Looking ahead to June 21, we think “Oh, that’s our longest day of the year, the summer solstice.”
But why has that been such an important date through the ages?
After all, the sun is in the sky only a little bit longer than the days before, although if you noted carefully – through very dark glasses – you would see that it actually seems to stand still briefly. Hence summer solstice: sol for sun; and stice, a derivation of the Latin word sistere – to stand still.
The first official day of summer has been celebrated almost forever. The Druids called it All Couples Day, when the wedding of heaven and earth took place. Ever wondered why June has traditionally been a favoured month for weddings?
At Stonehenge in early Britain three to five millenia ago, thousands gathered to welcome the sunrise and couples would drink from newly fermented honey, or mead. Bet most of you didn’t know that’s where our word honey moon comes from. Only now, of course, they’re more likely to celebrate with a trip away and mai tais or margeritas.
Pagan summer solstice rites included wearing garlands of flowers and herbs, as protection against evil spirits abroad at the time. Well, brides still carry flowers, though we hope no evil spirits are in the wedding crowd.
An interesting side-bar to this is that one of the herbs, or flowers, the ancients used was St. John’s Wort which, to this day, is used by some as a non-medical alternative to combat depression. So while the ancients used it to chase away evil spirits, we may use it to lift our own.
As a further aid to their future well-being, couples in those times might jump over bonfire flames: their crops would grow as high as they could jump.
Ancient Celts marked the summer solstice with a light festival, and again, the long days were to produce good harvests later.
For the Chinese, the earth and feminine, or yin, forces were honored at this time, as opposed to the heavens and masculine or yang forces at the winter solstice.
The ancient Romans worshipped in particular the goddess of the hearth in June.
Other cultures were more concerned with the physical characteristics of this solar system phenomenon. The Essenes, for instance, a Jewish sect that thrived in the first century CE (AD), worshipped the sun particularly on the solstice day when its rays shone on a certain axis.
And many native Americans built structures devoted to showing the sun’s ray in a particular spot on the solstice, or equinox.
Christianity too has its link with the summer solstice, with the celebration of St. John the Baptist’s Day on June 24th. As people converted to Christianity 2,000 years ago and later, they simply adapted earlier pagan festivals to feast days for certain saints. In this case, early French colonists of future Canada brought with them St. Jean Baptiste Day, now a public holiday in Quebec. If we were visiting there we would see, in addition to the church celebration of the saint, rock concerts, sports events, parades, fireworks – and in the neighborhoods, BBQs, picnics and all the other things people do to have fun together in the summertime.
So when you look up at the midsummer sun in the heavens on June 21, think of all the millenia it has shone down on human beings celebrating the time of weddings, bountiful crops in the offing – and a good time being had by all.
Carla Reed, Maple Ridge Historical Society.