The magic of Midsummer Day

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THOUGH June’s changeable weather may make us think otherwise, tomorrow it will be Midsummer Day.

Between the summer solstice on the 21st and Midsummer Day on the 24th, there’s a sensation of something special, something magical about to happen.

This is most obvious at dusk, when the sun slips slowly beneath the horizon in a blaze of rose gold. Then the twilight ushers in a few bright stars.

Although the summer solstice is on the 21st tradition says Midsummer Day is June 24, the feast day of St John the Baptist.

The day used to be celebrated with fairs, parades and morris dancing.

On the preceding evening bonfires were lit and tables of food set outdoors, in towns as well as in the countryside. Doors were decorated with garlands of leaves and flowers.

Included in the garlands would be sprays of hypericum perforatum, a native wild plant that opens its starry flowers of sunshine yellow in time for midsummer.

It was such a powerful influence for good that it was dedicated to St John; when crushed, the petals leave a red stain that was said to be the saint’s blood.

Legend tells how St Columba always carried St John’s wort when travelling from his monastery on Iona.

Now recognised as a treatment for mild depression, from medieval times the herb was used in folk medicine to treat melancholia and nightmares.

Herbalists also recommended preparations of the sunshine herb for healing wounds and to relieve nerve pain such as sciatica, or as they called it, “hip gout”.

Magic circles

As with all old festivals, the night before Midsummer Day was a time of magical happenings.

It was a particularly busy time for stones, large stones of the standing kind. Tales abound of stone circles gossiping, walking around or strolling to the nearest stream for a drink.

The Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire are said to acquire the power of speech on Midsummer Eve.

The group comprises the King Stone, three stones known as the Whispering Knights and a circle of 77 other stones known as the King’s Men.

According to legend the stones were once men, cursed by a witch who turned herself into an elder tree. Like many other British stones, the Rollrights can revert to their original forms on certain nights, in this case Midsummer Eve.

Locals used to gather on the night to cut the bark of the elder, to see if it bled. If it did, the King would move his head and the Whispering Knights would foretell the future, if you could catch what they were saying.

At Stanton Drew, south of Bristol, the enchanted stones include the original Bridezilla.

One Midsummer Eve, which happened to be a Saturday, a piper was playing at a wedding feast.

When midnight came he put down his bagpipes, because dancing was forbidden on the Sabbath. But the bride was determined to carry on, declaring that someone would play even if she had to go to hell to find him.

Rash words, and no sooner were they spoken than an old man appeared, offering to play.

With the pious piper watching, the bridal couple and their friends danced on into the night.

As the old man’s music grew more and more manic the dancers became exhausted, but none of them was able to stop.

When dawn broke, the old man vanished and the wedding party was turned to stone. The three stone circles are still known as the Devil’s Wedding.

The Devil was also busy at Rudston on the Yorkshire Wolds, where he lobbed a huge stone at the church.

The missile lodged itself in the ground where it remains to this day.

The monolith in All Saint’s churchyard is Britain’s tallest at 25ft, with as much again below ground.

Erected around 1600BC at the centre of a ritual landscape, the stone was capped with a cross, or rood, when the pagan site was Christianised. At an estimated 40 tons the stone was simply too heavy to move, but it gave its name to the hamlet: Rood-stone.