The Summer Solstice

June 21, 2011: Today’s Fun Facts:

“Solstice” means “Sun Stands Still.” This year the summer solstice officially begins at 1:16 p.m. EDT

“Midsummer Night’s Dream” was all about events in and around the summer solstice.

Hippolyta remarks:

“Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;

Four nights will quickly dream away the time;

And then the moon, like to a silver bow

New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night

Of our solemnities.”

 

And  Theseus, soon to wed her, directs his servant Philostrate:

“Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments;

Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth;

Turn melancholy forth to funerals;

The pale companion is not for our pomp.”

 

The ancients called the Midsummer moon the “Honey Moon” for the mead made from fermented honey that was part of wedding ceremonies performed at the Summer Solstice. Perhaps the most enduring modern ties with Summer Solstice were the Druids’ celebration of the day as the “wedding of Heaven and Earth“, resulting in the present day belief of a “lucky” wedding in June.

They also celebrated Midsummer with bonfires, when couples would leap through the flames, believing their crops would grow as high as the couples were able to jump. The bonfires were also thought to protect against evil spirits, which were thought to roam freely when the sun turned southward again.

To thwart the evil spirits, pagans often wore protective garlands of herbs and flowers. One of the most powerful of them was a plant called ‘chase-devil’, which is known today as St. John’s Wort and still used by modern herbalists as a mood stabilizer.  Some people believed that mid-summer plants, especially Calendula, had miraculous healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night.

Religious party-poopers couldn’t stay away, though. In the 7th century, Saint Eligius (you remember the hospital named after him in St. Elsewhere) warned recently-converted inhabitants of Flanders against the age-old pagan solstice celebrations.  He said,  “No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [summer solstice rites] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.”

As Christianity entered pagan areas, midsummer celebrations came to be often borrowed and transferred into new Christian holidays, often resulting in celebrations that mixed Christian traditions with traditions derived from pagan Midsummer festivities. The Gospel of Luke said that John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus, and because Jesus was born right after the winter solstice, Saint John had to have been born right after the summer solstice. Saint John’s Day is June 24.

Many medieval Catholic churches were also built as solar observatories. The church needed astronomy to predict the date of Easter. And so observatories were built into cathedrals and churches throughout Europe. A hole in the roof admitted a beam of sunlight, which would trace a path along the floor. The path, called the meridian line, was often marked by inlays and zodiacal motifs. The position at noon throughout the year, including the extremes of the solstices, was also carefully marked.

So, as the Jamies sang, in the song written by long-time Red Sox public address announcer Sherm Feller,

“It’s Summertime Summertime Sum-Sum-Summertime!”

Happy summer!

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