June 21, 2024

Celebrating the Summer Solstice: A Day of Astronomical and Historical Significance

This post was written by: Riya Sekhon

On June 20th, 2024, many observed the Summer Solstice, a day marked by its significant astronomical importance. While it’s often celebrated throughout the day, the Solstice actually occurs at an exact moment when the Sun reaches its highest point in the sky. This marked the first day of the astronomical summer season, and the longest day of the year, with at least 16 hours of sunlight. The sun rose around 4:42am BST and set around 9:21pm BST.

The Summer Solstice occurs when the Northern Hemisphere is most tilted towards the sun, causing the sun’s rays to strike this part of the Earth most directly. At the same time, the Southern Hemisphere is tilted the farthest away from the sun, causing a Winter Solstice on the south side of the planet.

The Solstice sits within a broader celestial framework that includes seasonal equinoxes marking Spring and Autumn, as well as daily, monthly, and annual cycles. This wider view of celestial events highlights the deep connection between time, nature, and human culture, particularly in agriculture.

The Summer Solstice has deep historical roots, especially among Northern and Central European Neolithic cultures. These early societies may have related the solstice to the timings of crop cycles, an essential aspect of their agrarian lifestyle. Celtic, Slavic, and Germanic people have celebrated the Solstice by lighting bonfires to boost the sun’s strength for the remained of the crop season and to ensure a healthy harvest.

One of the most iconic symbols of the Summer Solstice is Stonehenge, located in Wiltshire, England. Many Neolithic stone circles, including Stonehenge, appear to have been constructed with the movements of the sun at Solstices in mind. Although we can’t be definitive about the exact purpose of these structures, the careful positioning of these stones suggests they were aligned to frame the solar motion on summer and winter solstices. Stones placed at the axis of a particular solstice were even shaped with hammerstones to frame the sunrise for those standing in the centre of the circle.

At Stonehenge, the central Alter Stone aligns with the Heel Stone, Slaughter Stone, and the rising sun to the northeast. Each year, people gather at Stonehenge to celebrate the Summer Solstice with pagan songs and dancing. It is believed to have been the site of ancient Druid solstice celebrations, further cementing its significance in both historical and contemporary times.

The Summer Solstice is a moment that connects us to our ancestors, who looked to the skies to mark the passage of time and the changing of seasons. As we celebrate on June 20th, we continue a long tradition of honouring the sun’s vital energy and the intricate movement of our planet within the cosmos.