The summer solstice—the longest day of the year.While the day is, technically speaking, an astronomical occasion, its historical and cultural significance extends far beyond the relative length of the daylight. The word solstice itself comes from the Latin, from sol (sun) and stare or sistere (to stand or stop) and has been endowed with great significance throughout history. Many think of it as a purely pagan celebration, associated with northern European history. The truth is, Ancient People of all cultures celebrated this special day, which falls in June in the northern hemisphere and is also known as midsummer, with festivals, celebrations and other observances. Celebrating the Summer Solstice is an opportunity to visit an ancient time and participate in one of the oldest celebrations in human history. Below are just a few cultures that celebrated this time of year, and their ritual.
Ancient Greeks According to certain iterations of the Greek calendar—they varied widely by region and era—the summer solstice was the first day of the calender year. Several festivals were held around this time, including Kronia, which celebrated the agriculture god Cronus. The strict social code was temporarily turned on its head during Kronia, with slaves participating in the merriment as equals or even being served by their masters. The summer solstice also marked the one-month countdown to the opening of the Olympic games.
Ancient Romans In the days leading up to the summer solstice, ancient Romans celebrated the Vestalia festival. Rituals included the sacrifice of an unborn calf which was removed from its mother’s womb. This was the only time of the year when married women were allowed to enter the sacred temple of the vestal virgins and make offerings to Vesta, the goddess of hearth and home.
Ancient Chinese The ancient Chinese participated in a ceremony on the summer solstice to honor the earth, femininity and the force known as yin. It complemented the winter solstice ritual, which was devoted to the heavens, masculinity and yang.
Vikings Midsummer was a crucial time of year for the Nordic seafarers, who would meet to discuss legal matters and resolve disputes around the summer solstice. They would also visit wells thought to have healing powers and build huge bonfires. Today, “Viking” summer solstice celebrations are popular among both residents and tourists in Iceland.
Native Americans Many Native American tribes took part in centuries-old midsummer rituals, some of which are still practiced today. The Sioux, for instance, performed a ceremonial sun dance around a tree while wearing symbolic colors. Some scholars believe that Wyoming’s Bighorn medicine wheel, an arrangement of stones built several hundred years ago by the Plains Indians, aligns with the solstice sunrise and sunset, and was therefore the site of that culture’s annual sun dance. The Sioux were known to hold one of the most spectacular rituals. Usually performed during the June solstice, preparations for the dance included cutting and raising a tree that would be considered a visible connection between the heavens and Earth, and setting up teepees in a circle to represent the cosmos. Participants abstained from food and drink during the dance itself. Their bodies were decorated in the symbolic colors of red (sunset), blue (sky), yellow (lightning), white (light), and black (night). Toltec Mounds are an astronomical alignment mapped out by the vanished Plum Bayou Culture. A millennium ago some 15 miles east of today's Little Rock, these American Indians somehow managed to mark the yearly position of the sun at the start of summer, autumn, winter and spring. Because the Plum Bayou people left no written records, it remains a mystery just why they wanted to measure the arrival of each season. Also unknown is how they managed to calibrate accurately the passage of the sun.
Maya Inca and Aztecs While not much is known of how exactly the mighty pre-Columbian civilizations of Central America celebrated midsummer, the ruins of their once-great cities indicate the great significance of that day. Temples, public buildings and other structures were often precisely aligned with the shadows cast by major astrological phenomena, particularly the summer and winter solstices. In South America, the Inca Empire held the Inti Raymi festival at the June solstice, which is midwinter in the southern hemisphere.
