Midsummer has always been a time for celebration and dancing. Traditionally, there were bonfires to celebrate the Sun. The bonfires were believed to have the power to burn away all negativity and evil. People jumped the flames, much as they had at Beltane, making wishes. It was believed that the summer grains would grow only as high as they were able to jump. The Celts built their bonfires near holy wells or on a border or boundary of some sort because they considered borders to be magickal entrances to the Underworld. In some places, people light fires on midsummer eve. They stay up until midnight to welcome in midsummer day, and, when the fires die down, men run or jump through the embers to bring good luck.
Ancient Pagans had a custom for Midsummer which consisted of wrapping straw around the wheel of a cart, lighting it on fire, and then rolling it down a tall hill. These flaming wheels were called “Catherine Wheels” and they emulated the action of the sun, which would begin waning after Midsummer day. If the fire went out before the wheel got to the bottom of the hill, it indicated a good harvest.
Since Midsummer is both a time of protection and of divination, in ancient times, the rootstock of a male fern plant was trimmed into the likeness of a hand and smoked in the Midsummer fires. These ‘Hands of Glory’ were hung in houses for protection. It was said that if the hands glowed with a blue flame, they were revealing hidden treasure in the earth.
There is still a famous summer solstice celebration at Stonehenge, the ancient stone circle on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. On the night before midsummer, a group of white-robed Druids gather at Stonehenge to watch the sun rising. As it comes up, the sun rises exactly over the Heel Stone, one of the stones that lies outside the main circle at Stonehenge.
Many midsummer celebrations were moved to the feast of St John the Baptist (24th June). But since Midsummer was a time of magic and wonder-working, evil spirits were said to appear, and people gathered herbs and flowers to protect themselves. One of the most powerful was the plant known as ‘chase-devil’, which we now call St John’s Wort. People used it in potions, and wove the flowers into garlands to decorate their houses or protect their farm animals. They believed that the herb could shield them from the power of evil spirits and could help them foretell the future.