Summer will officially get under way on Thursday, June 21 for those of us living in the North Hemisphere. But Thursday isn’t just the beginning of beach and barbecue season. It’s also the Summer Solstice — one of the most ancient festivals celebrated by mankind.
For at least five thousand years, human beings have been keeping track of the Solstice. They usually celebrated the date with big parties. Most historians think Stonehenge, the neolithic monument in England, has some connection to the Solstice too. But what do we really understand about the Summer Solstice, and what does it mean to us now?
Here’s what you need to know.
1. The Summer Solstice Is the Longest Day of the Year
Astronomers say that at 6:07 eastern time, on the morning of June 21, the North Pole will tilt closer to the sun than at any other point in the year. This means that the North Hemisphere will receive more daylight than on any other day in the year. 88 percent of the Earth’s population lives in the Northern Hemisphere, so this impacts a huge amount of people. People living in the Tropic of Cancer will be able to see the sun passing directly overhead at noon.
After the Solstice, the days will slowly start getting shorter, and the nights will slowly start getting longer, until we get to the winter solstice. The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, will fall on December 21 this year.
2. ‘Solstice’ Literally Means ‘Sun Stands Still’
The English word “solstice” comes from two Latin words: “sol”, which means “sun,” and “sistere”, which means “to stand still.” But why? Ancient people watched the sky and noticed that over the course of the year, the sun’s path was constantly changing. The sun seemed to move steadily northward until it hit its most northern peak on the summer solstice.But after the solstice, the sun didn’t immediately start dropping southward. Instead, it seemed to “stand still” for a few days, maintaining the same arc across the sky as on the summer solstice.
Of course, we know now that the sun doesn’t move across our sky at all. In fact, the sun “stands still” every day of the year. But — just as we still talk about “sun rise” and “sun set,” we also talk about “solstice” — the day the sun stands still. And while we may feel tempted to laugh at the ancient peoples who believe the sun was literally moving in an arc across the sky, let’s try to give them some credit for managing to accurately calculate the summer and winter solstices without modern instruments.
Historians say that as far back as 6,000 years ago, the ancient Egyptians had created a monument known as the “Egyptian Stonehenge” that tracked the arrival of the summer solstice. Monuments in Chichen Itza, Mexico are aligned with the spring equinox. And the Mnadra Temples, built in 3000 BC in Malta, also prove that ancient people were able to track the solar equinox.
3. Humans Have Been Celebrating the Solstice for Thousands of Years
Ancient peoples throughout the Northern Hemisphere have always celebrated the summer solstice. For the ancient Greeks, the summer solstice was the first day of their calendar year . They celebrated the Greek demi-god Prometheus, whom legend said brought fire to early man. In fact, a handful of people in Greece still revere the pagan Gods, and still hold a festival to honor Prometheus on the solstice.
The ancient Chinese honored the solstice because it stood for a balance between summer’s “yang” energy and winter’s “ying” energy. The solstice was a time to celebrate the incoming “yin” or feminine energy, since the peak of summer had been reached and the winter was approaching. The solstice was an official holiday in China by the time of the Han dynasty, around 200 years BC. In ancient Egypt, the solstice came just after the star Sirius first appeared in the sky. This also coincided with the beginning of the flood season, which were needed to make the crops grow.
Ancient Romans celebrated a holiday called “Vestalia” on the solstice. Married women visited temples to the goddess Vesta, goddess of the hearth, to ask for blessings for their families. And throughout northern Europe, pagans celebrated the solstice with bonfires. After Christian missionaries converted most Europeans to Christianity, the ancient solstice rituals simply continued under another name . Countries across Western Europe still celebrate “Saint John’s Eve” with fireworks and bonfires. The Irish, for example, celebrate Saint John’s Eve, or Oiche Fheile Eoin, by lighting bonfires on hilltops. But the custom apparently goes back to pre-Christian times when the Celts honored their goddess of Summer, Aine, with Midsummer bonfires.
4.Stonehenge Is Perfectly Aligned With the Summer Solstice
Stonehenge is an ancient British monument located on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England. It’s a ring of stones built between 3100 and 2800 BC. Nobody knows exactly what the ancient Britons built Stonehenge for, although there are many different speculations. It may have been a pilgrimage site for Neolithic people to travel to when they were sick or injured and needed healing. It may have been an ancient place of worship. Some archaeologists believe that the ground Stonenge is built on actually was sacred to local people well before Stonehenge itself was built.
One of the most common theories is that Stonehenge was built as a sort of giant, prehistoric calendar to keep track of the solar and lunar year. Historians are divided on whether stone age people were more interested in the summer or winter solstice, and some historians believe that the monument was mainly used in winter solstice celebrations. But everyone agrees that, if you sit in the center of Stonehenge, you will have a perfect view of the summer solstice sun rising over the monument’s “heel stone”, which stands just to the north-east of the circle.
Many historians believe that ancient Britons would gather at Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice. There were at least one thousand other stone circles across Britain where people celebrated the solstice, most built between 3,000 and 900 BC. Those sites are largely forgotten, but Stonehenge itself is still standing. And people still gather at the ancient site. Last year, 13,000 people visited Stonehenge to mark the solstice. The modern-day revelers often come dressed up in “pagan” costumes, with flowers in their hair and long, flowing robes.
5. In the Far North, the Day Lasts for 24 Hours on the Solstice
People living north of the Arctic Circle experience a “midnight sun” on the summer solstice. This means that the sun never sets — the daylight lasts for 24 hours. People in Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Denmark go a little bit crazy during their Midsummer celebrations, and it’s no wonder, given that these countries also deal with long, dark winters. In Finland, tradition says that the more you drink on Midsummer, the luckier your year will be. Revelers light bonfires (called “kokko”) and are encouraged to make as much noise as possible. In Sweden, midsummer is celebrated with heavy drinking and dances around a Maypole decorated with leaves and wildflowers. The traditional meal is herring and potatoes, along with plenty of schnapps and aquavit.
In Norway, people celebrate the summer solstice with a huge celebration called Slinningsbålet. The western Norwegian town of Alesund spends days building a wooden tower out of crates, which is then set on fire. Flames from the tower reach over 100 feet. In the southern Norwegian town of Grimstad, locals tend to celebrate the solstice by drinking heavily before decorating their boats with flowers and paddling over to the nearby islands for more drinking, feasting, and lighting bonfires.
In Alaska, tourists and locals celebrate in a more modern American style. Fairbanks holds an annual “midnight baseball” game that lasts past midnight — with no artificial light. During the game, the sun sets in the north and then immediately begins to rise again — also in the north. Anchorage also has a huge solstice celebration, with outdoor music, art, and even fishing contests to see who can catch the most salmon. And Anchorage holds a series of races to celebrate the longest day in the year. If that’s a little too wholesome for you, Denali holds an annual celebration of Alaskan beers on the longest day of the year.