At one time in the past, we had a near neighbour whose habit was to light a bonfire in his garden seemingly every time the summer sun shone.
And … a very important point this … every time the wind blew the yellow, pungent smoke away from his property. Just where he sourced his seemingly endless supply of damp vegetative matter was always a mystery to me: but source it he did; and heat-treat it he did, for there never seemed to be any flames from his pile of smoking, stinking green matter …just huge volumes of reeking, dense, yellow smoke. This was quite a number of years ago, it is true: but the memory lives on; and I am very pleased that habits and legislation have changed to discourage gardeners from this once-widespread practice. Now, my fresh-from-the-drying-green shirts sometimes carry the unwanted scent of barbecued foods if they are carelessly left on the line during a late summer afternoon. But that’s less offensive than bonfire smoke; and that’s another story.
Once upon a time, midsummer bonfires were lit for a more public-spirited reason than an attempt to dispose of a single gardener’s plant waste. The residents of a particular place were celebrating the power of the sun at its zenith … for the preferred date for midsummer bonfires was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year … and at the same time imploring this source of stellar warmth not to begin the waning process as the calendar marched relentlessly on. Particularly in the West Country, there was a belief that, if a sufficient number of bonfires were lit, their combined effect would be generate enough heat to make the sun a tad warmer, giving it more heat to return to the earth as the short days of winter advanced. In effect, the people’s hope was that they could turn the sun into a sort of giant storage heater.
The celebration of midsummer generally … and of midsummer bonfires in particular … is widespread throughout northern Europe. Dating from well before the dawn of Christianity, the peoples of Scandinavia, of the states bordering the western end of the northern shore of the Mediterranean, of some countries in the southern hemisphere surprisingly, where our summer solstice is their midwinter, and of parts of north America share this celebration. The most common date nowadays in the astronomical summer solstice, which occurs this year next Sunday, June 21st: but the first Christians absorbed the Roman practice of celebrating midsummer on June 24th into their faith, arbitrarily nominating that date to celebrate the birthday of John the Baptist.
And there are common elements in the world-wide celebrations to mark midsummer. By far the most significant is the bonfire, lit variously to protect against the evil spirits which were supposed to be abroad on Midsummer Eve, working their evil ways against mankind; to guard against encountering the witches who were thought to attend what we would term ‘conventions’ that night; and to ward off the dragons who favoured that night to go a-wandering. More mundanely, bonfires were often used as the centrepiece of what we might call ‘street parties’, where the locals assembled to sing, dance and carouse, much as is done on Guy Fawkes’ Day nowadays in the United Kingdom. Indeed, I am somewhat surprised that the bonfires associated with the summer solstice have not more commonly metamorphosed into fireworks displays. (Now there’s an idea for the fireworks industry. I wonder if I can sell that notion to it?) However, gentle reader, when you are considering whether you will celebrate the summer solstice; and if you will, the manner in which you will arrange your celebration, please refrain from lighting a bonfire, particularly near my home!