Friday, June 20, 2008


Today was the day of the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere (winter solstice south of the equator). The term "solstice" may refer to either the exact time of the sun's furthest point away from the equator or it may refer to the day on which this occurs. In the first sense the solstice is already well past. It occurred at 23:59 UTC (Greenwich Mean Time). Here in Winnipeg this would have been at about 18:59 (ie 6:59 pm. If you are interested about when the event occurred in your locality look it up on the Time And Date.Com site. This site also provides information on such things as sunrise, sunset, phases of the moon and even weather.

The cause of the seasons, of which the solstices and equinoxes are the arbitrary dividing points, is the fact that the angle of rotation of the Earth is about 23.44 degrees from the perpendicular to its orbital path. It keeps this orientation throughout its orbit with the result that at any given time (except the equinoxes) one or the other hemisphere will be tilted towards the sun and hence be warmer than the other.

At the time of the northern solstice the sun appears to be directly overhead for all places 23.44 degrees north of the equator, known as the Tropic of Cancer, while during the southern solstice the same is true for any point 23.44 degrees south of the equator, known as the Tropic of Capricorn. The points in between this latitudes are known as the "tropics". The names for the tropics are actually misnomers as they stand for the constellations from ancient times when astrology was formulated. Due to precession the Sun is now in Taurus during the northern solstice and in Sagittarius during the southern one. The change of constellations makes the names more one of convenience than anything bearing any relation to reality.

The severity of seasonal change fluctuates over long time periods (thousands of years) because the axial tilt of the earth varies from 22.1 degrees to 24.5 degrees. The greater the tilt the more dramatic the seasonal changes.

In East Asia most calenders divide the year into 24 "solar terms". "Xiazhi" (Ha chi) is the 10th solar term. It begins when the sun reaches the celestial longitude(the highest point the sun reaches in the sky) of 90 degrees and ends when it reaches 105 degrees. Xiazhi literally translated is "summer solstice". In our calender this corresponds roughly to the period from June 21st to July 7th.

The time of the "northern sun" during the summer solstice can only be seen from places north of 66.56 degrees north, the Arctic Circle. At exactly this latitude the Sun touches the horizon at midnight but never truly sets. At the north pole the Sun would appear to rise and set in exactly the same place at the time of the solstice- in the south. But don't forget that all directions are south at the pole. The Sun would indeed appear to reverse course across the sky, but it wouldn't appear the same as if it did so at lower latitudes.

There are two interesting terms related to the twilight as one approaches the poles during midsummer. When one reaches latitude 50 degrees north the Sun never gets further than 16.56 degrees below the horizon. this is known as "astronomical twilight" when it is impossible for astronomers to do any work with any great precision. It is also called the "grey nights". Above 60 degrees latitude the Sun never gets more than 6.56 degrees away from the horizon at the summer solstice. This is known as "civil twilight" or "the white nights".

Many traditional holidays clustered around the times of both the summer and winter solstices. The time of most of the summer festivals in western cultures, however, is no longer June 21st but rather June 24th. The difference is due to the calendar reform of Pope Gregory XIII. The old Julian calendar moved the date of the solstice forward about 3 days every four centuries. The Gregorian calendar, on the other hand, moves a little bit from year to year but only advances on the average a day for every 3,000 years. The old pagan solstice festivals had been Christianized as the Feast of St John the Baptist, and this day kept its separation from the actual solstice at the time of the Gregorian reform.

The Feast of St. John is unique is that it is celebrated on the presumed date of the Saint's birthday. All other saints' days are celebrated on the day of their presumed death. The Roman Catholic Church has declared St. John's day as "Solemnity", the highest designation of a feast day. For more on St. John the Baptist and his celebration see the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Many of the European customs that surround Midsummer Day derive from older pagan customs, but far less is known about these than many modern "mythologizers" imagine. The actual reconstruction of verifiable rather than fanciful knowledge about pagan European religions is rather austere and sparse compared to the free flights of fantasy engaged in by many people who imagine they are recreating said religions. It's doubtless true that there were midsummer bonfires and, in some countries, midsummer trees (like the Yule trees, the spring trees or the maypole at different times of the year). The Romans had the feast of the Vestalia when married women were allowed to enter the shrine of Vesta, Goddess of the Hearth, where only the vestal virgins were allowed to enter at other times. Yet, even for the names of ancient deities, let alone detailed accounts of the religious practices of preChristian Europeans there are few reliable sources, and these are vastly outnumbered by the endless tomes of pop-religion in the New Age sections of bookstores today. As a matter of fact you'll rarely find them on the shelves of any bookstore. Tacitus, Bede and Caesar simply don't have the "pizzazz" that modern carbonated pop-religion delivers.

