The summer solstice and its cultural importance
Written by Gabe
June 21st marks the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice, the time it is most tilted towards the sun. It is the longest day in the northern hemisphere as well as being what is traditionally considered the beginning of summer. While it may not seem like a very important date to the average person nowadays, it used to - and indeed still does - hold much significance in various traditions all over the world, and is, even now, celebrated in some places.
Photo: Stonehenge, Space.com
Perhaps the most iconic of all European summer solstice celebrations is Midsummer’s Eve, in Sweden. It happens on a Friday between June 20 and June 26. Among other things, it involves the assemblage of a maypole, the holiday’s most well-known symbol, flower wreaths and lots of food, such as pickled herring and beer. Despite their possible pagan origins, the festivities are dedicated to the Christian figure, John the Baptist, who would have been born around June 24th.
John the Baptist isn’t only revered in Sweden - Christian festivals dedicated to him are present all across Europe. There is the Fête de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste in France. Other examples include the Spanish Festival of San Juan, or the Latvian Jāņi, and let’s not forget about the Czech Svatojánská noc, “Saint John’s Night”. Most of these are rather similar and often involve the lighting of bonfires.
According to Christians, John the Baptist was a Jewish prophet. The religious consider him important because he was a sort of “forerunner” to Jesus, preaching about God’s incoming judgement and baptising people. Due to his birthday traditionally being said to be the 24th of June, his celebrations took on many characteristics of pagan traditions related to the summer solstice, which would themselves be lost due to the arrival of Christianity in Europe.
However, humans have been celebrating the solstice long before that. One of the possible reasons Stonehenge, the rather well-known English tourist attraction, was built, is that it was an “ancient calendar,” made to measure the sun’s movements - its entire structure is aligned in relation to the solstices. On the morning of the summer solstice, the sun would rise precisely between the heel stone (a stone that is separated from the main structure) and another stone right next to it (which has been lost), creating a “sun gate” of sorts.
Nevertheless, it is possible that it was the winter, not summer solstice that was most important to Stonehenge’s builders, due to signs of ritual animal slaughter and people gathering in a nearby settlement roughly during midwinter, which points towards some sort of festivities.
The solstices remain relevant even today, but in a very different manner. Instead of being the driving force behind religious celebrations, scientists use the solstices to determine seasons on other planets. The moment a planet’s northern hemisphere is most tilted towards its star is considered the start of its northern hemisphere’s summer and southern hemisphere’s winter (and vice versa). However, other planets’ seasons may differ radically from ours, depending on how strong the axial tilt is, and as such “summer” on Venus isn’t really that different from its spring or autumn, for example. This is because of its weak axial tilt - the northern hemisphere is only very slightly angled towards the sun.
As such, it can be seen that a seemingly random and arbitrary date can be much more important than it seems at first glance.
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