First Day of Summer - Celebrating the Solstice

As the sun spirals its longest dance,

Cleanse us

As nature shows bounty and fertility

Bless us

Let all things live with loving intent

And to fulfill their truest destiny

Wiccan blessing for summer solstice

What are you going to do on the longest day of the year? Will you watch the sun come up, jump over a bonfire, wear flowers, get married, dance around a maypole or (if you’re in Latvia) run through the streets naked?

June 21st is the Solstice, the official first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and the day the sun will reach its highest point in the sky. How long the day lasts depends on where you are. In a nutshell, the farther north you go, the longer the day lasts. In Sacramento, California, the sun will come up at 5:42 a.m. and set at 8:33 p.m. In Anchorage, Alaska, however, sunrise will occur at 4:20 a.m. and sunset at 11:42 p.m. And above the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t set at all!

The Solstice gets its name from two Latin words – “sol” for sun and “sistere” meaning to stand still. So Solstice can be interpreted as “standing sun”, because the sun appears to pause in the sky. Summer Solstice is known in other traditions as Midsummer, All Couples Day, St. John’s Day or Litha.

Bonfires – central to the celebration

The Summer Solstice has been observed by many different cultures and religions since the most ancient times, and many of the methods of celebration are similar. Common to almost all cultures is the building of a bonfire. It was usually said to honor the gods and frighten away evil spirits, so the bigger the fire the better. In some places like Estonia, failing to light a bonfire invited your home to burn down during the coming year. Many people held that jumping over the fire would bring luck and prosperity. So would walking between two “purifying” fires. Sometimes the straw effigy of a witch or a devil is burned on the bonfire to drive away evil. Herbs and flowers might be thrown on the fire, followed by the making of a wish. In almost all traditions, drinking, dancing and singing around the bonfire formed a large part of the solstice celebrations.

For some, the solstice was thought to be a time of magic, a time when the veil between the real world and the spirit world was very thin. The fae or faeries were rumored to be at their most powerful on the Summer Solstice. Fireflies on the Solstice were rumored to be Will o’ Wisps in disguise. Offerings were – and often still are – left for them in Celtic countries. Some wiccans might still tie tiny bells or ribbons to their wands on this day to pay homage to the faeries. It’s considered a potent day to make charms or work spells, and a good night to look into the future.

Green and growing things

Many cultures believed – and still do – that the Solstice was the ideal time to harvest medicinal plants because they were at their most potent. The species varied from place to place but a few of the more common ones were rosemary, fennel, lemon verbena, elder flowers, St. John’s wort, mallow, foxgloves and ferns. In the vodun (voodoo) and santeria religions, mistletoe is gathered on this day.

Plants played a strong role in other aspects of Solstice celebration. In many traditions, wearing garlands of herbs and flowers on the Solstice was said to ward off evil spirits and sickness. Putting flowers under her pillow on that night might bring a girl dreams of her future spouse. Many traditions called for decorating the doorways of houses and barns with greenery. In Russia, this was thought to signify abundance and thereby bring good fortune. In Finland, the front door is flanked by two young birch trees. In many cultures women would wear garlands and crowns of flowers, men would wear crowns of leaves. Some wiccan rituals call for the crowning of two men as part of the celebration, one with oak leaves for the god of the waxing year, and one with holly leaves, symbolic of the god of the waning year.

Dancing around a maypole or stang (a tall post with many long streamers fastened at the top and trailing loose to the ground) was an activity common to many countries on the Solstice. In Finland and Sweden, the pole is decorated with flowers and greenery, and many of the dancers wear crowns of flowers.

Magic in the Water

Water had special properties on the Solstice. For the Vikings, that meant drawing water from “healing wells”. In many countries, all springs were considered sacred during the solstice, and the water from them was particularly desirable.

In Spain, women who wanted to be fertile bathed in the ocean until nine waves had passed over them. In Norse tradition, women rolled naked in the morning dew on the day of the solstice to gain fertility. If you had harvested medicinal plants, they were most effective if dipped in the water collected on the Solstice from seven springs. After washing the plants, people would wash their faces in the water to make them beautiful. In Russia, young girls placed garlands of flowers in the nearest river; the movement of the garland would indicate their future.

Traditions combined

Christianity merged with paganism in many countries, and established St. John’s Day or The Feast of St. John on or near the Solstice. John the Baptist was said to be born six months before Christ, and the Summer Solstice falls six months before the Winter Solstice (where Christianity again took over a pagan holiday and established Christmas). While church services are often held, most of the methods of celebration, such as building bonfires, remained the same. This holiday is still celebrated in many countries such as Spain, Bulgaria and France and also in the French-speaking province of Quebec in Canada.

Where to celebrate the Solstice

Wiccans might hold private celebrations in a garden or forest. In Ireland, Solstice bonfires might be lit on hilltops where they can be seen for miles. And in England, many pagans gather to watch the sunrise at sacred ancient sites such as Stonehenge. On the solstice, the sun rises directly above a 16-foot monolith there called the “heel stone”. Stonehenge may be the most famous but, in fact, many prehistoric sites in many countries are aligned with the summer solstice sun. These include sites right here in America, such as the Big Horn Medicine Wheel in the mountains of Wyoming, the Serpent Mound in Ohio, Mystery Hill in New Hampshire, and Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon.

What to serve on the Solstice

Traditional foods for the Solstice vary from country to country. Freshly harvested fruits and vegetables figure prominently, particularly anything that was yellow or golden in honor of the sun. In Sweden for instance, the first new potatoes are harvested and eaten on this day. Small cakes of corn or flour played a role in most celebrations, and of course wine, or ale. Mead -- an alcoholic beverage made of honey, yeast and water – figures in many traditions. The midsummer month was called the honey month or honey moon in many languages allegedly because of the mead served at the many weddings performed at Solstice.

The old and the new...

And oh yes, Latvia. This tiny country celebrates Midsummer in a big way, with all the usual traditions – and a new one that’s caught on in recent years: naked running. Yes, you can run through the streets of two different towns at 3 a.m. au naturel.

Happy Solstice!

Dani Harper

Your turn – Do you observe the Solstice? Does your family have any traditions, new or old, associated with the solstice? (One of my friends goes camping with her kids and eats s’mores all night.)

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