Today, as far as I’m concerned, is the first day of summer. By some reckonings, that technically occurred last month, but, for me, as for many others, summer only really begins with the solstice, an event which is widely celebrated on June 21st throughout most of the northern hemisphere (conversely, the winter solstice is being celebrated in the southern hemisphere today).
But what exactly is the solstice? It’s actually a lot more complex than the familiar image of convoys of hippies and druids gathering at Stonehenge to watch the first light of dawn break through the stones of this ancient monument – although this is probably the most well-known (and – at times – controversial) incarnation of such ancient solstice celebrations here in Britain.
We’ll start with the science (and if I’ve got this wrong, let me know!).
Astronomically speaking, the summer solstice occurs when the sun reaches its maximum elevation in the sky and the day is at its longest. This happens because the rotation of the earth’s axis has tilted the northern hemisphere closest to the sun, and it will now begin to gradually shift back – resulting in the slow shortening of the amount of daylight in a 24 hour period as summer makes its slow and stately progression towards autumn and winter.
But it goes deeper than that.
Human beings have been aware of the mysterious and seasonal nature of the solstice almost as long as they have inhabited this planet, and both summer and winter solstices have powerful ritual and ceremonial elements connected to them which, in some cases, date back for millennia and reflect some very basic human physical and emotional needs.
In the case of the summer solstice, it has long been associated with ideas of fertility and, by default, also hope for a good harvest later in the season, something absolutely central to the very existence of our ancient ancestors. June has also been a traditional month for weddings for many, many centuries, and the link can easily be made between celebrating the fertility of the land at this time of the year, celebrating the fertility of those peoples who live on the land (with all that entails!) and celebrating the solstice.
Although both the summer and winter solstices can be explained by science, they also reflect some basic, elemental human truths, in that they are still connected with ideas such as light and fertility and community. These needs are as old as humanity itself, meaning that, despite our chaotic concrete modern world, they connect us to our ancient ancestors in an unbroken chain of existence.
It’s dark now, and the longest day is over. Summer is here. So, happy solstice to you all, and may your summer be filled with fertile ideas…