Midsummer Solstice

Summer Solstice and Midsummer Fests

By Sam Johnson

"Longest day
Shortest night,
Longest light
Shortest dark;
The world within
Echoes the world without."

-- from the poem "Midsummer" by JT


     This weekend marks the end of the Summer Solstice and most Midsummer celebrations.

     The days now gradually shorten, and the march towards winter begins.

     Though marked on many calendars as the "First Day of Summer," June 21st (or sometimes June 20th), is more accurately identified as the "Summer Solstice" and has more to do with sunlight than sun heat -- specifically in the northern hemisphere (everything is just the opposite "down under").


Science of the Summer Solstice

     A solstice is "an astronomical event that happens twice each year when the Sun's apparent position in the sky, as viewed from Earth, reaches its northernmost or southern most extremes."

     The term solstice is derived from Latin, "Sol" (sun) + "sistere" (to stand still). As described by the ancient Roman astronomers, the sun seemed to "stand still" in the sky on that day at it's highest point above the earth, and provide more sunlight than at any other time of the year. It stood so still that it was clearly "the longest day of the year," and likewise the shortest night of the year.

     The biggest misconception about the Summer Solstice is the false belief that the reason for the extra sunlight on June 21st is that the sun is closest to the earth on that day, and because it is so close, creates the warmest days of the year.

Midsummer Solstice Resources

Click the link below for more information about the
Summer Solstice and Midsummer Traditions.
Click here for links to Midsummer Solstice Sites

     Scientifically, this is NOT the case. The sun is actually NOT much closer to the Earth on June 21st than at any other time of the year. (In fact, the sun is slightly a bit closer to the Earth in December and a bit further away in June).

     What DOES cause the longer days, is the TILT of the Earth towards the sun, NOT the distance to it.
     As the Earth travels around the Sun in its orbit, the north-south position of the Sun changes over the course of the year due to the Earth's tilted rotation axes. When the North Pole points toward the sun, the sun's rays hit the northern half of the world most directly. The Summer Solstice, June 21st, is when this tilt toward the sun is most direct, therefore making it the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.
     Because the Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year, it also marks the turning point whereby each day becomes a little shorter as we head towards fall and winter.

    As a result, the Summer Solstice is also known as "Midsummer's Day" or simply "Midsummer."


Midsummer Celebrations

      The celebration of the Summer Solstice is a very ancient practice, dating back to pre-Christian times. Many civilizations noted the great power of the sun, especially during the solstice, and connected its power to various aspects of nature, including light and dark, life and death, and especially fertility, growth, and harvest.

      Many ancient cultures of the northern hemisphere held Midsummer festivals and gathered around sacred bonfires (to keep evil spirits of darkness away), celebrating the entire night with food and dance and drink to welcome the sun rise and power of the gods of light over the gods of darkness.

    The Druids of Stonehenge were said to mark the Midsummer Solstice as the "wedding of Heaven and Earth" replicated today in the belief of a "lucky wedding in June."   

    Likewise the Midsummer moon was called the "Honey Moon" because the meade from fermented honey was used in Midsummer wedding ceremonies, and couples would leap through the flames of the Midsummer night bonfires believing their crops would grow as high as they were able to jump.

     Although Midsummer is originally a pagan holiday, Christianity assimilated the festivities into its traditions by associating it with the birth of St. John the Baptist (the Feast of St. John) which is observed on the same day, June 24, in the Catholic and some Protestant churches.

     As a result, many Scandinavian countries combine the celebration of "Midsommer" with "Sankt Hans Natt" or "Sankthansaften" (St. John's Eve). In Norway, for example, it is called "Jonsok" (St. John's wake) and in Finland "juhannus."

     Midsummer is one of Scandinavia's most popular holiday and festival seasons, ranking right along with Christmas.

     This week I've received "Jonsok" and "Midsommer" greetings from my Scandinavian relatives and friends in Norway, Finland, and Sweden who have been busy celebrating with bonfires on beaches or on top of boulders, picnics with pickled herring or smoked salmon or "geitost" (goat's cheese) on hearty wheat grain bread, "hjemme brent" (homemade beer), "akavit" (water of life), "blotkake" (cream cake with strawberries and blueberries), and lots of singing and dancing.
     Of course in "the Land of the Midnight Sun" the sun doesn't set on Midsummer's night.

     This year in Norway during Midsummer week, I joined an estimated 3 million people who followed the 6-day voyage of the "Hurtigruten" as it sailed 1,460 miles along the coast from Bergen, Norway to a town of Kirkenes in the Arctic Circle on the Russian boarder along "the world's most beautiful voyage" to view the Midnight Sun.  

     It wan an amazing sight! 

     Norway's national TV covered the entire voyage, "Hurtigruten: Minute by Minute" and broadcast it live via TV and streamed it live on the Internet.

     Here at home, we celebrated the Midsummer Solstice with the Devils Lake Sons of Norway, singing traditional Norwegian songs at the Knights of Columbus as part of the "Music in the Parks" program. It was a good and appreciative crowd.

     But this weekend, I think the family will gather outside around the bonfire and enjoy "the longest light and the shortest dark" the way our ancestors did -- “Lykkelige Midsommardagen!”

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