Midsummer (German: Sommersonnenwende) was the German Nordic summer festival celebrated throughout ancient Europe.
The four Nordic seasonal festivals are Sommersonnenwende (June 22), Erntedankfest (September 20), Yuletide (December 22), and Ostara (March 20).
Each occurs on quarter days of the calendar, each solstice and equinox.
Midsummer was celebrated on June 22nd, the summer solstice (the longest day/shortest night of the year).
In ancient times, the festival celebrated summer and the completion of the spring planting season. Fire and purification were an important part of the festival. Large fires were lit and their flames, smoke and ashes were believed to protect against evil spirits which roamed around during the solstice.
As Catholicism spread through Europe, the Church chose Midsummer to celebrate the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist.
As the first day of summer, Saint John’s Day was considered to be one of the most “charmed” festivals of the year. “Saint John’s fires” were lit on mountains and hilltops on the eve before the feast.
In medieval Germany, these festival and its traditions continued as they had since ancient times.
On the night before, people picked a golden-flowered species of plant they believed had miraculous healing powers. They named the flower St. John’s Wort, and this plant is actually still used for medicinal purposes.
Other herbs were also plucked during the night of the feast and many believed they had health benefits. In Germany, these herbs were called Johanneskraut (St. John’s herbs), and people took them to their church for a special blessing.
In 1333, Italian author Francesco Petrarch wrote about a cleansing ritual he saw in Cologne, Germany. He saw women rinsing their hands and arms in the Rhine “so that the threatening calamities of the coming year might be washed away by bathing in the river.”
Therefore, many of these customs can be linked to ancient pagan traditions.
In “The Superstition of Divorce”, Catholic author G.K. Chesterton explains:
“It is often said by the critics of Christian origins that certain ritual feasts, processions or dances are really of pagan origin. They might as well say that our legs are of pagan origin. Nobody ever disputed that humanity was human before it was Christian; and no Church manufactured the legs with which men walked or danced, either in a pilgrimage or a ballet. What can really be maintained, so as to carry not a little conviction is this: that where such a Church has existed it has preserved not only the processions but the dances; not only the cathedral but the carnival. One of the chief claims of Christian civilization is to have preserved things of pagan origin. In short, in the old religious countries men continue to dance; while in the new scientific cities they are often content to drudge.”