Many moons ago (or should I say many suns ago) when I was a student at Bristol University,
a group of us had the crazy idea of driving up to Stonehenge on the summer solstice
to see the sunrise over the heel stone. Those were the days when you could walk freely
around the stones, and there weren't the hordes of tourists and Druids etc. that
you get these days. My memories of the trip (like the weather that morning) are pretty
hazy. It was very cold I seem to remember and it got quite light, way before the
actual sunrise time, the ‘false dawn' I think it is called. There was no dramatic
beam of sunlight at the official sunrise time, it just got lighter and lighter, and
we got colder and colder, so half an hour after the documented sun rise time, we
were back in the car, heading back to the halls of residence. In November the fifth
terms, 'a damp squib' !
The summer solstice marks the peak of summer and takes place on the longest day of
the year when the sun is at its highest in the sky. Solstice is derived from the
Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). In the northern hemisphere this
takes place on 20th or 21st June. The summer solstice has been celebrated since ancient
times and is still celebrated around the world today.
At the summer solstice there are many places in the far north, within the arctic
circle where the sun never sets. These include parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland,
Russia, Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Iceland. Places known as the Land of the Midnight
The solstice is marked all over the world. Although there are differences between
cultures, there are also some striking similarities. Many different cultures celebrate
the solstice with bonfires. And many different places have monuments designed so
that during the solstice, they will line up with the Sun.
In Britain the solstice is famously associated with Stonehenge. When the Sun rises
on the day of the summer solstice, it lines up with one of the stones, called the
heel stone, and its first rays shine through a stone archway in the centre circle.
(Well sometimes!) Stonehenge first existed 5,000 years ago, thousands of years earlier
than Ancient Egypt or Ancient Rome.
Native Americans made a number of monuments that work in a similar way to Stonehenge.
In Chaco Canyon, USA, there are some rocks called the three slabs, put there around
1,000 years ago. They are positioned so that during the summer solstice, the Sun
shines in a dagger shape onto a spiral on the wall behind them.
There is a modern day henge in Nebraska, USA, called Carhenge - it is an exact copy
of Stonehenge, except it is made out of old cars.
People across Europe have marked the solstice since ancient times with bonfires and
celebrations dedicated to different gods. When Europe became mostly Christian the
festivals stayed but turned into a celebration of St John the Baptist. To this day,
Christians in many parts of the world celebrate St John's Day, which takes place
on 24th June. Midsummer traditions are particularly important in geographic Northern
Europe - Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The celebration of Midsummer's Eve (St. John's Eve among Christians) was from ancient
times a festival of the summer solstice. Some people believed that golden-flowered
mid-summer plants, especially Calendula, and St. John's Wort, had miraculous healing
powers and they therefore picked them on this night. Bonfires were lit to protect
against evil spirits. Rolling wheels of fire downhill is a tradition in some countries.
The wheel is rolled to signify the sun rising to its highest point and at once descending
again, representing the cycle of the seasons.
In Latvia, Midsummer is called Jani (Janis being Latvian for John). It is a national
holiday celebrated on a large scale by almost everyone in Latvia and by people of
Latvian origin abroad. Celebrations consist of a lot of traditional and mostly pagan
elements - eating Jani cheese (special recipe with caraway seeds), drinking beer,
singing folk songs dedicated to Jani, burning bonfires to keep light all through
the night and jumping over them, wearing wreaths of flowers (for women) and oak
leaves (for men). People decorate their houses and lands with birch or sometimes
oak branches and flowers as well as leaves, especially fern. In modern days small
oak branches with leaves are attached to the cars in Latvia during the festivity.
In late 15th-century England, John Mirk of Lilleshall Abbey, Shropshire, gives the
following description of Midsummer festivities. "At first, men and women came to
church with candles and other lights and prayed all night long. In the process of
time, however, men left such devotion and used songs and dances and fell into lechery
and gluttony turning the good, holy devotion into sin."
The church fathers decided to put a stop to these practices and ordained that people
should fast on the evening before, and thus turned waking into fasting.
Mirk adds that at the time of his writing, "...in worship of St John the Baptist,
men stay up at night and make three kinds of fires: one is of clean bone's and no
wood and is called a 'bonnefyre'; another is of clean wood and no bones, and is called
a 'wakefyre', because men stay awake by it all night; and the third is made of both
bones and wood and is called 'St. John's fire' ."