The religious practices of Native Americans are known a little better, and some of their midsummer festivals have been described in much greater and more accurate detail than those of ancient Europe. Native Americans have also left perhaps even more stone structures (some are known as "medicine wheels") that are just as accurate astronomical calculators as the better known megalithic structures of Europe such as Stonehenge. As an interesting sidelight June 21st has been officially known as 'National Aboriginal Day' in Canada since 1996.

In France La Fete de Saint-Jean is a Catholic festival held in June 24th (midsummer) and features large bonfires. The first Canadian celebration took place in New France in 1638, according to the Jesuit Relations. Ludger Duvernay, the Quebecois editor of La Minerve began the campaign to have this day declared the official holiday of French Canada in 1834. Pope Pius X declared St. John the Baptist to be the official patron of French Canadians in 1908. June 24th became an official holiday in Quebec in 1925, and in 1977 it was renamed the National Holiday of Quebec, though it is still usually referred to as St Jean-Baptiste Day.

Midsummer festivals in Portugal are actually held at various times depending upon the area. Lisbon, for instance, celebrates it on St. Anthony's Day (June 13th), but other places hold to June 24th. In Brazil, however, June 24th is the universally celebrated day, and it has become much more popular there than back in Portugal. The "Festa Juanina" is particularly popular in northeastern Brazil, actually rivalling Carnival in popularity.Two cities in the northeast of the country, Caruara and Camina Grande, are in competition with each other for the title of "Biggest St. John's Festival in the World". Caruara presently holds the Guinness title.

In Ireland many towns hold midsummer festivals on the weekend nearest to the 24th. In Italy the day is particularly popular in Florence (lasting from June 21st to June 24th) as he is the patron saint of Florence. In Poland, especially in the north, midsummer is celebrated on June 23rd. It begins at 8:00pm and lasts all night. Traditionally wreaths were thrown into the Baltic or into rivers and lakes.

The name for St. John in Russia is Ivan Kupala. It is celebrated on June 23rd (Gregorian calendar) and July 6th (Julian calendar) in both Russia and Ukraine. As in Poland wreaths are thrown into bodies of water and bonfires were/are lit as well. Mussorgsky's 'Night on Bald Mountain' was actually inspired by Ivan Kupala day festivals rather than Halloween. Bonfires were also traditional in the Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, despite Soviet disapproval in the case of the latter country. Wreaths in Latvia were worn rather than tossed into water. In Latvia this is known as the Feast of Jani. In Estonia bonfires are once more featured and the festival is very similar to that of Finland to the north (Estonian and Finnish are related languages). Finland also features the ever present bonfires and also a summer pole tradition borrowed from Sweden. Before the conversion to Christianity the day was known as Ukon juhla, after the Finnish god Ukko. The day is known as Juhannus in Finnish and "midsommer" for the Swedish minority in Finland.

I n Sweden Midsommarafton (Midsummer Eve) and Midsommardagan (Midsummer Day) are celebrated beginning on the Saturday that falls between June 20th and June 26th. It may rival Christmas in importance in this country. A "maypole" is raised on the Friday following the beginning of the festival , decorated with flowers and greenery, and dances are held around this pole. The years first potatoes,pickled herring sour cream and (hopefully) strawberries would be on the traditional menu. Old traditions about decorating houses and barns with greenery persist even though the old superstitions about this bringing luck are mostly forgotten. Midsummer in Sweden is considered the start of the summer holidays, something like the May long weekend in Canada and is a great time to party. In Norway the day called "Jonsok" or "Sankthansaften" is celebrated on June 23rd. Once more there is the midsummer bonfires.

The Danish name for St. John's Eve is "Sankt Hans aften", and it takes place on the evening of June 23rd. Once more it is time of bonfires and parties even though it is no longer an official holiday. Midsummer festivals in Great Britain gradually petered out during the Reformation and in subsequent centuries. Midsummer bonfires are still being lit in some places in Cornwall, however, and neo-pagans have their annual get together at Stonehenge, though, as previously mentioned, this has little connection with traditional midsummer festivals.

Sorta a great loss to Molly's point of view even if she has little sympathy with the necromancy of trying to revive that which is dead and dolling it up in the illusion that it is a recreation of the past. Better to create entirely new traditions without pretense.
Anyways, merry solstice and a happy midsummer.

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