A brief history of humanity′s fascination for the summer solstice | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 20.06.2018
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A brief history of humanity's fascination for the summer solstice

For thousands of years, people have celebrated the summer solstice, or midsummer day. Nowadays, it's easy to explain what it's about, but in prehistoric times, this natural phenomenon seemed to be a mystery to people.

It all began in the late Neolithic Age in the northern hemisphere. Back then, people started to venerate the sun, so they observed it more closely. They noticed that, twice a year, the sun changed its direction. On the year's shortest day in the winter, when there is only little light for just a few hours, the sun is positioned at its southernmost point. After that, it starts to move northwards, and the days get longer again. Six months later, when the year's shortest night and longest day occurs, the sun is positioned at its northernmost point. After that, the days start to get shorter again.

Winter and summer solstice

Of course, people back then didn't know that it's not at all the sun that moves. What really moves is the earth, which rotates around the sun in the course of one year. Nevertheless, people of the late Neolithic Age determined the yearly date of the winter solstice (today mostly on December 21), as well as the summer solstice (today mostly on June 21), while marking the astronomical start of the winter and summer with these dates.

Infografik Die Erdbahn Wintersonnenwende

How the earth rotates around the sun

Research shows that people in the Middle East already registered the date of the summer solstice 11,000 years ago. The same can be said about the ancient cult site Stonehenge in southern England that's believed to be at least 5,000 years old.

A mystical day

People attributed a mystical significance especially to the summer solstice, or midsummer day.It was in this context that the myth of the world turned upside down developed. According to that myth, the world stands still for a moment during the summer solstice.

Midsummer day eventually became a holiday in the religions of the Germanic, Scandinavian, Baltic, Slav and Celtic peoples. One reason for that may be the fact that the following summer season with its harvests secured people's survival. At the same time, however, the day after which the days would become shorter also symbolized death and transience.

Christian influence

During the Christianization of Europe, a Christian interpretation was implanted into formerly pagan holidays and their rites and customs.This also holds true for the winter and summer solstices. During the first centuries after Christ, they were celebrated on Christ's birthday on December 24/25, as well as on June 24/25.

Leonardo da Vinci Johannes der Täufer (picture-alliance/akg-images/A. Held)

"John the Baptist" — a painting by Leonardo da Vinci

There's evidence that December 25 has been a Catholic Church feast since the year 336. People celebrated Christmas, the birthday of the son of God, Jesus Christ. In early Christendom, he was called "Verus Sol," meaning "true sun." Previously, the day had been devoted to the Roman "Sol Invictus," the unconquerable sun. That particular day fitted perfectly well into Christian imagery as it symbolizes the return of light, the never-ending force of the sun that creates life. In this sense, the winter solstice has a strong Christian aspect to it.

The summer solstice was dealt with in similar fashion. The Gospel according to Luke reports that John the Baptist was born half a year before Jesus Christ. That's why the birthday of the Jewish preacher, prophet and precursor of Christ was fixed on June 24. From then on, the day of the summer solstice was also called St. John's Day. In this way, these new Christian customs were linked to the much older solstice customs.

Deutschland | Sonnwendfeuer (picture-alliance/dpa/Bildagentur-online/S. Celeste)

Summer solstice fire in Upper Franconia, Germany

Midsummer day celebrations across Europe

In Germany and large regions of Europe, midsummer day is mostly celebrated on St. John's Day. But that's not the case everywhere. There are regional differences.

In Nordic and Baltic countries, customs are quite different. In Sweden, Finland and Estonia, midsummer day is almost as popular as Christmas. In Latvia, the holiday is indeed the most popular one. What the celebrations across Europe, from the North Cape all the way to the South of Spain, all have in common is that huge bonfires are ignited everywhere.

Find out more about their significance, as well as other details about summer solstice celebrations in Europe, in our picture gallery.

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