Essays and Such

Irish Cultural Society

of San Antonio Texas


Promoting Awareness of Irish Culture

St John's Day
By Unknown
Summer Soltice, Druids, and Christianity

St John's Day (June 23rd)

Summer Soltice, Druids, and Christianity


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. But 
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 slice!" 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). Al 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 
reduced 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, who returned only to be 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 "airy fits"(depression), 
and science has proved the herb is indeed an effective remedy for 

	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 stones 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 lacing 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 or a wander in the moonlight. But remember what happened to 
Ossian and don't join in the dance.