Magic Midsummer in Romania and the US
Updated: Jul 1
Geographies of Tradition
In traditional Romanian culture, Sânzienele is a holiday that takes place on June 24th. Also on this date, Orthodox Christian believers celebrate the birth of St. John the Baptist. It is believed that the feast of Sânziene is a pagan celebration of the summer solstice in June, which celebrates the sun, nature and love/fertility. Sânziana is the Romanian name of a fairy who plays an important role in local folklore. Additional significance has been added to this day (of June 24th) as a result of the initiative of the online community La Blouse Roumaine, which dedicated this day to the promotion of the Romanian language. The Universal Day of the Romanian Blouse (or ia) is marked by Romanian communities around the world. Women especially wear these embroided blouses. The initiative appeared in 2013.
It seems that the feast of Sânziene has its origins in an ancient solar cult and is also called “Summer’s Head” or “The Silencing of the Cuckoo Bird”. The cuckoo begins to sing around March 21st (from the spring equinox) and does so to the summer solstice (around June 21-22) or even on Sânziene (June 24th). The cuckoo was the best-known landmark for the passage of time over the year: the cuckoo has always had the function of a calendar clock (hence, cuckoo clocks).
The term sânziană is the name of a plant (Eng.: Lady’s bedstraw). The plant is known as a medicinal plant, used in folk medicine, along with other plants harvested at this time of year. The flowers of this plant are yellow and bloom around June 24th. They have important divinatory and apotropaic attributes, as the vegetal equivalents of fairies bearing the same name. It is a herbaceous plant, a phytomorphic substitute for the virgin fairy who gives these flowers a scent and a cure. The plant grows in meadows and orchards, on roadsides, in forests and near fences. Its flowers are pleasantly scented. The plant is used in folk medicine, in customs and magical acts. The sânziană was used for many diseases, with the condition of being harvested in the morning, at dawn. Also during this period, other medicinal plants were harvested, such as: wild garlic, chicory, thyme, hawthorn, hellebore. Medicinal plants were taken to the church to be blessed. This is the period of maturity for many kinds of medicinal plants and weeds. It was believed that the best time for their harvest was the feast of Sânziene. To cure diseases, people made use of a complex of prejudices and magical-religious beliefs, which were supplemented with medicines prepared from medicinal plants.
The word Sânziene represents three related elements: good fairies, sânziene flowers and the actual holiday called Sânziene or Drăgaică.
In popular lore, the Sânziene were very beautiful girls who lived in forests or on plains. They were most often represented dancing. They were considered fairies of the field, who gave flowers and weeds special powers, thus these became medicinal plants.
From field documentations and from interviews, we can observe that there are several beliefs about Sânziene: there are seven beautiful girls, who live on the edge of the earth from where they send all the moths and bugs that spoil the clothes, seeds and fruits of those who work during the day; girls indentured by zmei (dragons or wicked men), kept in enchanted palaces stranded among waters where no human being has ever stepped; beautiful women, holy women, goddesses, heavenly beings, even birds.
The girls pick sânziene flowers, make wreaths on their heads which they wear returning home. In days of yore, the custom was to throw the wreath on the roof of the house. If it remained on the roof, the girl would marry that year; if it dropped onto the ground, the girl had to throw it until it stayed on the roof. Every time she threw it back represented one year she had to wait until to get married.
The girls made wreaths of wheat ears, sânziene and other plants, wreaths with which they adorned themselves and danced the dance of Drăgaica, a dance performed to bring abundance, to protect households and cultivated land. In the cultural tradition, it was believed that, with these dancers, the sun also danced at noon, and so it sat longer in the sky than usual. The wreaths were also hung on the windows of houses, on the pillars of gates and on road and cemetery crosses in order to protect people, graves and fields from evil forces.
Girls put their flowers under their pillows the night before Sânziene, in order to meet “the one” in their dreams. Women who tied stalks of these flowers around their waists were said to be protected from back pain during the harvest. Girls and wives wore it on their breasts or in their hair in order to be attractive and loving.
The sânziene wreaths were thrown over the house, over the cattle stable, three times, for good luck.
The night dew of the feast of Sânziene had miraculous properties of curing certain diseases and to protecting people from evil. On the morning of June 24th, many girls bathed in the dew of virgin areas. The dew of the sânziene flowers was gathered by the old women in a new white cloth, then it was squeezed into a new pot. On the way home, the old women were not to speak at all and especially were not to meet anyone. If all this was accomplished, then whoever washed with this dew woud be healthy and loving that year.
It was believed that on the night of the feast of Sanziene, the gates of heaven open and the two worlds, earthly life and the afterlife, come into contact with each other. On this occasion, in many parts of the country, alms are paid for the dead (“Sânziene estates”).
The name Sânziana appears in many ballads and old songs, representing the moon (under the name Iana, Sânziana or Ileana Sânziana). Moreover, Mircea Eliade, the well-known historian of religions, fiction writer, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago (born in Bucharest, in 1907, died in Chicago, in 1986), in his novel Noaptea de Sânziene (The Forbidden Forest), refers to the popular belief about the opening of the sky on the night of the feast of Sânziene, and also to paranormal events that took place in Băneasa Forest. The novel begins on the night of the June solstice and ends on the night of the summer solstice, 12 years later. Sânziana is a well-known character from Romanian fairy tales. Sânziana is used as a female first name. A notable example is its use by Vasile Alecsandri in his comic play Sânziana şi Pepelea (which later became an opera, composed by George Ștefănescu).
