Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth
In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.
Oak Leaves and Bonfires
Midsummer dark, Midsummer bright:
the longest day, the shortest night.
A friend of mine is flying out today to spend Midsummer's in Latvia. I'm so jealous.
Midsummer's, she tells me, is the biggest holiday of the year in the Baltics, even bigger than you-know-when. The entire country shuts down for three days. The cities empty out. (Well, mostly that means Riga.) If you fly over Latvia on Midsummer's Eve, you'll see that fine old sight: bonfires, hundreds of them, spreading out to the horizon.
Green leaves, especially oak leaves, are the de rigueur decoration. Midwinter, evergreen, Midsummer, broadleaf. People even decorate their cars with them. (I've seen pictures.) Women wear crowns of flowers, men of oak leaves. They drink and eat new potatoes with dill from the gardens and drink and eat the special fresh Midsummer's cheese flavored with caraway, and drink some more.
You have to stay up all night to see the Sun rise, because if you sleep on Midsummer's Eve, then you'll sleep your way through the rest of the year. The youngsters go off to the woods together to see if they can find the magical fern flower, which of all the nights of the year, blooms only on this night. (Yeah, right.)
People dance and leap the fire (did I mention there's a lot of drinking? The birch beer from this year's tapping is just now at its most sparkling, like champagne), and go skinny-dipping for the first time. There's a blessing on the water on this night: they say the Sun and the Moon both come down to bathe in it.
Here in Minneapolis, we'll be having a fine time. We'll go up to the highest hill in the city, with its signature Witch's Hat Tower. We'll eat and drink and dance with leafy branches in our hands, and sing the Sun down to its northernmost setting of the year. A few of us will take the summer's first dip in one of our 10,000 lakes (the water's still pretty cold, this time of year). This weekend the Swedish Institute down the street will have their big Midsommarfest. They'll raise a garlanded Midsommarstöng in front of the Institute, and there will be dancing to the old fiddle tunes.
A few weeks on, the Midsummer's fortnight will come to a festive conclusion on Old Midsummer's Night. July 4th used to be Midsummer's Day on the Julian calendar, did you know that? In the days before fireworks, Independence Day was a bonfire holiday. Did you ever wonder why we celebrate on the Fourth of July, when the Declaration of Independence was signed July 3rd?
In all, it will be a fine Midsummer's here in the North Country.
But once, just once in my life, I'd like to see cars decked with oak leaves, and bonfires spreading out to the horizon.
Just like in the old days.
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