Summer Solstice, the Longest Day

Summer Solstice around June 21 gives us the longest day and shortest night of the year. ”Solstice” is derived from the Latin sol (“sun”) and sistere (“cause to stand still”). On Summer Solstice, the sun reaches the northernmost point of its trek along the horizon from its southern setting place on Winter Solstice in December. The sun appears to pause before beginning its journey southward again.

In the southern hemisphere, where seasons are reversed, June 21 is Winter Solstice, the shortest day. Summer solstice in the southern hemisphere is in December – two halves of the same coin, like the Yin/Yang symbol of classical Taoism.

Summer Solstice is also called Midsummer because it falls in the middle of the light half of the year and the growing season. In the West, it is the official beginning of the Summer season. By whatever name it is known, Summer Solstice is celebrated around the world in some fashion. One common theme is celebration of the greatest light, halfway between planting and harvesting, when the Earth is heavily pregnant with her bounty.

Ancient Celts celebrated midsummer as Alban Heruin (“Light of the Shore”), because it fell midway between spring equinox (Alban Eiler, “Light of the Earth”) and fall equinox (Alban Elfed, “Light of the Water”). The Druids celebrated this day of the sun’s greatest power as the “wedding of Heaven and Earth,” and many couples chose it for their hand-fasting (wedding). That tradition may have contributed to the modern popularity of June weddings.

June is traditionally the time to harvest honey from beehives, thus the full moon in June is called the Honey Moon. Newly married couples were fed dishes and beverages made with honey for the first month of their married life, to encourage love and fertility. In more modern times the “honeymoon” is a post-wedding trip, or a period of tranquility following a new beginning.

Ancient peoples aligned earthworks and monuments to the sun and moon positions at significant times, such as solstices and equinoxes. England’s Stonehenge is but one example of the many stone structures built in prehistoric times that are aligned to sunrise on midsummer’s day.

Closer to home, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel west of Sheridan, Wyoming, is one of 40 or more similar places in the high plains of the Rocky Mountains. Its layout of spokes and cairns lines up with aspects of the solar and lunar cycles. Four cairns are aligned with the rising and setting of the sun on summer solstice. This place continues to be used as a vision quest site for Native American youth. (It was named “medicine wheel” by Europeans who saw it, not by those who used it and understood its significance.)

Natural features can mark the sun’s progression, too. From where I live, on the Longest Day the sun appears to linger over Mt. Tamalpais, a 2570 ft. mountain in Marin County, on the west coast of California. The buckling and folding of the earth’s crust where the San Andreas Fault marks the meeting of the North American and Pacific plates have built the Coast Range, of which Mt. Tamalpais is the highest northern marker. The name “Tamalpais” may be derived from the Coast Miwok Indian words tamal pais (“coast mountain”).

In Christian tradition, the feast of St. John the Baptist was set on June 24, a few days after Summer Solstice, just as Christmas was set on December 25, a few days after Winter Solstice. St. John the Baptist’s day may be the oldest feast day to honor a Christian saint. Setting it on his birthday rather than his day of martyrdom, as with other saints’ days, shows the importance of this Longest Day to pre-Christian peoples and the Church’s need to associate the celebrations with Christianity.

All of these seasonal celebrations are part of us, as inhabitants of our big blue marble spinning in space. The passing seasons, with their high points and balance points, mark the passage of our lives. Each season provides new lessons to help us understand our role in the web of life on this planet. Embedded within our core is that wonder and awe of the transitions from light to dark and back again. It is well to notice these transitions, for somewhere inside us, we feel the tug of connection to our ancestors and their traditions.

How do we honor and appreciate our ancestral heritage in the context of modern lives? The question is worth pondering.

Here is a Wiccan blessing for Summer:

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.

Sources:

http://www.religioustolerance.org/summer_solstice.htm
http://www.mttam.net/history.html
http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/holydays/summersolstice.shtml

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