Celebrating the Solstice and Endless Summer


As a year ends, we often look back on what we have experienced. That review may bring to mind what we have accomplished and good memories. It may include regrets, things undone, and things we wish we could forget.

In this month’s writing prompt at my Poets Online e-zine, I noted an old poem (1784), “New Year’s Verses” by Philip Freneau, in which he blesses the calendar maker who came up with the idea of a year.

Blest be the man who early prov’d
And first contriv’d to make it clear
That Time upon a dial mov’d,
And trac’d that circle call’d a year;

Do you bless or curse the coming of winter?

December is filled with holidays that mark the Winter Solstice and the end of the year. That solstice is the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the shortest day of the year. But you only have to move south of the equator for it to be the start of spring. and winter won’t arrive there until June.

In my brief youthful surfer days, the film The Endless Summer was a cult classic documentary. In 1966, I had that day-glo poster on the wall at the foot of my bed and stared at it every day. The surfers in the film were in search of the “perfect wave” but what interested me more is that their travels showed that you could follow summer around the globe. It could always be summer if you moved from hemisphere to hemisphere.

That was a few years after I had figured out the chords to The Beatles’ “I’ll Follow the Sun” which in my mind was saying the same thing. I didn’t keep surfing and never really progressed very far on the guitar and never did get to follow the Sun. I suppose it became more of a metaphor than a reality. Follow your bliss. Head for the positive.

Though some of us in the North might be sad to see summer and autumn ending and winter starting since ancient times astronomical winter and the solstice was a joyous celebration. After the solstice, the days get longer building daylight hours until the vernal equinox and the start of spring.

Societies globally have held festivals and ceremonies marking winter solstice which was seen as the day of the Sun’s rebirth. Symbolically, fire or light is often a component. Other symbols include things representing life and death, the rising Sun, and the Moon.

A good example is Yule which was a celebration of the ancient Norsemen of Scandinavia and it ran from the solstice through January. You might know about Large Yule logs which were set on fire at one end.  More modern and tamer versions have taper candles inserted into a smaller log and decorated with evergreen clippings, holly, mistletoe, or ivy.

log burning

Bonfires also figure into many ceremonies in order to encourage the sun’s return. There is a large fire traditionally burning on Mount Fuji each year.

Hanukkah is another happy celebration that features light via the fire of candles or oil lamps.

In the Hopi tradition of Soyal, the Sun Chief takes on the role of announcing the setting of the sun, after which an all-night ceremony begins with the kindling of fires and dancing.

The Winter Solstice arrives on the 21st mid-afternoon here in Paradelle.  If that isn’t appealing, head south and enjoy summer’s arrival.

The winter solstice (also called the hiemal solstice or hibernal solstice) occurs when either of Earth’s poles reaches its maximum tilt away from the Sun. This happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere. For that hemisphere, the winter solstice is the day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year, when the Sun is at its lowest daily maximum elevation in the sky. If you are at the North Pole on the 21st, you’ll experience continuous darkness or twilight.

I don’t love winter, but I have lived with it all my life. The four seasons are strong reminders of cycles – birth, maturity, aging, death, rebirth. There is something about losing summer that makes its return all the more miraculous to me.

It’s the Solstice and Winter For Some

The June solstice may be the the official jump into summer in the Northern Hemisphere, but today kicks off winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Isn’t that amazing?

Summer slipped in at 10:07 AM UTC which is 6:07 AM in Paradelle (EDT) and I slept through it. It was near sunrise in the Americas, but noon in Africa, and sunset in Japan and Indonesia.

Here there was an early dawn and longer days are ahead with today being the longest day of the year. Sunset will be late. Nights will be short.

I have never been south of the equator. It would be quite strange to go south today and find winter upon me.

It would also be fun to be at Stonehenge where they celebrate the summer solstice. They follow the ancients who knew that the sun’s path across the sky, the length of daylight, and the location of the sunrise and sunset all shifted in a regular way throughout the year.

If I could be at the Sphinx on the summer solstice, I could look at the two pyramids and see the Sun set exactly between them.

This astronomical event is caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and its motion in orbit around the sun. Despite picture we saw and drew as kids, the Earth doesn’t orbit upright, but is tilted on its axis by about 23 degrees.

Right now our planet is positioned so that the North Pole is leaning most toward the sun.

Did you know that no official world body has designated an official first day of any season?
Summer began on June 1 in meteorology. At the New Jersey shore, summer starts with Memorial Day weekend. As a kid, summer started on the last day of school.

And if a kid (or adult) asks you why if this is the longest day, why is it much hotter in late July and August? Tell them it is the lag of the seasons. That is not that lazy feeling we get on a hot, summer day. The planet takes time to warm up after winter. There is still ice and snow in places in June. And the oceans take some time to warm as anyone who has already been to the beach in New Jersey knows.
already in the still blanket the ground in some places. The sun has to melt the ice – and warm the oceans – and then we feel the most sweltering summer heat. The melting runoff from glaciers will peak in July.

It’s Summer and It’s Midsummer (and it’s winter too)

This solstice brings in summer to the Northern Hemisphere and this year it just moved into place (June 21 at 6:51 A.M. EDT).

The timing of the solstice depends on when the Sun reaches its farthest point north of the equator.

The word solstice is from the Latin solstitium, from sol (sun) and stitium (to stop) from the ancient idea that the Sun appears to stop at this time (and again at the winter solstice).

In temperate regions, we notice that the Sun is higher in the sky throughout the day, and its rays strike Earth at a more direct angle, causing the warming that we call we summer. It is the day with the most hours of sunlight during the whole year.

