7 places to celebrate the sun
The Summer Solstice: we know it as the longest day of the year and the official start to summer. It’s the day when the sun reaches its peak in the sky, and every day afterwards the days start getting a little bit shorter. The name we know it by was derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (standing still), but it’s known by other names including Midsummer and Litha .
The phenomenon has been thoroughly explained by science, but this annual astronomical event is steeped in religion, culture and festivity. Its ancient roots are still celebrated around the world — alongside their Christian counterparts, of course. If you can get away around June 20, you’ll find some unique opportunities to absorb some culture (and have some fun too). It’s the time of year for the ancient rites, Christian feasts and other ways to celebrate the sun.
Check out these destinations that celebrate on (or around) the longest day of the year:
The United Kingdom
We don’t have the full story about ancient sites throughout this country, but many of the megaliths and stone circles are believed to have a connection to the changing seasons or marking the passage of time. At the solstice, many people flock to these ruins to see what all the mystery is about.
At the centre of attention is one of England’s most famous and most sacred sites of all: Stonehenge. Every year tens of thousands of visitors venture to Salisbury, Wiltshire on the evening of the solstice to stand among the giant stones and watch the sun rise. Many visitors even hold their own ceremonies too, so it’s an opportunity to learn about other religious beliefs and traditions.
It’s also a chance to get up-close-and-personal with the monument because instead of the usually limited access to the stones, the site is open for free admission. Additional facilities are set up to accommodate the crowds including toilets, food stands and a special bus service to bring visitors from nearby rail and bus stations. (See the English Heritage website for more information).
However, if you’d rather not deal with the crowds, there are numerous historic sites throughout Scotland and England where you can enjoy a beautiful sunrise such as the celebrations at the Avebury stone circle or Cairnpapple Hill in Scotland. (The Megalithic Portal has a <a href="http://www.megalithic.co.uk/topics.php?countries=1" target="_blank"full list of sites).
And neighbouring Ireland is not to be ignored. Get up before the sun to watch it rise at the stone circle at Bonane Heritage Park or at the Neolithic Stone Row in Kenmare, or celebrate at one of the many local festivals like the Lough Gur Summer Fest or Féile na Gréine (the Solstice Arts Festival) in Waterville.
If your visions of Midsummer involve wreathes of flowers, folk costumes and dancing around a Maypole, Sweden is the place to go. Summer is short in this northern European country, so its inhabitants take advantage of the nice weather and long days while they can. The holiday doesn’t take place right on the solstice, but instead starts on the closest Friday evening. It’s also marks the start of the short — but busy — holiday season so it’s an ideal time to get together with family and friends.
Today, celebrations take place across the country with traditional costumes, music and dancing. The long-standing tradition of decorating and raising a Maypole is still the focus of events. The first potatoes and fruits of the season garnish the menu along with fresh grilled fish, and drinking songs are popular as well. After dinner, more dancing out of doors is the norm. The festivities can last well into the night — if there’s any night at all. Thanks to its northern location, the nights are very short and some parts of the country don’t see any darkness at all. (For more information, see Sweden.se).
Solstice or Midsummer celebrations may predate Christianity, but that doesn’t mean followers of this new religion were quick to give up their fun. Across Europe many Midsummer traditions were transformed and adopted for one of the religion’s most important figures: St. John the Baptist.
In Spain, the Hongueras de Saint Joan (Bonfires of St. John) in Alicante isn’t shy about its pagan origins. The bonfires that were once thought chase away evil spirits and ward off (or burn) witches became a cleansing ritual of burning old, useless objects. The gathering and sacrifices of young plants originally intended to celebrate fertility are now the Flower Offerings to Our Lady of Remedy. Like its pre-Christian counterpart, the festival celebrates fertility and women, the spirit of which is represented by the election of the Bellea del Foc (The Fire Beauty Queen).
Of course, the festivities aren’t just on the saint’s feast day. The festival typically runs 10 days long and includes many events like a bull fight, folklore parade, bonfires, dances and a fireworks competition. Expect to see the streets decorated with plants and branches, and watch as elaborately created effigies are set afire. (For more information, see the Alicante.com website).
