Thursday, June 28, 2012

The longest day

I always felt like the longest days of the year happened sometime in August, when summer really seemed to finally hit its stride. Lawns were lush, gardens were bountiful and the deep, deep backyard of the house where I grew up was the place my family spent nearly evening, long into the soft darkness of  those summer nights. In addition, a weather phenomenon known as 'seasonal lag' often makes those August temperatures the hottest of the year, even though the days are actually getting shorter as autumn approaches.
The fact is, the longest day of the year--known as the summer solstice--happens right around the end of the third week in June in the Northern Hemisphere, give or take a day or so.
They call it 'Midsommar' in Sweden and some other Scandinavian countries, where it's a pretty big deal and often a huge celebration.  While most Swedes, including those in Bishop Hill, wait until the weekend for a big celebration that can include music, dancing, decorating, feasting and spectacular levels of all-night revelry, the actual date was a week ago Wednesday, on June 20th, when the Sun reached its most northern point in the sky. Depending on where exactly you live, this produced some impressive amounts of daytime.  Kewanee, for instance, saw the sunrise at 5:28 that day, and it didn't set until 8:39, making for a warm and wonderful 15 hours and 11 minutes of pure daylight. But that's nothing compared to northern climes like Stockholm, where the day began at 3:31 in the morning and held on until 10:08 that night, resulting in a whopping 18 hours and 37 minutes of sunglass-wearing weather. And, of course, the farther north you go, the longer the day gets, as in the polar regions, where the sun never completely sets at all around the end of June or in Fairbanks, Alaska, where the longest day is just under 23 hours in duration. Of course, those are the very regions that deserve it the most, considering the fact that their wintertime days are pretty darn short.  Like in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan, where my sister and her family live, and the brief, cold winter days are often the topic of conversation for the locals, speaking in the patois fondly known as the 'yooper dialect.'
"Hey dere, vat's dat ting up dere in da sky?"
"I tink dat's da sun, eh. Oops, dere it goes."
...and so on.
Like many old-time holidays, Midsommar has both religious and secular roots. In the Catholic and Orthodox churches, it is recognized as the birthdate of John The Baptist, who, according to tradition, was born six months before Jesus.  In the folk custom, celebrations are held to welcome summertime and the season of fertility. In some areas, people decorate their houses and farm tools with foliage, and raise tall, leafy maypoles to dance around.  Midsummer Night was long considered a magical night, as it was the best time for telling people’s futures. Girls ate salted porridge (‘dream porridge’) so that their future husbands might bring water to them in their dreams to quench their thirst. They also kept watch at springs for a reflection of their husband-to-be in the water.  It was even said that Íf a young woman picked seven different flowers and laid them under her pillow on the night before Midsummer Day, she would dream of her future spouse.
On Midsummer Night, it was said you could discover places where treasure was buried by studying how moonbeams fell. When digging, you might be confronted by strange sights that would tempt you to laugh or speak, but If you managed to keep silent, you would find the treasure.
Also on that night, legend said that water was turned into wine and ferns into flowers, while many plants acquired healing powers on that one night of the year.
Bishop Hill waits for the weekend to bust loose with their own annual Midsommar fest, which includes a music festival, the dressing of the maypole, dancing, feasting and singing, all packed into a yearly one-day celebration that shouldn't be missed.
That's where I spent my Saturday, but it was on the "real" Midsommar, on the Wednesday before, that I learned an important lesson about the day and the many ways one might choose to celebrate it. I was well aware of the date and its meaning, having heard the weather guys speak endlessly on the subject the night before. So, I was kind of anticipating a long, relaxing, sun-filled summer day. Maybe a trip to the pool, I thought. Or a walk in the country followed by a special Midsommar picnic for just the two of us.
Then I made my first mistake.
I asked.
Me: What do you want to do today?
She: Well, I thought this might be a good day to get out on the roof and clean the gutters...
Me: Whaa?
She: And you said you wanted to caulk all the upstairs storm windows...
Me: But, I...
She: And it might be a good time to start some of those painting projects you've been wanting to get to.
I could only sigh as my dreamed-about Midsommar meanderings metamorphosed into a long, hot day of honey-do delights.
It's true, there's always a lot to be done around this big old place of ours, but I hadn't anticipated trying to catch up on all of it in one day.
So, we cleaned, caulked, swept, raked, lifted, fixed and painted. We muscled air conditioners into bedroom windows and dragged red, white and blue decorations from their basement lair. I was on the roof longer than Santa Claus, dirtier than a chimney sweep, and up and down the ladder more times than a firefighter at a five-alarm blaze.
"What time is it," I finally whined after what seemed like an eternity. "It's got to be getting late."
"There's plenty of time to get a few more things done," she twinkled, happy that we had made so much progress on our list of chores. "It's the longest day of the year, you know."
No kidding.

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