The Summer Solstice is the day of the year in which the daylight lasts longest and the night is shortest. This occurs in late June in the Northern Hemisphere, and is caused by the Earth’s tilt toward the Sun on its rotational axis. On the June Solstice, the Northern Hemisphere is at its maximum tilt toward the Sun. At the same time, the Southern Hemisphere is at its maximum tilt away from the Sun, creating the Winter Solstice or shortest day of the year for those living on the Southern side of our planet.
The Summer Solstice is most visibly obvious in Arctic regions, where the days grow extremely long, and within the Arctic Circle there is continuous daylight.
Our bodies are sensitive to the lengthening days, as the Pineal Gland controlling some of our biological internal clocks releases certain hormones that make us feel more energetic when there is more sunlight. Animals and plants are of course affected by the amount of sunlight as well. For animals, the amount of daylight affects their mating habits, migration, and hibernation; and for plants, the Sun cycles provide cues for when to grow and bloom, versus when to recede and become dormant. Most notably, deciduous trees lose their leaves as the days grow shorter and produce buds and new leaves as the days grow longer.
Ancient peoples were very much attuned to the seasonal cycles of light and dark. This was a matter of survival, on multiple levels. First, the Spring and Summer, when the days are lengthening and longest, were plentiful times for hunter-gatherers, and were planting, growing, and harvesting times for people who practiced agriculture. This was especially important in more Northen climates, where the growing season is the shortest and must be maximized for the people to survive through the long winters. Second, it was very important to ancient peoples to hold ceremonies at certain important points during the year, to connect with the Spirit world, in whatever form that might take from one region to the next. The people needed to maintain a good relationship with the Creator, and the Spirits that surrounded and supported them, in order to ensure an abundance of food, water, favorable weather conditions, and good health for all of their community.
Many traditions state that the Solstices are one of the few times during each year time when the veils are lifted between the physical world and the spirit world, and that magic or deeper connection to Spirit was possible at the Solstice time. As a result, the Solstice was believed to be an especially powerful time for gathering healing herbs (as the herbs were said to contain stronger healing power if gathered at this time), lighting sacred fires in celebration and to give thanks, or doing sacred rituals to strengthen the feminine powers of birth and life.
We know that as early as 30,000 years ago, ancient peoples were tracking the passing of the seasons and the cycles of the Sun and Moon. This is evidenced by marks that were scratched, chipped, or painted into pieces of ivory, bone, or stone that were noting significant events in the sky.
As early as six to eight thousand years ago (and possibly much earlier), we can find evidence of celebrations aligned with the Sun cycles, when people gathered together to appeal to the energies that they believed controlled the cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth.
In the Chinese Book of Records from over four thousand years ago, astronomers were instructed to calculate the Solstices and Equinoxes for the Emperor’s knowledge.
There are four main techniques that have been found in ancient practices for marking the Solstices:
(1) Placing a picture, symbol, painting, or carving so that the sun would shine directly upon it (usually at sunrise or sunset) at the height of the Solstice, such as Newgrange in Ireland.
(2) The placement of a pillar or obelisk so that the shadow created by the onject would indicate the Solstices and Equinoxes (with shadows being longer at the Winter Solstice and almost nonexistent at mid-day on the Summer Solstice). This was a practice of the Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese, Peruvians, and other cultures.
(3) In central Native American tribes, a structure would be constructed in which on the longest day of the year, the Sun shines through a hole on the ceiling directly onto a particular location, drawing, or painting on the floor.
(4) In places such as Stonehenge and ancient Egypt, the Sun precisely aligns with a specific part of a human-built structure at sunrise or sunset on the Solstice.
So we know that people have been closely following and celebrating the Summer Solstice for many thousands of years!
Interestingly, both the Summer and Winter Solstices have become intertwined with Christian beliefs over the millennia. For example, the Summer Solstice is called St. John’s Day in many places. This began originally because the Summer Solstice was believed to be a powerful time for gathering the herb St. John’s Wort, which was used frequently for healing purposes. But as Christianity was integrated with the ancient traditions, it was said that St. John the Baptist was born at the time of the Solstice, as the Bible states that St. John was born six months before Jesus. So in the Christian traditions, St. John’s birthday is celebrated at the Summer Solstice and Jesus’ birthday at the Winter Solstice.
Here are some of the ancient traditions for the Summer Solstice from different parts of the world, many of which are still practiced today in some form. Due to more people becoming interested in, and taking the time to learn about ancient nature-based practices, many of these older traditions are being re-awakened and celebrated once again.
In the mythology of Ancient Britain, the Oak King ruled when the days were lengthening (from the Winter Solstice to the Summer Solstice), and the Holly King rules when the days were growing shorter. So while the Summer Solstice was a time of full celebration, at the same time the people knew the Oak King was turning over rulership to the Holly King, and the days would be growing progressively shorter. They knew that the progression toward midwinter actually begins at midsummer.
In Europe, particularly in Northern locations such as Nordic lands, Russia, the British Isles, and Ireland, Midsummer Night was frequently celebrated by lighting fires, both in the individual homes and at the center of the town or community. The fire, smoke, and ashes were believed to purify the air and environment, driving away evil spirits and protecting people, homes, families, and livestock. Farmers would purposely light fires where the smoke would blow over their fields and livestock, and some would even singe their cattle or horses with branches or embers, to protect and purify them. After these household & family rituals were completed, the families would all go to the communal bonfire which would be lit at nightfall. Because fire was looked upon as a miniature version of the sun, this large Midsummer bonfire was lit to encourage the Sun to keep burning as strongly as possible throughout the remainder of the growing season. The people would take turns leaping over the tall fire, the fittest & strongest youths at first when the fire was burning highest, and then women and couples would leap over later on, to ensure health and a many children, as the fire became lower.
Fire (representing the sun) was one aspect of the Midsummer festivities, and water (related to fertility and to sustaining life in the heat of summer) was another. People would dress wells, springs, and fountains with flowers. In Russia, on Kupala Night (Midsummer Night), girls and young women placed wreaths lit with candles into the river and where they flowed was said to indicate their romantic fortunes. People would often bathe in rivers at midnight on Midsummer Eve.