The longest day of the year for us here on the Northern Hemisphere will be on Tuesday 21st June. Known both as June Solstice and Summer Solstice, this natural phenomenon occurs when Earth arrives at the point in its orbit where the North Pole is at its maximum tilt toward the Sun, resulting in the longest day (period of sunlight hours) and the shortest night of the calendar, marking the astronomical start of summer.
The word ‘solstice’ combines the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) or stitium (still or stopped). Because of the way the Earth is tilted on its axis, the Sun doesn’t rise and set at the same locations on the horizon each morning and evening; its rise and set positions move north or south in the sky as Earth travels around the Sun throughout the year, as well as the Sun’s track becoming higher and lower throughout. The Summer Solstice is when the Sun reaches its northernmost point in the sky, at which point the Sun’s path does not change for a brief period of time. Therefore, ancient astronomers came to know the day as the one where the Sun appeared to stand still.
After the solstice has occurred, the Sun appears to reverse and head back in the opposite direction. Over the year, its path forms a flattened figure of eight called an analemma. This change in position in the sky that we notice from Earth is caused by the tilt of our axis as we orbit the Sun, as well as the Earth’s elliptical, rather than circular, orbit.
People have placed significance on the solstices throughout history. The worshipping and celebrating of the summer solstice may have been related to timing of crop cycles, and it was typically marked by Celtic, Slavic and Germanic people by lighting bonfires, intended to boost the sun’s strength for the remainder of the crop season to ensure a healthy harvest.
It has long been debated whether Stonehenge was created to act as an ancient solar calendar, as the site’s megaliths are aligned with the direction of the sunrise on the Summer Solstice, with the sarsen stones lined up to trace the movements of the sun. It has also been debated, however, that the focus may instead have been the winter solstice.
According to some ancient Greek calendars, the Summer Solstice marked the start of the New Year and began the one-month countdown to the opening of the Olympic games. The Romans also celebrated the Vestalia, a religious festival to honour Vesta, goddess of the home and hearth which occurred on the days leading up to the Summer Solstice.
Over the centuries, the Summer Solstice has inspired many Midsummer celebrations involving singing, bonfires and picnics, and many towns and villages across Britain still mark the day with fairs and festivals.
The celebration of the solstices is strongly associated with paganism, with the festival of Litha being one of the most important in the Pagan religion. It occurs on the eve of the Summer Solstice and celebrates the Midsummer and the power of the sun god. According to Pagan folklore, the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest, meaning spirits may walk the earth more freely at this time. Magic has been a common theme in Summer Solstice and Midsummer folklore across the world, with the belief that magic is at its highest during this time of year. Whether or not you believe in spirits, goddesses or magic, there is something special about taking a moment on the evening of the longest day to watch the sun set and welcome the long awaited return of summer.