From the festival of madness to the festival of love, from harvest celebrations to a day of religious observance, the summer solstice has worn many hats. The one thing binding all those different avatars together, though, is that the day is supposed to remind us of nature's awesome power. It's a testimony to the vastness of the universe, to the strength of the sun and to our incredible insignificance.
Click on the slideshow below to find out more about the spiritual history of the longest day of the year.
Despite the speculation around the purpose of Stonehenge, there is one thing we are certain of: At the dawn of every summer solstice, people gather at the site to watch the sun rise above the aptly named "sun-stone." For centuries, Druids, Wiccans and other neo-pagan groups have gathered to celebrate the solstice at Stonehenge. These celebrations draw from the unique construction and history of the site: There is a celestial observatory, the aforementioned sun-stone and an avenue that might have been used as a procession route on the longest and shortest days of the year.
After the conversion of Europe to Christianity, the feast day of St. John the Baptist was set as June 24th. It is one of the oldest feasts introduced to honor a saint Curiously, the feast is held on the alleged date of his birth, while other Christian saints' days are observed on the anniversary of their death. His feast day is offset a few days after the summer solstice, just as Christmas is fixed a few days after the winter solstice, and many believe that it was created to draw attention away from the pagan celebrations around the solstice.
Ancient pagans celebrated midsummer with bonfires. It was believed that the crops would grow as high as couples were able to jump across the fires. Through the fire's power, "maidens would find out about their future husband, and spirits and demons were banished," says Ruth Reichmann of the Max Kade German-American Center. Another function of bonfires was to generate magic. It was hoped that it would give a boost to the sun's energy so that it would remain powerful throughout the rest of the growing season and guarantee a good harvest.
There are many solstice observances held by New Age and neo-pagan groups throughout the world today. In the U.K., an organization known as English Heritage provides managed open access to Stonehenge for the June solstice. In some parts of the United States, local festivals featuring art, music and environmental awareness activities that focus on using natural sunlight as a source of energy are held. In northern European countries such as Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, the midsummer festival is one of the most widespread summer festivities. Midsummer festivals generally celebrate the summer and the fertility of the earth. In Sweden and many parts of Finland people dance around maypoles. Bonfires are lit and homes are decorated with flower garlands, greenery and tree branches.