Midsummer, the summer solstice, has been celebrated for centuries as the longest day of the year. In ancient Greece, it marked the beginning of the year and coincided with a celebration of agriculture and the earth’s yield. In northern climates particularly, it became a spiritual festival celebrating the warmth and life-giving power of the sun. In Scandinavia, Iceland, and Northern Europe the solstice is traditionally celebrated with a bonfire.
Rather than give up this pagan tradition, Christians in these countries rechristened the festival St. John’s Day, which is celebrated by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches. (The Bible suggests that John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus, and Midsummer falls six months before Christmas, another holiday with pre-Christian roots tied to a solstice.)
The summer solstice celebration was revived in the early twentieth century by the European youth movement, a counter-cultural movement that sought genuine spirituality, brotherhood, and freedom from artificial conventions. They enjoyed communal work, artistic expression, and hikes in nature, and treasured folk traditions of dance, song, and artisan crafts. The youth movement took the summer solstice as their central festival. The bonfire, its flames rising phoenix-like from the burning wood, crowned their celebration as a symbol of their longing for a renewal of humanity. One young woman, Irmgard Blau, described such a celebration:
One feast that we celebrate for the sake of community is the summer solstice. The purifying, liberating power of the fire is a symbol to us of the will, of the inner powers through which we overcome the finite in order to attain deeper life. Fire frees people from the present and binds them in a higher spiritual community. In the circle around the fire we are no longer individuals. We become a whole, a unity. We want to become part of the flame itself and not simply observe it; therefore we jump through it.
Her friend Annemarie Wächter recalled a summer solstice celebration in her diary. The evening included a hike, folk dancing, sack racing, and a puppet show.
Then came the most beautiful part of the evening – the huge, huge fire. As it flared high, we joined hands in a chain and walked around the fire in the midst of the shower of sparks. Then Pasche said something that made you feel that we all had the same goal and were united in it:
Flame, free us from everything that is evil in us;
make us free from it, O Flame.
Let us not seek to rule and lord it over others.
Flame, let your glow fill our souls and consume us.
Flame, become ever greater in us.
Thou, Flame, make us free, pure, and good!
. . . Then we stood and let the fire, the holy fire, soak into us. The glow made our faces burn, but I wanted to absorb as much as possible of the great flame so that I would be completely consumed by it. . . . I had a feeling that was so strong, so free and pure, that I believe that it was truly life.
A few years later National Socialism would hijack the energy and idealism of this youth movement for its own ends. But before that happened, the original genuineness and rigor, the emphasis on simplicity and respect for nature, and the intense search for truth would lead some participants to a firm faith in God – and a deeper appreciation for the symbolism of sun and fire.
Today, despite neo-pagans asserting their claim to this age-old holiday, many others around the world will light their bonfires in praise of the one God who created the sun and the world and has blessed us all with light and life.