6 Spectacular Summer Solstice Celebrations Around the World
With the sun shining high, the summer solstice, aka the longest day of the year, is a day for celebration for many people around the world. For people living north of the equator, Friday, June 21 is the longest day and shortest night of 2019.
This day is referred to as the beginning or middle of summer, depending on your homeland. Just having the extended daylight is enough to spread a smile onto many faces. But the annual celebrations also remind us of the traditions and values of our ancient ancestors.
What is the Summer Solstice?
Earth orbits around the sun on a tilted axis and this means that the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere gets more exposure to direct sunlight between March and September and the Southern Hemisphere gets more sunlight the rest of the year. There is a variation in the length of daytime throughout the year and these changes create seasons. The world ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin words ‘sol’ (sun) and ‘sistere’ (to stand still).
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The day that the Northern Hemisphere receives the most exposure to sunlight annually occurs on June 20, 21, or 22. That day of peak sunlight is known as the summer solstice , which was a key point in time for many prehistoric and ancient groups of peoples. Generally, their summer solstice celebrations were believed to have included some mixture of singing, dancing, feasting, bonfires, and rituals – which were often associated with increasing fertility.
The huge Stone Age megalithic monument in Ireland known as Newgrange, the Pictographs of Paint Rock , Texas, the fortress of Saqsayhuaman in Peru, and of course – the most famous solstice site of them all – Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, are just some of the archaeological sites that demonstrate the interest ancient peoples had in the sun and the changing of seasons. With a rising interest in archaeo-astronomy, there have also been many other sites around the world that have been tentatively linked to the solstices and equinoxes.
Scandinavia’s Midsummer Festival
The first traditional summer solstice event we’re going to explore is the Midsummer festival . This event has different aspects across the Scandinavian countries but tends to have fertility traditions linked to it. For example, the Maypole, which some people identify as a phallic symbol , is decorated and stood up then danced around. There are romantic undertones to the holiday and parties with lots of feasting (and alcohol) are popular events for people to get together.
Dancing around the Maypole. ( Pixabay License )
Unmarried Swedish and Norwegian girls used to take advantage of the summer solstice’s “magic” by gathering a mixture of summer flowers and herbs at dawn (when the medicinal and magical properties were believed to be most potent) then placing the bunch under their pillows to see if they would dream of their future spouse. Eating really salty foods was believed to provide the same results. Romanian girls, on the other hand, perform the romantic ritual of drăgaica – in which young girls dance around a girl dressed as a bride.
Bonfires have long been linked to deterring evil spirits and malevolent beings such as witches. A traditional bonfire with a straw and cloth witch at the center is burned on the summer solstice on Bloksbjerg, the Brocken mountain in Denmark, to “keep witches away”. Some people have also traditionally used their bonfires to keep evil spirits away and protect their harvests.
Close to the Solstice: China’s Dragon Boat Festival
In China, Dragon Boat Festival is a major event celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, placing it near enough to the summer solstice that many people associate the two. In reality, the differences between the lunar calendar and the Gregorian calendar means that it is only really close to the solstice every three years.
The famous dragon boat festival evolved from traditions honoring the river dragon to remembering the sad demise of Chinese poet and minister Chiu Yuan (Qu Yuan) (340-278 BC) when he died himself to a rock and committed suicide in a river. The most popular events associated with the festival are eating rice dumplings, drinking realgar wine, and racing dragon boats.
Dragon boats. (flytoskyft11 /Adobe Stock)
But one of the interesting family traditions that links this holiday to the sun is the practice of trying to make an egg stand up at some point between 11 am and 1pm to have luck in the upcoming year. Chinese Fortune Calendar explains the connection:
“The egg can standup easily is [sic] because the Dragon Boat Day is close to the summer solstice, which is the longest day of the year. The summer solstice occurs when the Earth's axis tilts the most toward the sun, causing the sun to be farthest north at noon. Sun reaches to the Tropic of Cancer in the northern hemisphere on the day of summer solstice. Before sun travels back to the southern hemisphere, it seems as if the sun stands still. When the gravitation between sun and earth are pulled each other to the most [sic], an egg can stand up easier.”
Finding Love in Poland on the Longest Day of the Year
Love is also in the air in Eastern European summer solstice festivals. The longest day of the year shares its date with Ivan Kupala Day there. ‘Kupala’ shares a root with the word ‘cupid’ and the holiday has traditionally held romantic appeal for people of Slavic origins.
