This is the third full weekend in June, and once again the summer solstice is upon us. The seasonal cycles of nature and time continues to both repeat and to move on, taking us into another season and another series of nature’s effects. Although you would be hard pressed to recognize it from all of the rain we have been having, this solstice is all about light and sun. It is the exact opposite of the Winter Solstice, which celebrates the shortest day of the year in terms of sunlight and the longest night of the year. This official start of summer features the longest day of the year in terms of sunlight, and the shortest night. It is a day about being outside a lot, the obvious blessings of nature, continued renewal, fertility, and the promise of a good harvest. It is about the sun as a symbol of hope, growth, promise, and new beginnings.
Celestial occurrences have always been big events in most cultures and civilizations throughout human history. As we humans are dependent on what nature presents us with, an awareness of the regular patterns of the world around, above, and beneath us are essential to our existence. Even before the invention of writing we had ways of keeping track of these events, for they were very important. Some peoples would keep a calendar of sorts between these important events: laying out rocks per day, for example, or noting the rise/ reduction in water depth in a river or changes in the lunar cycle up above. Many Greek cities used the summer solstice as the very base of their calendar; the summer solstice always marked the first day of the year. Watching the growth of flowers or crops and learning to link these developments to larger goings-on in the natural world was another way some cultures kept track of what we now call “time.” And some ancients even spent years building elaborate stone creations to track the movements of some of those objects in the sky. Stonehenge is probably the most well-known of such structures, but Minoan and Mayan temples were also built to reflect astronomical happenings. In North America Plains Native Americans built stone “medicine wheels” throughout southern Canada and Wyoming that are believed to serve the same purpose. How and what we build often reflects what we deeply believe, and the time and effort put into constructing these types of structures reflects the importance of the knowledge of the celestial to early humans. It was vital information.
Ancient humans also met important celestial happenings with rituals: patterned, repeated activities to announce, celebrate, and/or partake in something spiritually symbolic and significant. Bonfires, dancing and music were part of summer solstice celebrations in many Northern European cultures at this time as they celebrated the longer periods of light. Roman celebrations featured the sacrifice of a newborn calf freshly removed from its mother’s womb to symbolize new beginnings. The ancient Chinese featured ritual dances, prayers and songs that celebrated the yin-the feminine in the world and fertility. Many Plains Native Americans celebrated with Sun Dances danced around sacred trees. And as one of the promises of the summer solstice is a good harvest, flower wreathes and crowns also played a part in the rituals of many cultures. Tending the crop in hopes of a good fall harvest is directly linked to the solstice.
In today’s modern Judaeo-Christian world the summer solstice is not considered a major cause for religious celebration. We think of BBQ’s, music, sporting events and the like, devoid of religious significance, when we think of summer rituals and celebrations. In early Christianity, though, that was not the case. John the Baptist was seen as the saint or Biblical figure most connected to this celestial event. Just as the summer solstice is believed to announce the coming of maximum light, so John announced the coming of Jesus-the light that according to Christianity, rescue us from our darkness. So John was the Summer Solstice, and Jesus the Winter Solstice-the return of more light. Judaism likewise does not pay much attention to this solstice now, but it once did. Tradition says that Joshua’s Battle at Jericho, where the sun stood still, and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden were both Summer Solstice events-God intervening in the way of the world. It makes sense that such connections would be there in the early days of both religions: monotheistic religions looking to replace polytheistic and nature based ones, would have to account in some way for the previous religions’ major beliefs. This is not needed so much any more.
But symbolic meaning often works beneath the surface in cultures. It was no coincidence, I think, that for the longest time June and July had been the most popular months for weddings in the US. Those months have the great days of light (hope, promise, heat) hopefully leading to a good harvest (family, fertility, childbirth and an increased community). That is one way of looking at that cultural tradition. But this may be a little out of date; according to Kopf’s wedding statistics 40% of US weddings have taken place in the fall over the last ten years, and that stat continues to grow. This may well say something about our changing religious beliefs and relationships to cultural symbols in the 21st century. The old symbols may not mean the same thing they once did.
Regardless of how our modern beliefs change or remain the same, there is not doubt that celestial happenings have a major influence on us as humans. Whether it be a ritual of flower wreaths, dancing and prayer, or simply a solstice party, or a special concert, or just simply working in the garden, we need to be in touch with what goes on around, above and beneath us. That is one of the ways we as a species make sense of this world and make our way in it. I hope you get to celebrate in some way the gloriousness of the sun, the process of the seasons, and the promise and hope of summer. Those are, to me, three of nature’s greatest gifts. Happy Solstice.