The summer solstice is the longest day of the year, and the shortest night. In the Northern Hemisphere it takes place between June 20 and 22, depending on the year. (The reverse is true in the Southern Hemisphere, where the longest day of the year occurs between December 20 and 22.) Humans may have observed the summer solstice as early as the Stone Age. Cultures around the world still celebrate the day with feasts, bonfires, picnics and songs.
Longest Day of the Year
The Northern Hemisphere receives more daylight than any other day of the year on the summer solstice. This day marks the start of astronomical summer and the tipping point at which days start to become shorter and nights longer.
The word “solstice” comes from the Latin words “sol” (sun) and “stitium” (still or stopped). The ancients noticed that as summer progressed, the sun stopped moving northward in the sky, then begin tracking southward again as summer turned to autumn. (During the winter solstice, the sun does the opposite, and begins moving northward as winter slowly turns to spring.)
Neolithic humans may initially have started to observe the summer solstice as a marker to figure out when to plant and harvest crops. In Ancient Egypt, the summer solstice corresponded with the rise of the Nile River. Its observance may have helped to predict annual flooding.
Different cultures and religious traditions have different names for the summer solstice. In Northern Europe, it’s often referred to as Midsummer. Wiccans and other Neopagan groups call it Litha, while some Christian churches recognize the summer solstice as St. John’s Day to commemorate the birth of John the Baptist.
Solstice in Ancient Cultures
The word solstice itself comes from the Latin, from (sun) and or (to stand or stop), and its celebration dates back to ancient pre-Christian tradition. For the Greeks, it would, according to some calendars, mark the start of the new year—and the month-long countdown toward the Olympics. It was, too, often the annual occasion for the festival of Kronia, to honor the god Cronus, the patron of agriculture. The day was marked not only by the typical feasts and games, but by an even more remarkable occurrence: for once, slaves could participate in the festivities along with the freemen, joined in equality for a single day.
For the Romans, the solstice was the occasion for another unique exception to everyday life: on the first day of the festival of Vestalia, married women could, for one day only, enter the temples of the vestal virgins. There, they would be allowed to make offerings to Vesta, the goddess of hearth and home.
Many Native American tribes celebrated the longest day of the year with a Sun Dance, while the Mayas and Aztecs used the day as a marker by which to build many of their central structures, so that the buildings would align perfectly with the shadows of the two solstices, summer and winter. In many European pagan traditions, the solstice was called Litha, a day to balance the elements of fire and water, while for the druids, it was, simply, midsummer, a night and day with properties like no other. According to tradition, certain plants—St. John’s wort, roses, rue, verbena, and the like—acquired properties on the year’s shortest night that they wouldn’t have if picked at any other time. And on this evening, if you were very lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of faeries, who favored midsummer to reveal themselves to the common folk. (Rub fern seeds on your eyelids at midnight’s stroke if you want to spy one—but if you do, be sure to come equipped with rue, lest the pixies lead you astray). It’s only too clear why Shakespeare set his famous comedy during the magic of midsummer’s evening.
The day also figures in religious calendars. With the rise of Christianity and accompanying threat to pagan traditions, the summer solstice became celebrated in many parts of Europe as the day of St. John the Baptist—St. John’s Eve in Denmark, the Feast of St. John in France, the festival of St. John the Baptist in Spain, Ivan Kupala Day in Russia. The Festival of Ivanje in Croatia. In Jewish tradition, it’s known as Tekufat Tammuz, the solstice of the month Tammuz, and legend has it that, on this particular day, no one has a shadow.
Summer Solstice Superstitions
According to pagan folklore, evil spirits would appear on the summer solstice. To ward off evil spirits, people would wear protective garlands of herbs and flowers.
One of the most powerful of these plants was known as ‘chase devil.’ Today it’s called St. John’s Wort, because of its association with St. John’s Day.
Other summer solstice traditions hold that the ashes from a Midsummer bonfire can protect one from misfortune or that the ashes—when spread across one’s garden—will bring a bountiful harvest.
Summer Solstice and Archeology
The orientation of some archaeological structures are thought to reflect ancient observations of the summer solstice.
From the view of the Sphinx, the sun sets squarely between the Great Pyramids of Khufu and Khafre on Egypt’s Giza plateau on the summer solstice.
Archeologists have long debated the purpose and uses of Stonehenge, a Neolithic megalith monument in the south of England. The site is aligned with the direction of the sunrise on the summer solstice.
While some have theorized that Stonehenge was the location of prehistoric summer solstice rituals, there’s little archaeological evidence that it was used this way.
There are myriad traditions, myriad histories, myriad reasons to choose from when you celebrate the sun’s longest daytime path. But at the end, we may not need any of them. Maybe, the reason we want to commemorate the day is much more prosaic—and fundamental—than any story or legend will ever be. On this day, we may, quite simply, be the happiest we’ve been in a long time.
Psychologists have long suspected a link between our level of happiness and the amount of sunlight in the day, and even though much of the data has been self-reported and anecdotal (it’s challenging, though not impossible, to run a controlled study with adequate data that spans an entire year), there have been some experimental results that suggest that, comparatively speaking, individuals suffers greater levels of depression when daylight decreases. That is, if you move someone to a more northern latitude (so, one where the days are relatively shorter), he is more likely to suffer an increase in symptoms of anxiety; move him to a more southern latitude, and the opposite is the case.
It seems somehow wrong, though, to end such a day on a down note. Better perhaps to turn back to ancient traditions, and see if we can’t increase our luck for the months to come, on this most magical day of midsummer. The options are many. You can light a bonfire—and jump over it if you dare. Succeed, and you may find yourself finding your true love. You can leave a piece of gold jewelry in the sunlight, and wait while it soaks in its power. Wear the jewelry later, and you may find that power transferred to your own life in the coming year.
Modern-day Solstice Celebrations
Many cultures still celebrate the summer solstice. Midsummer festivities are especially popular in Northern Europe where bonfires are lit, girls wear flowers in their hair and homes are decorated with garlands and other greenery.
In some parts of Scandinavia, Maypoles are erected and people dance around them at Midsummer instead of May Day. Neopagans, Wiccans and New Agers around the world hold summer solstice celebrations. Each year, thousands gather at Stonehenge to commemorate the longest day of the year.