Updated: Aug 23, 2021
I am often accused of being ritualistic, and it is not an accusation I can deny. I am constantly on the search for ways to add extra meaning to normal life. Seemingly everyday things take on a ceremonial significance for me: the first butterfly spotted in Spring, the last tomato from the garden in Autumn. I am entirely without favouritism: Passover and Eid al-Fitr are marked or researched alongside Lent and Pentecost; May Day is observed with the same enthusiasm as Earth Day or my own Birthday; and while I may draw the line at celebrating today as Garfield the Cat Day (yes, it’s a thing apparently), I may have to set a little time aside later this afternoon to properly honour World Sauntering Day.
In the calendar of notable dates, however, nothing ranks quite as highly as tomorrow; the Summer (or June) Solstice. With implications on almost every scale we can imagine – from the Solar System, down to animal behaviour – the Solstice also has significance in almost every sphere of human activity: culturally, historically, religiously, politically.
We should get our terminology correct first. The Solstice is our name for an astronomical phenomenon: the moment when the Earth has reached a position on its course around the Sun when one of the Earth’s poles is closest to the Sun. There are, therefore, two Summer Solstices each year: in the Northern Hemisphere, this is sometime between 20th and 21st June (at which time the Southern Hemisphere has its Winter Solstice), while Summer Solstice for in the Southern Hemisphere is sometime between 21-22 December (and therefore Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere).
My ritual for Summer Solstice has been to see the whole day - from sunrise to sunset - and to dedicate the intervening 16(ish) hours to celebration.
Midsummer, on the other hand, is a historic celebration; a festival season dedicated to these longest of Summer days. Traditionally a folk festival celebrated around the world, in the British Isles it gradually became linked with the Christian feast day for the birth St. John the Baptist (24 June). It is though it’s interesting to note, therefore, that the June Solstice and Midsummer are actually different celebrations: the former concerned with the planet, the latter with cultural and religious traditions.
For the past few years, my ritual for Summer Solstice has been to see the whole day - from sunrise to sunset - and to dedicate the intervening 16(ish) hours to celebration, which usually involves little more than cooking and eating extravagant meals (ideally on the off-set smoker on the patio). This year, I'm cooking free range, high-welfare lamb shoulder from a local farm near Eye, in Suffolk, ordered from The Wild Meat Company. I will need to get the fire going by around 5am tomorrow morning, and the meat will cook for about 6 or 7 hours. This is slow cooking at its most primitive and rewarding.
There is an small private airfield close to our house where I can get a perfect view of the Midsummer sunrise. It is a quiet spot, popular with joggers and dog-walkers, but not at this time in the morning: Here in Suffolk, the sun will rise at 4:35. On a clear morning, the Solstice sunrise will be ablaze with yellows, oranges, pinks, purples and blues, the first sharp dot of dawn almost painful after the long wait in the shivering cold. The dawn chorus will have started an hour ago, and soon the skylarks that nest in the long grasses here will add their dizzying calls to the general mayhem of competing songs.
Watching the sunset is a little trickier where we are, and requires an evening walk to the brow of the hill. On a perfect Summer Solstice, the air will have cooled down by this time, and the birds will have been replaced by swooping bats. Against the melting sky, the silhouettes of the trees will look like they have been cut out of the sky. I never give myself quite enough time to reach a good viewing spot, so by the time the sun finally dips below the horizon at 21:22, I'm usually on the wrong side of the train tracks, and have to squeeze awkwardly between the metal railings for a good view.
Of course, as well as being a celebration of the longest day, Midsummer is also a reminder to make the most of each day. While it may feel as though Summer is only just starting, the Solstice marks the beginning of the gradual shift back towards Autumn and Winter. Our warmest days may still be ahead of us, but the longest day (and shortest night) will soon be behind us. Hopefully we can look forward to another bright, calm Solstice this year, but whatever the weather throws at us, this is a day to make sure we relish and appreciate.