Want to confuse the traditions even further? Québec’s National Holiday, la Fête nationale du Québec, adds a little controversy into the mix. The June 24 public holiday got its start more than 350 years ago when the inhabitants of adopted France’s Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. But the story doesn’t end there… the holiday later took on a political tone in 1977 when the day was designated to be a “national holiday” for the province.
Whatever the origins or the reasons, the holiday is a widespread celebration in the province, and still retains much of its traditional Catholic and pagan flavours. Events get underway on the evening of the 23rd of June with bonfires, dancing and singing traditional folk songs. The following day starts off with parades in major cities, and numerous outdoor events and concerts are held. Some of the events have a more somber note — a special mass is held on this day to honour the saint. (For more information, see fetenationale.qc.ca (French only) and Bonjour Québec).
If you’re not in Québec, keep your eyes open for events in other French-Canadian communities across Canada. Other provinces don’t get the day off work, but they’re still eager to celebrate Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day.
They call it “the midnight sun” for a reason. While many of us averaging of 16 or 17 hours of daylight in June, the territories are enjoying much more — often a full 24 hours worth. The snow is gone, the weather is mild, and it’s the perfectly opportunity to sneak in some of your favourite daytime activities while the rest of the country is sleeping.
And if that’s not reason enough to celebrate, the solstice also coincides with other June celebrations including National Aboriginal Day (June 21), Multicultural Day (June 27) and Canada Day (July 1).
In Nunavut, National Aboriginal Day is part of the 10-day Alainait Arts Festival in Iqaluit. In addition to ongoing events like art exhibits and concerts, there’s story-telling, film, theatre and workshops to celebrate Inuit culture. (For more information, see Alainait Festival website).
If sports are more your style, you’ll find the Yukon is happy to oblige. In addition to National Aboriginal Day and Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations, the Effy Croft Memorial Ball Tournament, Kluane Chilkat Bike Relay, Mayo Midnight Marathon, 24 Hours of Light Mountain Bike Event and Yukon River Quest Canoe & Kayak Race are all on around the same time. (For more information, visit Travel Yukon).
The Northwest Territories is also hosting a variety of events for adventurers and locals alike. In Inuvik, take part in the only marathon that takes place at midnight (appropriately called the Summer Solstice Midnight Fun Run), or head to the Yellowknife Golf Club for the annual Canadian North Midnight Golf Classic. (For more information, see Spectacular NWT).
We’re bending the rules a little here, but you didn’t think all the fun was happening in the northern hemisphere, did you? It may be the Winter Solstice in the southern hemisphere, but Brazil is happy to put its own twist on the imported European tradition of Midsummer Day. The celebrations happen to fall during the rainy season, but that’s all the more reason to celebrate rural life and farming, and to give thanks to St. John for the rain.
The festival, known as Festa Junina or the June Bonfires, lasts a full two weeks — held every year from from June 13 to June 29 to include the feast days for Saint Anthony and Saint Peter. The traditional bonfires and fireworks light up the towns, and music, dancing and drinking can be found in public places and in private homes. Mock weddings celebrate the union of marriage, with participants “leaping” into the flames.
Not surprisingly, one of the largest events takes place in Rio de Janeiro, but festivals can be found across the country in other cities and rural areas. Expect the usual Brazilian flare with colourful costumes and decorations too. (For more information, see the World Events Guide).
In some cultures, sun-worship isn’t about getting a good tan. The sun is an essential part of religion, and associated with life and the divine. In Peru you’ll find something a little different from the usual solstice celebrations. It’s time for Inti Raymi — the Incan Festival of the Sun.
This Winter Solstice celebration was a time to for the Incans to honour the Sun God, and plead for his return so there wouldn’t be a famine in the coming months. While some of the traditional rites — like animal sacrifice — have long since disappeared, the ceremony and pageantry remain very much alive. On the day itself, June 24, the rites are re-enacted in full costume and decoration — including the processions and ceremonial appeals to Sapa Inca, the Sun God. Bonfires are lit at sunset and serve as the scene for some dancing.
The week-long event includes street fairs, expositions, live music, dancing and lavish feasts and parties. (For more information, see About.com).
Whichever traditions and customs you choose to celebrate (or observe), there’s no shortage of ways to mark the Solstice wherever in the world you are.
Additional sources: Q++ Studio Holidays, Wikipedia.