying May wreath over the door. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, a wreath of fresh flowers is hung above the door on May 1 to celebrate the coming of Spring. The lady at the hotel’s reception desk told me that on Corfu, and in much of Greece, the May wreath stays there until the night before St. John’s day, when young men in the neighborhood go door to door, collecting dried wreaths, then create a bonfire with them and jump over said bonfire. Apparently, jumping over bonfires happens in Ireland, too where June 23d is called Bonfire Night. Leaping over the flames is said to bring good luck, which I’ll take any day of the year, but again, it all seems to boil down to a celebration of light.

Portrait after a painting by Frank Schneider, in turn after George Catlin; original in the Cabildo in New Orleans.

If anyone knows of any other ways St. John’s Day/the summer solstice is celebrated, I’d love to hear about them. Wikipedia tells me that it’s a big voodoo day and that famed voodoo queen Marie Laveau used to host rituals on Bayou St. John in New Orleans on St. John’s Eve. Here’s a link to a youtube video of a celebration held a few years ago. I haven’t quite figured it all out, but the common themes of what you want on your midsummer solstice/St. John’s day celebration seem to be fire and water. Two extremes which Robert Frost understood.

Tonight, if all goes according to my midsummer night’s scheme, there will be water in my celebration. If I can stay awake past 8 pm, I’m attending a party Ocean Drive magazine, which I sometimes write for, is hosting by the pool at the Fontainebleau hotel. Grey Goose is sponsoring so there will be free vodka cocktails, of which I will not partake. But maybe with all that vodka flowing, something is liable to catch fire? A nice contained fire. And if that happens, I’m ready to jump over it.


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