Summer Solstice Celebrations
Friday, June 21 marks the 2013 summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, when the tilt of the Earth’s axis reaches its steepest incline towards the sun. It is the longest day of the year, as the sun hangs at its highest point. The solstice represents only an instant in time, but the day of its occurrence encompasses celebrations around the world throughout history. The day of the solstice, or midsummer, offers an excellent opportunity to celebrate the sunny days ahead as well as reflect on the approaching decline into autumn and winter.
In Western culture, midsummer has many ties to pagan magic. Folklore links many plants with the event in many magical capacities, like being able to see the fairies that emerged for the night, protection from natural and spiritual forces, and healing. St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) maintains a strong connection to the holiday. Traditional wisdom tells us that the bright yellow flowers hold the sunny energy of midsummer, making the herb effective at treating depression, and that it can protect against thunderstorms.
European midsummer festivities also have abundant connections to fertility. The Swedes have an excellent saying: “Midsummer night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking.” Cultural traditions provide ample opportunities for young people to pair up and sneak into the night, such as looking for the flower of a fern that only blooms at night in Estonia. Midsummer celebrations often involve bonfires, which play an important role in many myths, such as a jumping through a fire to aid fertility.
The West does not, however, hold a monopoly on summer solstice celebrations. Eastern cultures often observe solstice festivities, as well as Native American cultures. The ancient Chinese celebrations of the summer solstice, honoring the earth, femininity, and “yin,” complemented the heavenly, masculine, and “yang” centered winter celebrations.
Native American rituals varied by culture, and some traditions survive today. The National Museum of the American Indian Heye Center (New York) hosted an event on June 15th entitled “Circle of Dance! Inti Raymi.” The event included a family-oriented activity session to create gold foil pendants to recognize the importance of the Inti (sun) to all life, as well as a lecture session on the celebration of Inti Raymi by indigenous peoples of the Andes. The traditional festival included music, dancing, colorful costumes, and the sharing of food.
Despite being the longest day of the year, the solstice isn’t necessarily the hottest day, which means it could be a wonderful day to enjoy the outdoors. Celebrate the height of summer by working in the garden, hosting an outdoor solstice party, or building your own Stonehenge. There are plenty of beautiful flowers in bloom right in time for the solstice, like this great flower in bloom at the Smithsonian Gardens, Oenothera fruticosa ‘Summer Solstice.’ It’s vibrant “sundrop” flowers will brighten up any day!
Education and Outreach Intern