June 21, 2022
Today at 09:13 Universal Time (5:13 am EDT) the Sun was directly above the Tropic of Cancer in the northern hemisphere, marking the summer solstice. I have written several times about the winter solstice, but never about the opposite event that occurs in the summer. Since prehistory, the summer solstice has been seen as a significant time of year in many cultures marked by festivals and rituals. Traditionally, in many temperate regions (especially Europe), the summer solstice is seen as the middle of summer and referred to as “midsummer”. In some countries and calendars today, it is seen as the beginning of summer. While midsummer celebrations exist around the world, in the US they are largely derived from the cultures of European immigrants who arrived since the 19th century.
When I looked online, I found the summer solstice, also known as estival solstice or midsummer, occurs when one of Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt toward the Sun. This event happens twice a year, once in each hemisphere (Northern and Southern). At summer solstice the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky and is the day with the longest period of daylight. In the Arctic circle (northern hemisphere) or Antarctic circle (southern hemisphere), there is continuous daylight around the summer solstice. The date shifts of the calendar but occurs sometime between June 20 and June 22 in the Northern Hemisphere and between December 20 and December 23 in the Southern Hemisphere. The same dates in the opposite hemisphere are referred to as the winter solstice. Celebration of midsummer in the Arctic now centers around the 24-hour presence of the Sun. In Sweden, the Midsummer is such an important festivity that there have been proposals to make the Midsummer’s Eve the National Day of Sweden, instead of June 6. In Fairbanks, Alaska, the Midnight Sun Game is an annual tradition where a regulation game of baseball is played at 10:30 pm local time and through the midnight hour with no artificial lighting.
As the longest day of the year and the first day of meteorological summer in the northern hemisphere, midsummer is most famously marker by early-risers at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, UK. Stonehenge was produced by a culture that left no written records and many aspects of Stonehenge (how built and why) remain subject to debate. The great trilithon at the site the encompasses the horseshoe arrangement of the five central trilithons, the heel stone, and the embanked avenue. These are aligned to the sunset of the winter solstice and the opposing sunrise of the summer solstice. Proposed functions for the site include usage as an astronomical observatory or as a religious site. Recent theories speculate this was a place of healing, although they concede the site was probably multifunctional and used for ancestor worship. Whatever religious, mystical, or spiritual elements were central to Stonehenge, the design includes a celestial observatory which might have allowed prediction of eclipse, solstice, equinox, and other celestial events important to a contemporary religion.
THOUGHTS: Midsummer is marked most famously by early-risers at Stonehenge where the event is known as Midsummer’s Eve. The 5,000-year-old Neolithic monument is famed for its alignment with the midsummer sunrise and this year saw about 6,000 people at the monument to witness the sunrise for the first since the pandemic began. The revelers got a bonus in the form of a rare planetary alignment. In the east before the sunrise a First Quarter Moon shone close to Jupiter while all five naked-eye planets in the solar system were visible. If this is the reaction in our day of science and telescopes, I can only imagine the wonder experienced by the Neolithic gatherers. Perhaps a quote from Michel Legrand, a French composer and musician, says it best, “The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.” C’est la vie! Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.