Every summer as the solstice draws near, thousands gather at the ancient Stonehenge site in Wiltshire, England. It is a mixed group of pagans, Druids, hippies, Christians and people who simply love a good party.
The celebration is one that is almost as old as time itself. Stonehenge’s own origins are lost in the mists of time. It may be a religious site or a burial mound. Some suggest that it is an astronomical calendar. Regardless, people have gathered here for centuries to watch through the night and observe the dawn as it breaks on the longest day. It is a celebration of the wheel of time and a wish for a bountiful harvest. Though modern day celebrants sometimes mistake the solstice for the beginning of the summer, purists recognize it as the beginning of the end of summer. After all, once the solstice is passed, days grow increasingly shorter as the nights grow longer. This is why the solstice is referred to as Midsummer Day in some cultures.
The people who gather at Stonehenge each year have personal reasons to account for their attendance. For some, it is a religious holiday that is observed with reverence and simple ceremony. Druids often mark the sunrise with awed silence. Others feel compelled to bang drums, sing or ring bells to commemorate the occasion. Throughout the short night before the dawn, revellers will drink, feast, dance and enjoy the light of bonfires which are lit to honour the absent sun. Prayers are offered and wishes for a prosperous year are given.
Other people recognize the summer solstice celebration at Stonehenge as an excellent excuse to have a party. They have few spiritual connections to the event, and simply wish to indulge in an opportunity to enjoy an all night party with a spectacular dawn at its end. The revelries are sometimes marked by the use of drugs and a great deal of alcohol. The police presence is pronounced, and every year there are a few arrests. However, most attendants cite the celebration as a peaceful, harmonious time.
Though the gathering at Stonehenge is likely the most well known solstice celebration, the event is marked around the world and across cultures. Scandinavian countries observe the solstice with bonfires on the beach and elaborate festivals. Maypoles figure heavily into the celebration in Sweden, where the solstice is typically celebrated on the weekend closest to the actual event in order to allow for a national three day weekend. In places like Missouri and Santa Barbara, California, midsummer festivals also allow people a chance to celebrate the bounty of the warm season. Wiccans in Canada and Native American tribes in Arizona follow ancient summer solstice traditions. Catholic countries celebrate the feast of St. John the Baptist. In Ireland, traditional spiritualists visit ancient religious sites.
A Mix of Traditions
People may celebrate the summer solstice in a solitary fashion or with a group of thousands of other participants. Traditionalists will burn a Yule wreath in a bonfire and may also use herbs in ritualistic ceremonies. Some will dance, some will drum. Some will greet the dawn with a reverent silence while others shout at the heavens. The manner of celebration is intimate, personal and, in some cases, religious. Celebrants may spend hours preparing for the event, or decide upon a spur of the moment ritual. Either way, the summer solstice is an opportunity to mark the relentless passage of time, a chance for people to be reminded of a time when their ancestors lived or died by the power of the sun.
Guest post written by Hugo Riddle. Hugo writes about travel in the UK, reviews accommodation establishments in cities such as Bath.