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People gather around a bonfire on a midsummer's night.
Photo credit: Georgiana Pop (Avram) via Unsplash

Customs Uncovered: Midsummer Rituals

While the summer solstice is commonly associated with something seemingly more spiritual, the rituals of Midsummer had more earthy connections.

When midsomer comes, with bavens and bromes they do bonefires make, and swiftly, then, the nimble young men runne leaping over the same. The women and maydens together do couple their handes. Which bagpipes sounde, they daunce a rounde; no malice among them standes.

Elizabethan ballad celebrating Midsummer

In this article, you’ll find…

Midsummer fires

“A thousand sparks dispersed throughout the sky”. Photo credit: Joanna Kosinska/ Unsplash

Midsummer’s Day, June 24th, 1823. The Vale of Glamorgan. A hilltop gathering forms in the gloaming, mainly men and younger men, around a large wooden cartwheel. It is covered in straw – “not an inch was left in sight” – and a pole is inserted at its centre, the ends extending equally either side for balance. Any remaining straw is repurposed as torches. The cartwheel and straw are set alight and rolled down the hill toward a crowd of women and girls waiting at the bottom. Cheers erupt as it begins its journey. By the time it reaches its destination, the fire will either be ablaze or will have gone out. If it rages, a good harvest is promised. If not, the congregation can expect hard times to come.

Midsummer’s Day, June 24th, 600 years earlier (12th century). East Monckton, Wiltshire. The local lord promises his tenants a ram for their feast. In return, he expects them to carry fire around his cornfields this very evening.

Midsummer’s Day, June 24th, 100 years later (13th century). Lilleshall, Shropshire. A group of men rise with the sun and set to work building three fires. The first is made of clean bones and is called a bonfire (bone fire)*. A second is made purely of wood and the men recognise it as a wakefire (a fire for waking next to). The third is made of bones and wood and it is called St John’s Fire (for tonight is the Feast of St John). The burning bones emit a stench, which the men believe will ward off dragons.

Midsummer’s Day, June 24th, circa 1598. London. John Stow walks the streets of the capital. Around him, men and women build bonfires in the streets, some in front of the doorways of their homes and businesses. He sees them breaking bread and sharing ale with their neighbours. Bonhomie and smoke filter through the night, and people believe that the fires purify the air they breathe of sickness. It is an extraordinary scene. Every doorway is decorated in greenery and flowers – “green birch, long fennel, St John’s Wort, Orpin, white lilies… garnishes upon with garlands of beautiful flowers”. Oil lamps flicker behind glass, lining the streets in their hundreds. John Stow nods. It is, “a goodly show”.

Midsummer’s Day, June 24th, 1570. London. The Guild of Tailors are preparing to take their giant, Christopher (now known as The Salisbury Giant), for his annual stroll in the Midsummer’s Eve procession. He stands 14ft tall and is resplendent in a newly repaired jacket. He is accompanied by Hob Nob, his hobby horse, and several whifflers – armed men employed to protect him in the impending mob. 4,000 people are expected to throng the streets to celebrate the coming of Midsummer. In the aftermath, it is noted that “a thousand sparks dispersed throughout the sky,” and “wholesome heat, purging the air, consumed the earth’s unwholesome vapours, fogs and fumes.”

July 4th, 2016. Whalton, near Morpeth, Northumberland. A 15ft kern baby (corn dolly) stands in Whalton Village Hall garden. Made by artist Faye Claridge, the imposing, freakish figure with a corn head and long white dress is only here briefly, as if to oversee the event that inspired her creation. Elsewhere in the village, 7ft kern babies await their fate in the annual Baal Burning ceremony. It is not known how many centuries this ritual has seen. Historian, Steve Roud, notes that this communal bonfire event is the “best modern example of a fire that retains the atmosphere of… the traditional midsummer festival… It is unlikely that the fire is a direct survival from medieval times, although it could be.” Either way, people arrive with commonality and togetherness in mind, and in that sense, it serves similar purposes to those of its predecessors. According to Bev Wales, Trustee of Whalton Village Hall, “It certainly brings the community together. It doesn’t matter whether it’s raining or not, most of the village do turn out on that evening.”

