March 18, 2013 Flax in the Fire Festivals of Old
Flax in the Fire Festivals of Old
By N. Lee Pengilly, Researcher and Author
While many people recognize the Summer Solstice as the longest day of the year, in the olden times of Medieval Europe it was the time of midsummer festivals. Although the origin of these celebrations is not precisely documented, it is thought that they came about as recognition of mankind’s powerlessness against the changing seasons. Whatever the origin, these festivals prevailed in Europe from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east and from Norway and Sweden in the north to Spain and Greece in the south. Of all of the rituals associated with the midsummer celebration, of particular interest is the bonfire.
Each community had their own particular customs, but in general, every family was expected to contribute fuel for the fire. Young boys might go about the village with carts collecting the donations with “evil consequences in store for the curmudgeons unwilling to participate.” A hill was the chosen location and at the appropriate time on Midsummer Eve, the fire was lit with great ceremony. Young and old alike gathered round and it was said “all the heights were ablaze as far as the eye could see.” Earlier that day, many homes had extinguished the fire in their domestic hearth with the intent of rekindling it with a brand taken from the midsummer fire.
The people judged as to how tall the flax would grow by the height to which the flames of the fire rose, and whoever could leap over the fire was assured to be free from backache during the harvest season. In some areas, it was believed the flax would grow as high as the young people could leap over the flames. In other areas, folk would plant three charred sticks from the bonfire in their flax fields, and leave them there until harvest was complete thinking this would make the flax grow tall. Another regional custom was to have women throw birch boughs into the fire saying, “May the flax be as tall as this bough.” Attendance at the fire-festival was of utmost importance and it was understood those who did not attend would have “their barley full of thistles and their oats full of weeds.” Wood was tossed into the fire with the proclamation, “Weeds to the fire! Flax to the field. Flax grow long!”
Other reported benefits of participation in the fire-festival included protection from witchcraft, thunder, hail and both human and livestock disease. Of particular interest to some producers might be the note that it was essential in certain areas to light fires at midsummer if the June had been especially rainy. The people believed the lighting of bonfires would cause the rain to cease and growing conditions to improve. In many areas of Saskatchewan a midsummer celebration may be well worth considering!
Source: From “The Language and Lore of Flax,” The Saskatchewan Flax Grower, July 2006, page 2.