The Summer Solstice is almost upon us! Days are longer, nights are shorter, and the natural world is full of life. But what actually is a solstice, and why do we mark them in the way that we do? Read on to find out!
First things first! The term ‘solstice’ can be traced back to the Latin word ‘solstitium’, combining the words ‘sol’, meaning sun, and ‘-stit’ or ‘-stes’, meaning standing or still. The name derives from the Romans’ observation that during a solstice, the sun’s position in the sky at noon didn’t seem to change much throughout the day, but instead appeared motionless.
The Summer Solstice marks the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the end of spring and the start of the astronomical summer. It takes place between 20th and 22nd June each year, the reason for the shift in date boiling down to the fact that our calendar doesn’t precisely reflect the Earth’s rotation, and so we have to allow some wiggle room!
Both the summer and winter solstices form part of a wider astronomical calendar, flanked by two equinoxes in the spring and the autumn, and other daily and monthly cycles throughout the year. Incidentally, ‘equinox’ comes from the Latin ‘equi’ meaning equal, and ‘nox’ meaning night. On these two dates, day and night are of equal length before the days begin to get either lighter in the spring, or darker in the autumn.
During the solstices, the Earth’s axis tilts us at either our closest or farthest point from the sun. The hemisphere tilted most towards the sun sees its longest day and shortest night (the Summer Solstice), whilst the hemisphere tilted away from the sun sees its shortest day and longest night (the Winter Solstice.)
Now that’s the science of a solstice explained (phew!), but just why do we humans place so much significance on the solstices and the days surrounding them? We know that the solstices certainly held importance for Neolithic humans, who may initially have started to observe the Summer Solstice as a marker for planting and harvesting crops. Stonehenge, our most famous Neolithic monument, was certainly built to reflect the solstices, and it has long been debated whether one of its functions was to act as ancient solar calendar. The site’s megaliths are aligned with the direction of the sunrise on the Summer Solstice, with the sarsen stones lined up to trace the movements of the sun. It’s likely that on the solstices people gathered at the monument to celebrate, though little archaeological evidence remains of the ceremonies that may have taken place there.
Interestingly, Archaeoastronomers (yes that’s an actual job, amazing!) think that the midwinter solstice may actually have been the more important focus for the builders of Stonehenge, due to the entire monument’s alignment facing toward the setting midwinter sun. As you enter the site along the main avenue and walk towards the standing stones, the position of the Winter Solstice’s sunset is the main focus directly ahead, perhaps in the same way that the most important parts of a church are located ahead of you as you enter. There’s a WEALTH of information on Stonehenge’s association with the solstices on the English Heritage website, and we fully encourage you to fall down that rabbit hole and check it out!
The Summer Solstice throughout history
Our fascination with the solstices didn’t end with our Neolithic ancestors. According to some ancient Greek calendars, the Summer Solstice marked the start of the New Year, and began the one-month countdown to the opening of the famous Olympic games. In the days leading up to the Summer Solstice, the Romans celebrated the Vestalia, a religious festival to honour Vesta, goddess of the home and hearth. Before the rise of Christianity, Slavic, Germanic and Celtic tribes celebrated the midsummer with bonfires, believing that they would boost the sun’s energy and guarantee a good harvest. It was believed that bonfires could also help banish demons and evil spirits. Following the establishment of the Christian church, solstice celebrations were often combined with St John the Baptist’s Day on the 24th June, the date of Midsummer’s Day.
N.B. The Summer Solstice and Midsummer’s Day are actually separate dates, with the later falling on the 24th June. Midsummer is often now referred to as the period of time commencing with the Summer Solstice and leading up to Midsummer’s Day.
Today, the celebration of the solstices is mostly strongly associated with Paganism. The Pagan festival of Litha is one of the most important in the Pagan religion, commencing on the eve of the Summer Solstice it celebrates the midsummer and the power of the sun god. Magic is thought to be strongest during the Summer Solstice, and it’s also the time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest, eep! According to Pagan folklore, evil spirits in particular may walk the earth more freely at this time, and in order to ward them off, people wear protective garlands of herbs and flowers. One of the most powerful of these is the ‘chase devil’, also known as St. John’s Wort, because of its association with St. John’s Day.
Other Summer Solstice traditions surround the ashes from a midsummer bonfire, which can be used as a protection against misfortune by being formed into an amulet, or spread across a garden to ensure a good harvest. ‘Sunwheels’ were also used to celebrate midsummer in some Pagan communities. A wheel or ball of straw was lit on fire and rolled down a hill into a river. It was believed that if the fire went out before hitting the water then a good harvest was guaranteed.
Over the centuries, the June solstice has inspired many midsummer celebrations involving bonfires, singing, and Maypole dancing. Many towns and villages across Britain still mark the day with fairs and festivals, like the one that takes place on Midsummer Common in Cambridge.
Local historian C.F. Tebbutt records in his writings a few other local traditions that took place in Huntingdonshire. In Bluntisham in the late 19th century, a midsummer feast was once held, with stalls selling sweets and gingerbread, and a garlanded hoop hung over the street. Records from Waresely in 1679 record the firing of blanks from guns at a midsummer festival, intended to scare away fairies and evil spirits. Finally, court records from Stilton in 1830 tell of one Thomas Wade, who was brought before a court for “walking up and down disguised by having a pair of painted ram’s horns on his head and a green veil over his face… at the same time also making strange and frightful noises…” Though whether this was actually to do with midsummer celebrations is anyone’s guess!