How does dinner al fresco sound? The potentially most sun-soaked day of the year is nearly here.
In 2016, the summer solstice takes place in the northern hemisphere Monday. It marks the longest day of the year – the day with the most sunlight (except in polar regions, where daylight is continuous around this time). This happens twice a year – once in each hemisphere – when the tilt of Earth’s semi-axis is most inclined toward the sun. (The opposite – the shortest day of the year – is called the winter solstice, which this year will occur Dec. 21.)
This “longest day” phenomenon has inspired worldwide celebrations throughout history. From “Midsommar” festivities in Sweden to pagan parties at Stonehenge and beyond, the special day is still an important part of many cultures. The following is just a small sample.
• Sweden. A traditional Swedish “Midsommar” means heading for the countryside (the cities are all but deserted). Festivities include family gatherings, handmade flower garlands and wreaths, maypoles, pickled herring, beer and schnapps, and singing and dancing. It began as both a celebration of summer and a fertility rite. Legend has it that young women who pick seven different species of flowers and place them under their pillows will see their future husbands in a dream that night.
• Stonehenge, England. Thousands of druids, pagans, Wiccans (or wannabes) mingle with the curious and the astronomically inclined to witness the sun rise at the mysterious stone circle. The original purpose of Stonehenge (built beginning 3,100 B.C.) is still a subject of research, but on the summer solstice (“Litha”), the sun rises above the Heel stone, which is aligned with the Altar and Slaughter stones, for a spectacular moment.
• Spain. On the island of Menorca, the town of Ciutadella combines pagan and Christian traditions with a celebration of both the summer solstice and the birth of St. John the Baptist. Festivities include bonfires, fireworks (fire symbolized purification to pagans) and a parade of horses.
Closer to home, the United States hosts a number of summer solstice celebrations.
• Native Americans have celebrated the summer solstice for thousands of years. In Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains, the work of the Plains Indians can be seen: The “medicine wheel” stone formation aligns with the solstice at sunrise and sunset.
• Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in New Mexico is a sacred site with many solar alignments. There are a number of temple buildings believed to have been used as ceremonial gathering spaces by ancient Pueblo Indians.
And the list goes on. Whether it’s seen as a pagan party or simply a time to celebrate summer, the summer solstice remains a culturally and astronomically interesting event.
Note: The Los Altos Community Foundation has scheduled a “Summer Solstice Celebration” fundraiser 5:30-8 p.m. today at a private residence in Los Altos. For more information, visit losaltoscf.org.
Mary Larsen is a member of the Town Crier’s editorial staff.