The Wheel of the Year — Pagan Litha Celebration

Stonehenge at Summer Solstice
Stonehenge at Summer Solstice

Litha, meaning “longest day” in Norse or Anglo-Saxon, falls around June 21, though it can be anywhere from June 20 to June 23, depending on where the longest day lands in that year. It is also referred to as Midsummer’s Day or the Summer Solstice.

If you live in the northern hemisphere, then you look forward to the longest day of the year and the warmth that comes with it. This day, however, brings with it an undercurrent of sadness, as the sun immediately begins to wane towards winter again the following day.

Litha a Solar Celebration for the Summer Solstice

Litha is one of the minor sabbats and, since the celebrations focus on the position of the sun and its influence on the harvest and all of life, it is categorized as a solar celebration. Stonehenge, configured to track the position of the sun through the seasons, attracts pagans who go there for midsummer ritual celebrations.

According to Jeff McQueen, First Degree Priest with the Wiccan Church of Canada, for pagans living on the heath, the focus was always on what the crops were doing and, while Stonehenge might have been used as a way to track the movement of the stars, for pagans trying to survive until the next ritual, the concern was less on what was going on astrologically and more on what was affecting the crops.

In an interview with Val Tobin, McQueen talked about the difference between the attitudes of past pagan city and country dwellers: “The farmer looks at what’s going on in his fields, whereas the person in the city, if they are interested, he/she is going to do astrology or some mythology, but really, out in the heaths, they’re worried about making it to the next sabbat. They’re worried about getting the crops in. They don’t much care what the position of the stars are.”

The Oak King and the Holly King Battle for Supremacy

The Holly King rules the waning part of the year, taking over from the Oak King, until, at Yule, the tide turns once again and the Oak King takes over again. According to McQueen, “The Oak King has had his bit. He’s beaten down. So now the Holly King comes in to do his reign. It’s interesting that when you look at the Holly King/Oak King, because it’s cyclical and it keeps happening and it keeps going and [at] Yule the Oak King beats down the Holly King, it’s not a death and resurrection, it’s kind of like a beating down and a retreat. So there is not really the life and death, death and life sort of thing that’s going on.”

Louise Bunn outlines an alternative interpretation in her Book of Shadows: Participant’s Handbook for Paganism 101: “Within the longest, brightest day is the seed of decay and death, just as the darkest, ‘deadest’ day contains the seeds of life and growth.” She goes on to say that in ancient Britain, on Midsummer Day “the Oak King was ritually killed and the Holly King crowned.” (Bunn, 61) It was during this festival that they had the burning of the wicker man.

Honouring the Sun to Celebrate Litha

During McQueen’s Litha ritual, each participant receives a candle, ideally yellow, but possibly white, depending on availability of candles. The yellow, of course, represents the sun. If the candle is white, it can represent the spiritual light. Either way, to celebrate and honor the sun, McQueen instructs everyone to carve sun symbols into the candle and then leads a meditation to “draw down the essence of the sun into the candle so that in the dead of winter you can light that candle and remember that it is a cycle and that things will happen and it will get warm again.”

When asked for other ideas to celebrate Litha, McQueen suggests, “Have a bonfire. Celebrate the fact that the sun is at its strongest. Light a candle. Go camping. Get out in it. Celebrate the fact that it is as hot as it is. Don’t whine about the humidity. Enjoy it.”

Bunn, in Book of Shadows, also suggests having a bonfire. Other activities she recommends include making a solar cross, performing a protection ritual to keep pets or livestock safe, gathering herbs, which have extra potency at this time, making and burning a wicker man or re-enacting the Oak King-Holly King battle.

Food and Drink for Litha

Late June in Ontario brings the ripening of strawberries and currants. Raspberries are just around the corner. The harvest begins to come in, though, at Litha, there is still a lot of growing to do for many crops before everything finally comes in around the time of September’s Mabon, the ritual that follows August’s Lammas. Ritual at this time might include berry-based food and drink, or anything that brings to mind the sun, such as sangria with lemons and limes. McQueen also suggests hot, spicy foods and drinks, such as spiced wine or orange juice with spiced rum.

Tony and Aileen Grist incorporate a round loaf to symbolize the sun in their Midsummer Solstice Ritual in their book The Illustrated Guide to Wicca. Any round foods work well as a representation of the sun, either within ritual or at the potluck that inevitably follows it. Strawberry pie incorporates both the symbolism of the sun and takes advantage of the fresh, local strawberry harvest.

Sabbats Relative to Litha

Yule, one of the Lesser Sabbats, sits opposite to Litha on the Wheel of the Year. At Yule, the sun is at its weakest in the northern hemisphere and we have the longest night. Beltane precedes Litha on the wheel. A fire ritual, it marks one of the two times during the year when the veil between the worlds thins, allowing spirit energy that is light and playful to cross easily into our plane. Lammas follows Litha on the wheel and is a time of harvesting and reaping what you have sown.

McQueen compares Midsummer’s Day to the pause in the breath after an inhalation. Litha is the very peak of the ascent to summer, where we pause and then begin the giddy descent down the other side. Despite the knowledge that we are journeying towards winter again, we still have the hottest days of summer ahead and the bulk of nature’s bounty yet to harvest. Besides, we are finally able to go barefoot in the circle and are armed with a candle to light our way through the darkest times to come.


Image: Stonehenge — Danny Sullivan Via Flickr

Bunn, Louise, Book of Shadows: Participant’s Handbook for Paganism 101, Vancouver: Louise Bunn, 1998.

Grist, Tony and Aileen, The Illustrated Guide to Wicca, New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 2000.

McQueen, Jeff, Priest, 1st degree, the Wiccan Church of Canada.

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