It's a long summer's day
MURALI N. KRISHNASWAMY
The summer solstice is a time of rejoicing and across the world people celebrate the event in different ways. This is because the sun is associated with life and agriculture.
June 21 is an especially long day. No, not because you have school and tons of homework. It really is a long day, the longest day of the year. It is the summer solstice. It's the time of the year when the earth's axial tilt is most inclined towards the sun. However in the polar regions (where daylight is continuous for many months during spring and summer), the day on which the summer solstice occurs is the day with the longest period of daylight. Thus the seasonal significance of the summer solstice is in the reversal of the gradual shortening of nights and lengthening of days. The summer solstice occurs in June in the Northern Hemisphere and in December in the Southern Hemisphere.
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A day for the sun: Sustaining life.
June 21 is a much-awaited day, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. It is when the sun comes into the picture. You may wonder whether it can really be a time for celebration especially when you consider how hot it can get in India.
Yes it is. It's the time of “Midsummer” or the summer solstice.
What is a solstice?
The solstice occurs twice when the earth goes around the sun, or does a circuit of the sun. A circuit of the sun is a year, so there are two solstices a year.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice is in late December and the summer solstice is in late June. In the Southern Hemispheres, the solstices are reversed.
The dictionary says that it is “either of the two times in the year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator. In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice, June 21, is the longest day in the year and the winter solstice, December 21 or 22, is the shortest.”
In short, on June 21, 22, summer begins north of the equator while winter begins south of the equator, and on December 21/22, winter begins north of the equator and summer begins south of the equator.
This is how it happens. You must know that the earth spins on its axis, the imaginary line between the north and south poles. A summer solstice is when the tilt is most inclined towards the sun at 23°26'.
The day on which the summer solstice happens is that day of the year with the longest period of daylight.
The significance is that it is a reversal of a shortening of nights and lengthening of days.
Across the world, it is an event that has been recognised and celebrated in different ways. Most often it is seen as an occasion of a renewal of life, and there are holidays, festivals and rituals.
The word solstice is derived from Latin sol which means sun and sistere which means to cause to stand still. This is because as the summer solstice approaches, the sun, at noon, rises higher and higher in the sky on each successive day. On the day of the solstice, it rises to a height which is a bit higher when compared to the day before. In this way, it “stands still”.
William Shakespeare's play “A Midsummer Night's Dream” comes to mind as its title is linked to the summer solstice. There are expressions such as “solstitial heat” in terms of being linked to a solstice, and the “solstitial rains.”
One of the most famous places in the world where the summer solstice is celebrated is at Stonehenge in the U.K., which is a prehistoric stone monument and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This year, as in the past, there will be another Stonehenge Summer Solstice tour. On June 21, visitors head to Stonehenge the previous day to be ready to watch the sunrise the next day. At dawn, “the central Altar stone aligns with the Slaughter stone, the Heel stone and the rising sun to the northeast.” It is the most important day of the year at Stonehenge and is a time for celebration .
Sun and celebration
A summer solstice is known by various names mainly because there are spiritual and religious celebrations in June. It is also called “Midsummer” as it is in the growing season across much of Europe. The Sun is associated with life, and agriculture. In some places, it is the time of the first harvest.
Some of the names the summer solstice is known by, especially in Europe, are: “Alban Heflin, Alben Heruin, Feast of Epona, Feast of St. John the Baptist, Feill-Sheathain, Gathering Day, Johannistag, Litha, Midsummer, Sonnwend, Thing-Tide and Vestalia.”
In ancient times, summer was a moment of great joy. It marked a time when life bloomed after a cold and bitter winter had disappeared. The weather was bright and cheery, the flowers were in full bloom and the trees were filled with green leaves. Herbs and medicinal plants could also be harvested. A midsummer sun was said to be good as herbs picked on this day were said to have great strength. In short, it was easy to look for food. Crops were ripe and ready to be harvested.
Sweden, for example, celebrates “Midsommar,” the celebration of summer solstice. In this land where the sun is overshadowed by dark weather and snowy winters, it is a time for joy. It means the golden outdoors, singing and dancing, either around a maypole or a huge bonfire, eating the best of the summer harvest and being merry.
In Hawaii, there are two seasons, the cooler and wetter one called “Ho'oilo,” and the hotter, drier one called “Kau.” Both seasons last for around six months each. In ancient days, the months were marked after spotting stars in the eastern sky at sunset. Their names varied from island to island. The “Kau” started from April to October. In this phase, the month of “Ka'aona” (May-June) marked the summer solstice when the sun rose and set at its northern limit (summer solstice). It was a time when the “Ulu” (breadfruit) ripened and the seas stirred to life when the “Ula” (lobster), the “moi kapu” and the “Aku and'ahi” (tuna) began to breed.
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