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
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
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
The Summer Solstice is also known as: Alban Heflin, Alben
Heruin, All-couples day, Feast of Epona, Feast of St. John the Baptist,
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
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
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
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)