7 ancient facts about British midsummer traditions

Stonehenge with the sun rising behind it
When the sun rises on the longest day of the year the stones of Stonehenge line up perfectly with the incoming rays. | Image: Shutterstock.com

When is the summer solstice?

Every year, on 21st June, the people of the northern hemisphere enjoy the longest day. This is known as the Summer Solstice, and the day is generally termed Midsummer. The shortest day of the year is unsurprisingly known as the Winter Solstice.

To celebrate, some Brits might head to a Midsummer fair or find themselves at a big gathering at Stonehenge in the wee hours to greet the rising sun. But what did people on this island do centuries ago to welcome the summer?

Here are 7 facts about how bygone Britons commemorated this key date in the calendar.

1. Midsummer wasn’t always celebrated on the longest day

Ancient Britons would have celebrated Midsummer at the time of the Summer Solstice, but with Christian conversion came a shift in tradition that saw Midsummer celebrated on St. John’s Day (24th June). This was subsequently also known as Midsummer’s Day, and 23rd June was dubbed Midsummer’s Eve.

Many Midsummer folk customs of the medieval and early modern period in Europe happened on these slightly later dates, but for the past two centuries, modern Pagans have observed Midsummer as it was in ancient times, on the astronomical longest day of the year.

2. Ancient Britons danced around stones...sometimes to raise the devil

For thousands of years, dancing has been a key part of Midsummer celebrations. Participants shuffling, running, or dancing can still be seen at stone circles like Stonehenge today. This is linked to ancient sun worship but has also historically had some associations with the devil.

According to an old legend, if you go to Broadwater, near Worthing, West Sussex, on Midsummer’s Eve, and head to an ancient oak tree, you might see a group of skeletons come out of the ground and dance around the tree until dawn. Five miles north of Broadwater is a prehistoric hill fort named Chanctonbury Ring. An old custom states that if you jog around this seven times backwards you will raise Satan himself!

3. Druids made miracle drugs on Midsummer

Druids (the priesthood of the ancient Celts) celebrated the Summer Solstice as a coming together of heaven and Earth, of light and dark. Oak was sacred to them in many ways (the Oak King and the Holly King represented light and dark, respectively) – so too was mistletoe, a plant that’s been sacred to Europeans for thousands of years.

The druids believed that on one night of the year – the evening before the Summer Solstice – mistletoe berries growing on sacred oaks would turn golden. According to Roman writer Pliny, the druids would scale a tree and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle amid much ritual and solemnity. These berries were believed to be able to cure various illnesses, make women and animals fertile, and make people invulnerable to fire.

4. The Summer Solstice at Stonehenge may have been an ancient saucy show

Stonehenge, the world-famous 5,000-year-old stone monument in Wiltshire, continues to mystify experts and the public alike. The builders left no written records, so the purpose and meaning of its construction can only be theorised. One thing is certain though – when the sun rises on the longest day of the year, the stones of Stonehenge line up perfectly with the incoming rays. But why was it built to do this?

One theory is that Stonehenge is a symbol of fertility, and the Summer Solstice event at the stone circle is a sort of sex show.

As the sun rises, the ‘male’ heel stone (the outer stone set apart from the main circle) casts a ‘growing’ phallic shadow that ‘penetrates’ the inner circle and hits the recumbent ‘female’ altar stone. The theory suggests ancient peoples would come at the solstice to watch this fertility ritual to celebrate the consummation of the marriage between the sky father (bringing rain and sun) and the Earth mother (springing forth life).

Although this was a theory put forward by a leading archaeologist, another expert described it as bonkers. So, who knows!?

5. Midsummer was a time for finding out about your love life

For centuries around Britain, there were strong traditions of ‘divining’ (seeing the future through magic) on Midsummer’s Eve.

One old custom says that if a person fasts on Midsummer’s Eve and then sits by the church at midnight, they will see the spirits of the villagers who are going to die in the coming months. Each spirit will walk up and knock on the church door, in order of when they will snuff it.

Most divining traditions were romantic, though. Young village maidens would gather plants and shove some in a pot in their houses on Midsummer’s Eve. The next day, if the stalk had fallen to the left then their boyfriend would turn out to be a dead loss, but if it had fallen to the right then they would end up happily married.

Another custom was for two young women to bake a ‘dumb cake’ – so called because nobody was allowed to speak during the ritual – and a third girl would put the cake under their pillows. The bloke they dreamed of that night would be the one they married.

6. Snakes would meet up at Midsummer and make glass rings

One peculiar ancient folk tradition from parts of Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland is that groups of snakes do a spot of glass-blowing on Midsummer’s Eve. They put their heads together and hiss all at the same time to form a big frothy bubble around one of their heads. With more hissing, this bubble would pass through the length of that snake’s body and pop out of its tail as a small, solid, glassy ring. The humans who pick up this ring are gifted great riches and power.

In Welsh mythology, these stones commonly conferred on the owner's magical powers such as invisibility. These colourful objects are known as ‘snakestones’ and are in fact naturally-occurring objects that are typically made from flint.

7. Villagers would lob flaming wheels down hills

Sometimes folk customs are hardly subtle or obscure in meaning. This is the case with fire wheels. In many regions of ancient and medieval Europe, right up until the modern era in some parts, communities honoured the longest day of the year by making a blazing sun of their own.

In Glamorgan, Wales, a cartwheel was covered in straw, taken to the top of a big hill, set alight, and sent thundering down the slope. If the flaming wheel was naturally extinguished before it stopped at the bottom, then this was a sign that the harvest season would be successful. Presumably, because the farmers needed sun – but not too much of it.

A similar ritual in Buckfastleigh, Devon, saw the locals encourage the wheel along with sticks. If the wheel reached a particular stream then this meant a good summer for the village.