Rise and shine

Observance of the longest day goes back a long way. Victoria Neumark heralds the solstice

Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do, But there ain't no cure for the summertime blues" - except perhaps the time-honoured, stay up all night midsummer revel immortalised by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Since time immemorial, human beings have celebrated Alben Heruin, All-couples Day, the feast of Epona, feast of St John the Baptist, Feill-Sheathain, Gathering Day, Johannistag, Litha, Sonnwend, Thing-Tide, Vestalia all over the globe (www.religious tolerance.com).

"Solstice" is derived from two Latin words: "sol" meaning sun, and "sistere," to cause to stand still. As the summer solstice approaches, the noonday sun rises higher and higher in the sky on each successive day. On the day of the solstice, it rises an imperceptible amount compared with the day before. In this sense, it "stands still".

The seasons of the year are caused by the Earth's tilting 23.5x on its axis. It also revolves around the Sun. For half the year, the southern hemisphere is more exposed to the Sun than the northern hemisphere. The summer solstice is the day on which daytime is longest and night-time is shortest. Astrologically, it is regarded as occurring in Cancer (the crab), an appropriate symbol since, after the Sun passes through this house, the process reverses (www.celestia.com).

The exact date of the solstice varies from year to year and in the northern hemisphere may occur between June 20 and 23. (Of course, in the southern hemisphere this happens in December.) This year it is June 21.

Officially the first day of summer, it falls between the planting and harvesting of the crops, and thus was the traditional month for weddings, as it remains today. The first (or only) full moon in June was called the Honey Moon, said to be the best time to harvest honey from beehives. Customs to mark the passing year are focused on fire. Druids in ancient Celtic communities celebrated Alban Heruin ("Light of the Shore") when the Oak King, god of the waxing year, was crowned. Immediately, he started to fall to his darker aspect, the Holly King, god of the waning year.

In ancient Gaul, the Feast of Epona honoured a mare goddess, personifying fertility, sovereignty and agriculture. Ancient Germanic, Slav and Celtic pagans danced around huge bonfires, while in Sweden, peasants danced around a decorated tree.

In ancient Rome, the festival of Vestalia allowed married women to enter the shrine of Vesta, goddess of the fireside. At other times of the year, only vestal virgins were permitted. After the conversion of Europe to Christianity, the feast day of St John the Baptist was fixed at midsummer; it's still a festival in much of Europe, with fireworks and dances.

Our remote ancestors were fascinated by the heavens. Hundreds of megalithic structures throughout Europe, the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East are oriented to the solstices and the equinoxes. Stonehenge, the UK's most famous megalithic monument, was built on Salisbury Plain between 3000 and 1500 bc. For much of the year, the sunrise can't even be seen from the centre of the monument. But on the longest day of the year, the rising Sun appears behind one of the main stones, creating the illusion that it balances on the stone.

The same phenomenon happens during the winter solstice, only in the opposite direction and at sunset (www.exn.ca).

Many medieval Catholic churches were also built as solar observatories. The church needed astronomy to predict the date of Easter. And so observatories were built into cathedrals and churches throughout Europe. A small hole in the roof would admit a beam of sunlight, to trace a path along the floor. The path, called the meridian line, was often marked by inlays and zodiacal motifs. The position at noon throughout the year, including the extremes of the solstices, was also carefully marked, very much like the meridian at Greenwich today (www.candlegrove.com).

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