Summary: a celebration of the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere
2018 Date: 21st June (exact timing depends on location)
Celebrated by: Numerous cultures worldwide, modern pagans
Linked Holidays: December Solstice, Wiccan Wheel of the Year festivals, Feast of St John the Baptist
Background and Theological Significance
The June Solstice is the name given to the solstice that occurs on or around the 21st June each year in the Gregorian calendar. In the Northern Hemisphere this is the summer solstice, often called Midsummer, which is the longest day in the entire year. In the Southern Hemisphere this is the winter solstice, which is the shortest day of the entire year. The word ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin ‘sol sistere’ meaning ‘sun stands still’, due to the sun appearing to stand still directly overhead during the day. The (literally) polar opposite of the June Solstice is the December Solstice, which occurs on or around the 21st December each year, and signifies the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day in the Southern Hemisphere.
The reason for the existence of the summer and winter solstices is due to the axis of the Earth’s rotation. The Earth’s axis tilts from its orbit at an angle of approximately 23.5°, meaning that the rays of the sun are focused on different parts of the Earth through the year. When the focus of the sun reaches its most northerly point (directly over the Tropic of Cancer), the Northern Hemisphere will receive more sunlight during one rotation of the Earth (one day) than at any other time of the year. Conversely, the Southern Hemisphere will receive less sunlight during that rotation than at any other time of the year. When the focus of the sun is at its most southerly point (over the Tropic of Capricorn), the situation is exactly reversed, with the Southern Hemisphere receiving the most sunlight and the Northern Hemisphere the least. This is why the summer solstice in the North is the same as the winter solstice in the South.
The June Solstice has been of immense important to numerous cultures and religious traditions around the world. It is of especial importance to those societies in places such as northern Europe where the balance between summer and winter is very acute. The June Solstice was of great importance to many pagan cultures in Europe, although these later merged with Christian celebrations of the birth of St John the Baptist. Many modern pagan movements such as the Wicca have reclaimed the ancient origins of the summer solstice as part of the Wheel of the Year festivities and a time to respect the harmonious rhythm of the natural world.
It is thought by historians that humans have observed the summer and winter solstices for many thousands of years. Archaeological sites such as Stonehenge in England, the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, and Machu Pichu in Peru, all appear to be have been constructed to observe the sunrise on the June or December Solstices. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans were known to have observed the summer solstice with religious festivities to the gods. In northern Europe, the summer solstice or ‘Midsummer’ was welcomed with bonfires and celebrations and was believed to be a time when magical charms and rituals would be at their strongest. In the fourth-century CE the Christian Church named the 24th June as the Feast of St John the Baptist purposely to coincide with Midsummer. According to the Bible, John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus Christ, so a midsummer festival for St John’s Day corresponded to the midwinter celebration of Christmas. There was also a theological purpose however: John the Baptist was the forerunner and prophet of Christ, who came to bring Light into the world. Christmas coincides with the ‘growing time’ as the light returns, so St John’s Day is the reverse as the ‘lessening time’ when the light diminishes. Celebrations of St John’s Day have greatly influenced Midsummer celebrations across Europe to this day, including in Britain, France and Scandinavia.
Modern pagans across the world have made efforts to reclaim the two solstices as central observances in the cycle of the natural year. Followers of Wicca have incorporated both the summer (Litha) and winter (Yule) solstices into the Wheel of the Year, alongside the two equinoxes and the four Gaelic festivals. The solstices also remain a notable cultural event for many people in different parts of the world.
Festivities relating to the June Solstice vary all around the world. In the Northern Hemisphere, celebrations include dancing round a maypole in Sweden, lighting bonfires in Spain, decorating houses and livestock with greenery in Latvia, and sailing ships down the Danube in Austria. Midsummer is typically seen as a joyful time to give thanks for long warm days, good harvests and the blessings of family and community. Celebrations are often a mix of ancient pagan customs, Christian observances of St John the Baptist, and a more modern emphasis on the harmony of nature.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the June Solstice is the winter solstice, and the celebrations reflect that accordingly. In Brazil there is a midwinter festival called ‘Festa Junina’ which draws together both Christian and local customs, whilst in Chile there is ‘Willkakuti’ which is a celebration for the annual return of the sun. These have a fundamentally different temperament to the summer celebrations in the North but are united in that they are opposite points on the same circle. As the year continues on its endless cycle, the positions will be reversed again and again. The June Solstice is a time to remember the ongoing cycle of life and death, and light and darkness, that is the heart of the natural world.