From the category of holidays dedicated to domestic animals, the trained Bull stands out, a kind of summer carol for obtaining rain, having as its hero the animal that is the main element of ongoing agricultural work, with the feast of Sânziene representing the turning point of summer to winter. “The ox with sânziene” was typically organized by a crowd of boys. Three or four days before Sânziene, the handsomest ox in the village was chosen, which had to be robust, with large, upward-pointing horns. On the eve of the feast, the ox was allowed to graze freely. On the morning of Sânziene, it was taken to the village and bathed. Both girls and boys took part in its decoration. It was adorned with the most beautiful textile fabrics. The horns and tail were wrapped in tricolor belts, and bouquets of sânziene flowers were placed on top of the horns and tail. The ox was accompanied by a procession, which entered the yards of the households, especially those which had older girls in them, but also wherever it was called in by the hosts. In the yard of the household, a dance of the Bull with sânziene takes place, according to ethnologist Amalia Pavelescu.
Two important dates are superimposed with the occasion of this holiday: reminiscences of a solar cult and the core of Drăgaica, a holiday of love, of the magic of love. In the morning of this day, women washed themselves with dew, boiled herbs, or made love charms. Drăgaica or Sânziana would walk on the ground or float in the air on the day of the summer solstice and make merry , singing and dancing, together with her bridal procession of virgin fairies and beautiful girls, over fields and forests, according to ethnologist Antoaneta Olteanu.
In the United States, the summer solstice is an event that has not received the attention it fully deserves. In short, it is the longest day of the year and marks the official beginning of summer. It is the event that has taken place annually since the dawn of time and which will continue to take place. Also known as Midsummer, it is of importance for every civilization that has followed the patterns of the movement of the stars, which has created an almost mystical, mythological feeling.
The summer solstice is celebrated in various places in the United States. The Swedish community is also representative in their manner of celebrating this special time of year. A Swedish proverb says that “The night of the solstice is not long, but many cribs sway during it”, because after the solstice celebration in June, in which many Swedes participate, many babies are born in May.
The middle of June is also the time when honey is left to ferment to prepare mead, a wine-like drink. As legend has it, the father of a bride would give the groom all the mead he would want after the wedding, and this is how the term “honeymoon” came about. Thus, many of America's ancestors referred to the full moon of June as “the month of mead”.
Native Americans perform the Dance of the Sun during the solstice, a ritual that includes cutting and raising a tree, which was considered a visible connection between Heaven and Earth. Participants refrain from eating and drinking during the dance, and their bodies were decorated in symbolic colors (red - sunset, blue - sky, yellow - lightning, white - light, black – night). At the same time, tents are installed in a circle , to represent the Cosmos.
In some parts of the United States, events focusing on the theme of the summer solstice are held. These events include: local art and music festivals, environmental awareness activities that focus on natural sunlight as an energy source, family gatherings.
Some Swedish-speaking communities celebrate the summer solstice. People of Swedish origin meet with friends and family for a big celebration. We can see people of all ages wearing wreaths made and dancing around a pillar (maypole) - a pillar decorated with flowers and wreaths. There are many festivals organized during this period in Manhattan, there is a festival that includes traditional music fiddlers from the Swedish-American Institute in Minneapolis. Flower wreaths are made, traditional games take place and the pole of the solstice is decorated. The Museum of Swedish-American History in Philadelphia organizes festivals on this occasion with music, food, drinks, children's games and face painting.
IKEA holds an annual Midsummer Smorgasbord dinner or other large solstice events in the United States.
Other types of activities are related to sports. In Alaska, for example, baseball games start at midnight on the night of the solstice. In Fairbanks, to celebrate the longest day of the year, the Midnight Sun Baseball Game takes place annually. It is a 1906 tradition for Fairbanks and baseball fans. It brings many curious people in from out of town who want to experience Alaska’s wonderful summers, its very long days, its unusual traditions. Also during the Midnight Sun Festival, you can visit a street fair for 12 hours and listen to live music. The festival takes place on the Sunday closest to the solstice.
Golfers also try to play as many rounds of 18 holes as they can from midnight until there is light. It can take four hours, if you walk, and there can be groups that manage three rounds or even four.
Astronomical observatories, such as the one in Los Angeles, California, Griffith Observatory or the Art Museum of the University of Wyoming organize events related to the position of the sun and stars, trips to the planetarium and the observation of the night sky of the solstice.
In the state of Michigan, the meeting at the Village Roadside Park takes place annually in Kaleva, on the occasion of the summer solstice. Here, we might eat Pannukakku (a Finnish pancake baked in the oven), strawberry cake, after which there is a campfire or kikko. Kaleva was established by Finnish immigrants in 1900.
In New York, the NYC Swedish Midsummer celebration in Battery Park attracts 3000-5000 people annually, making the event one of the largest in the world after those held in Leksand and Skansen Park in Stockholm (Sweden).
These are just a few examples of events taking place in the United States around the time of the summer solstice. The conclusion is that in the United States, the summer solstice is an occasion for celebration, by way of organizing many festivals, sports games, fairs in various parts of the country.
Text by Flavia Paula STOICA, Museographer, The Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania
EP.4: Magic Midsummer in Romania and the US
Text by Flavia Paula Stoica, museographer at the Ethnographic Museum of Transylvania. Translated into English by Andreea Scridon. Presented by Andreea Scridon. Videography by Dragoș Popa.
Music: Love Song From Naipu / voice: Marin Duță, Petre Calistrache (source: the Ethnological Archive of the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant:
A production of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York and the Ethnographical Museum of Transylvania in Cluj-Napoca (2021).