Solstice / Midsummer: Bonfires, fertility rituals and the Heel Stone

FRIDAY, JUNE 21: Summer has officially arrived!

From ancient cultures steeped in fertility rituals to the general merriment surrounding Midsummer today, people have been in awe of the summer solstice for millennia. Thousands will gather at Stonehenge, Wiccans and Pagans celebrate Litha and age-old traditions are relived in several countries, as participants enjoy the “longest” day of the year. In 2013, summer solstice will occur at 5:04 Universal Time.

Residents of the northern hemisphere bask in daylight today, as the sun reaches its most northerly point in the Tropic of Cancer. From the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), summer solstice occurs in a single instant. (Wikipedia has details.) Ancient cultures looked to celestial events like solstice to measure time and seasons.


The Stonehenge monument—built between 3,000 and 2,000 BCE—is a prime example of ancient measurement. Even today, Stonehenge visitors can witness the renowned summer solstice event: the sun rising above the Heel Stone. (EarthSky has photos.)


In Scandinavian countries, Midsummer and Midsummer’s Eve are celebrated with more pomp than any other holiday, apart from Christmas. In Belarus, girls and boys bathe in lakes with romantic hopes; in Poland, unmarried women float floral wreaths down rivers to waiting bachelors; also in Poland, both sexes leap over bonfires for luck in their marriage. (Wikipedia has more.) Thoughts of fertility reign strong, as Swedish ethnologist Jan-Ojvind Swahn reports that many Swedish children are born nine months after Midsummer. (CNN has a provocative article.) Although North American traditions aren’t as prevalent as their European counterparts, communities with large Swedish and Finnish populations hold parades, pageants and labyrinth walks, all of which attract thousands.


Modern Pagans and Wiccans keep the ritual of bonfires on Midsummer Eve, often with fire festivals and grand gatherings. (Learn more at Devotees believe that the Sun God, seated on a greenwood throne and surrounded by foliage, has reached his greatest strength at Litha. Fresh garden vegetables and fruits are bountiful at the Pagan table.

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