In the Northern hemisphere, the summer solstice is the name given to the longest day of the year – i.e. the day when the sun appears highest in the sky and there is more sunlight than on any other day (16 hours and 38 minutes in the UK this year). It falls on 21st June, but celebrations relating to the solstice are held on the day itself and the days either side, depending on local traditions.
Celebrations to mark the solstice date back to ancient times, when the sun was revered as a deity in many cultures, and its movements were the subject of great interest and had many legends and stories attached to them. The name “solstice” comes from the Latin words for sun and standing still, as it is the day the sun can be seen to reverse its course in the sky. These days, when we think of the summer solstice we tend to think primarily of the pagan festivities that take place, as these can still be found in modern society. As was also the case in the distant past, they are most prevalent in Scandinavian countries, where people actually experience a full 24 hours of sunlight at this time of year. In the UK, the summer solstice is marked by a 4-day festival at Stonehenge, our most famous Neolithic site, where the alignment of the stones highlights the sunrise on midsummer day. In past times, the most widespread practice was to light bonfires to symbolise the triumph of the sun over darkness. Because it was seen as a time of warmth and light, when crops are in their main growing season, there were also fertility rituals at this time and it was considered an auspicious time for marriages.
Litha is the name that the Anglo Saxons gave to this much earlier festival, and that is the name by which most modern-day Pagans and Wiccans refer to the celebrations. As well as watching the sunrise, it is a day for reflecting on “dark” and “light” aspects of your own life, looking ahead and planning for the harvest time and winter on the horizon, and also for spending time enjoying the sunshine in the outdoors with family, culminating with communal meals cooked outdoors and the lighting of traditional fires, accompanied by singing, drama and storytelling. Generally speaking, it is one of the most light-hearted and festive of the major dates on the calendar.
As with many earlier traditions, the medieval Christian church co-opted existing festivals as days of religious observance. In the case of the summer solstice, the midsummer celebrations became the feast days of St John the Baptist (24th June), with the bonfires lit to ward off evil spirits being a direct adoption of existing practices.
No matter what your religious beliefs, the summer solstice symbolises the arrival of summer (not that this is always apparent in the UK!). As such, it heralds the time of year when we tend to spend more time outdoors – perhaps enjoying the sunshine on picnics or walks, or just experiencing the natural world – and when we take most of our family holidays. And it’s interesting to think that if you are in the garden enjoying a barbecue or sitting around your fire pit with friends and family in the next few days, you will be doing the same as people the world over have been doing at this time of year for millennia.