The 4th of July’s Pagan Roots
“THE ONLY THING NEW IN THIS WORLD IS THE HISTORY THAT YOU DON’T KNOW.”
Some of the best-documented examples of the survival of pagan ritual into the modern era are the traditional bonfires on June 23, small-scale descendants from the great Celtic Fire Festival of Midsummer’s Eve, celebrating the summer solstice.
The midsummer festival lay exactly opposite the winter solstice in the cycle of the year, and the summer revelry was a mirror image of that in December, perhaps even more riotous in the more temperate weather.
The focus of the festival was fire, used to bring the life-giving power of the sun god down to earth. There were huge bonfires on every hilltop. Some communities built a giant wooden wheel, wrapped it in tar-soaked rags, ignited it and set it rolling down the slope of the nearest hill.
Men and women with blazing torches would run in huge clockwise circles around farm fields to ensure the health of the crop. After the fire rituals, the people would feast and drink long into the night.
Even after all of Britain was converted to Christianity, these customs survived.
In rural communities, bonfires continued to be lit on Midsummer’s Eve. Later generations added fireworks to the festivities. According to historian Ronald Hutton, these customs have “a recorded history of almost two millennia, stretching back into the pagan past.”
In 1751, Britain adopted the new Gregorian calendar, the standard modern calendar we still use. By that time, the old Julian calendar had fallen eleven days out of synch with the annual solar cycle, and most European countries were adopting the newer, more accurate calendar.
Parliament passed an act in 1751 decreeing that the new calendar would go into effect on September 2 of the next year and that September 2, 1752 would be followed by September 14, with the intervening eleven days omitted. This did some violence to the old calendar customs of Britain: What had been Christmas was now January 6th, with Christmas Eve on January 5th; the new Gregorian Christmas had previously been December 14.
It was a little confusing, and in more isolated districts, it was sometimes simply ignored. In such communities, a residue of magic lingered on the old dates. January 5th was known as Old Christmas Eve, and much of the magical and supernatural folklore associated with the solstice still clung to it.
The 18th century in Britain was also the time of the great emigrations to America. In particular it saw the emigration of Scottish, northern English and northern Irish borderers to what was then the North American back country, settling in the hollows and hills of Appalachia, the great mountain chain that stretches along America’s eastern rim.
These were an independent, hard-headed people who believed in doing things their own way, and their own way meant, as often as not, the old way, the way they’d always done things.
This was especially the case with matters of the seasons and the calendar. Many of them had arrived in America before the calendar change, and many districts in the mountains clung stubbornly to Old Christmas and to the calendar that, for everyone else in the Western world, was now eleven days late.
Meanwhile, the American colonies fought a war of independence, and when they had won it, they thought it fitting to designate a national day of celebration. They chose the fourth day of July, to commemorate, so they said, the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. But was that the only reason for their choice?
Back up in the hills, Old Christmas still hung on like mist in a hollow. And if Old Christmas lingered, what about its opposite number, the other great feast of pagan Europe, Midsummer’s Eve?
Just as we look eleven days past Christmas to find Old Christmas, we would look eleven days past June 23—current Midsummer’s Eve—to find Old Midsummer’s Eve. Is it there, buried beneath the Gregorian calendar?
Find a calendar and count for yourself, eleven days past June 23rd. You’ll land neatly and definitively on… the 4th of July.
Two nights of fiery spectacle and festivity, layered right on top of each other. Is this coincidence? Or were the Founding Fathers a secret order of druids, dedicated to reviving the Old Religion in the New World?
Was paganism a way to break free of the Church of England—a pillar of the English state– just as constitutional democracy was a way to break free of the crown of England?
Was Ben Franklin ever observed dancing around a bonfire with antlers on his head and a bellyful of mead? Was J.R.R. Tolkien trying to tell us something when he made Gandalf, the arch-Druid, the master of fireworks?
We may never know, at least until the day that some historian unearths a hidden cache of correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and William Blake. But I have one idea. I think Old Midsummer’s Eve snuck into the American calendar via the mountains. Those old Celts up in the hills sent a lot of volunteers off to the Continental Army, and they provided the new nation with several presidents.
When the federal government was casting about for suggestions vis a vis a national holiday, the representatives from the back country had just the thing. They knew that there were two great times for festivity in the year. One, Christmas, was already claimed by the church. But the other one was there for the taking. No-one had celebrated Old Midsummer’s Eve for centuries—maybe a millennium. No-one that is, except for the people of the mountains, who just might have slipped a rough shard of prehistoric Europe into the foundation of the republic.
POSTED BY CHRISTOPHER HILL