What is the summer solstice? What does it mean? When does it occur? Good questions. Read on for the answers.
As many of you know, the ss is the date with the longest period of daylight, and when the sun’s shadow is its shortest. Furthermore, in most of the US it is the date on which the sun appears to be at its highest point in the sky. In extreme northern locales the sun will be “out” the entire day. In the NY area, where I live, we will get about 15 hours of sun.
The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin “sol,” meaning “sun” and “sistere,” meaning “to stand still.” As the seasons progress from winter to summer in the northern hemisphere, the sun appears to move north in the sky. On the date of the ss it has progressed as far north as it will get, and it momentarily “stands still” before it appears to begin to slide southward toward the point of its winter solstice.
Depending on the particular year, in the northern hemisphere the summer solstice can occur anytime between June 20 and June 22. According to the Weather Channel in 2020 it will occur precisely at 5:44 pm on Saturday, June 20, which will be when the sun will be directly over the Tropic of Cancer (23.5 degrees north latitude).
In most cultures and countries the summer and winter solstices are intertwined with the seasons. For example, in the US and many other countries the ss marks the commencement of summer. On the other hand, in extreme northern and southern locations the solstices mark the midpoint of summer or winter.
For many ancient cultures the ss was a festive time. Most of them were sun worshippers anyway, and the longest day of the year was a reason to celebrate the renewal of life. The recurrent themes, in various forms, were life, light, femininity, marriage and fertility. (Perhaps, this concept was the derivation of the custom of having weddings in June.)
1. The pagan holiday, Litha, which is a celebration of light and life, was celebrated on that date.
2. Many archaeologists maintain that the ancient culture that constructed Stonehenge intended it to be a crude calendar used to mark the summer and winter solstices and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. The stones do seem to have been placed to align with the sunrise on the dates of those events.
3. The ancient Chinese marked the date with celebrations of the femininity, the “Yin” forces, and the Earth, itself. This served as a counterpoint to the winter solstice, which was a celebration of the heavens, masculinity, and the “Yang” forces.
4. Typically, Native Americans held festivals featuring body paint and ritualistic dances.
5. In ancient Gaul (modern-day France) the celebration was called the Feast of Epona after a mare goddess that protected horses and personified fertility.
6. Slavic and Germanic cultures celebrated with huge bonfires.
In modern times the ss is a time to celebrate the arrival of summer. In many extreme northern areas, where the people may not see the sun at all for certain parts of the year, such as northern Sweden, Finland and Norway, people spend the entire day outside. Many of them decorate their homes, light bonfires, and dance around Maypoles.
I have always enjoyed a warm summer day as much as the next guy. But, truthfully, to me June 21 is just another day. Depending on the weather I will play golf, play outside with the kids (or grandkids), go to the beach, or, if it’s inclement, just stay inside. Whatever you do, enjoy the day.
One final thought on the date, it has always seemed contradictive to me that the beginning of summer also marked the time when the days started to get shorter, and I view shorter days as a harbinger of winter.