Midsummer: more than the longest day of the year

In the Northern Hemisphere, we’ve just passed Midsummer. But is there meaning beyond the traditional recognition? Becky finds out...

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Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Becky Hughes, Community Co-Ordinator at Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex, in 1855. The company continues to be run by a member of the Freeman family today, and now also has offices in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint. Summer has arrived in the UK, and with it comes the Northern Hemisphere’s longest day of the year. How is the occasion marked? Community Co-Ordinator, Becky, finds out…

With a hefty dose of cultural bias, I’ve long associated 21st June – Midsummer’s day, and the day with the greatest amount of daylight hours in the UK – with Pagan-style celebrations. As for many Brits (and particularly those who live in the South, as I do), I think I’d find myself even wondering whether the longest day of the year had occurred if I didn’t see a news report of people welcoming sunrise at Stonehenge, or commentary on the weather being seasonally-appropriate or inappropriate! I also knew that other parts of Europe – unsurprisingly, given our shared geography – celebrated in a similar way, but I was curious about other regions too.

Outside the UK and Europe, I learned that various cultures take the opportunity to put on parades, and revel in the extended sunshine hours. The practice is particularly popular in the western US, which didn’t surprise me given their favourable climate! The original parade concept was driven by Santa Barbara resident and mime artist, Michael Gonzalez, whose birthday was at the same time of year. It was also used to mark Pride – which I’ll come back to later. Santa Barbara’s event has run since 1974, and was used as inspiration for another event developed further north, in Seattle, in 1989. Neither event took place in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Canada, 21st June is a holiday. It is now celebrated as National Indigenous Peoples Day, having originally been called National Aboriginal Day since 1996. The name change took place in 2017, instigated by Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who recognised the move as important due to United Nations guidance on recognition of indigenous peoples. This holiday is followed by several other holidays known together as Celebrate Canada days, and culminating with Canada Day itself on 1st July.

Of course, for the Southern Hemisphere, 21st June is their shortest day, and a time when many cultures mark the middle of winter, welcoming back the start of lengthening days. This is something which is particularly prominent within South American cultures, for example the Return of the Sun holiday in Bolivia.  It’s an intriguing difference for us here in the UK – I always associate the shortest day of the year, on 21st December, with a final countdown to Christmas, in addition to it being our turning point of slowly heading towards spring and summer again.

Although some of these events are more poignant, most of my research led me to feel that they were generally positive celebrations, welcoming good times and sharing fun experiences. I was surprised to learn about one event in particular and, given my own cultural background, did feel a little guilty of my previous ignorance!

I have dual British and Irish citizenship, via my Dad, who was born in Belfast and brought up nearby. In the mid-1970s, my grandparents took the significant decision to relocate to England, due to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I’ve never discussed this choice with my grandparents, but always felt that it sounded like both a brave and sensible, though tough decision: they both felt (my grandad died in 2018) very connected to their homeland, and were proud of their heritage. It was also such a different time technologically versus how we live today – letters and phone calls were their only means of communication, with even text messaging being decades away. Moving across the Irish Sea was regarded as a big deal in many ways, and migration was incredibly unusual within their culture, but they also recognised the risk they took by staying where they were.

The situation is highlighted further when I outline my dad’s first job: as a child, he was hired as a ‘van boy’. It became common practice for delivery drivers to have either a dog or a child ride with them in their vans, to prove when the vehicle was parked and the driver away from it that it did not contain a bomb. I find it astonishing that such practices were necessary well within living memory, and that children were involved to this extent. Thanks to our privileged safety in recent years, many people do not appreciate exactly how dangerous the situation in Northern Ireland was, and how fragile it continues to be, particularly since 2016.

When I read about the Day of Private Reflection, I felt bad for having not known about it previously. It’s been held annually since 2007, having been realised via Healing Through Remembering, which is a cross-community project in Northern Ireland.

The Day of Private Reflection was one of six recommendations from a report published by Healing Through Remembering, and following consultation with various groups and an analysis of what would be appropriate, 21st June was chosen as the date to recognise this moment. The date was chosen as an opportunity to look towards a peaceful future, as well as back at the violent past, and I like the significance of this.

The hope is that the day will expand in future years, to extend from being a time of personal and private reflection to one which will broaden across communities and foster much-needed connection and acceptance.

Something I particularly like about this marking of midsummer is that it’s a new tradition. Many of our annual celebrations are for events which began in the distant past, and much of the meaning has been watered down over time. I think it’s great that we are able to recognise what is important to us in our own way – I certainly enjoy Christmas, despite not being a practicing Christian, for example – but I think it’s equally critical to establish newer occasions, in order to guide our thinking and inform future generations.

Another fantastic example of this practice is currently coming to a close – June is internationally recognised as Pride month, a time when LGBTQIA+ communities are recognised, and the population can continue to share knowledge and develop better practices of acceptance and engagement. Much is rightly made with regard to both the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights and the conflict between Ireland and Northern Ireland in terms of new generations losing the roots of these stories, and failing to properly understand the gravity of change which has occurred and is important to maintain. Similarly to the Holocaust continually being recognised as having had a global impact, we must keep highlighting these situations from the recent past, which is why I think these newer awareness events are worth promoting.

I hope that the Day of Private Reflection continues to build momentum, and that the peace process in Ireland and Northern Ireland continues to go in the right direction. My experience with learning about this recognition has also reminded me how important it is to keep broadening horizons, and continue to discover alternative meanings for special occasions.

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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

June 23, 2021

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