I marched in a line with more than 20 people to the druid site tucked into the woods of the Botsford Recreational Preserve in Ann Arbor. While singing a processional chant, we followed the senior druid. We were thrice given blessings: one of the spirit, a second of the sea and a third of the earth. We reached the site, formed a circle, then waited for the senior druid to begin the ritual.
Invocations, prayers and offerings followed. The group was Shining Lakes Grove, the Michigan branch of the Ar nDraiocht Fein, a druid fellowship. The purpose of this celebration was to mark the beginning of summer — the summer solstice.
Summer solstice typically happens June 21 or June 22, when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky and it’s the longest day of the year. This year, solstice was on Friday, June 21, for most people just a normal workday. For others this day was a turning point.
Debra Chaffins, owner of 5th Element Products at 33 N. Washington in Oxford, has been studying paganism for 26 years. Chaffins said the solstice is a celebration of the season that produces the most fruits and vegetables, a time for thanks and a time for retrospection. Although she didn’t attend an organized celebration, she chose to have a Thanksgiving-type firelight ceremony with a few friends in honor of the day, to remember the importance of the earth and what it gives.
“Solstice represents day and night — it marks a turning point,” Chaffins said. “Everything starts to slowly shut down again. Everything comes to fruition and all plants are harvestable. It’s an important time to give thanks for what’s to come.”
As I spoke with Rob Henderson, senior druid of Shining Lakes Grove, we were in the midst of trees, trying to stay away from the smoke billowing from the small fire that had been lit the night before. Henderson, dressed in a yellow robe, said his group chose to celebrate at the time of the summer solstice because it was what their deities told them to do.
“Traditionally, the Celtics didn’t really consider it a very important holiday, so we kind of work with our deities and we ask them what they want us to do,” Henderson said. “What we got were Bel and Danu, our sun father and ocean mother, who told us to honor them at this time, so that is what we’ve been doing.”
Rather than follow the pagan tradition of using energy as the basis of rituals and celebrations, the druids focus on giving and receiving offerings and blessings from their deities, said Henderson.
“We do our fire watch before every ritual the night before,” he said. “We get here the dusk before and keep the fire going until the ritual. We also went to a wheat crop we’re growing on my parents’ farm and threw lit pieces of wood into it. The medieval Irish started the tradition to bring solar blessings down. Even though it was night, the sun was still at the height of its power, so the celebration would be to have a fire, a bright fire, going all night in every village.”
Not all groups who celebrated the longest day of the year did so out of faith. On a sunny Sunday the weekend before the solstice, 25 atheists congregated at a Westland park. Sitting in lawn chairs, enveloped by conversation and guzzling beer, everyone wore a smile.
Off to the side of the picnic, I sat across from Arlene-Marie, a soft-spoken blonde holding a drink in her hand. I asked her what her group believed the significance of the summer solstice was. As she began to answer, I looked around at the grinning people watching us. I got the answer from Arlene-Marie and several other people I interviewed: “It’s a good excuse to have a party!”
“The changing of the seasons has some importance to us,” she said. “Specifically the winter solstice, which is the shortest day. Because primitive man would see the sun leaving, knowing their lives depended on the sun, they would do rituals to bring the sun back and then summer finally comes.”
Wincing at the sun, Arlene-Marie, as she likes to be called, said that all states that have branches of American Atheists (a national atheist organization) planned summer solstice celebrations.
“It’s fun when I go on the Internet and talk to state directors from across the country, and everybody’s planning solstice celebrations,” she said, holding her hands up and shrugging her shoulders. “It’s just something that we do. It’s just good food, good friends and a time to be together.”
I used to be one of those people who only knew summer came because I drove to work with my radio on. The announcer would announce summer’s arrival, and I would smile. When the announcer comes on next year, I know I will look back to the time when I was offered beer 126 times within five minutes at the atheist picnic, when I drank lemonade as a return blessing to two druid deities, and when I bought a shampoo soap bar from a very interesting pagan.Andrea Leptinsky is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]