Summer solstice: where ancient China meets the New Age

A man stands on top of one of the stones in Stonehenge on summer solstice

For a surprising variety of cultures, the summer solstice is a change to celebrate life and nature

LAST UPDATED AT 10:27 ON Thu 19 Jun 2014

There may be little that brings together New Age travellers, the Romans, the ancient Chinese and modern-day Scandinavians, but people from all of those disparate cultures could agree on the importance of the summer solstice.

What is the summer solstice?
It is the longest day of the year, with the earliest sunrise and the latest sunset. The name derives from the Latin words 'sol', meaning sun, and 'sistere', meaning to stand still.  

"On the summer solstice, the sun rises at its farthest point around the eastern horizon," Dr Tim O'Brien, associate director of the Jodrell Bank observatory, tells the BBC. "At noon the sun is as high above the horizon as it will ever get, and it sets at its farthest point around the west. So daylight lasts longer than on any other day in the year."

Inside the Arctic Circle, which passes through Scandinavia, Russia, Greenland and Alaska, the sun never sets during the night of the summer solstice. At the other end of the earth, within the Antarctic Circle, it never rises.

What are the origins of the summer solstice festivals?
A diverse array of cultures and religions have celebrated the summer solstice as a symbol of the sun, the earth and the life that both sustain.

In the West, summer solstice festivals are associated with the Pagans, for whom the longest day had both practical and religious significance. It was a fixed point around which the planting and harvesting of their crops could be planned, but it also marked the spiritual side of the shifting of the seasons.  

The summer solstice was also celebrated in ancient China, in which it was associated with the earth, femininity and Li, the Chinese goddess of light. For the Romans it formed part of the Vestalia festival, which honoured the goddess of the earth.

How is it celebrated today?
The spiritual element of the summer solstice has survived in many parts of Europe, where singing and dancing still herald the arrival of summer.

Stonehenge is the focal point for British celebrations. The BBC reports that people gather at the monument before dawn and watch as "the Heel Stone and Slaughter Stone, set outside the main circle, align with the rising sun". According to the Bath Chronicle, up to 30,000 druids, pagans and other revellers are expected at this year's celebrations.

The summer solstice is a national holiday in Sweden and Finland, where it is known as Midsummer’s Eve. Homes are cleaned and decorated with flowers, while many Scandinavians throw midsummer parties, at which they eat traditional foods and drink beer and schnapps.

In Austria and Estonia, the singing and dancing are supplemented by blazing bonfires, a custom that probably stems from the belief that fire would ward off evil spirits for the summer.

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