The Origins and Customs of the Summer Solstice

Date 8/16/2023
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In many cultures, celebrants host bonfires to keep the celebration going long after the sun goes down on the summer solstice.

In many cultures, celebrants host bonfires to keep the celebration going long after the sun goes down on the summer solstice.

The summer solstice is the longest day of the year — at least in terms of sunshine. People have celebrated and enjoyed this day for centuries, and the tradition has managed to cross civilizations, cultures, and geographic borders. In the northern hemisphere, it occurs on June 21 or 22, while in the Southern hemisphere, it happens on December 21 or 22. If you're curious about this holiday's history and customs, here are a few fun facts.

The History and Meaning of the Summer Solstice

Sometimes called Litha, the summer solstice has a history that dates back to several ancient civilizations, including the Romans, Greeks, and Chinese. It's agriculturally significant because it falls at a time when all of the crops have been planted, which means that farmers no longer have heavy workloads. Ancient cultures also used the solstice to worship their gods.

Though pagans are best known for commemorating this time of year, people across all cultures have found meaning in the changing of the seasons, and many still do today. The ancient Celts in modern-day Ireland celebrated the solstice with bonfires that demonstrated and amplified the sun’s power. In Great Britain, Stonehenge, one of the most famous prehistoric wonders of the world, was built some 4,000 years ago, to align with the solstice sunrise. When the sun comes up, it rises over the Heel Stone and shines brightly down the main avenue of the stone circle. In Europe, Christians aligned the feast of St. John the Baptist with the solstice. In China, people celebrated Li, known as the Chinese goddess of light. In Egypt, people commemorated the victory of the sun god over the god of darkness. From the perspective of the Sphinx, the sun sets right in between the two largest pyramids on the evening of the solstice.

As devotees to the natural rhythms of the universe, for thousands of years, pagans have seen many layers of significance in the summer solstice. For pagans, this day also calls for a celebration of life, as the goddess reaches the pinnacle of her power and the height of her fertility. Pagans observe the union of the god and the goddess, as the season of growth and harvest commences. Pagans view the season as part of the larger annual cycle, each part of which is a cause for celebration. 

The Triumph of Life Over Death

Light and dark have long served as symbols of life and death, respectively. On the longest day of the year, life metaphorically manages to conquer death, which has inspired celebrations among many cultures. However, light also suggests many other forms of symbolism, such as growth, renewal, discovery, and rebirth.

The Balance Between Fire and Water

Cultures have historically associated the summer solstice with two specific elements: fire and water. These elements suggest a certain polarity by themselves — water extinguishes fire, for instance. This could reflect the double-edged sword that the summer solstice represents. While it's the longest day of sunlight, it's also the moment when the days begin to grow shorter as winter approaches.

A Chance to Celebrate Nature

Because of the sun's longevity in the sky on this day, the summer solstice provides the perfect opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy nature. Whether you're throwing a massive party or taking your kids to the park for a short hike, spending time outside is an excellent way to find peace and to practice gratitude.

It's also a chance to feel more connected — both to nature and to the people around you. The changing seasons are among the most powerful events throughout the year, and along with the winter solstice, the summer solstice is the most noticeable because of the sharp changes in weather patterns and temperature.

The Masculine Solstice

In several cultures, the masculine aspect of deity makes its presence known during the summer solstice, while the winter solstice is reserved primarily for the celebration of feminine qualities. Many people use this time for personal development, whether they're correcting a mistake, pursuing a new activity, or learning a fresh skill.

Harnessing the Power of the Solstice

Though modern Summer Solstice celebrations may look different than their ancient counterparts, they still focus on the power of the sun and the importance of living each day to the fullest. With an emphasis on the dominance of nature, the pleasure from the warm sun, and the connections with neighbors and family, today’s observations allow for a moment of contemplation in a busy life. After all, though the solstice is sometimes referred to as midsummer, it’s both the first day of the season and also the beginning of shorter days.

Here are some fun ways that you can enjoy this celebratory day of light.

Have a Feast

The summer solstice is a great time to celebrate with friends and family. Plan a festive feast in honor of the longest day of the year. Focus on foods in bright sunny colors and round sun-like shapes. Consider building a menu with summer squash, heirloom tomatoes, peaches, and nectarines. Dishes grilled over a fire are ideal for this holiday as well. 

Create a Mandala

Spirals, wheels, and mandalas are associated with the summer solstice because they resemble the sun. Make a spiral or mandala out of items gathered in nature such as flowers, herbs, shells, and stones. This can serve as the centerpiece of a social celebration or a quiet meditative activity you do alone.

Look to the Future

The summer solstice is a powerful time for a tarot reading that's focused on love. Amorous energies are running high, making it easier for you to get a glimpse into the future of your romantic life. This is a good time for a psychic love reading as well. Be on the lookout for synchronicities and love signs from the Universe about the one you're meant to be with.

Light a Bonfire

In many cultures, bonfires are believed to ward away evil and protect crops. Midsummer festivals also feature these fires as a striking centerpiece for celebrants to dance around. Celts jump over the bonfire to burn away their problems. Lighting a bonfire is a great way to gather your friends for a summer celebration.

Make a Wreath of Flowers

In Poland, Ivan Kupala Day is celebrated on the longest day of the year. Women make wreaths of herbs and flowers and float them down the river. The man who picks up the wreath is said to be her future husband. A Swedish midsummer tradition is to wear a floral wreath on your head. However you use your accessory, this is a timely tradition for the peak of summer.

Enjoy the Outdoors

The summer solstice is all about celebrating the sun, making it the ideal day to get out and enjoy some of the abundant sunlight. As the longest day of the year, it offers you plenty of opportunities to enjoy lengthy activities. Consider going for a big hike, taking a dip in the lake, or enjoying a canoe trip.

No matter your religious affiliation or spiritual beliefs, the summer solstice can prove transformative if you choose to celebrate it. Its roots in ancient culture and tradition can inform the ways you honor it today. However you choose to celebrate, make sure you take some time to appreciate the warmth and nourishment that the sun provides. The long daylight hours that are available make it possible to enjoy nearly any type of celebration or activity in grand style.


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