Today is Midsummer’s Eve, and across much of the world the festival of Midsummer, Midsummer’s Night, is held from sunset on the eve until sunrise tomorrow, but only rarely in the British Isles in modern times. What is the difference between the Summer Solstice and Midsummer? That’s where things get interesting.
In the same way that Christmas Day occurs three days after the Winter Solstice, the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist was three days after the Summer Solstice. John the Baptist was said to have been exactly six months older than Jesus, and whereas John baptised with water, Jesus was said to baptise with fire. Anyhow, in many places June 25 was the feast day of St. John, but in medieval times it was decided to settle on June 24, possibly for fear or the mirror-image similarities being noticed.
Anyhow, Midsummer’s Night, was traditionally held to be the most dangerous time of year, because between midnight and sunrise all sorts of spirits, ghosts, ghouls and goblins were held to be at their most powerful. Here in Wicklow midnight, the point at which the sun is furthest from where it set and where it will rise, actually occurs at around 12.30 GMT, which, in summertime, is actually 1.30 am. At Greenwich in London it occurs at 1 am tonight – so make sure you’re safe in bed before that time, or else go looking for Will-O’-The-Wisp, as traditionally it is most often seen on Midsummer’s Night. It should also be a great night for moths and other creatures of the night. A good time for nature lovers.
When the sun sets on Midsummer’s Eve it is Midsummer’s Night, when all the supernatural beings and forces are said to wander about. In many parts of Europe bonfires are kept to keep malevolent spirits away, and this tradition is still maintained in some parts of Ireland where the bonfires are temporarily exempt from the normal regulations. Midsummer’s Night, rather than Halloween, was referenced in Dublin author Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. However, thanks to Shakespeare, Midsummer’s Night is mostly associated in modern times with benevolent fairy folk. In Ireland fairy folk were mostly regarded as large, frightening beings, but pixies, brownies and leprechauns were an exception, being small nymphs associated with nature. When children in Wicklow are told there are fairies living at the bottom of their gardens they will often see them on summer’s nights in twilight, and if you don’t believe me, just look at this photo:
To catch a glimpse of these creatures on balmy nights is to momentarily have disbelief suspended, and to feel that sense of magic which is normally lost to adults. These fairies of Wicklow gardens are a remarkable species of small moth with feathered wings like those imagined on angels. A detailed photo of the moth, which is known as the White Plume Moth (Pterophorus pentadactyla), in no way lessens its incredible appearance. It is a magical being, to say the least, and has a remarkable habit of disappearing into the undergrowth so that you doubt your own eyes.