Summer solstice

Here comes the sun


#04 Tradition


Kathleen Bernsdorf



From time immemorial the summer solstice on June 21 has been viewed as a mystical event; it is marked by both secular rituals and religious rites the world over. Since the Middle Ages the festivities have often revolved around the birthday of St John the Baptist on June 24. Communal bonfires feature regularly and are regarded as enhancing the sunlight and driving out ill fortune. These festivals are particularly common in Scandinavia and along the Baltic coast, but bonfires also light up the sky in the mountains and valleys of the Alps. In 2010 UNESCO added the mountain fires to Austria's Intangible Cultural Heritage list. And while the regional mid-summer customs seem similar – at least in Europe – the traditions do differ in their detail. We have taken a closer look.

"Xiazhi" is celebrated in the south-west Chinese city of Yulin, with dog meat traditionally on offer in every conceivable dish: grilled, boiled or in a soup. By contrast the residents of Beijing mark the summer solstice with pasta softened in cold water, as the long, smooth noodles symbolise the absence of friction and are thought to bring good luck.

Fires lit to mark the summer solstice have been reclaimed to commemorate the so-called Sacred Heart vow of 1796, with which the leaders of Tyrol called for divine assistance in their battle against Napoleon's armies. These fires are often arranged in the shape of hearts, crucifixes and the insignia of Christ, and set ablaze on the Saturday or Sunday after the Feast of the Sacred Heart.

At "midsommar" the Swedes dance in a circle around a decorated tree trunk. Many of them wear costumes or garlands made of flowers or birch twigs. The traditional meal for the day includes new potatoes, herring, chives, sour cream, crisp bread and cheese.

The ancient archaeological site Stonehenge was used to determine the summer solstice no less than 2,500 years before Christ. The entrance to the site points exactly to where the sun rises on that day. Nowadays more than 10,000 people gather here every year to celebrate throughout the night with music, dancing and fire.

On St. John's Eve, torches and fires are lit in remembrance of "Jonsok", and children re-enact a traditional Norwegian wedding. Young girls pluck seven different types of flowers, put them under their pillows and dream of their future husbands.

The majority of Finns head out into the countryside and celebrate with friends and family in summer houses decked out with blossoms and birch twigs. Needless to say, visits to the sauna are central to the festival. According to ancient custom, the harvest will also be more plentiful if people drink on "Juhannus".

In Lithuania people believe that animals too can speak during the shortest night of the year. But the people alone don colourful costumes for the event and drink specially brewed beer.

In Brazil St. John's Eve coincides with the corn harvest. For this reason various corn dishes are prepared in honour of São João. Cooked on the ceremonial bonfire, they include cakes, puddings, soups and corn on the cob. The women tend to wear colourful, loose-fitting dresses, while the men sport checked shirts and straw hats.

Faroe Islands
The Jóansøka was first held in 1925 – a sports festival that features the country's annual rowing championships. Football, cycling and athletics events are also held.

In St. Petersburg the "White Nights" are celebrated and the entire city mutates into a gigantic public festival. School-leavers attend their final classes on June 21 and traditionally spend the night relaxing on the River Neva in chartered boats with purple sails.

In Fairbanks the Midnight Sun Festival takes place from midday to midnight. The day’s climax is the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics with events such as "Ear Pulling" and "Knuckle Hopping".

Sleep is a rare commodity on San Juan's Night. Instead the Spaniards gather around fires to celebrate the victory of light over darkness. People often meet at the beach where, at midnight, they dive into the water and light fireworks.

For the indigenous Amayas, the summer solstice marks the beginning of a new year. Fires are lit and sacrifices offered up, e.g. unborn llamas. When the brightest of nights reaches its end, everybody raises their hands to welcome the rising sun.

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