Druids Stonehenge was built around 3100 BCE. Some people believe that it was built to help establish when the summer solstice occurred. Interestingly, the sun rises at a particular point on the horizon as viewed from the centre of the stone circle on day of the June solstice. At that point the builders may have started counting the days of the year. Many other megalith structures in Europe may have been built for similar purposes, although reasons are still uncertain. For the druids, it was, simply, midsummer, a night and day with properties like no other. Ancient people knew that the Earth Mother Goddess was pregnant and would give birth at Lammas (August 2nd) with the first of her abundant harvests. It is one of the eight great spokes on the Celtic wheel of the seasons. In more modern times the name for the festival of the Summer Solstice in Druidry is Alban Hefin, which means 'The Light of the Shore'. Druidry has a great respect and reverence for places that are 'in between' worlds. The seashore is one such place, where the three realms of Earth, Sea and Sky meet. There is believed to be great power in places. It is the time of greatest light when the Solar God is crowned by the Goddess as the King of Summer. It also brings some sadness because from now until Alban Arthan, the Sun's strength is declining and we have entered the waning year. For some this is the time of the Dark Twin, or Holly King, who is born and will take his crown at Alban Arthan. Of all the festivals Druidry is mostly associated with Alban Hefin. The wonderful white-robed figures filmed at the dawn rituals at Stonehenge are testament to this. However, to many Druids it is the turning seasons and the cycle of life, death and rebirth - reflected in the Wheel of the Year in its completeness - which are significant.
Russia and Poland In Poland, Wianki takes place annually in the city of Krakow. Since 1992, the event has taken place in the bend of the Wisła river. The festival was primarily a pagan religious event, although the tradition continued after Christianity was adopted by the country. Celebrations include fortune-telling, laying wreaths on water, jumping over bonfires or burning herbs. Long before Christianity came to Poland, the pagan tribes of the area celebrated the summer solstice with an event that came to be known as Ivan Kupala Day. Once Christianity took hold in Poland, the festival was absorbed and came to be known as St. John’s Night. Also celebrated in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, after a pre-Christian goddess of fertility and sexuality in Slavic mythology Australia Dr Hamacher added, the Watharung Aboriginal people of Victoria built a stone arrangement called Wurdi Youang (meaning big hill) that "marked the position of the setting sun at the solstices and equinoxes".
Iran Jashn-e Tiregân, or the feast of Tiregan, is an ancient festival which coincides with the midsummer. Celebrated by some Iranian Zoroastrians and Muslims in the Mazandaran and Arak provinces. Traditionally, adults and children tie rainbow-coloured bands on their wrists for ten days, before they are removed and thrown into streams – to celebrate children and new life.
Ancient Northern and Central European Tribes had many names for this celebration. Denmark, Sankt Hans Aften. France, Feast of Epona (White Mare Goddess). Finland, Juhannus. Wiccan Sabat, Litha. In many European pagan traditions, the solstice was called Litha, a day to balance the elements of fire and water, while . According to tradition, certain plants—St. John’s wort, roses, rue, verbena, and the like—acquired properties on the year’s shortest night that they wouldn’t have if picked at any other time. And on this evening, if you were very lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of faeries, who favored midsummer to reveal themselves to the common folk. (Rub fern seeds on your eyelids at midnight’s stroke if you want to spy one—but if you do, be sure to come equipped with rue, lest the pixies lead you astray). It’s only too clear why Shakespeare set his famous comedy during the magic of midsummer’s evening. Many Germanic, Slavic and Celtic pagans welcomed summer with bonfires, a tradition that is still enjoyed in Germany, Austria, Estonia and other countries. Some ancient tribes practiced a ritual in which couples would jump through the flames to predict how high that year’s crops would grow.In Sweden the Midsummer is such an important festivity that it has been suggested Midsummer's Eve be declared the National Day of Sweden.
In Christianity, the time of the solstice corresponded with and could be used to celebrate the conception of John the Baptist, which is estimated to have been around the end of June. which is why the festival has taken on names having to do with Saint John. Ancient Christians picked flowers they believed to contain healing powers during the time of the solstice, and they also lit the aforementioned bonfires because they believed the fires would ward off evil spirits who roamed the night as the sun reversed its course. John the Baptist father, Zacharias, was a priest serving in the Jerusalem temple during the course of Abijah (Luke:1:5). Historical calculations indicate this course of service corresponded to June 13-19 in that year. It was during this time of temple service that Zacharias learned that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a child (Luke:1:8-13). After he completed his service and traveled home, Elizabeth conceived. Wiki link to more information about the solstice