Litha can be perfect, or it can be a hopeless mess of expectation unmet. It’s really up to us. In that way, it’s much like any other holiday; recall the extended family horrors of your last Thanksgiving if you need a reminder.
But Litha (at least in the Appalachian mountain valley which is my neck of the woods) has something going for it that Turkey Day lacks: it has the wonder and miracle of a temperate zone Midsummer. Which is as close as we embodied mortals can ever get to paradise, I think.
Summer Solstice, or Litha, occurs on or about the 21st of June, when the Sun hits zero degrees Cancer. It marks Midsummer for many cultures. It is the longest day of the year, and the shortest night, when the sun reaches his apex in the sky, and the days will now grow shorter as the light begins to wane. Litha is centered on the Summer Solstice and the religious celebrations that accompany it. Midsummer-related observances occur with almost boring regularity around the world and into the depths of history – no culture can claim this celebration as its property – it is truly a gem in the crown of every human society.
Litha is one of the eight solar holidays or sabbats of Neopaganism. The holiday is considered the turning point at which Summer reaches its height and the sun shines longest, but at the same time it reminds us that the days will now begin to shorten. Among the Neopagan sabbats, Midsummer is preceded by Beltane and followed by Lughnasadh.
The difference between the Julian calendar year (365.2500 days) and the actual year (365.2422 days) has resulted in slight discontinuities between traditional holidays and the actual solstice – the day associated with the actual astronomical solstice moves forward approximately one day every seven centuries.
On this longest day of the year, light and life are abundant. At Midsummer, the Sun God has reached his moment of greatest strength. Seated on his greenwood throne, he is also lord of the forests, as seen in archaic church architecture, peering from countless foliate masks.
Some legends explain the solstice as darkness triumphing over light, with the light residing in the underworld until it is time for it to return again and rule for the next six months. The stories of Lugh and Goronwy, and the Oak King and the Holly King are two of these legends.
Although Litha may seem at first glance to be a masculine observance and one which focuses on Lugh, the day is also dedicated to the Goddess, and Her flowers are most typically the white blossoms of the elder.
Wiccans see the Goddess as heavy with pregnancy (from the mating at Beltane) and this is the first time in the Wheel of the Year when matron honors are formally extended to Her. The Sun God is also celebrated for His approaching fatherhood, as the Sun is at its peak in the sky.
The Litha Sabbat is a time to celebrate work and leisure; an Eden-like time – a time for children and childlike play, as we adults recall our own innocence or feel our way back into the eternal garden living in all our hearts. It’s a celebration of the ending of the year’s waxing, and the beginning of the year’s waning, in preparation for the harvest to come. A time to recognize the fall that lies at the core of every rise. Midsummer is a time to absorb and utilize our star’s warming rays – another fertility Sabbat, not only for humans, but also for crops and animals.
Faeries are thought to be pretty thick on the ground at this time, too, and it is customary to leave offerings such as food or herbs for them – most often in the evening.
Although the name Litha is not well attested and is almost certainly a recent coinage for the Midsummer holiday, the word does have deep Old Norse and Proto-Germanic roots. The 8th-century monk Bede gives the Anglo-Saxon name for June and July as Litha.
Also known as Alban Hefin, Sun Blessing, Gathering Day, Feill-Sheathain, Whit Sunday, Whitsuntide, Vestalia, Thing-tide, and St. John’s Day.
Xtians converted this day of Jack-in-the-Green to the Feast of Saint John, often portraying him in rustic attire, sometimes with horns and cloven feet (like the Green Man, or the Greek demigod Pan). Saints in the church are typically remembered for the day they died (especially if their death was a martyrdom) so it curious that John the Baptist should be recognized on his natal day.
This is a good time of year to harvest magical and medicinal herbs – many plants reach their peak efficiency about now, and are full of whatever it is that makes them… whatever they are. Harvest herbs with a sharp, clean blade.
Harvesting is done preferably by the light of the Moon, which helps sap rise and makes the harvested herb more potent – but that’s not going to happen at Litha this year, is it – the New Moon is in just a few days. So just do the best you can.
It would be courteous to chant something appropriate while harvesting – some incantation specific to the purpose for which the plant will be used, or something general by way of thanks, or as an offering for the balance of the plant. Plants are very sensitive to sound, and chants or song will help both the potency of the harvested herb and the chances for the remainder of the living plant to survive. There are many songs associated with Midsummer, or you can compose something of your own.
