Midsummer Solstice - by John Copeland

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Midsummer Solstice – by John Copeland

“Summertime is always the best of what might be.”
                                                                                                          ― Charles Bowden
It’s nearly the Summer Solstice and Midsummer.  The Solstice heralds the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.  Conversely, it is the Winter Solstice for folks living in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Summer Solstice is one of four major solar events of the year that mark the beginning of our seasons.  Tomorrow is both the longest day and the shortest night of the year and the first day of summer.  In the southern hemisphere, the June Solstice is known as the shortest day of the year and marks the first day of winter.
Our ancient ancestors knew that the sun’s path across the sky, the length of daylight, and the location of the sunrise and sunset all shifted in a regular way throughout the year.  On the Solstice, the sun does not rise precisely in the East, but rises to the north of east and sets to the north of west allowing it to be in the sky longer. The word Solstice is from the Latin word “solstitium”, meaning “sun-stopping”, because the point at which the sun appears to rise and set stops and reverses direction after this day.
This time of year, if you live in the northern hemisphere, like I do, you’ll notice the early dawns and late sunsets, and the high arc of the sun takes across the sky each day. You might want to check out how high the sun appears in the sky at noon tomorrow.  If you do, be sure to look down at your noontime shadow.  At the Solstice, it’ll be your shortest noontime shadow of the year.
Today, we know that the Solstice is an astronomical event, caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and the motion of its orbit around the sun.  Earth’s position isn’t upright; it is tilted on its axis by 23.5º in the direction of the equator. This 23.5º tilt results in constantly changing solar illumination on the different latitudes of Earth during its yearly orbit of the sun.  For us living in the northern hemisphere, at noontime the sun appears high in the sky during summertime, and low during winter.
The date of the Summer Solstice varies a few days from year to year, because of our calendar’s four year cycle of leap years and due to the variations in Earth’s orbit.  This year 2013 is a bit unique, for some the Solstice will be on June 21st and for some of the rest of us it will be on June 20th.  How can it fall on two different days?
I know, it seems pretty odd but it’s because the Solstice occurs at the moment the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer and at its farthest point north of the equator.
So, if you happen to live in Europe or in North America east of the Great Plains, the Solstice occurs on Friday, June 21st at 5:04 A.M. Universal Time (we used to it Greenwich Mean Time), or 1:04 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time and at 12:04 A.M. Central Daylight Time.  For those of us in North America that live west of the Great Plains,  the Solstice occurs on Thursday, June 20th, at 11:04 P.M Mountain Daylight Time and 10:04 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time.
It is important to note that Earth does orbit the Sun at a constant speed. Therefore the seasons are not of equal length: the times taken for the sun to move from the Spring Equinox to the Summer Solstice, to the Autumn Equinox, to the Winter Solstice, and back to the Spring Equinox are roughly 92.8, 93.6, 89.8 and 89.0 days respectively. Our consolation in the northern hemisphere is that the spring and summer seasons last longer than autumn and winter.
Throughout our human history, the Summer Solstice has been celebrated in many different ways by cultures around the world.  It was a time to treasure the warmth and light.
For us in today, the Solstice is a time to recall the reverence and understanding that early people had for the sky.  Our ancestors did not have access to modern mathematical algorithms to calculate the date and time of the solstice.  To the unaided eye, the sun would seem to set/rise at the same location on the horizon for about five days before and after the actual solstice.  Ancient people would record the days when the sunrise or set was noticeably different from the extreme position, and interpolate the probable day of the solstice.  They then used a variety of techniques to display future solstices:
1. A carved or painted symbol, or some other marker, would be located at the end of a long passage that was exposed to sunrise or sunset on the solstice.  It would be illuminated by the rising or setting of the sun on the day of the solstice.  Alternatively, a hole in the roof of a structure would allow the noonday sun to shine onto a marker set into the floor.
2. In temperate zones, the shadow of an upright pillar would be observed at noontime at the summer solstice.  The shadow would be shortest on that day.
3. The point on the horizon where the sunset and rose would be observed from a fixed location.  A remote marker would indicate where the sun rose or set on the solstice.
Many remains of ancient stone structures can be found around the world that are associated with observing the Solstices.  Today, we can only speculate on the significance of the Summer Solstice to the original builders.  Perhaps the most famous, and one of my favorites places on Earth, is Stonehenge, on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England.  It’s main axis is aligned on Solstice Sunrise, an orientation that was probably for ritual rather than scientific purposes.
I have been fascinated, most of my life, how our ancestors observed the various celestial events that occur during the span of a year, Solstices, Equinoxes and Cross Quarter Days.  I have trekked out to Stonehenge for the Midsummer Solstice.  I’ve also spent the night in the remains of the Iron Age Hill Fort in South Cadbury, England, hoping to hear the sounds of Arthur and his mounted warriors crossing the causeway into the fortress, that supposedly occurs on Midsummer’s Eve.  I have witnessed a Solstice sunrise in Malacca, the City of the Dead in Malaysia and a few other parts of the world.  No matter where I happen to be, I always feel like I am taking part of an ancient rite that for thousands of years celebrated the great power of the sun.
