The Summer solstice: Weird and wonderful traditions to welcome the summer

Dance around the maypole, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger
Dance around the maypole, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (16th century) | Wikimedia | Public Domain

While celebrations of the summer equinox and the summer solstice can be traced back to ancient cultures and prehistory, it is still one of the most widely celebrated days of the year across the globe. From the raucous White Night festivals in northern Russia to the pastoral maypoles and bonfires of Europe: the celebration of the sun and its provision of life and warmth links cultures throughout time and distance. Here are some weird, wild, and wonderful historic traditions to welcome the summer.

Kronia, ancient Greece

Heralding the start of a month-long countdown to the Olympics, Kronia was the mid-summer celebration of the Greek god Kronos: King of the Titans, and god of the consuming power of time.

Kronia fell around the end of July to the start of August and was a day of feasting, gaming, and merriment in celebration. Mimicking the golden age of ancient Greece (when Kronos still ruled Olympia) it aimed to replicate a time when Grecians didn’t have to toil and labour for a living. Kronia was a day where hierarchy and class anonymity was shunned. Slaves and indentured servants were considered free for the day, and all classes ate, drank, gamed, and made merry as equals.

Vestalia, Ancient Rome

Vestalia was a religious festival observed each summer by the Romans to celebrate Vesta - the goddess of the hearth and life.

The festival was started when the sanctum of the temple of Vesta, which was usually curtained and closed to public viewing for the rest of the year, was opened. Dishevelled women would visit the temple barefoot and offer sacrifices in exchange for blessing for as long as the curtain remained open. Donkeys were adorned with garlands and necklaces of flowers and bread in memory of the time where the braying of a donkey startled Priapus as he attempted to assault Vesta. On the final day of the festival, the sanctum was once again curtained from public view, and the filth of the temple was swept away.

Zhong Yuan/Hungry Ghost Festival, China

The Zhong Yuan or Hungry Ghost Festival of China is an ancient Chinese day of ancestor worship and celebration. The belief is that it is the one day of the year where the gates of hell are opened, and the ghosts of those passed would freely wander the mortal realm.

The ancestors who had surviving family members would visit, while those without would wander the world aimlessly. The living would burn offerings of paper money to appease their ancestors, and light lotus candles to help the ghosts find their path home.

Puck Fair, Ireland

The Puck Fair is one of the oldest Irish festivals and is celebrated annually. The fair itself is thought to be ancient, but records of it date back to the 1600s when King James I issued a charter to the fair and granting it legal status.

Due to its ancient origins, there are several rumours as to the origin of the fair. One of the preferred tales told is that the fair celebrates a goat that, on breaking away from its herd in fear, stumbled into the town and alerted the inhabitants to the invasion of Oliver Cromwell’s army - allowing them time to prepare. The fair itself is much older, however, and scholars believe that it most likely stems from pagan celebrations of the harvest, with the goat being a pagan symbol of fertility.

La Tomatina, Spain

Not quite ancient history, La Tomatina can be dated back to 1945. Held each year in the town of Buñol, La Tomatina is an annual tradition held on the last Wednesday of August that sees hundreds of participants gather to take part in a pre-arranged tomato fight.

Its origin stems from when a participant of the Giants and Big Heads parade lost his head - quite literally. His big papier-mache head, worn as part of the festivities fell off and, in a blind rage, he began hitting everything in sight. The other participants fought back, reaching to a nearby fruit and vegetable stand for ammunition. What proceeded was a vegetable brawl that only ended once the local authorities got involved. The following year a group of friends attending the Giants and Big Heads parade decided to re-enact the events of the years previously and attended with their own tomatoes. With a pre-planned quarrel, the boys had created history.

The festival was banned in the 1950s, however, there was so much protest that it was quickly reintroduced. When cancelled a second time later the same decade, the locals rather sarcastically protested by holding a funeral for a giant tomato. Residents carried the tomato in a coffin and were accompanied by a band playing funeral marches.

The protest was successful, and La Tomatina is still celebrated today with the event now being ticketed to maintain some semblance of order. In 2015 it was estimated that just under 145,000 kg of tomatoes were thrown. At the end of the fight, which usually lasts around one hour, the local fire engines will wash down the town square to clean away the carnage. The acetic acid in the tomatoes means that the town ends up cleaner than it was before the festival began.

Written by:

Jo Rowan