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Hands cupping the setting sun

Debunking the myths about the summer solstice


Throughout human history, the summer solstice has been celebrated in a multitude of ways. But what do we really know about the event and are we taking for granted many of the inaccuracies associated with the transition from spring to summer?

The summer solstice lasts one day

It’s not a day, not even a minute, but a mere nanosecond. Specifically, when the sun is directly over 23.27° latitude north, also known as the Northern Tropic or, more commonly, the Tropic of Cancer. In the UK, the summer solstice occurs on Wednesday, 21st June 2023 at 3:57pm, but the exact time and date change every year. For example, in 2024, this will be Thursday, 20th June at 9:50pm.

The Tropic of Cancer is in the Constellation of Cancer

Not presently, but it used to be thousands of years ago. The transition from Cancer to the Constellation of Gemini, which is where the Tropic of Cancer resides during the summer solstice, has occurred because the Earth's axis of rotation isn’t fixed: it wobbles from gravitational influences brought on by tidal forces that are themselves manipulated by the Sun and Moon. But don’t worry, these same forces will gradually shift the Tropic of Cancer back into the Constellation of Cancer in about 24,000 years.

The Sun is closer during the summer solstice than the winter solstice

It’s actually the other way around. Our seasons are not dictated by the proximity of the Sun to the Earth but by the Earth’s 23° tilt. This means that the southern hemisphere gets more sun than the northern hemisphere. And in the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice is the day when we have the most daylight.

Of course, more light equals more heat, but that doesn’t mean the summer solstice is the hottest day of the year. It takes a while for all that sunshine to get the mercury rising.

Midsummer celebrations are celebrated on Midsummer’s Day

Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream focuses on the celebrations on Midsummer eve, in line with pre-Christian traditions. Back then, the shortest night of the year was also a time of ritual, a moment to bless the Earth in anticipation of a good harvest and new life. These days, most Midsummer celebrations, such as those carried out at Stonehenge, revolve around the dawn of the day. However, folk in some countries start the fun the evening before.

The Danes, for example, spend the short night dining with friends and family before lighting bonfires and adding the finishing touches to their hay witch effigies which are subsequently burned.

In Estonia, Jaanipäe or leedopäe (Jaan’s Day) is celebrated on the night before Midsummer with lots of eating, drinking, dancing and the lighting of bonfires, which become the setting for fire jumps, during which brave souls leap over flames to ward off bad luck.

In Latvia, the evening starts with a traditional feast of bacon pie and beer before groups of revellers head out into the night in search of fern blossom.

Christians celebrate Midsummer on St John’s Day

From around the 4th century, St John’s Day is recognised every 24th June to honour the birth of John the Baptist. While Christians may have appropriated aspects of the traditional Midsummer celebrations that pre-date them, St Johns Day doesn’t always land on the astrological Midsummer day, so its connection to Midsummer is somewhat spurious.

The movie Midsommar is based on real events

The story is pure fiction, but plenty of the ingredients that went into the making of Midsommar are authentic and reflect the collective passion the Swedes have for the summer solstice, a day many regards as more significant than Christmas. These include, but are not limited to:

  • The Maypole isn’t just for May Day in Sweden, it is raised to celebrate Midsummer across the country too.
  • Garlands of flowers represent fertility and are used to decorate the maypoles and are traditionally worn in the hair of young women.
  • Pickled herring, crawfish, potato, strawberries, foraged berries, an assortment of marinated and smoked fish and meats are all typically eaten and washed down with beer and nubbe (vodka schnapps).

Druids built Stonehenge

In the UK you can’t mention the summer solstice without automatically thinking of the word famous Stonehenge and the mysterious druids who preside over the solstice ritual at dawn. And while they may be the spiritual guardians of the ancient stones, they didn’t build this awe-inspiring monument to the sun.

No one knows who built Stonehenge, though theories are abundant, including ancient invading armies, an assortment of aliens and even Merlin himself. We’re not even sure how old it is, though it’s generally agreed to be no older than 5,000 and no younger than 3,500.

Either way, this still rules out the original druids who were first mentioned 2,500 years ago and had nothing in common with the stone-worshipping druids that we know of today. These former druids had no interest in the Sun and preferred lurking in woodland. They disappeared without trace some 1,200 years ago. The druids we know today became synonymous with Stonehenge about 300 years ago via the work of two antiquaries, John Aubrey and William Stukeley.

Finally, however you do it, enjoy Midsummer. Because it’s the last of the long days before the dark, cold nights draw in once more.