By Susan Mangan
When I was a girl living in the city, summer was magical. A freshness coated the air with the heady perfume of backyard roses and wild mint which sprouted boldly through the river of cracks winding through concrete sidewalks. Life’s promise was as endless as the long summer days.
In sing-song fashion, a gang of us would take turns calling out for one another through the open kitchen windows to play: “Yo, Tomm–ee,” “Yo, Su–zy.” Never minding sunscreen or bug spray, we would pour out into the streets and gangways for games of tag and hide-and-go-seek.
To ensure that teams were always fair, we would huddle together on the ground in a circle. Each child would place one hand in the middle. Then a leader would chant while briefly touching each playmate’s hand, “Engine, Engine Number 9 going down Chicago Line, if the train falls off the track do you want your money back, yes or no?”
The count would continue until one hand remained and that person would be “It” in the game. Free from teachers and the confines of school and Catholic uniforms, we played until the streetlights appeared. With tired voices, our mothers would call us home through the darkening air.
One lazy afternoon, we children were commenting on our luck that the day was warm, the sun was shining, and it was the longest day of the year. We didn’t know the fancy word for that day, summer solstice, we just knew that the streetlights would shine later and the Good Humor ice cream truck would surely make a visit. Already we could hear the truck’s tinny music box calling us to part with our pennies and indulge in icy red, white, and blue Bomb Pops and chocolaty Fudgesicles.
In celebration, we played our favorite ball game, SPUD. I still remember standing in a circle with my childhood friends throwing a ball into the nine o’clock sky as the sun still shone on our game. Even the adults came out onto the front lawns that night with glasses of iced tea and lemonade to visit. Festive and carefree, life didn’t get any better than this.
Called Midsummer, St. John’s Day, or summer solstice, revelers across many different generations and cultures have marked this day with festivals, rituals, and celebrations. Steeped in religious and pagan significance, great bonfires are lit in the Irish countryside on St. John’s Night to commemorate St. John and to bring good fortune to the summer’s crops. Thick with the fragrance of wildflowers, burning wood, and turf, there is a feeling of abandon on this night. Neighbors travel to each other’s homes to share a drink, or play a trick, or simply to admire the stunning beauty of a well-lit fire.
For thousands of years people have gathered at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England amid the ancient and purportedly mystical rocks to dance and sing while catching a glimpse of the dawn’s first midsummer light. Today the curious tourist, modern Druids, Wiccans, and folk still in search of King Arthur’s Camelot continue this tradition.
Interestingly, the term “summer solstice” is derived from the Latin words for sun, sol, and sistere, to stand still.
On the longest day of the year, the sun literally comes to a halt before reversing direction on its solar path. Isn’t it just what one would wish – the child in a magical circle of his own creation, a Druid in search of wisdom, a farmer in search of peace – to have the day stand still and the hope that fortune’s favor will never end?
Midsummer may mark the gradual declination of the sun, but the spirit of the festival continues throughout the summer months. I will never forget the first Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival that my one-and-only brought me to when we were the tender age of nineteen. Having almost finished a summer course at our university, my future husband thought that I needed a break from the academic grind. He brought me to Cleveland’s West Side, home of the Irish, and his large extended family. Anxious that I would fit in with the group, I tried to make a good first impression. It turned out that nerves were unnecessary as my future husband’s cousins linked arms with me and brought me into the center of all the activity.
Under the wooden beams of a barn-like structure couples waltzed to the steady beat of a ceili band. Women changed out of tennis shoes and into black, low -heeled dancing shoes. Men danced with women, women danced with women, mothers danced with sons and daughters. The young and the old sang songs of freedom, oppression, and of home. As my one-and-only embraced me in his arms and attempted to guide me through the strains of “Take Me Home to Mayo,” I knew that I had found a group that valued family, tradition, festivals, and fun.
Each year, our children look forward to the Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival. For them, it is both the longest day and longest night of the year. Sandy Candy and soda pours freely. Together, the children all dance. The boys step out with their reels, while the girls dance slip jigs like ghost fairies in flight.
This next generation of family dances the “one, two, three” of the waltz and laughs through the whimsical tune of Shoe the Donkey. Happy in each other’s arms, the cousins talk with the young Irish musicians who play on the main stage. One handsome young singer couldn’t get over how good the Americans were with their jigs and reels. Delighted, my daughter and her cousins smiled prettily and pointed their toes with even more poise.
My youngest son is a natural dancer, but modest in his need for attention. He hangs back with his dad and enjoys the talent of the festival’s musicians. Rain threatened one festival night while my son and husband listened to Tommy Fleming sing wistful ballads about halcyon days. After the show, my husband brought our youngest over to meet this fine singer. Declan’s eyes were as round as if he were meeting the ghost of Elvis. Shyly, he asked for Mr. Fleming’s autograph.
That night, the circle of family and tradition continued on its course, while an endless day fell into darkness. With blistered feet and a sunburnt nose, my daughter drifted into slumber with a content pre-teen sigh. My middle son laid his head, sticky with funnel cake and Sandy Candy atop his crisp cotton sheets, while my youngest placed an autographed copy of Tommy Fleming’s Greatest Hits beneath his pillow. I am not sure what the ancient Druids dreamt about at the close of the summer solstice, but for my own children their dreams were fairly obvious, written across their pretty sleeping faces.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace College. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.