Summer and Winter Solstices
The Longest Day of the Year
The Longest Day of the Year
Many ancient civilizations acknowledged the longest day of year as an important time. The summer solstice has many traditions associated with it. The summer solstice does not fall on the same day each year, but is always around June 20 to June 22 in the northern hemisphere and is called the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, where it is the shortest day of the year.
We have two solstices a year. One in the summer and one in the winter. The solstices happen because the north and south axis of the Earth tilt and causes a different amount of sunlight hits the earth. This time of year marks the beginning of summer and is always the longest day of the year. The tilt of the axis is why we have four seasons. When the axis tilts towards the sun, between June and September, the summer season begins in the northern hemisphere, and winter in the southern hemisphere. Winter begins when the axis points away from the sun during the months of December to March and each hemisphere switches seasons.
Read about the Summer Solstice
When Summer Begins
When the solstice happens in June, there are equal hours of daylight and darkness in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, they experience the winter solstice and it is the shortest day of the year. We get our seasons from the tilt of the Earth’s axis. In spring and autumn, the earth’s axis is pointing sideways. As a result of the Earth’s tilt, the path of the sun rises across the sky. The tilt puts us further away from the sun. The sun is at its highest point in the sky at noon on the day of the summer solstice. That is when the sun is most directly overhead for most of the northern hemisphere. Alaska, for example the sun is at a lower angle.
Even though summer begins on the day of the summer solstice, the warmth from the sun takes several weeks to feel. The oceans and atmosphere of the Earth absorb the sun’s rays and and it takes several weeks to release the heat, and that is why the hottest days of summer occur usually in July and August.
Ancient Cultures and the Summer Solstice
Summer Soltice is an Important Date
Many cultures celebrate and recognize the summer solstice.
The Ancient Egyptians held the summer solstice as an important day. It was marked by the beginning of the Nile River’s flooding season. They believed the goddess Isis shed her tears for her departed husband Osiris, and this caused the river to rises and overflow into the Nile Valley. Celebrations were held to honor the gods and the fertility and abundance they received from the land. The Pyramids were designed so that when the summer solstice occurs, the sun when looked at from the Sphinx, sits exactly between the two Pyramids.
The Incas of Peru celebrated the winter solstice with food offerings and sacrifices of animals and possibly people in their festival called inti Raymi.
The Mayans also designed their structures to align with the sun during the solstices. Recently archaeologists found the remains of an astronomical observatory in a Mayan city in Guatemala. It is believed that the residents of the city gathered at this observatory to watch in what they thought was their king commanding the sun. Many of the Mayan ruins that are still standing today show evidence of being built for the purpose of observing the heavens. Chichen Itza (pronounced Chit in etza) is one such structure in Merida, Mexico. Chichen Itza was recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, after a worldwide voting via the internet.
Stonehenge and the Summer Solstice
Ancient Traditions and the Summer Solstice
Around the world, famous buildings still stand from thousands of years ago as a tribute to the winter and summers solstices. Stonehenge in the United Kingdom is a mysterious arrangement of stones that stand in circle where people of the time most probably gathered to observe the sun and space.
The summer solstice was not only a day to observe the sun, but was also essential to their agriculture and growing season. Without the use of weather reports and calendars, ancient people relied on the knowledge of the seasons to get ready for the upcoming season. There was little science to explain the alignments of our solar system, so mysticism, superstitions, and supernatural attributes were connected with the changes of the season.
According to the ancient Greeks, the summer solstice was the first day of the year. There were many festivals to celebrate their god of agriculture, Cronus. Even the slaves participated in these celebrations. The summer solstice also occurred one month before the Olympic games would begin.
The ancient Romans also celebrated in a festival called Vestalia. On this occasion the Romans would pay tribute to the goddess of the hearth, Vesta. They would make ritualistic sacrifices and this was the only time of the year that married women could enter the sacred temple of virgins so that they too could bring offerings to Vesta.
The ancient Chinese also held ceremonies to honor the Earth, femininity, and the force yin on the occasion of the summer solstice. The winter solstice honored masculinity, and yang which complement the forces of the summer solstice.
The ancient tribal customs of Northern and Central Europe held bonfires and some would hold rituals that couples would jump through flames to predict how high their crops would grow that year.
The Vikings would hold meetings to discuss disputes , and visit wells that they believed had healing powers. Today, Iceland still holds celebrations around the summer solstice
Native American Indians wore symbolic colors as they performed ceremonial sun dances. Some of the summer solstice traditions are still practiced today. In Wyoming, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel is believed to have been designed by the Plains Indians to align with the solstice sunrise and sunset. It is an arrangement of stones build hundreds of years ago where this tribe would hold their annual sun dance.
The Days are Getting Longer
Today, society spends much of its time indoors and we don’t pay much attention to the daily rise and setting of the sun, let alone the summer and winter solstice.
At best, we take note that the days are getting longer or shorter in the summer and winter. But nature is a marvel, and perhaps it would do us all a bit of good to do something different in the course of our overly busy and hectic schedules that pays some homage to nature.