Try not to harvest more than a few sprigs of any single plant. This will help the remainder to remain viable and vigorous. If you must harvest roots, only harvest a third or less of the plant. The rest should thrive in the empty space you create. Harvesting a branch should be done where the branch joins the main plant. Be careful not to damage the remaining plant.
The Sun is entering Cancer (a water sign) as Litha begins, so this is a good time to gather water for use on an altar or in spells for the balance of the year. Midsummer seawater is particularly laden with energy, but if you don’t live near the ocean, an excellent source of magical water is thunderstorm rainwater. Plenty of thunderstorms occur at this time of year. The more electrically charged the storm is, the more energized the water is.
Collect water in glass or porcelain. Avoid metal containers, which are as a general rule too reactive – the energies inherent in the water will quickly dissipate in metal containers. Store your glass containers of Litha-water on a wooden shelf or other insulated surface so the energy doesn’t ground.
Harvesting Litha Fire
Litha fires possess great power. Prosperity and protection for oneself and one’s clan can be garnered by jumping over a Litha bonfire. It is common for courting couples to join hands and jump over the embers of the Litha fire three times to ensure a long and happy marriage, financial prosperity and many children.
Even the charred embers from the Litha bonfire possess protective energies – they are included in charms against injury, and embers are sometimes placed around fields or in orchards to protect crops and ensure a good harvest. Carrying a living ember of the Litha fire into your home hearth is a traditional way to transfer the protection to one’s home; decking the home with birch, fennel, St. John’s Wort, pine, and/or white lilies offers blessing and protection.
Litha Mating Rituals
Since the grand union between the Goddess and God happens in May, at Beltane, it is traditionally thought to be unlucky to have mortal weddings in May, and the pent-up demand explodes in June, the most popular month for weddings. Since the June Full Moon is the "Honey Moon", the term is used for the time following the marriage ceremony.
The Unattested Litha
the spirit like a bell
in fey communion
in planet-healing divination
love and protection magicks
in ritual play join the battle between
the Oak ruler of the waxing year
and the Holly ruler of the waning year
scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
become a rededication of faith
a rite of inspiration
and we applaud with our hearts in our throats
bonfires and processions
all night vigils and singing
contests of bodies and minds
all feasting is a celebrating with others
cut our throats
or cut the necessary divining rods
and dowsing rods
our needfire leaping between two hale fires
like a maiden of light walking in nakedness
through our garden under a razor thin moon
ensuring fertility for the season’s crop
handfastings and weddings
mistletoe from the hidden groves of lithe young oak
berryless mistletoe woven into protection amulets
we honor the Mother’s fullness
her richness and abundance
with tokens of the same our own
in love placed where she may see
garlands of Saint John’s Wort
over doors and windows
and add a sprig to the car for protection
we celebrate the older mixtures of
mugwort and vervain
chamomile and rose
honeysuckle and lily
lavender and ivy
yarrow and fern
lavender and fennel
larkspur and nettle
elder and wild thyme
daisy and carnation
lemon and myrrh
anise and yarrow
wild rose and cinquefoil
mistletoe and hemp
vervain and heartsease
rue and wormwood
pine and heather and oak and holly
the sun in the birch and fir branches
sunflowers as playful love amulets
seashells mixed with summer fruits and flowers
feather wreaths and flower wreaths
sun wheels and fires
circles of stone and sun dials
swords and knives
feathers like a witch’s ladder
blue green gold
yellow and red the light
of the warring oak and holly
of the wren and robin
watch the horses groom the cattle
the kittens provoke the pups
listen to satyrs and faeries
teasing the firebird
while dragons tell the old tales
to the children
of the children
of the invisible thunderbird
while lapis lazuli diamonds
stare into the tiger’s eyes
as green as jealous gemstones
emerald and jade
consume the heliotrope and saffron
bath in orange and frankincense
inhale the cinnamon and mint
burn the sandalwood and pumpernickel bread
pour the mead across the sanded altar preparing
since we kissed our beautiful Beltane goodbye
and watched her sail between our door posts
into the threadspinning past
we will all make of it what we will
this timeless spinning
we will all learn what we must
be we demons or demigods
the year is a scythe approaching
and we are the harvest
through bountiful waves
and we are the chorus
brave before the encroaching
army of the spoiled rods
pure as the irradiated dust
we become as we become a new beginning
until we have had our fill
The first three sections are made up of seven four line stanzas each, while the final section is a rhymed ABCD EF G FE DCBA section in stanzas 4, 2, 1, 2 and 4 lines in length.
Kind of pretty, and close to the feeling Litha gives me.