It may already feel like summer is in full swing, however the astronomical season doesn’t officially begin until Saturday 20th June this year. Saturday marks the summer solstice, otherwise known as midsummer or the longest day of the year, meaning longer days and brighter evenings are quickly approaching - great news for BBQ lovers and beach goers! But how do people around the world celebrate the summer solstice? Why is Stonehenge so significant? And how can you celebrate the solstice this year during covid-19? Read on if you want to learn all this and more!
In the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice always takes place between the 20th and 22nd of June each year, this year falling on Saturday 20th when those of us in the UK will enjoy a whopping 16 hours and 38 minutes of daylight! The sun will rise at 4:43am and set at 9:21pm. The solstice officially marks the beginning of what is known as the ‘astronomical summer’, which ends with the autumn equinox on September 22nd, where day and night will be of almost equal length. There are two solstices each year; the winter solstice and the summer solstice. The summer solstice occurs when the tilt of Earth's axis is most inclined towards the sun and is directly above the Tropic of Cancer. Traditionally, the summer solstice period fell between the planting and harvesting of crops, leaving people who worked the land time to relax. This is why June is considered by many to be the traditional month for weddings. In the southern hemisphere the dates of the two solstices are reversed. The winter solstice occurs on the same day in June and the summer solstice the same day in December, meaning those in the southern hemisphere will be experiencing the shortest day on Saturday!
The summer solstice is an important day in the Pagan calendar as it marks what is considered the ‘ancient middle’ of summer. For Pagans, midsummer is believed to hold a special power as it is thought to be the time when the veil between this world and the spiritual world is at its thinnest, and when fairies are thought to be at their most powerful. Stonehenge in Wiltshire is undoubtedly the most popular place for Pagan's to celebrate the summer solstice because the stones famously align to the solstices and positioning of the sun. The rising sun only reaches the middle of the stones one day out of the entire year when it shines on the central altar. Stonehenge was built in three phases between 3,000 B.C. and 1,600 B.C and its exact purpose still remains a mystery. The stones were all brought from very far away, the bluestones were from the Preseli Hills more than 150 miles away, and the sarsens are thought to likely be from the Marlborough Downs which are 19 miles to the north. Over the centuries, the summer solstice has inspired a whole host of festivals and midsummer celebrations throughout the UK involving bonfires, picnics, singing, watching the sun rise and Maypole dancing. Many towns and villages across Britain still celebrate the day.
But how do other countries around the world celebrate the summer solstice? Sweden is notorious for their ‘Midsommarstång’ festivities which are some of the most important in the country’s calendar and are rooted in Paganism. Traditional foods such as pickled herring, salmon, and potatoes are enjoyed during the celebrations, people traditionally will wear flower wreaths, and maypole and folk dances such as the Små grodorna take place. It’s even said in Sweden that if unmarried girls place seven flowers under their pillow on midsummer, they’ll have dreams of their future husband. Norway and Finland both have similar traditions of lighting huge bonfires to celebrate the extra hours of daylight and to drive out the darkness. In Latvia the celebrations are rooted in Christianity and celebrating John the Baptist. Their summer solstice celebrations are known as Jāņi (after John the Baptist) and this special annual event is typically celebrated with plenty of parties, cheese and beer, traditional folk songs, floral wreaths as well as young couples leaping over the bonfires that are kept burning all night long. It is said if the couple stay holding hands as they jump then their relationship will last the test of time. Bonfires and firework displays are popular in Spain when it comes to celebrating midsummer, and special beacons are ritualistically lit throughout the Pyrenees, in Spain, Andorra, and France. Midsummer in Spain is celebrated with a mixture of Pagan and Christian traditions and is often tied to feelings of belonging, and also marks a transition into adulthood for many adolescents. Just as communities in Spain, Andorra and France celebrate midsummer by lighting beacons, Austria comes together to light hundreds of mountain fires to mark this magical time. Stemming from a medieval tradition, it’s thought that these fires were ways to worship the earth.
So how can you celebrate this year? Stonehenge undoubtedly is the most popular destination for midsummer celebrations in the UK with crowds of around 10,000 traditionally attending to greet the dawn break with cheers and meditation each June. However, this year English Heritage has been forced to cancel the event due to the coronavirus outbreak. Instead, the sun rise behind the Heel Stone, the ancient entrance to the Stone Circle, will be livestreamed via the English Heritage social media channels. English Heritage are also recording footage for later broadcast and is putting together a programme of activity including interviews with experts and historians on the symbolism of solstice. Elsewhere, in Penzance, Cornwall, the Golowan Festival celebrates midsummer every year. This year the event was set to take place from June 19 to 28, but like the Stonehenge celebration, it has been cancelled due to the global pandemic. However, a virtual festival will still be taking place online, with dance, music, quizzes and other activities to be made available via the Golowan website and social media channels. Some other simple ways to celebrate at home include lighting a bonfire, making wreath crowns at home, or simply take a moment to reflect and re-centre yourself.
We hope you enjoyed reading all about the summer solstice and learnt something new along the way. Do you have any summer solstice traditions? However you choose to celebrate, a happy midsummer to everyone from all of us at Artisans & Adventurers!