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Summer Solstice
One of the Eight Days of the Great Wheel of the Year

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Just a few words about the Summer Solstice.

It's the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere.  It results from the apparent journeying of the sun from North to South; when it seems to reach its northernmost point (over the Tropic of Cancer, at 23-1/2 degrees north), it appears to reverse its direction and travel south again.

(Living in Shenzhen, I have experienced a new phenomenon.  We are at about 22 degrees north, which edges us barely over into the tropics.  As a result, at this time of year, the sun just peeks into the windows on the north side of my house.  That never happened in Rosemead!)

Why do I say "seems," "appears," etc.?  Because in fact it is the earth that moves, not the sun.  (Or is it?  I am reminded of what Hui Neng said in the Platform Sutra (Amazon): "It happened that one day, when a pennant was blown about by the wind, two Bhikkhus entered into a dispute as to what it was that was in motion, the wind or the pennant. As they could not settle their difference I submitted to them that it was neither, and that what actually moved was their own mind.")

Anyway, you can read the cause of the apparent motion here, with pictures.

The mythic significance is a whole other matter.

Winter solstice gets more attention in the northern hemisphere; traditions around summer are weak.  Last night (the solstice) I was with a group of Chinese university professors, and asked them if the knew of any Chinese summer solstice traditions.  They concluded that there weren't any.  I asked them why winter had several (mostly associated with food), and summer had none.  "Winter is scarier," the suggested; "You need to worry more about your health." (Everything's relative: I usually get sick from summer weather here; winter is downright pleasant!)

China aside, there are summer solstice traditions.  This is the "Midsummer's Night" mentioned in the title of Shakespeare's play.  And this brings up another point: In modern times, we call this the "start of summer." In fact it is not.  If summer is the time of the longest days, then summer started about six weeks ago--around May Day--and will continue for another six weeks, until about August 1st.  So this is indeed mid-summer, not the start.

The traditions of mid-summer are spread all across the northern hemisphere.  A good starting place to learn more would be at the amazing Mything Links site. (Kathleen's usually-fine essay is in this case quite pessimistic.  Don't be discouraged!  Scroll down to the links starting at the words "Summer links"!)  You can also turn off the music at the bottom of the page.

Here are a few highlights from the links:

  • Religious Tolerance has everything from folklore to science, including a list of world-wide "Midsummer celebrations in ancient and modern times."

  • From School of the Seasons, a great article summarizing European traditions

  • Wiccan wise man Mike Nichols (access in China) gives the Pagan insider's view (including some fascinating alternate traditions about John the Baptist!)

Happy Solstice!


Contents (C) 2006 James Baquet
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