Everyone has their own definition of summer and I guess I’m not your average summer person. Don’t get me wrong, I love the season as long as there are no bugs involved. I love beaches, cool summer evenings and how the desert calms as the day ends on a hot summer day. And here in Vienna, Austria, I get to walk through the vineyards on cloudy days while looking at the city.
Yet, I do have a very different perspective as I look at it from the day of my birth. See, I was born on Summer Solstice and therein is my problem. My birthday is the longest day of the year and for some, that moniker isn’t that all inspiring. Except when you spend it in Scotland.
In Scotland, on my birthday, the sun doesn’t go down until sometime around 11 pm and it makes an interesting time. Especially when one decides to stay up the whole night to see what really happens. When the sun does go down, it’s not the real down you might imagine. It just kind of dips beneath the horizon, hovers there for a few hours then rises again. You can still see the light from it but muted as it is below the edge of your world.
So then, just why do people get some all hot and bothered by the day? Let’s look at its history. The word solstice is derived from a combination of Latin words mean sun and to stand still. It comes from the fact that as the days get longer, the sun rises higher in the sky and appears to stand still. It is considered a major celestial event. However, when we in the northern hemisphere are having our longest event, those in the southern hemisphere are having their shortest day. Those in the southern hemisphere have their longest day on December 21st.
The actual solstice celebrations were pagan in origin. Pagans call the midsummer moon a honey moon for the mead made from fermented honey. Mead was part of the summer solstice wedding ceremonies then and the happy couple would ‘honey moon’ the night away. Those same pagans celebrated the day with bonfires as couples leapt through the flames in hopes that their crops would grow as high as they could jump.
Pagans also believed it to be a time of magic when the veil thinned thus allowing evil spirits to appear. They would wear protective garlands made of herbs and golden flowers from calendula and St. John’s Wort. The plants were picked on this day for use throughout the year. St. John’s Wort is still used today to chase away the devil within us.
As Christianity entered pagan areas, midsummer celebrations were incorporated to be new Christian holidays that tried to mix the old and the new. Interestingly enough, those in northern Europe celebrated the event on varying days between June 21 and June 25. It was called St. John’s Day in honor of John the Baptist’s birth and celebrated on June 24 by the Christians with St. John’s Eve celebrated on June 23. In Roman times, it was celebrated on June 24. And surprisingly enough, June 21 isn’t always the longest day of the year.
I know that solstice celebrations vary from place to place in the US. The most interesting one I haven’t gone to was one at Stonehenge. We were near the area on my birthday twice and neither time could we make as you have to purchase tickets up to two years in advance to get into the monument.
Another one I haven’t attended but plan on doing so before I leave Austria is the spectacular procession on ships down the Danube River through the Wachau Valley just north of Vienna. Apparently up to 30 ships sail down the river in a line as the river banks and hilltops erupt with fireworks and bonfires blaze. Vineyards are light up and castle ruins also host fireworks as one cruises for a 90 minute jaunt downstream. Now that would be a birthday to definitely remember!
Welcome to summer…now go out and enjoy those summer days…and catch some lightning bugs for me!