Around the same time Stonehenge was being constructed in England, the two great pyramids and the Sphinx were built in Egypt.  If you stand at the Sphinx on Midsummer and gaze west toward the two pyramids, you’ll see the sun set exactly between them.
In ancient China, the Summer Solstice was the time to celebrate the earth, the feminine, and the yin forces.  It complemented the winter solstice that celebrated the heavens, masculinity and yang forces.
For the Celtic tribes across Europe Midsummer was a night of bonfires and of love magic.  Pairs of lovers would jump through the luck-bringing flames.  It was believed that the crops would grow as high as the couples were able to jump.   Another function of bonfires was to generate sympathetic magic: giving a boost to the sun’s energy so that it would remain potent throughout the rest of the growing season and guarantee a plentiful harvest.  When the fires had burned down, folks would carry ashes back to their homes to sprinkle on fields, the four corners, and lay embers on the hearth.  Ashes had powers of protection, health and luck.
In Rome, the festival of Vestalia lasted from June 7th to June 15th.  Those Romans loved their festivals.  It was held in honor of the Roman Goddess of the hearth, Vesta.  Married women were able to enter the shrine of Vesta during the festival.  At other times of the year, only the Vestal Virgins were permitted inside.
In Sweden, a Midsummer tree was set up and decorated in each town.  The villagers danced around it.  Women and girls would customarily bathe in the local river.  This was a magical ritual, intended to bring rain for the crops.  And today, in Sweden, Finland and Estonia, Midsummer’s Eve is considered the greatest festival of the year, comparable only with Walpurgis Night, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve.
After the conversion of Europe to Christianity, Midsummer Festivals became associated with a fixed date: June 23rd, became Midsummer’s Eve and June 24th, Midsummer’s Day and he feast day of St. John the Baptist.  It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest feast, introduced into both the Greek and Latin liturgies to honor a saint.  Curiously, unlike all other saints’ days, this feast is celebrated on the alleged date of John the Baptist’s birth and not on the day of his martyrdom as is the case with all other Christian saints. John’s feast day is offset a few days after the Summer Solstice, just as Christmas is fixed a few days after the winter solstice.
Although Midsummer is the feast day of St. John the Baptist, it features pagan traditions such as bonfires, fire walking, and a carnival atmosphere, all of which took place on Midsummer Eve. Certainly, it’s a night of magic and soothsaying as well, for as Washington Irving said, this is a time “when it is well known all kinds of ghosts, goblins, and fairies become visible and walk abroad.” The dew on Midsummer Day was said to make young girls beautiful and old people look younger. It was also thought that walking barefoot in the dew would keep one’s skin from getting chapped.  It also was customary to honor all men named John on this day by fixing wreaths of oak leaves around their doors. This is usually done in secret, and John must guess who did it or catch the person in the act, in which case he must give the person a treat.
Although Midsummer Day occurs near the summer solstice, or what we think of as the beginning of summer, to the farmer it is the midpoint of the growing season, halfway between planting and harvesting, and an occasion for celebration.
The time of year, between planting and harvest, for our ancestors, was the traditional month for weddings. This tradition arose because many ancient peoples believed that May was the romantic time of year for the gods and goddesses. Since it was unlucky to compete with the deities, couples delayed their weddings until June.  Today, June still remains a favorite month for weddings.
The first (or only) full moon in June is called the Honey Moon. (However, Native Americans called the June full moon the Strawberry Moon, which is probably more fitting for us in Santa Barbara County.) June is also the time when bee hives are rich with honey and it is time to harvest them.  In some cultural traditions, newly wed couples were fed food and drink that featured honey for the first month of their married life to encourage love and fertility. The surviving vestige of this tradition lives on in the name given to the time immediately following the wedding ceremony: The Honeymoon.
As the name “Midsummer” suggests, the day is considered the height of the summer. Yet there is also an undertone of darkness in this celebration of summer daylight. While in older times people celebrated the power of the sun, they were also noting its decline. From now on the hours of sunlight will decrease.
Folks often ask, “Well, if June 21 is the longest day of the year, why is the hottest weather in late July and August?”
It’s because of “the lag of the seasons” and the same reason it’s hotter in the afternoon than noontime.  Earth takes awhile to warm up after a long winter.  Right now, ice and snow still blanket the ground in some places.  Meltwater and rainwater have been percolating down through snow on tops of glaciers.  But the runoff from glaciers isn’t as great now as it’ll be in another month, even though sunlight is striking the northern hemisphere most directly now.  The sun has to melt the ice – and warm the oceans – and when that happens we experience sweltering summer heat.
So wait another month for the hottest weather.  It’ll come when the days are already beginning to shorten again, as Earth continues to its orbit around the sun, bringing us closer to another winter.
John Copeland
Dr. Eric P. Dahlstrom, D.C., L.Ac.
Santa Monica Healing Arts
Providing Chiropractic Care and Acupuncture in Santa Monica since 1999 (http://santamonicahealingarts.com). Check out our 5-star Review on Yelp (http://www.yelp.com/biz/santa-monica-healing-arts-santa-monica) or find us on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Santa-Monica-Healing-Arts)

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