Many Pagan sources regarding Litha assert that the Celts celebrated Midsummer in much the same way that they observed their four cross-quarter festivals, but there isn’t much evidence to support this idea. Nonetheless, the number of Neolithic stone monuments found throughout Europe that align with the Sun on this day—in both Celtic and non-Celtic lands—indicates that the Summer Solstice was indeed significant to our ancient ancestors.
The most well-known example is Stonehenge in England, where from the center of the circle, the Midsummer Sun can be seen rising over the giant Heel Stone. Today, Pagans of many different traditions gather at Stonehenge on the eve of the Summer Solstice, celebrating throughout the night as they await the sunrise. However, it’s unlikely that any of the rituals taking place in modern times are connected to the actual history of Stonehenge.
When it comes to the activities of the ancient Germanic tribes, however, much more is known. Particularly in the northernmost regions of Europe, the solstice would have been great cause for celebration, as the near-endless daylight of the height of summer made for such contrast with the long, dark winters.
In a world without electricity and artificial lighting, the Sun’s light would have been unimaginably precious. We can see this in the fire-centered traditions that have come down from Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and other Germanic peoples and are still practiced today. Many of these have inspired the Litha celebrations of Wiccans and other modern Pagans.
Aside from the Sun, and to a lesser extent the Moon, fire was the only source of light available to people until the 19th century. Fire is the symbolic manifestation of the Sun on Earth. It is both tangible and untouchable, miraculous yet dangerous, and it demands respect.
Our pagan ancestors—the Norse in particular—honored the Element of Fire at Midsummer with bonfires and torchlight processions, parading with their families, communities and even animals to their ritual sites for the evening’s celebrations. The fires were believed to keep away evil spirits and misfortune. In Anglo-Saxon tradition, boys would roam the fields with their torches to drive away dragons who threatened their springs and wells.
A long-standing tradition in many parts of Europe was the “sunwheel,” a giant wagon wheel, tar barrel or ball of straw that was set alight and rolled down a steep hill into a river or other body of water. The significance of this ritual has several possible interpretations. Some suggest it symbolized the annual journey of the Sun—after reaching the zenith of the solstice, it now makes its way back down toward its lowest point at Yule. Others believe it encouraged a natural balance between the Elements of Fire and Water, acknowledging the need for rain to nourish the crops and prevent drought.
The Solstice is still observed today throughout Northern Europe with a variety of rituals dating back to pre-Christian times. Bonfires are held on beaches or near waterways in Denmark and Finland, while in Poland, young girls throw wreaths of flowers into the lakes, rivers, and the Baltic Sea.
In many of these countries, the celebrations begin in the evening and last throughout the night until the Sun rises the following morning. In many places, the day is known as St. John’s Day, having been appropriated (like most pagan feasts) by the Christian Church. Nonetheless, the pagan roots of the holiday are still clearly recognizable.
The name “Litha” is a modern innovation, borrowed by Wiccans from an old Saxon word for this time of year. The more traditional “Midsummer” is also used by many Wiccans and other Pagans, as this date truly falls in the middle of the summer, despite the fact that our modern calendars designate this as the start of the season.