Friday, June 21, 2013

The Longest Day: or is it Midsummer?

We don't have any holiday celebrations for the longest day of the year -- the summer soltstice -- which tends to be known in the US by the more commercially driven description of "the first day of summer."
Today is the longest day because the earth has tilted its axis as far north as it gets. The science is beyond dispute.
But in Europe, certainly in England, this day was traditionally known as "midsummer day" This nomenclature accurately references the annual journey of the earth's axis. Three months ago, at the spring equinox, the sun at its apex was directly above the equator, dividing light and darkness exactly in half. That's when the days begin to lengthen and bring on "summer."
The sun reaches that same halfway point exactly six months later, around Sept. 21, the day we call the autumn equinox. Those six months bound the warm season in the northern hemisphere, the growing season.
The season we live off, stocking up on the necessities we need to survive the cold season when, in northern climates, the only thing that grows is mold.
So, to our ancestors, summer, the season of more light and warmth was crucially important,and when the calendar brought us to June 21, the longest day of the year, we were already midway through our good season.
Hence Midsummer.
The grass, the hay crops that fed the animals, was already high by this date and ready for a cutting. The spring vegetatbles, including the wild greens and herbs and some berries, were already harvested and consumed.
People celebrated Midsummer Day, the longest day of the year, the day the sun reaches its apex in our sky. They built Stonehenge and such other astral monuments as a solar calendar to tell them which day to celebrate.
They invented stories to celebrate the day as well. They invented fairies.
We know the "fairies" celebrated the Midsummer day because they do so in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," one of his (and our) most popular comedies, so named to reference the day celebrated by the fairies who are, in some sense, manifestations of the natural world.
The names of the faires who attend Bottom, the "rude mechanical" -- i.e., a working man and the closest thing the play has to a human hero -- reveal roots in the natural world: Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed.
According to some authorities at least "there is no fairy poetry in English literature before Shakespeare," so perhaps the greatest of English authors reached back to his own country origins to make use of the tales, legends, names, and folk beliefs that gave these airy creatures a poetic identity in his work.
Shakespeare's fairies are planning to celebrate on Midsummer's Night.
"The king doth keep his revels here to-night," declares the play's trickster spirit Puck.
The king of the fairies, Oberon, is quarreling with his queen, Titania, and arranges on this night for a potentially cruel practical joke to played by drugging her with a love potion to cause her to fall in love with Bottom, who has been transformed (by another nasty bit of fairy magic) into a "monster" with the head of an ass.
The scene is the subject of a famous painting. Fairies caught on in the popular culture, as we would describe it today, of the romantic 19th century. According to London's Tate Museum, from the 1830s "an increasing numbers of fairy pictures appeared on the walls of the Royal Academy, and by the middle of the century the taste for fairy painting was well established." In the famous treatment of this scene by the artist Huskisson, "Titania, Queen of the Fairies, has been lulled to sleep by her attendants, who are just disappearing from view in the shadowy distance to the left."
Fairies have been part of UK popular culture ever since.
According to a trademarked property called The Flower Fairies (they produce some delicious children's books), the fairies' "favourite pastime is dancing and having parties and balls, which they do often, but their particular favourite time of year is midsummer and therefore their most wonderful balls are held on the Midsummer's Eve."
How thin in comparison are our own customs -- at least as regards the Longest Day of the Year in our technically advanced, materially rich civilization.
Today is the longest day of the year in Massachusetts and we don't have a holiday, we don't a "first night" of summer, we don't build beseeching fires... we take it in stride as our due. "Well," as one radio guy said today, "we've made it once more. It's summer."
Well, by some reckonings it's been good around here for a while, and tonight the season doesn't begin -- it peaks.
But it goes by as a routine working day.
The best I could manage was to sit outdoors after coming home from our Friday night exercise session at the YMCA, the sun had already set for a few minutes, but the twilight was soft and delicious. I sat in the backyard garden for a few minutes enjoying the sweetness of the twilight, the birds silent after a long day of gatheirng berries while they may, the world growing silent, sipping my celebratory beverage of choice (a "seasonal" variety beer). There was even a full moon.
I looked hard. But fairies are famously difficult to see.