What Is a “Midsummer” Anyway?
As Intrepid embarks on its first musical spectacular, and we find ourselves analyzing the text of the Bard against a backdrop of doo-wop and dance steps, we also find ourselves again in amazement at one of the things we love most about WS – that is, the unique ability of this playwright’s anthology to be interpreted in a variety of time periods, settings, and, apparently, musical scores. The fact that we spent this week rehearsing “Sh’Boom” with the Mechanicals in a way that totally makes sense, is really kind of cool.
So, if the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be told in a variety of ways, we were also curious as to how the actual idea of “midsummer” came to be in the first place, and why does it work so well in three-part harmony? We decided to do a little digging.
First, the Online Entymology Dictionary tells us that the word is derived from “midsumor,” meaning, well, the middle of summer. So, yeah, that was a shocker. We decided to dig a little deeper.
According to the Farmer’s Almanac:
June 21 marks the Summer Solstice, the day of the year when the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer, its highest point in the Northern Hemisphere. The summer solstice is also the longest day of the year for those of us living north of the Equator.
Modern calendars refer to this day as the first day of summer, though ancient reckoning actually viewed May 1 as the beginning of summer, and the Solstice as “Midsummer,” the halfway point of the season. Because the Solstice marks not only the Sun’s greatest potency, but also the turning point at which the length of days begins to wane, this older viewpoint does make sense.
So, the “beginning” of summer on our modern calendars is actually the middle of the season. Well, whaddya know? Fortunately, modern Scandinavians are well aware of this fact, holding days-long midsummer celebrations to honor the eternal sunlight of their northern locale.
The Summer Solstice itself has always held significance for ancient religions and cultures, and can be tied historically to earth-related occurrences, such as the possible meaning behind the creation of Stonehenge and the Egyptian calendars which begin by marking the annual rising of the Nile. In fact, celebrations of the solstice are still held throughout the world that stem from these types of events and traditions.
Historically, the church recognized these pagan celebrations of the Summer Solstice by choosing June 24 as the feast day of St. John the Baptist. In Ireland, this midsummer feast day is also known as a bonfire night (not to be confused with Guy Fawkes Day – also “Bonfire Night” in the UK), which pre-Christianity, was actually celebrated to honor Aine, the Celtic goddess of love and fertility with feasting, singing, and dancing around – you guessed it – bonfires.
In the old days, the ashes of the fires were then mixed with the seeds that would be soon be planted in order to bring good luck to the harvest. At this time, young couples would also perform what was called a “handfast,” where they would wind a ribbon around their wrists as a sign of binding, and then hope to be expecting their own, er, seedling, come the fall. The woman would then wear the ribbon as a symbol of their union.
Interestingly enough, midsummer celebrations in Ireland are still greatly associated with…fairy activity! (Hmm, we are sensing a connection here!) In short, it’s no wonder that Shakespeare chose this historic and celebratory time of year to give his tale of love and dreaming a little magical color. Oh, and if you are in the mood to celebrate and find yourself dancing around a midsummer bonfire one day, here’s a tip: Wishes will be granted when you whisper them into a small stone and cast it into the fire…whether or not the fairies are involved, though, is anyone’s guess. – T.T.