Summer solstice, which this year fell on 21st June, was always one of my favourite days of the year, promising a chorus of birdsong beginning at 3.55 am and a fluorescent sun waiting, until at least 10pm, to dip into the horizon. It was one of my favourite days of the year until my sister, being the Debbie downer that she is, made me realise that following summer solstice was a sequence of days which would get shorter and shorter until we are plunged into the long nights and evanescent days of winter. In other words, it was the beginning of the end.
On this day we bid farewell to the candy pink blossoms of spring and celebrate the arrival of the intermittent sun and day drinking of the English summer. Last Friday, this year’s longest day, when the sun sat directly over the Tropic of Cancer, we were treated to 16 hours and 38 minutes of daylight and, even if it was a rather grey, muggy daylight, it was still a day to note in our calendars. We share our summer solstice with the whole of the Northern hemisphere and, depending on how north you are on the globe, the amount of gifted daylight varies from country to country. If, for example, you were to be visiting the Arctic Circle on the 21st June, you would have experienced 24 hours of sunlight. However, one incredible thing about experiencing summer solstice in the UK is the day’s connection to Stonehenge.
For me, the name “Stonehenge”, brings up memories of feeling carsick whilst in the back of a family Galaxy Estate on the way to our holiday home in Cornwall. The A344 road that runs beside the discernibly famous pile of rocks is constantly choc-a-block with rubber-neckers who are trying to cop a view just so they are able to say they have seen an historic landmark on their holidays. But what many of them don’t know is that this pile of rocks, built around 5,000 years ago, may have been erected in order to mark solstices and equinoxes. During the summer solstice, the sun rises just over Stonehenge’s Heel Stone and hits the Alter Stone dead centre. As you can imagine, when this day occurs every year, there is a flock of people, laden with their cameras and iPhone’s, gathering at the structure in order to pay homage to the summer solstice. The gatherings that occur twice a year look equally as terrifying as they do fun as they promise music, naked dancing and bonfires- an undeniably perfect party mix.
There are many other ways to celebrate this day of abundant vitamin D if you don’t fancy shimmying naked around Stonehenge with a group of strangers. As the solstice is a significant turning point during the year, being associated with change, nature and new beginnings, people around the world celebrate the day with feasts, bonfires, picnics and traditional songs and dances. The solstice used to be marked in calendars as the perfect time to plant and harvest crops; these gatherings are an ancient tradition to celebrate growth and encourage a lucrative harvest. And, most importantly, in ancient China this day was observed by a ceremony to celebrate the Earth, femininity and the “yin” forces. The Romans also honoured femininity during this time as sacred to Juno, the wife of Jupiter and goddess of women and childbirth; her name gives us the month of June. Perhaps we can learn from these ancient traditions and, while we watch the days get shorter and shorter, appreciate the beauty of nature, the strength of women and encourage the growth of sustainable production of food and materials.
A little closer to home, in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, “midsommar” is a celebration of the fertility of the earth. People dance around maypoles, make flower garlands, headdresses and bouquets and decorate their homes with the fruits of the earth. Litha- the pagan festival for summer solstice- seeks to find a balance between both land and sky and fire and water. Early European traditions represented this by setting large wheels on fire and rolling them down a hill into a body of water. I, personally, thought this celebration sounded almost as good as Christmas until I made the mistake of watching the TERRIFYING 2019 horror Midsommar. Hopefully, if I’m ever lucky enough to celebrate a midsummer festival in Scandinavia, the idyllic retreat won’t devolve into an increasingly violent competition at the hands of a pagan cult. Although, I think after all this research I’d definitely win.