Arthur Uther Pendragon, center, joins people as they gather at the Heel Stone during sunrise for the Summer Solstice festivities at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, Tuesday, June 21, 2022. After two years of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stonehenge reopened Monday for the Summer Solstice celebrations. (Andrew Matthews/PA via AP)
COMMENTARY – The summer solstice is the year’s longest day. In the northern hemisphere, it occurs between the 20th and 22nd of June. This year, today, June 21st is the day! It marks the tipping point where the light and warmth of summer, reaching their zenith, now begin the long, slow descent toward autumn and the cold, dark days of winter beyond.
Surrounding this annual solar event lies much religious tradition, folklore, ancient legend, and whimsical abandon! It’s a festive time of celebration and renewal. In pre-modern cultures, the summer solstice was the most significant day of the year, where the sun once again reaffirmed its life-giving preeminence.
Ancients celebrated the summer solstice as early as the stone age, building monuments to the event such as the Temple of Karnak in Egypt, and Stonehenge in the moors of England, where over the millennia pilgrims have flocked to witness the rising and setting sun work its way through the ancient stones, confirming once again the constancy of the heavens.
Legend claims there is great power in these ceremonial stones warmed by the solstice sun, where people are instantly healed of their infirmities. Cultures around the world, then and now, celebrate the day with traditional feasts, bonfires, music, picnics, prayers, and magic!
The word “solstice” comes from the Latin “sol” (sun) and “stitium” (still). It is literally a day when the sun stands still. Different cultures and religious traditions have different names for the summer solstice. In Northern Europe, it’s often referred to as Midsummer. Wiccans and other neo-pagan groups call it Litha, while many Christian churches celebrate it as St. John’s Day in honor of John the Baptist.
In ancient Greece, the summer solstice marked the start of the new year and began a one-month countdown to the opening of the Olympic Games in Athens. It was also the time of Kronia, a festival celebrating Kronus, the god of agriculture, where the Greeks’ strict social code was temporarily turned on its head, with slaves participating in the merriment as equals to their masters.
In the days leading up to the summer solstice, ancient Romans celebrated Vestalia, a festival in honor of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. During Vestalia, married women would enter the temple and leave offerings in exchange for blessings for their families.
In ancient China, the summer solstice was associated with “yin,” the feminine or life-giving force. Festivities celebrated the earth and sun, femininity, and fertility.
Many Native American tribes took part in solstice rituals, some of which are still practiced today. The Sioux, for instance, perform a ceremonial sun dance wearing colorful, symbolic costumes.
Before Christianity, ancient Northern and Central European pagans (including Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic tribes) welcomed Midsummer with bonfires. It was thought that bonfires would strengthen the sun’s energy for the rest of the growing season, and guarantee a good harvest in the fall.
Bonfires were also associated with magic. It was believed that bonfires could help banish demons and evil spirits, and lead maidens to their future husbands. These spells were thought to be strongest during the summer solstice, and the ashes from a Midsummer bonfire, when spread across one’s garden, would guarantee a bountiful harvest.
European Midsummer festivities also included young maidens in colorful dresses with flowers in their hair dancing around the bonfire. Revelers would decorate their homes with garlands and wreaths which were later tossed into the bonfire for good luck.
Of particular interest to me is the summer solstice’s connection to the beginnings of Christianity. Long commemorated as St. John’s Day, the solstice is a traditional time to honor water and its cleansing power. The summer solstice marked the high point in the rise of the Nile in Egypt as the spring run-off swelled it and many other rivers in the region.
Christian scripture teaches that John’s water baptism was to be followed by Jesus’ baptism by fire. The blazing fire of the solstice sun represents this baptism. What a wonderful connection across the ages, and a majestic reminder of the goodness and grace of God, symbolically renewing both baptisms on the same day!
If you don’t have a summer solstice tradition, consider starting one. As a minimum, spend some time outdoors. Walk through the grass barefoot, or refresh yourself with a wade into the cool water of a nearby stream. Bask in the sun and let it dry away any tears that may have lingered over the past year. As evening falls, build a bonfire and invite family and friends to sing, dance, and enjoy each other’s company.
As to whimsical abandon, the online blogger ‘the Magpie Girl’ says it best:
“Unlike the equinoxes – which are all about sharing nicely between day and night, the solstices are shameless in their extravagance. There is no talk of balance with the winter and summer solstices. Loads of dark, or buckets of light. There is no in-between.
“On the winter solstice, the darkness lays long upon the earth. We light wreaths and make feasts in the hope that we can cajole mother nature into giving us back the light.
“When the scales finally tip and light returns at the summer solstice, we run outdoors and dance like mad with relief! When we reach the longest day of the year, joy overtakes us and we spin around with our arms stretched out wide to soak up every last ray of sunlight!”
Marc K. Ensign