The word SUMMER meaning the “hot season of the year” comes from the Old English sumor  from Proto-Germanic sumur and from many earlier cognates (from Old Saxon, Old Norse, Old High German sumar, Old Frisian sumur, Middle Dutch somer, Dutch zomer)

But why is this first day of summer also known as midsummer’s day (as in the play by Shakespeare, A  Midsummer Night’s Dream)?

The word midsummer also comes to us from Old English. You need to recognize that the old Anglo-Saxon calendar (and the old Icelandic calendar) had only two seasons, summer and winter which divided the year in halves.

Using these calendars, “Midsummer’s Day” would have fallen near the middle of summer in June. It probably wasn’t marked at an exact mid-point. Summer started in mid-April in the old Icelandic calendar. In the old Anglo-Saxon calendar, it fell on the full moon.

Summer and winter are words which have roots in Proto-Germanic. The terms fall and spring were not used to describe seasons until Middle English. The word “autumn” comes from Latin.

In the southern hemisphere, today marks the start of winter.

On this solstice, if you are on the Arctic Circle (latitude 66.56° north), you will see the Sun just on the horizon during midnight, and all places north of it will see the Sun above horizon for 24 hours. That is the midnight sun or midsummer-night sun or polar day.

On the other hand, places on the southern Antarctic Circle (latitude 66.56° south) will see the Sun just on the horizon during midday, and all places south of it will not see the Sun above horizon at any time of the day. That is the polar night.


Sol Sistere – Our Winter Solstice


We may associate the Winter Solstice with the onset of hard winter, but since it is literally the point at which the Sun turns from its fall into darkness back into gaining light, it was, and is, celebrated around the world as a good and positive time.

It was the time when Virgin mothers give birth to sacred sons: Rhiannon to Pryderi: Isis to Horus; Demeter to Persephone; Jesus to Mary. The birth of Horus was celebrated about December 23, shortly after Winter Solstice.

In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses met on the two solstices.

The word solstice derives from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) but the Sun won’t stand still today. There is an instant when the Sun’s position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observer’s hemisphere, and that is the actual solstice. But most people mark the solstices as a day, not a moment.

The declination of the Sun on our northern winter solstice is known as the Tropic of Capricorn.

The seasonal significance of this winter solstice is with the gradually lengthening days and shortening nights which occurs with today. The winter solstice occurs some time between December 21 and December 22 each year in the northern hemisphere (it depends on the shift of the calendar) and between June 20 and June 21 in the southern hemisphere.

You can call this the shortest day or the longest night of the year. Today is one of the shortest days of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and it is the day when there is no sunlight at the North Pole.

The Holly King

The Holly King frequently appears as a woodsy version of Santa Claus with a red outfit and sprigs of holly in his tangled hair. He was depicted as driving a team of eight stags.

In many Celtic-based traditions of neopaganism, there is the enduring legend of the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King. The Oak King is portrayed as a fertility god, and occasionally appears as the Green Man or other lord of the forest.

These two mighty rulers fight for supremacy as the Wheel of the Year turns each season. The tradition is that at the  Yule/ Winter Solstice, the Oak King kills the Holly King, and then reigns until Litha (or Midsummer).

I would have guessed that the Holly King rules the winter but when Litha arrives, the Holly King returns to do battle with the old king and then defeats him and rules until Yule.

Solstices are one of the oldest known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years. Though many people associate them with harvests and agrarian celebrations, that dating puts it even before humans were farming on a large scale.

The Druids would be chanting as the solstice dawn approached at Stonehenge and the event may have had meaning even in neolithic times. Astronomical events triggered the mating of animals, the sowing of crops and how people monitored their winter reserves between harvests.

The remains of sites such as Stonehenge in Britain and New Grange in Ireland show that the primary axes of both of these monuments are aligned on a sight-line. New Grange points to the winter solstice sunrise, and the winter solstice sunset is aligned at Stonehenge.

Because the worst times, the famine months, came from January to April, the solstice was a kind of celebration before the hard winter began. Cattle were slaughtered, not merely to celebrate, but because they might not be able to be fed during the winter. Fresh meat plus the wine and beer made during the year was fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

If you are in a mood to celebrate tonight, put out some evergreens, bright illumination, a big fire, some feasting foods, invite the family and loved ones and dance and sing. Sounds a lot like a our modern holiday season parties.

Not to throw a scientific wet towel on the party, but just to let you know that as the Earth travels around the Sun in its orbit, the north-south position of the Sun changes over the course of the year. That is because of the changing orientation of the Earth’s tilted rotation axes with respect to the Sun. When we arrive at the points of maximum tilt (marked at the equator), we get the summer and winter solstice.

Correspondingly, the points of zero tilt are our vernal/spring and autumnal equinoxes.

Summer Arrives in the Northern Hemisphere

Stonehenge summer solstice Sun alignment

How was your longest day (in terms of daylight) of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere?

The Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) bring us to a solstice twice each year when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is most inclined toward or away from the Sun.

In England, the period around this solstice is known as midsummer and Midsummer’s Day is 24 June.

If we were at the South Pole, there would be no sunlight today.

Today, the sun can be seen straight overhead along the Tropic of Cancer and the North Pole reaches its maximum annual tilt toward the sun. Areas within the Arctic Circle see the sun circle through the sky for 24 hours.

The Ancients marked today in their astronomical observations. About 20,000 people gathered at Stonehenge even though cloud cover Friday morning prevented bright sunshine at dawn even though the exact purpose of those standing stones remains unclear. Still, people have been gathering there on Salisbury Plain since it was built in three phases between 3000 B.C. and 1600 B.C.

More 2013 was the celebration in New York City’s Times Square which was closed was closed for the “Mind over Madness” event today that included free yoga classes all day. No count on the number of Druids who attended.

And if you are reading this in the southern hemisphere, welcome to winter!