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Word Games: Solstice

It’s a weird, witching sort of time, the solstice. On the longest day of the year, the sun (if you can remember what that is) reaches its highest point in the sky. The word comes from Latin: sol, meaning sun, and sistere, meaning “to come to a stop, stand still”. There’s a sense, for a moment, that the world is stilled in light, before the whole process begins again.

The midsummer night is one of mystery, of strange happenings, of Shakespeare’s bluntest comedic tool: a buffoon called Bottom who is turned into an ass. It is also the most pagan of celebrations. In northern Europe, especially – Denmark, Sweden, Norway, where darkness barely falls – the day is marked with maypoles and bonfires and dancing. The bonfires, once upon a time, were lit to protect against evil spirits (and, apparently, dragons), which were said to roam freely as the sun turned southwards.

As Christianity spread across Europe, the celebrations were co-opted into the Christian calendar under the guise of St John’s Eve, as described by a 13th-century monk of Winchcomb, Gloucestershire: “Let us speak of the revels which are accustomed to be made on St John’s Eve, of which there are three kinds. On St John’s Eve in certain regions, the boys collect bones and certain other rubbish and burn them and therefrom a smoke is produced on the air. They also make brands and go about the fields with the brands. Thirdly, the wheel, which they roll.”

They knew how to have a good time. Bone-burning, wheel-rolling, the works. The wheel signified the sun and its movement, rising to the highest point of a circle, a split second of grace, and then turning back. But the “revels”, inevitably, got out of hand. Another scribe, John Mirk of Lilleshall Abbey in Shropshire, described how the once pious celebrations – “Men and women came to church with candles and other lights and prayed all night long” – quickly descended into carnality, prompting the Church to clamp down and ban festivities: “In the process of time, however, men left such devotion and used songs and dances and fell into lechery and gluttony turning the good, holy devotion into sin.” That’s the problem with sin: it’s so much more fun than wheel-rolling.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader