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Folk Traditions

The Two Kings | Fire and Water | Midsummer Day
Country Summer Traditions | Fairies | Midsummer Games
John Barleycorn | The Six Days of Midsummer

Country Summer Traditions

The sowing of the crops ends about Whitsun (often the first Sunday in June). By Midsummer, the growing season is well underway, with harvest on the horizon. It's time to pray for rain and for sun.

Fresh bright flowers are in bloom, so wreaths are made to symbolize the circle of the year: the sweet pastel wildflowers of spring are tossed on the fire and burned, just as the summer sun withers everything not watered: now we mean business! Everywhere, life erupts in a wild pandemonium of color and growth.

The village builds a wicker man! It's a huge figure made of sticks and twine, heavily garlanded with flowers. The villagers come to tie their wishes to him with twine; then he's carried into the fields and burned as a good luck charm for the growth of crops and the bounty of the coming harvest. (In the dim and ancient past, the wicker man may have imprisoned human and animal sacrifices to be roasted alive -- but that's a thousand years in the past: now, it's a merry good luck charm.) There are wicker giants in all the Midsummer celebrations; giant kings and queens and knights looming thirty feet overhead, crowned and garlanded with flowers in cities from London to Coventry to all over Europe.

Villagers gather St. John's wort to dress their doors and windows to bless their houses: and bright roses, lillies, fennel, birch, verbena, and orpine are gathered into garlands and circlets. Fresh flowers and growing plants of all kinds are the order of Midsummer. There are battles of flowers taking place: teams of dancers, football players, or riders dressed thickly with masses of fresh blossoms compete for a prize (sometimes a gilded ball, representing the sun). It's the Wars of the Roses all over again: volleys of flowers catapult through the air, raining on the opposing forces until everybody is covered with sweet petals and perfume for the parade that follows. St. John's Wort reaches its bloom on Midsummer Day and is dried and ground to be used in a number of medicines and charms: herbs of all kinds are gathered now, at the height of their powers, and dried.

The fairies are out! Wish them well, or protect yourself with herbs and charms: at least you can see fairies at this time of year. Dragons are said to waken from hibernation on St. John's Day: in Norwich the ancient dragon called 'Snap' is coaxed out of his sleep. Great wheels are built and garlanded with flowers, then raced down hillsides to symbolize the descent of the sun: there are all kinds of ball games, many of them with gilded balls representing the sun being tossed around in the sky.

Morris dances continue through summer with round dances to symbolize the round disc of the sun and the circle of life: there are masked dancers and mummer's plays in the villages.

"...with bells on legs and napkins clean
unto your shoulders tied,
With scarves and garters as you please
"Hey for our town!" cried..."

Next: Fairies


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