Ice cream trucks, the smell of chlorine, long evenings spent on the front porch, bare feet on the still-warm cement—such are the hallmarks of summer. The sweet-blooming scent of May wafts its way towards the still air of June and ever-increasing daylight hours. School’s out and the livin’s easy. Then there’s that one day… the day that doesn’t seem to end. That glorious day when you check the clock at 10pm and there’s still a glimmer of light on the horizon: the solstice. In modern circles, this is known as the first day of summer, but a more accurate description would be midsummer—after June 21, the daylight begins to wane.
Let’s get down to brass tacks here. The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol, meaning sun, and the verb sistere, which means to stand still. Yes, this is the day that the sun seems to linger so long at the top of the sky that it appears to stand still. But what does this really mean? Summer solstice is actually a single moment in time, when the axial tilt of the earth is physically closest to the sun. Bear in mind, this occurs in June in the Northern Hemisphere, and December in the Southern Hemisphere. This year, solstice in the north half takes place at precisely 5:16pm. Don’t blink—you might miss it.
This reaching of our Earth towards the sun is worth celebrating— and celebrate we have. Perhaps the most famous for celebrating seasonal markers were European Pagans. More important to Pagans of yore, however, were the quarter-marker seasonal holidays—the days that fell directly between equinox and solstice. Perhaps the most bawdy of these four mid-season celebrations was Beltane, on May 1. Beltane was centered around, well, shall we say—fertility. The return of crops and the fullness of nature were paid homage by the dance around the maypole—which still carries over today— then the infamous Beltane fires were lit and burned all night as each found a companion to celebrate the evening with. Summer Solstice bonfires also burned through the night in a gesture of sympathetic magic with the sun itself—to boost its light-giving power and insure a plentiful crop and harvest.
Modern-day Pagans and Solstice revelers still celebrate with an all-night party at Stonehenge, culminating with the sunrise at the direct center of the mysterious, ancient formation. Around the globe, throughout time immeasurable, we humans have erected great temples in honor of the sun. Many of these stone formations, like the ones in England and those built in Central America by the Mayans, may have been aligned with the sun for calendric purposes.
Goddess worship was a popular theme in Summer Solstice antiquity, probably in keeping with the hope for fertility, which extended to the natural world and the necessity for a successful harvest. In Gaul, the Horse Goddess Epona was honored with a feast in her name; and Romans partied for a week in the name of Vestia, goddess of hearth and home. In Christian Europe, many of the previous Pagan festivals were incorporated into celebrations in honor of St. John the Baptist; who, incidentally, is the namesake for the popular mood-enhancing medicinal herb, St. John’s Wort, which blooms on Summer Solstice. Ancient China honored the earth and the feminine, or yin energies, on Summer Solstice, while masculine or yang energies were paid homage on Winter Solstice.
Summer Solstice, according to William Shakespeare, is a comedy of errors wrapped in a web of enchantments and other world encounters. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two pairs of star-crossed young lovers fall prey to the mischief of the faerie realm. Magic potions lead to cases of mistaken identity and false love. Summer stars twinkle above as the mortal madness unfolds below. In the morning, each participant is so at odds with the strangeness of the prior evening’s events that they collectively agree it must have been a dream.
Shakespeare’s themes are emblematic of solstice lore in various times and places: the boundaries between realms thin and blur together as the Earth reaches up to kiss the heavens. Dreams reign supreme; faeries dance and play in plain sight, and lovers consummate the marriage of Heaven and Earth in the flesh. The splendor of the light causes drunken ecstasy, even as the shadow of shortening days lingers just beyond.
North American native tribes, especially in the Great Plains, but other places as well, honor the sun and Great Spirit in ceremonies called Sun Dances. These ceremonies vary in length and protocol depending on the tribe, but each person who dances must have a great question in their heart, and seek guidance from Great Spirit as they dance.
The city of Manhattan continues the spiritual theme this year with “Mind Over Madness Yoga,” www.timessquarenyc.org/about_us/events_solstice.html, an all day yoga session—smack in the middle of Times Square—to help folks cultivate a meditative mindset in the midst of one of the world’s most chaotic and frenetic places.
Can’t afford to justify that cross-country plane ticket for a yoga class? There’s plenty of proper celebrating to be had right here at home. The city of Alameda hosts its 3rd annual “Long Day Short Film Festival,” at 7pm on June 21, at The Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge. Details can be found at www.ldsf.tumblr.com. Or, take your party out to sea with the San Francisco Summer SAILstice Celebration, taking place on Treasure Island Sunday, June 18th. This event is free and there will be food, drink and vendors. Boat in, or drive and hop on a free boat ride. Check out www.summersailstice.com for details. For a good, old-fashioned Pagan ritual, there’s a bonfire at Ocean Beach starting at 7pm on the 21st. For details and directions, visit www.reclaiming.org/rituals.
Whether you desire reverent ritual, all out bacchanalia, or just a nice barbeque and bonfire; friends and loved ones, good food, and a warm jacket are all key ingredients for your Bay Area Solstice celebration. And— special thanks to the sun—we wouldn’t be here without you!