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 Sun.

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' ."

 

Geoff Quick

 

Summer Solstice

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