Hooray for the summer solstice! The moment when the sun reaches its farthest point north of the equator, bringing those of us in the northern hemisphere the longest day of the year, is just about here. This year, the solstice falls on Saturday, June 21, at 6:51 am EDT, a magical moment when night and day are perfectly balanced.
The word solstice is from the Latin solstitium, from sol (sun) and stitium (to stop), reflecting the fact that the sun appears to stop at this time (and again at the winter solstice).
How does this work? Since our world is tilted on its axis by 23-and-a-half degrees, Earth’s northern and southern hemispheres trade places in receiving the sun’s light and warmth most directly.
Not surprisingly, such an auspicious natural event is celebrated worldwide. Here are 5 ways the solstice is celebrated around the world:
For us today, the solstice can be a time to recall the reverence and understanding that early people had for the sky. Around 3100 BCE people placed huge stones in a circle on a broad plain in what is now England and aligned them with the June solstice sunrise.
The mystery of Stonehenge (see above) may never be solved, but we do know that around the same time Stonehenge was being constructed in England, two great pyramids and then the Sphinx were built on Egyptian sands. If you stood at the Sphinx on the summer solstice and gazed toward the two pyramids, you could see the sun set exactly between them. There are also many other megalith structures in Europe.
Every year at Stonehenge, thousands of people descend on the monument in wild clothing and wait for dawn to arrive on the day of the summer solstice. Last year, about 21,000 people, including pagans, druids and partygoers, were at the ancient monument to greet the longest day of the year. There was dancing, chanting, drumming, drinking and even some handfasting ceremonies.
Sweden, Finland, Denmark
The summer solstice is a national holiday in Sweden and Finland, where it is known as Midsummer’s Eve. The day is celebrated with copious amounts of herring, vodka, singing and a dance around the maypole. In honor of the holiday, people clean their houses before decorating them with flowers and other flora.
In Sweden, it’s the custom to celebrate by singing and dancing around a maypole that’s been decorated with flowers, while the Danes sing a song called “We Love Our Land,” burn straw witches in bonfires, eat foods such as smoked fish, pickled herring, potatoes and strawberries, and drink beer and schnapps.
Celebrating the longest day of the year is related to ancient fertility practices and ceremonies performed to ensure a successful harvest. The holiday was later rededicated to honor St. John the Baptist in Christian times.
In many parts of the world, bonfires are lit to celebrate the sun at the peak of its power. In Greece, men like to show off by leaping over the massive flames, while in France a fire marks the beginning of an annual music festival (Fête de la Musique).
For those in the southern hemisphere, of course, the opposite is true; the June solstice means the beginning of winter.
Matariki, the traditional Maori celebration of the winter solstice, is marked by the arrival of the Matariki / Pleiades star constellation in the southern skies. This is an ancient festival that plays out across the country with a huge variety of community and family events to celebrate and give thanks for the end of the season’s harvests and anticipate the lengthening days of the approaching summer.
At Dunedin, on the south island, a colorful Midwinter Carnival is held on the Saturday nearest to the winter solstice. The theme for this year is ‘A Winter Dreamland’ and it promises to include new giant lanterns, dazzling costumes and entertainment, fireworks, delicious food, music and a fire performance.
In Chile the June solstice coincides with the celebration of We Tripantu, where indigenous Mapuche communities up and down the length of Chile welcome the birth of the new sun. According to the Mapuche vision of the world, the new sun is born in winter and begins to grow throughout the spring before reaching the prime of its life at the height of summer.
Family members and friends gather together around a fire or stove to eat, drink and tell traditional stories. Folk music is played throughout the night and as dawn breaks, people head down to nearby rivers and streams to wash and cleanse away anything negative they’ve picked up throughout the year.
With so many fascinating customs around the world, how will you celebrate this year’s solstice?
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