If you’ve been wanting to complain about having a long day, you may want to wait until the summer solstice. Also known as Midsummer, or the June solstice, this is the longest calendar day of the year, when we get between 14 and 16 hours of sunlight in the continental U.S.
This event has an astronomical explanation: during the summer solstice, the Earth’s North Pole is at its greatest tilt toward the sun, and this change in position affects the amount of light we receive in each hemisphere. In June, the northern hemisphere receives more light, just as the southern hemisphere sees its days lengthened in December.
But beyond planetary movement and astronomical forces, the summer solstice has a very human meaning as well, and burns brightly in the history of our many cultures.
The word “solstice” is derived from the Latin words “sol” and “sister” which mean, respectively, “sun” and “to stand or stop.” Human celebration of the summer solstice dates back far into antiquity, and often revolved around themes of fertility, agriculture, and religion.
There’s good reason for this: the summer solstice marks the beginning of summer—the part of the year that is associated with life, growth, and action. This is the season of crops, of hunting and sport. It is the time to come out of the comfort of the home and go adventuring.
Psychologically speaking, researchers have long suspected a link between happiness and daylight—the lead-up to the summer solstice, with the days growing longer and longer, may simply make us want to celebrate, and what better time than the final day of that increase?
Whether it’s tradition, psychology, or something deeper and more spiritual, there’s something intrinsically significant about the summer solstice, and it has a fascinating history. Let’s take a look at what the longest day of the year meant to a few of history’s major civilizations.
Ancient Europe was rich in summer solstice celebrations, with many different cultures placing symbolic importance on this longest day of the year.
The Vikings, for instance, chose Midsummer to conduct much of their foreign trade because they believed this to be a time of great power. They also visited special wells that were believed to have healing powers, and celebrated the solstice by building huge bonfires and holding feasts. The Celtic, Slavic, and Germanic people held similar celebrations.
The ancient Celts, in fact, may have celebrated the summer solstice at Stonehenge, where modern Druids continue to celebrate the holiday to this day.
For the Ancient Egyptians, the summer solstice heralded the coming of Sirius, a star so bright it is only outshone by a few planets. Not long after Sirius arrived each year, the Nile would begin to flood, which gave life to the land around its banks.
The Egyptians believed Sirius to be the cause of this flooding, and so they set their calendar based on its arrival. When Sirius appeared, the Egyptian New Year began, and a celebration of renewed life ensued.
For the ancient Greeks, the summer solstice marked the start of the New Year, as well as the countdown to the Olympic Games, which would have occurred one month later.
The solstice would have also been the day for the annual festival of Kronia, which honored the god Cronus, who presided over agriculture. For this single day, slaves could participate in the revelries as equals to the freemen.
In ancient Rome, the solstice was the day for another rare exception—this was the first day of the festival of Vestalia, the only time married women could enter the temples of the vestal virgins in order to make offerings to Vesta, goddess of the hearth.
The ancient Chinese were students of nature, and found its cycles to be deeply meaningful. During the summer solstice, they celebrated the earth, femininity, and the “yin” part of the yin and yang duo. They believed that yang reached it height during the summer solstice, and so they celebrated the coming of yin, which would reach its height of power during the winter solstice.
The concept of yin and yang is still an important part of modern Chinese philosophy. This familiar black and white circle symbolizes the idea that opposing forces—things like dark and light or hot and cold—are actually complimentary to one another. It was believed that if the balance between yin and yang become out of sync, natural disasters could occur, and so honoring these symbols at the appropriate times was of utmost importance.
Unlike many other civilizations, for ancient Mesopotamians, the summer solstice was a time for mourning, signifying the coming of disease, famine, and terrifying heat.
This was the time of the god, Nergal, the lord of pestilence and war, and the Mesopotamians held a weeklong funeral for Tammuz, the god of food and vegetation who was believed to die during this time each year.
Mayans and Aztecs
The ruins of Mayan and Aztec architecture speak of a people who believed that the summer solstice was a significant day. Their temples and other major public buildings were aligned—with great precision—with the shadows cast by major astrological events, most notably those of the summer and winter solstices.
Native North Americans
A bit further north of the Mayans and Aztecs, Native American tribes had their own ways of celebrating the summer solstice. While the many Native American tribes celebrated in just as many ways, the Sioux engaged in a particularly interesting ritual. This ceremony, called the Sun Dance, was usually performed during the month of June, and included cutting down and raising up a tree that was considered a connection between the heavens and the Earth.
Once this was done, tepees would be set up in a circle around the tree, representing the cosmos, and participants decorated themselves with various symbolic colors.
A Sun-Drenched History
This is only a representative taste of the many worldwide celebrations of the summer solstice. Midsummer is a time when the Earth is at its strongest in terms of abundance and fertility, and creating a ceremony to honor this time is a way for humans to give a little thanks for the coming of another period of plenty.
If nothing else, the simple warmth of the sun is always worth celebrating, so when next the summer solstice comes around, be sure to look up, give a word of thanks, and remember all of the wonder things that the sunlight gives us.