In Poland, for example, people used to believe that this was the best day to fall in love or celebrate love if a couple wanted to stay happy and prosperous for the rest of the year. It was also believed that a couple who jumped over a bonfire together holding hands would have a long-lasting love.
Single women would traditionally create flower wreaths on this day and float them down a river. Young single men would try to catch the wreaths and Polish folklore stated that the man who caught a wreath would become the love partner for the woman who made it.
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A summer flower wreath. ( elinque /Adobe Stock )
Seeking Rain Over Sun with Tirgan in Iran
The main features of the Iranian Tirgan festival are dancing, reading poetry, splashing water on others, and eating traditional foods such as spinach soup and saffron rice pudding. People also like to wear rainbow colored bands tied to their wrists for 10 days, then tossing them into the water or traditionally “giving them to the god of the wind”.
Like the Dragon Boat Festival, Tirgan only takes place near the solstice. In this case, the holiday falls on either July 3rd, 4th, or 5th. This summer festival differs from most others because it focuses more on rain than the sun. The idea is still likely rooted in having fertile lands, but the ancient Persians seem to have been more concerned with bringing the rains that sunshine at this time of year.
Tirgan is dedicated to two individuals: an archangel named Tishtrya who could provide them with thunder and lightning and rain, and legendary Arash the Archer who allegedly settled a border dispute between Iran and Turan. The archer’s action caused a huge celebration, which is said to have been followed by much-needed rain and peace between Iran and Turan.
Arash the Archer statue in Sa'dābād palace. (Wooerfara3661/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Arash’s story lives on with the rainbow bands, which are said to represent the sky, rainbow, and wind, elements to help the archer’s arrow fly further. By wrapping the bands onto your wrist and then wrapping them, you are said to symbolize the act of shooting the arrow from the bow.
Klidonas – A Greek Fertility Ritual for a Summer’s Day and Night
Yet another summer solstice ritual with fertility links is the Klidonas ritual that takes place on that day in Greece. Although the country has largely adopted the Christian St. John's Day, like many other European countries, some of the old pagan traditions live on.
Klidonas is an ancient ritual involving virgins gathering water from the sea and unmarried women placing a personal belonging in the pot with the water. The pot of water is left under a fig tree overnight and, like with the flowers and herbs of the Scandinavians, the women are said to dream of their future spouse. The next day they remove their possession from the pot and traditionally they would recite rhyming couplets to predict their romantic future. Today, the custom has changed and the rhymes have generally transformed into dirty jokes.
‘A Young Greek Woman’ (1829) Henry William Pickersgill. ( Public Domain )
Later on, young men and women will meet up and take turned jumping over bonfires for good luck. Local legends say that anyone who successfully jumps the flames three times is able to have a wish granted.
Watching the Sunrise at Stonehenge
Last, but not least on our list of famous summer solstice celebrations is Stonehenge . With around 20,000 people able to attend each year, Stonehenge is one of the most sought out sites in the world to celebrate the summer solstice. Many arrive the night before to watch the awe-inspiring moment when the sun rises just over the Heel Stone and lights up the center of the Altar Stone.
Sun shining through Stonehenge. ( andrewmroland /Adobe Stock)
There is much variation on what happens next, depending on your reason for being there; for many people, the amazing sunrise kicks off a celebration and parties to enjoy life and set the mood for the upcoming Glastonbury Festival.
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But for others, especially neo-pagans and neo-druids, there is a more spiritual connotation. The union of the sun and earth and men and women are celebrated by some with fertility rituals. Others focus on honoring nature in general, or the elements of water and fire.
What a summer solstice sunrise might have looked like in an intact Stonehenge. ( NASA)
Keeping the Spirit Alive: Modern Festivals
There are many summer events that take place annually around the world that make no direct mention to the summer solstice, but keep many of the old themes alive – such as environmental awareness events to protect the planet (often honoring it, not necessarily in a spiritual way).
Music and art festivals are also popular ways to celebrate creativity. And family reunions, weddings, and fairs, parties, or get-togethers provide an outlet to celebrate the ancient celebrations of togetherness, love, and life. Finally, the United Nations General Assembly has also designated the summer solstice as the International Day of Yoga . I’ll be sure to perform the Sun Salutation today!
Top Image: Summer solstice Utah sunrise. Source: Heath /Adobe Stock