The Summer Solstice is also known as: Alban Heflin, Alben Heruin, All-couples day, Feast of Epona, Feast of St. John the Baptist, Feill-Sheathain, Gathering Day, Johannistag, Litha, Midsummer, Sonnwend, Thing-Tide, and Vestalia among others.
People around the world have observed these spiritual and religious seasonal days of celebration during the month of June. Most have been religious holy days which are linked in some way to the summer solstice. On this day, typically June 21, the daytime hours are at a maximum in the Northern hemisphere, and night time is at a minimum. It is officially the first day of summer. It is also referred to as Midsummer because it is roughly the middle of the growing season throughout much of Europe.
"Solstice" is derived from two Latin words: "sol" meaning sun, and "sistere," to cause to stand still. This is because, as the summer solstice approaches, the noonday sun rises higher and higher in the sky on each successive day. On the day of the solstice, it rises an imperceptible amount, compared to the day before - in this sense, it "stands still."
The seasons of the year are caused by the 23.5º tilt of the earth's axis. Because the earth is rotating like a top or gyroscope, the North Pole points in a fixed direction continuously - towards a point in space near the North Star. But the earth is also revolving around the sun. During half of the year, the southern hemisphere is more exposed to the sun than is the northern hemisphere. During the rest of the year, the reverse is true. At noontime in the Northern Hemisphere the sun appears high in the sky during summertime, and low during winter. The time of the year when the sun reaches its maximum elevation occurs on the summer solstice - the day with the greatest number of daylight hours. The lowest elevation occurs about December 21 and is the winter solstice - the first day of winter, when the night time hours reach their maximum.
In pre-historic times, summer was a joyous time of the year for the people who lived in the northern latitudes. The snow had disappeared, the ground had thawed out, warm temperatures had returned, flowers were blooming, and leaves had returned to the trees. Some herbs could be harvested for medicinal and other uses. Food was easier to find. The crops had already been planted and would be harvested in the months to come. Although many months of warm weather remained before the fall, they noticed that the days were beginning to shorten, so that the return of the cold season was inevitable.
The first full moon in June is called the Honey Moon. Tradition holds that this is the best time to harvest honey from the hives.
This time of year, between the planting and harvesting of the crops, was the traditional month for weddings. This is because many ancient peoples believed that the "grand union" of the Goddess and God occurred in early May at Beltaine. Since it was unlucky to compete with the deities, many couples delayed their weddings until June. In some traditions, "newly wed couples were fed dishes and beverages that featured honey for the first month of their married life to encourage love and fertility. The surviving vestige of this tradition lives on in the name given to the holiday immediately after the ceremony: "The Honeymoon."
Most societies in the northern hemisphere, ancient and modern, have celebrated a festival on or close to Midsummer:
Ancient Celts: The Druids, the priestly/professional/diplomatic corps in Celtic countries, celebrated Alban Heruin ("Light of the Shore"). It was midway between the spring Equinox (Alban Eiler; "Light of the Earth") and the fall Equinox (Alban Elfed; "Light of the Water"). "This midsummer festival celebrates the apex of Light, sometimes symbolized in the crowning of the Oak King, God of the waxing year. At his crowning, the Oak King falls to his darker aspect, the Holly King, God of the waning year..." The days following Alban Heruin form the waning part of the year because the days become shorter.
Ancient China: Their summer solstice ceremony celebrated the earth, the feminine, and the yin forces. It complemented the winter solstice which celebrated the heavens, masculinity and yang forces.
Ancient Gaul: The Midsummer celebration was called Feast of Epona, named after a mare goddess who personified fertility, sovereignty and agriculture. She was portrayed as a woman riding a mare.
Ancient Germanic, Slav and Celtic tribes in Europe: Ancient Pagans celebrated Midsummer with bonfires. "It was the night of fire festivals and of love magic, of love oracles and divination. It had to do with lovers and predictions, when pairs of lovers would jump through the luck-bringing flames..." It was believed that the crops would grow as high as the couples were able to jump. Through the fire's power, "...maidens would find out about their future husband, and spirits and demons were banished." Another function of bonfires was to generate sympathetic magic: giving a boost to the sun's energy so that it would remain potent throughout the rest of the growing season and guarantee a plentiful harvest.
Ancient Rome: The festival of Vestalia lasted from June 7 to June 15. It was held in honor of the Roman Goddess of the hearth, Vesta. Married women were able to enter the shrine of Vesta during the festival. At other times of the year, only the vestal virgins were permitted inside.
