Tomorrow, June 24, is Midsummer’s Day.
Coming on the heels of the summer solstice, which usually falls between June 20 and 22, Midsummer marks the end of spring and the beginning of summer. It is a time of joy and abundance, of long days and short nights, of picnics, gatherings and outdoor pursuits.
But how is it reflected in Jane Austen’s novels?
The Most Pleasant Weather
In Midsummer, nature is at its best. The fields are bright green, flowers are fragrant, birdsong is everywhere, and everything feels better in the warmth of the sun. The weather is mild, and it is the perfect time to travel. So much so, that it is the only circumstance under which Mr Woodhouse consents to visiting Donwell:
“Under a bright mid-day sun, at almost Midsummer, Mr Woodhouse was safely conveyed in his carriage, with one window down…”
One window down – imagine how beautiful the weather must have been for Mr Woodhouse, Austen’s most famous hypochondriac, to leave the house and allow for one carriage window to be down!
(Of course, once he reaches his destination, Mr Woodhouse doesn’t step outside the Abbey. Instead, he retreats to one of the most comfortable rooms, where a fire is prepared for him to pass the morning…)
A Time of Celebrations
Midsummer was and still is a time for gatherings. As well as being peak wedding season, some countries still mark the occasion with bonfires, flowers, singing and other traditions, rooted in the pagan celebration of the summer solstice.
By the Regency, Midsummer had lost its pagan connotations and was officially the feast of St John the Baptist. Still, it was very much a time to meet with loved ones. We see an example of this keenness to get together with friends and family in Emma, when the Dixons and the Campbells invite Jane Fairfax to join them in Ireland for Midsummer.
The pagan traditions are reflected in the many beliefs that exist around Midsummer. Midsummer’s Eve is when fairies, ghosts and witches mingle with humans, as shown in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It is also the perfect opportunity to do some magic. According to tradition, on Midsummer’s Eve, unmarried women can see the form of their predestined lovers over their left shoulder. To do so, they need to walk clockwise three times around a church at midnight, scattering hemp seed and saying: “Hemp-seed I sow, hemp-seed I mow, let him that is my true love come after me and show.”
One of the “Quarter Days”
Although superstitions around Midsummer were still alive and well amongst the popular classes during the Regency, Jane Austen is unlikely to have given them much credence. Instead, for her, Midsummer was one of the four “quarter days” that divided the year. Each was marked by a Christian festival which more or less coincided with the two solstices and the two equinoxes celebrated by pagan tradition.
School started, rents were paid, and servants were hired on “quarter days”, so they were calendar highlights. In Sense and Sensibility, for example, Mrs Jennings is convinced that Colonel Brandon and Marianne will be married before Midsummer. Jane probably marked the passage of time in a similar fashion.
These days, whether you celebrate Midsummer or the summer equinox is likely to depend on where you live and any family traditions.
In Edinburgh, there are Midsummer bonfires along the beach, and before the children came along, we used to go every year, marvelling at the still-light skies well past 10:30 pm. I look forward to going back once they are a bit older.
Do you celebrate the summer equinox or Midsummer in any particular way?