Is The Summer Solstice A Pagan Holiday?

by Elizabeth Ballou

If you live anywhere like my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, you've probably been in the throes of summer for some time. Temperatures have skyrocketed, pedestrians have broken out their sandals, and caffeine addicts are taking their coffee cold-brewed. But June 20 is the summer solstice, making today the official start of summer. Is the summer solstice a pagan holiday? What is Midsummer, and where does it come from? Let's do some historical digging

You probably already know that the summer solstice marks the longest day of the year, meaning you can take advantage of the sunlight to walk your dog, go swimming, or just saunter around town. And tonight is also the Strawberry Moon, a rare, amber-colored moon that only aligns with the summer solstice every 50 years or so. It's a perfect astronomical coincidence to welcome in Midsummer, which is the other name by which the summer solstice is often called.

Various cultures around the world have celebrated the longest day of the year. The sun is tied to all kinds of symbols and concepts that appear throughout folklore, including fire, fertility, marriage, good harvests, magic, and femininity, so it's no surprise that Midsummer is loaded with meaning. That's probably why Shakespeare chose this time as the setting for his most famous comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream. It tells the story of lovers getting lost in the woods and fairies messing with humans, so it's no surprise that Bill Shakes picked such a pertinent date.

Here's a list of old traditions celebrated by groups from many different historical eras and geographical locations:

  • The Celts and Slavs lit bonfires, then danced around them, in the hopes that the sun would receive their energy and provide them with a plentiful harvest several months down the road. The main axis of Stonehenge is actually aligned to the solstice sunrise.
  • The Romans held the festival of Vestalia, in which married women could enter the temple of Vesta and receive a blessing for themselves and their households. (Normally, only Vestal Virgins could enter the temple.)
  • Early and medieval Christians feasted in honor of St. John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus who foretold his coming. Some northern European countries, like Denmark and Sweden, still celebrate St. John's Day today.
  • The ancient Chinese honored the feminine energy known as yin, which was associated with the earth. (During the winter solstice, they celebrated those notions' complements: yang, or masculine energy, and the sky.)
  • The Irish, as well as some modern pagans (who refer to the solstice as Litha), believe that Midsummer is a day when fairies are more visible than normal. If you want to catch a glimpse, try rubbing fern seeds on your eyelids at midnight — just be wary of what might reveal itself to you!

Whatever traditions might be celebrated where you live, you can take advantage of the sunlight to get outdoors. Depending on where you live, you could get as many as 16 or 17 hours during the summer solstice. And if your idea of celebrating involves throwing down while the sun sets, check out these ideas for making your shindig a success.

Images:; Wikimedia Commons; Hans/Pixabay