Ancient Sweden: A Midsummer tree was set up and decorated in each town. The villagers danced around it. Women and girls would customarily bathe in the local river. This was a magical ritual, intended to bring rain for the crops.
Christian countries: After the conversion of Europe to Christianity, the feast day of St. John the Baptist was set as June 24. It "is one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest feast, introduced into both the Greek and Latin liturgies to honour a saint." Curiously, the feast is held on the alleged date of his birth. Other Christian saints' days are observed on the anniversary of their death. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that St. John was "filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb...[thus his] birth...should be signalized as a day of triumph." His feast day is offset a few days after the summer solstice, just as Christmas is fixed a few days after the winter solstice. "Just as John was the forerunner to Jesus, midsummer forecasts the eventual arrival of the winter solstice circa December 21.
Native Americans: The Natchez tribe in the southern U.S. "worshiped the sun and believed that their ruler was descended from him. Every summer they held a first fruits ceremony." Nobody was allowed to harvest the corn until after the feast.
Males in the Hopi tribe dressed up as Kachinas - the dancing spirits of rain and fertility who were messengers between humanity and the Gods. At Midsummer, the Kachinas were believed to leave the villages to spend the next six months in the mountains, where they were believed to visit the dead underground and hold ceremonies on their behalf.
Native Americans have created countless stone structures linked to equinoxes and solstices. Many are still standing. One was called Calendar One by its modern-day finder. It is in a natural amphitheatre of about 20 acres in size in Vermont. From a stone enclosure in the center of the bowl, one can see a number of vertical rocks and other markers around the edge of the bowl. "At the summer solstice, the sun rose at the southern peak of the east ridge and set at a notch at the southern end of the west ridge." The winter solstice and the equinoxes were similarly marked.
The Bighorn Medicine Wheel west of Sheridan, WY is perhaps the most famous of the 40 or more similar "wheels" on the high plains area of the Rocky Mountains. Most are located in Canada. At Bighorn, the center of a small cairn that is external to the main wheel, lines up with the center of the wheel and the sun rising at the summer equinox. Another similar sighting cairn provides a sighting for three dawn-rising stars: Aldebaran, Rigel and Sirius. A third cairn lines up with fourth star: Fomalhaut. The term "medicine wheel" was coined by Europeans; it was a term used to describe anything native that white people didn't understand.
Neopaganism: This is a group of religions which are attempted re-constructions of ancient Pagan religions. Of these, Wicca is the most common - it is loosely based partly on ancient Celtic beliefs and practices. Wiccans recognize eight seasonal days of celebration. Four are minor sabbats and occur at the two solstices and the two equinoxes. The other are major sabbats which happen approximately halfway between an equinox and solstice. The Summer Solstice sabbat is often called Midsummer or Litha. Wiccans may celebrate the sabbat on the evening before, at sunrise on the morning of the solstice, or at the exact time of the astronomical event.
"Midsummer is the time when the sun reaches the peak of its power, the earth is green and holds the promise of a bountiful harvest. The Mother Goddess is viewed as heavily pregnant, and the God is at the apex of his manhood and is honored in his guise as the supreme sun." It is a time for divination and healing rituals. Divining rods and wands are traditionally cut at this time.
Prehistoric Europe: Many remains of ancient stone structures can be found throughout Europe. Some date back many millennia BCE. Many appear to have religious/astronomical purposes; others are burial tombs. These structures were built before writing was developed. One can only speculate on the significance of the summer solstice to the builders. Perhaps the most famous of these structures is Stonehenge, a megalith monument on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. It was built in three stages, between circa 3000 and 1500 BCE. "The circular bank and ditch, double circle of "bluestones" (spotted dolerite), and circle of sarsen stones (some with white lintels), are concentric, and the main axis is aligned on the midsummer sunrise - an orientation that was probably for ritual rather than scientific purposes. Four "station stones" within the monument form a rectangle whose shorter side also points in the direction of the midsummer sunrise.
Whatever you believe, celebrate Solstice time with your friends and family - take part in a Spirit Gathering or some other festival happening. Keep a sacred fire burning throughout the gathering. Stay up all night on Solstice Eve and welcome the rising Sun at dawn. Make a pledge to Mother Earth of something that you will do to improve the environment and then begin carrying it out. Have a gift exchange with friends. Exchange songs, chants, and stories with others in person or through the internet or mail. Dance to drums around a blazing bonfire. Celebrate and have fun!