A solstice happens when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. This event happens twice every year in the winter and in the summer. In several cultures, the solstice dictates the changing of the seasons. Either the solstice signals the beginning of the summer and the winter, or the solstice marks the middle of the respective season. The solstices are also notable because they mark the longest and shortest days of the year. The day of the summer solstice is the longest day of the year, and the day of the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year.
One of the first cultures that recorded the occurrence of the solstice was that of the ancient Greeks. The Greeks used the solstice in their astronomical and navigational charts.
The solstices go by many names. In English-speaking cultures, they are most commonly known as the summer solstice and the winter solstice, but they are also called the northern solstice and the southern solstice, the June solstice and the December solstice and even the first point of Cancer and the first point of Capricorn. However, that latter term is a bit misleading, because the solstices currently reside in the astrological constellations of Taurus and Sagittarius. In Asian cultures, years are divided into 24 solar periods. The 10th solar period is when the summer solstice occurs. This is known as Xiàzhì or Geshi. The winter solstice is the 22nd solar period, and it is called Dongzhì or Toji. East Asian cultures, such as those of Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam, use the solstices to mark the middle of the seasons.
Archeological evidence suggests that a few sites in Great Britain, including Stonehenge and Newgrange, were used by ancient druids during the early Neolithic and Bronze Age to help celebrate the solstices. In fact, many studies have suggested that the monuments were constructed on a line that pointed to the position of the winter solstice sunrise and sunset. Historically, the onset of winter was an important time for young civilizations, communities and societies. Winter was a very harsh time for many communities, and famine was always a danger. In addition to the difficulties of feeding the human population, it was incredibly difficult for some communities to feed their animals as well. The winter solstice let cultures know that it was time to slaughter their animals and get ready for the difficult months to come. Because of this, the winter solstice was usually celebrated with a feast that contained fresh meat. For brewing cultures, the winter solstice usually marked the time at which beer and wine were fermented and ready to drink.
It is out of the celebration of the winter solstice that we have come to celebrate Christmas. The birth of Jesus is celebrated on December 25th, which corresponds to the date of the Roman winter solstice according to the Julian calendar. Several ancient cultures have celebrated the winter solstice as being the period of time when sun gods are born or are reborn. Throughout history, the time around the winter solstice has been celebrated as the birth of a new year. The winter solstice has also come to be associated with reversals in many cultures, due to the fact that the sun appears to stop during the time of the solstice and then reverse the path on which it travels. It is because of this that the Greeks believed that Hades, god of the underworld, was allowed to enter Mount Olympus during this time.
The summer solstice has generally been celebrated around the world as a time of fertility. The sun is at the height of its power, animals are mating and several plants are in full bloom. Many people and cultures practiced fertility rites and rituals at this time because they believed the gods would give them sexual power. Perhaps surprisingly, holidays based around Midsummer tend to be celebrated largely by Eastern European countries. In Poland, citizens like to celebrate the summer solstice with a festival called Wianki. Long before Christianity came to Poland, the pagan tribes of the area celebrated the summer solstice with an event that came to be known as Ivan Kupala Day. Once Christianity took hold in Poland, the festival was absorbed and came to be known as St. John’s Night. Currently, Wianki is celebrated as a large, open-air festival with music shows, the performance of plays and other theater and fireworks shows. A similar celebration, Saint Jonas’ Festival, is held in Lithuania. Many modern celebrations of Midsummer include dancing and bonfires.
Much like the winter solstice, the summer solstice was celebrated as a pagan holiday. When Christianity came to Europe though, many of the traditions were taken by the new religion. In Christianity, the time of the solstice corresponded with and could be used to celebrate the nativity of John the Baptist, which is why the festival has taken on names having to do with Saint John. The pagans picked flowers they believed to contain healing powers during the time of the solstice, and they also lit the aforementioned bonfires because they believed the fires would ward off evil spirits who roamed the night as the sun reversed its course.
It is no coincidence that several cultures celebrate holidays around the time of the solstices. Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Yule and Saturnalia are just some of the holidays that are celebrated during the winter solstice in addition to Christmas. Several cultures also base their New Year around the time of the solstices.