* Is ‘bonfire’ really ‘bone fire’? Some historians believe it may have been. Others believe the word comes from the same root as ‘boon’, signifying goodwill, gifts and benefits. In Norse, the word ‘baun’ means ‘beacon’. “If it really does come from ‘bone;'”, says historian, Ronald Hutton, “then this is unique in Europe, where most terms for the festive blazes signify, ‘fire of joy’.”


“Miss Bray reaches out and attempts to pick a full bloom.” Photo credit: Biel Morro/ Unsplash

Midsummer’s Day, June 24th, 1650. Wiltshire. John Aubrey watches in fascination as the housemaids move furtively around the room. Earlier in the day, he overheard busy plans for baking dumb cakes, but now they’re climbing high and stooping low, pressing ‘Midsummer Men’ into the chinks and nooks that make up the draughty old house. One of these tiny effigies tumbles to the floor and he scoops it up for a closer look. It’s little more than a sprig of orpine. The maid begs him to give it back. It is one of a pair she says. “This one is me,” she says, holding up a matching sprig, “and that one is my beloved.” John hands it back and watches as she traps their stalks in the joists above the stairwell. “Time will move them,” she says. “If they bend together, our love is meant to be. If they bend away, it is not. If either is to whither, then death awaits.”

Midsummer’s Day, June 24th, 1838. Devon. Midday is approaching. Miss Bray leans over and lifts a large napkin from the table. She places it over her eyes and ties the corners firmly behind her head. She heads out into the garden commotion where an excited group of young women egg her on, spinning their blindfolded friend towards a rose bush. As the church bell begins to strike, Miss Bray reaches out and attempts to pick a full bloom. The thorns prick her skin, she gasps and pulls back. Catching her breath, she goes in again and again, each time more determined to grab her prize before the 12th chime sounds. If she emerges victorious, she will wrap this rose in white paper and leave it until Christmas. Should it remains fresh over the next six months, she will place the rose in her bosom, knowing that the first young man to snatch it away will become her husband.

Duck racing

Duck racing isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’ve seen a dozen men take 20 minutes to catch a duck.

Albert Cook, duck race champion, 1955

July 6th, 1955. Grove, Oxfordshire. Albert Cook is limbering up. Having already won four duck races today, he’s odds-on favourite to win a fifth. After all, it takes some considerable skill to win a duck race. Once the brook has been dammed, the officials will release a raft of ducks onto the water. It’s up to Albert and his competitors to catch the ducks with their bare hands. A single heat can take longer than you think; Albert says he’s seen a dozen men take 20 minutes to conquer one of these sodden beasts. Whoever ends up with a duck in his clutches gets to take it home for dinner. Albert is on course to take home five before this year’s competition is over.

This tradition was curtailed in the 1960s by the RSPCA on grounds of animal cruelty. However, Grove continues a variant of the tradition to this day, usually in April, using yellow plastic ducks.

Midsummer cushions

Photo credit: Christian Widell/ Unsplash

Midsummer’s Day, June 24th, 1850. Northumberland. Mr Denham closes his eyes and thinks back over 50 years to his youth. He’s struggling to remember the exact details, but the vague memory is a parade of colour. He can see the young lads and lasses of the village. They’re clutching brightly coloured cushions and walking towards the town centre. As they approach, they pluck bunches of flowers from the gardens of their parents and neighbours, arranging them on the cushions as a kind of impromptu art display. Reaching the village square, they jostle for the most visible spot, arranging themselves, their cushions and their flowers so that they can easily be seen by passersby. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this attractive display is an attempt to attract a lover, but no… they’re hoping to be able to treat themselves. Those that most easily catch the eye are guaranteed a few pence from those who appreciate their efforts the most.

The information in our Customs Uncovered series comes from several books, most commonly The English Year (Steve Roud, 2006), and The Stations of the Sun (Ronald Hutton, 1996).

Note that some of the dates given in this article are approximations, based on records published on or near the suggested times.