Stonehenge
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17 Things You Didn't Know About the Summer Solstice

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Stonehenge
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Seasonal Change

So you’ve heard of the summer solstice but you’re still not sure what it’s about? Read on for some facts and trivia about how the arrival of summer is — and has long been — celebrated in history, mythology, pop culture, and more. Don’t forget your sunscreen.

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The Science (and Latin) Behind the Solstice
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The Science (and Latin) Behind the Solstice

The word solstice is based on the Latin words “sol” (sun) and “stitium” (still or stopped). The summer solstice is an astronomy-based observance, marking the time when the sun travels the longest path through the sky. That journey gives the day the most daylight of the year and has been the focus of celebrations by cultures around the globe — even though that means they aren’t all celebrating on the same day.

Calendars
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It Occurs at Different Times of the Year Around the Globe

In the Northern Hemisphere, the longest day (or summer solstice) is marked on June 20 or 21 (this year it will be at 5:44 p.m. EST June 20) – and in the Southern Hemisphere, it occurs December 21 or 22. The solstice also marks the beginning of the summer season, which continues until the autumn equinox which (no surprise) marks the arrival of fall.

Wheat
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It Helped to Guide Ancient Farmers

Humans may have observed the summer solstice as early as the Stone Age. The solstice gave humans a guide as to when to plant and harvest crops, and they’ve celebrated it with everything from feasts to songs around the world.

Saturnalia by Antoine Callet
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Solstice Celebrations Were Once Wild Parties

The ancient Greeks held an annual summer festival, Kronia, to celebrate Cronus, the god of agriculture. This mega-party relaxed the social rules with slaves permitted to dine with their masters, which led to a chaotic celebration during which not much got done. The ancient Romans marked the arrival of the summer solstice with Vestalia, honoring the goddess of the hearth.

An artist's impression of ancient Olympia
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It’s Closely Tied to the Original Olympics Games

In ancient Greece, the summer solstice was considered both the start of the New Year and the one-month countdown to the Olympic Games.

"Darstellung des Hexensabbats" from the Wickiana, circa 1570.
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It’s Gone By Many Names Over the Years

The summer solstice has gone by different names in different cultures throughout history. It’s known as Midsummer in northern Europe, Litha by Wiccans, and some Christian churches use the solstice to commemorate the birth of John the Baptist, calling it St. John’s Day.

Bonfire in Freiburg im Breisgau
Bonfire in Freiburg im Breisgau by Ralf Johann (CC BY-SA)

Huge Bonfires Were Once Part of the Celebration

Bonfires became associated with the summer solstice. Before Christianity, pagans in parts of Europe observed Midsummer with bonfires. Bonfires were thought to give the sun’s energy a bump up for the rest of the growing season, resulting in a hearty fall harvest.

Where to Celebrate the Solstice
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You Can Celebrate the Solstice at Stonehenge This Year — Virtually

Stonehenge, the storied Wiltshire monument in the British countryside, was perhaps itself built to honor the solstice. It’s a traditional summer solstice gathering spot where revelers welcome the longest day of the year starting at sunrise in what’s believed to be one of the world’s largest solstice celebrations. With coronavirus guidelines in mind, this year’s event is going virtual. “We hope that our live stream offers an alternative opportunity for people near and far to connect with this spiritual place at such a special time of year and we look forward to welcoming everyone back next year,” Stonehenge director Nichola Tasker said.

Related: 30 Incredible Photos of Ancient Ruins Across North America

Solstice Midsummer
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It’s Almost as Popular as Christmas in Scandinavia

The summer solstice celebration in Scandinavia is a national holiday, second only to Christmas in popularity. As befits a big holiday, food plays an important role, with potatoes, herring or smoked fish, fresh fruit, and maybe schnapps or beer (for adults) making up a traditional meal. In Sweden, where the solstice festival is called Midsommar, houses are decorated with floral wreaths.

Cree Indian sun dancers, probably Montana, c. 1893.
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Native Americans Solstice Traditions Were Once Outlawed

In North America, some tribes once held ritual dances to honor the sun, with the Sioux standing out for the tribe’s Sun Dance. Usually held during the June solstice, it involved cutting a tree and raising it to represent the connection between heaven and earth, then setting up teepees around it to represent the cosmos. Before the dance, participants abstained from food and drink and decorated their bodies with red (representing the sunset), blue (sky), yellow (lightning), white (light) and black (night) paint. Today, sun dances are performed by a number of tribes, often in public as a way to educate non-natives about the culture.

Fremont Solstice Parade Front of Parade
Fremont Solstice Parade Front of Parade by Joe Mabel (CC BY-SA)

You Can Join a (Virtual) Solstice Parade in Seattle

The Fremont Solstice Parade has been a Seattle tradition since 1989. But, like Stonehenge’s 2020 observance, this year’s arts-driven celebration in Seattle is going virtual. It’s still expected to draw some 60 community-based ensembles that will submit their art, with participation from drag queens, giant puppets, stilt walkers, floats, dancers, musicians, and more. People can tune in at 1:00 p.m. PT on June 20 via the Fremont Arts Council’s social media accounts to take part in the fun.

Catch a Baseball Game
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It Provides Lighting for a Baseball Game (Most Years)

Solstice celebrations are also quite the thing in Fairbanks, Alaska, which gets 24-hour daylight April 22 to August 20. Again, the current climate has impacted this year’s lineup. The Midnight Sun Baseball Game, featuring the Alaska Goldpanners, will not be held this year. Stay tuned for 2021.

Saving at the Movies
Saving at the Movies by Pat O'Malley (CC BY-ND)

It’s Played a Starring Role in Movies

The words summer solstice – sometimes used literally, other times figuratively — have been used in cinematic efforts over the years. For example, there’s the 1981 Henry Fonda and Myrna Loy made-for-TV romantic drama “Summer Solstice,” and more recently 2015’s movie of the same name, an exploration of 1943 Poland under German occupation.

Ying and Yang
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Yin and Yang: Some Believe the Solstice Balances Energy

In Eastern philosophies, yin and yang (the two energies of earth) reference shifting energies and balance. When it comes to the solstice, we move from the balance of yin and yang that can be found in the spring, while the summer is considered a season of yang, which means fiery energy is more abundant. What does that mean? Long, hot days, with plants bearing fruit and humans becoming more social and energetic. Sounds about right.

Healing
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Many Consider It a Time for Healing

The solstice is said to be a time for healing. With light being more available to us, we are supposedly more conscious and present, and, just as plants start springing to life with the warmer weather, we can also grow and heal. Whether you believe that, however, is up to you.

View of Earth from Moon
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It’s Just an Earth Thing

Earth, as we well know, has four seasons within a year, each lasting some 90 days. However, it’s not the same throughout the solar system, as most other planets wait much longer for seasonal changes. A season on Saturn, for example, lasts seven years while it can be some 20 years on Uranus or even more than 40 years on Neptune. (Seasons on Venus, though, are just 55 to 58 days).