The Longest Day of the Year…

by

Marlene Smith

June, 2005

 

Past Columns

December 2004

January 2005

February 2005

April 2005

 


I love Summer Solstice – and not only because it is the day of the year in which we have the most sunlight, but it’s the day of the year that I can ride the most without having to admit to my terrible night vision! OK, my night vision isn’t soooo bad, but it’s still great to have that much more time to ride in the beautiful, warm sunlight.

We know it as the first day of summer. Some refer to it as the longest day of the year. So, what makes this day – the solstice – so special? To understand, you'll need a little background about the Sun and the Earth.

In the summer, days feel longer because the Sun rises earlier in the morning and sets later at night. When the North Pole of the Earth is tilted toward the Sun, we in the northern hemisphere receive more sunlight and it's summer. As the Earth moves in its orbit, the tilt of the North Pole changes. When it is tilted away from the Sun, it is winter in the northern hemisphere. In between we have autumn and spring.

The day that the Earth's North Pole is tilted closest to the sun is called the summer solstice. This is the longest day (most daylight hours) of the year for people living in the northern hemisphere. It is also the day that the Sun reaches its highest point in the sky.

Solstice comes from the Latin (sol, meaning sun; sistere, meaning cause to stand still). For several days before and after each solstice, the sun appears to stand still in the sky—that is, its noontime elevation does not seem to change.

The winter solstice, or the shortest day of the year, happens when the Earth's North Pole is tilted farthest from the Sun.

In between, there are two times when the tilt of the Earth is zero, meaning that the tilt is neither away from the Sun nor toward the Sun. These are the vernal equinox – the first day of spring – and the autumnal equinox – the first day of fall. Equinox means "equal." During these times, the hours of daylight and night are equal. Both are 12 hours long.

The Summer Solstice is also known as: Alban Heflin, Alben Heruin, All-couples day, Feast of Epona, Feast of St. John the Baptist, Feill-Sheathain, Gathering Day, Johannistag, Litha, Midsummer, Sonnwend, Thing-Tide, Vestalia – just to name a few.

In pre-historic times, summer was a joyous time of the year for those Aboriginal people who lived in the northern latitudes. The snow had disappeared; the ground had thawed out; warm temperatures had returned; flowers were blooming; leaves had returned to the deciduous trees. Some herbs could be harvested, for medicinal and other uses. Food was easier to find. The crops had already been planted and would be harvested in the months to come.

The first (or only) full moon in June is called the Honey Moon. Tradition holds that this is the best time to harvest honey from the hives. This time of year, between the planting and harvesting of the crops, was the traditional month for weddings. This is because many ancient peoples believed that the "grand [sexual] union" of the Goddess and God occurred in early May at Beltaine. Since it was unlucky to compete with the deities, many couples delayed their weddings until June. June remains a favorite month for marriage today. In some traditions, "newly wed couples were fed dishes and beverages that featured honey for the first month of their married life to encourage love and fertility. The surviving vestige of this tradition lives on in the name given to the holiday immediately after the ceremony: The Honeymoon."

Druids, the priestly/professional/diplomatic corps in Celtic countries, celebrated Alban Heruin ("Light of the Shore"). It was midway between the spring Equinox (Alban Eiler; "Light of the Earth") and the fall Equinox (Alban Elfed; "Light of the Water"). "This midsummer festival celebrates the apex of Light, sometimes symbolized in the crowning of the Oak King, God of the waxing year. At his crowning, the Oak King falls to his darker aspect, the Holly King, God of the waning year". The days following Alban Heruin form the waning part of the year because the days become shorter.

In Ancient China, the summer solstice ceremony celebrated the earth, the feminine, and the yin forces. It complemented the winter solstice, which celebrated the heavens, masculinity and yang forces.

In Ancient Gaul, the Midsummer celebration was called Feast of Epona, named after a mare goddess who personified fertility, sovereignty and agriculture. She was portrayed as a woman riding a mare.

Ancient Pagans celebrated Midsummer with bonfires. "It was the night of fire festivals and of love magic, of love oracles and divination. It had to do with lovers and predictions, when pairs of lovers would jump through the luck-bringing flames..." It was believed that the crops would grow as high as the couples were able to jump. Through the fire's power, "...maidens would find out about their future husband, and spirits and demons were banished." Another function of bonfires was to generate sympathetic magic, giving a boost to the sun's energy so that it would remain potent throughout the rest of the growing season and guarantee a plentiful harvest.

In Ancient Rome, the festival of Vestalia lasted from June 7th to June 15th. It was held in honor of the Roman Goddess of the hearth, Vesta. Married women were able to enter the shrine of Vesta during the festival. At other times of the year, only the vestal virgins were permitted inside.

A Midsummer tree in Ancient Sweden was set up and decorated in each town. The villagers danced around it. Women and girls would customarily bathe in the local river. This was a magical ritual, intended to bring rain for the crops.

The Essenes were a Jewish religious group active in Palestine during the 1st century. It was one of about 24 Jewish groups in the country, and the only one that used a solar calendar. Other Jewish groups at the time included the Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, followers of John, and followers of Yeshua (Jesus). Archeologists have found that the largest room of the ruins at Qumran (location of the Dead Sea Scrolls) appears to be a sun temple. The room had been considered a dining room by earlier investigators, in spite of the presence of two altars at its eastern end. At the time of the summer solstice, the rays of the setting sun shine at 286 degrees along the building's longitudinal axis, and illuminate the eastern wall. The room is oriented at exactly the same angle as the Egyptian shrines dedicated to the sun. Two ancient authorities - the historian Josephus and the philosopher Filon of Alexandria - had written that the Essenes were sun worshipers. Until now, their opinion has been rejected by modern historians.

Native Americans have created countless stone structures linked to equinoxes and solstices. Many are still standing. One was called Calendar One by its modern-day finder. It is in a natural amphitheatre of about 20 acres in size in Vermont. From a stone enclosure in the center of the bowl, one can see a number of vertical rocks and other markers around the edge of the bowl. "At the summer solstice, the sun rose at the southern peak of the east ridge and set at a notch at the southern end of the west ridge." The winter solstice and the equinoxes were similarly marked. The Bighorn Medicine Wheel west of Sheridan, WY is perhaps the most famous of the 40 or more similar "wheels" on the high plains area of the Rocky Mountains, and most are located in Canada. At Bighorn, the center of a small cairn, that is external to the main wheel, lines up with the center of the wheel and the sun rising at the summer equinox. Another similar sighting cairn provides a sighting for three dawn-rising stars: Aldebaran, Rigel and Sirius. A third cairn lines up with fourth star: Fomalhaut. The term "medicine wheel" was coined by Europeans; and was a term used to describe anything native that white people didn't understand.

There is so much to talk about here when discussing the longest day of the year. The ancient history and celebrations of the day are fascinating and there is so much more to say. Of course, all I want to discuss, and I am sure you do too, is how far of a ride can we go on, and how thrilled we are that the day will seem to go on forever. Let’s continue our riding traditions and make June 21st one that all motorcyclists relish – a day to point your bike into the wind and follow the sun to wherever she leads you…

Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air…
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882)

[Newsletter][Archives]


Site design and maintenance by DPW Enterprises

Copyright ©1999-2014
The Spokes-Women Motorcycle Club, Inc.
All rights reserved.