Next week is the summer solstice, denoting the longest day of the year and the official start of summer. For some cultures this is a day of marked celebration. In our own country it seems that many years this day can be passed by with a casual nod from the local weatherman mentioning the peak of daylight hours for the year.
When I was in my 20s, I spent a summer working as an environmental researcher in Sweden. Before that time, celebrating the summer solstice was not something on my mental list of noteworthy holidays, but in Sweden it is a national holiday and one with supreme cultural importance. For a country that is very dark much of the year, the general populace tends to transform into a sun-worshiping frenzy for the brief summer months. As the sun doesn’t ever quite disappear except for an extended period of hazy twilight, this makes some sense. For a transient visitor like myself, I enjoyed watching people bask so thoroughly in something that I had typically taken for granted. Their simple joy was infectious. When the solstice came, I joined in the masses and made my way out to the countryside to stay up through the sun-soaked night, weave a crown of wildflowers on my head and dance around the Maypole.
Since that time, I have always noted the summer solstice with fondness and an interest I didn’t have before. It seems to me that such a day deserves some attention. After all, we owe much to the sun.
The term “solstice” is a Latin term that literally means the sun “stands still” and traditionally was used as a term to define an exact moment in time. Today we use it to define the day that has the longest period of daylight.
Ancient cultures used the summer solstice as a moment to pause and celebrate life in between the busy times of planting and harvest. Most societies tended to focus on celebrating the sign of fertility in the earth and the immense power the sun held over their livelihoods. They rejoiced with feasts and yearly rituals, such as leaping over bonfires to determine how high the crops would grow. The Druids celebrated the solstice as the day of the wedding of Heaven and Earth, and even today the summer solstice is considered a “lucky” wedding day. Most celebrations of the summer solstice tend to pre-date Christianity but aren’t wholly pagan in nature. Christians placed the feast day of St. John the Baptist on the day of his birth, a few days after the solstice, instead of the more typical feast day celebration for saints on the day of his death.
In modern times, countries around the world have varied celebrations. In Austria a flotilla of ships sail down the Danube, large bonfires are lighted all around Quebec, Denmark, Hungary, Germany and Estonia, while Italy and Ireland celebrate with fireworks. In our own country, celebrations tend to congregate in cities with large populations of immigrants from Northern European countries such as New York, Minneapolis, Chicago and Santa Barbara.
Perhaps the largest celebration takes place at the great monument of Stonehenge in England. British subjects are allowed access onto the site, which is normally roped off, on the days of the summer and winter solstice. Perfectly aligned toward both the rising and setting sun on the solstice, the site has enormous religious, astrological, and spiritual significance in both modern and ancient times.
Another ancient structure constructed to highlight the interaction between earth and sun is the Mayan Temple of Kukulcan, which signals the precise moment where the sun “stands still.” At that moment, if viewed from above, one would be able to see the south and west sides cast in shadow and the north and east sides blazing in the sun.
This year, the sun will “stand still” on June 20 at 4:09 p.m. PST. If you find yourself aware of the time next week, take a moment to stand still and be thankful for the bountiful gifts the sun provides us before the earth’s axis tilts again, sending us back toward shorter days and longer nights.