What is the Summer Solstice?
The earth, like all planets, is in constant motion. It orbits the sun, making a complete revolution in about 365.25 days, the calculation we use to make our year. (The fraction of a day is also the origin of our leap year). While orbiting the sun it also rotates, a cycle that takes about 24 hours to complete. This rotation, causing differing parts of the earth to be exposed either to darkness or light creates our days and nights.
This does not answer our question, though: what is the summer solstice? The answer lies in the fact that these cycles of rotation and revolution are not done in perfect circular motions. As the earth orbits the sun it tilts. In the summer months the northern half of the earth is tilting towards the sun, in winter the southern half is tilting towards the sun. (Unless of course you live in the southern hemisphere and then it is the opposite).
Summer solstice is that time of year when the north pole is tilted at its most extreme towards the sun. For us here on earth, the sun takes a higher and longer path through the sky, giving us longer days. On the day of the summer solstice, the day when we are at this most extreme tilt, it is the longest day of the year.
June 21st is the date on which summer solstice generally falls in the Gregorian calendar. In North America, the summer solstice is also seen to be the first day of summer. This differs from our counterparts in the United Kingdom and elsewhere throughout the northern part of the world who see the solstice not as the beginning of summer but as midsummer.
Our word solstice comes from Latin. The word sol means sun, while sistere means to cause or stand still. To the ancient Romans the sun seemed to stand still on the date of the solstice. While prior to the date of the summer solstice the sun would rise noticeably higher each noonday, on the date of the summer solstice it would move almost not at all from the day before, nor would it move greatly the next day as it began its descent.
Celebrations of the Summer Solstice
Ancient peoples have always looked to the sky to understand the world about them and understood fully the cycle of solstices. All through the year days grow progressively longer until the summer solstice is reached. Then the days grow progressively shorter until the winter solstice (December 21st in the Gregorian Calendar), the shortest day of the year when the cycle begins anew.
The following of the cycles of the sun has long been used to trace the seasons, and for many peoples it also has religious significance. In Europe the month of June in which the solstice falls was seen as the best time to marry. The full moon that came at the time of the summer solstice was called the Honey Moon, the best time to harvest honey from the hives. This is the origin of our own ideas of the honeymoon.
In modern times the summer solstice is not often held with great significance. Unlike the winter solstice, which is celebrated with festivals such as Christmas, we have few major celebrations of the longest day of the year.
Modern groups such as Neo-Druids, Wiccans and other natural and Neo-Pagan traditions do, however, continue to celebrate the summer solstice. For them it is a time of joy and celebration of this pivotal moment in the annual solar cycle.
Perhaps the most famous annual celebration of the summer solstice comes at Stonehenge, the ancient circle of standing stones built by unknown peoples between 3000 BC and 1500 BC. Thousands gather every year at this mystical and mysterious monument to watch the sun rise on the longest day of the year.
So what is the summer solstice? To put it simply, it is June 21st, the longest day of the year. It is the day when the north pole is most tilted towards the sun, causing it to have the highest and longest path through the sky.
For many the summer solstice is also a time of celebration of the cycle of life and of the gifts that the sun and nature have to offer. This is best seen at Stonehenge every year, when thousands gather to welcome the sun and celebrate the summer solstice in their own unique way.