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The June solstice has been associated with many ancient summer traditions and continues to be celebrated in modern society. It is also known as the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere and the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. The June solstice occurs on June 20, 21 or 22 in the Gregorian calendar, which is currently used in many western countries.
In ancient times, the date of the June solstice was an important source to help people manage their calendars and organize when to plant and harvest crops. This time of year was also a traditional month for weddings. Some societies invested much effort to establish the length of the year.
Stonehenge was built around 3100 BCE. Some people believe that it was built to help establish when the summer solstice occurred. Interestingly, the sun rises at a particular point on the horizon as viewed from the centre of the stone circle on day of the June solstice. At that point the builders may have started counting the days of the year. Many other megalith structures in Europe may have been built for similar purposes, although reasons are still uncertain.
In ancient China, the summer solstice was observed by a ceremony to celebrate the earth, femininity, and the “yin” forces. It complemented the winter solstice that celebrated the heavens, masculinity and “yang” forces. According to Chinese tradition, the shortest shadow is found on the day of summer solstice.
In many countries in Europe, Midsummer festivals or celebrations were held around the time of the June solstice. In ancient Gaul, the Midsummer celebration was called Feast of Epona, named after a mare goddess who personified fertility and protected horses. In ancient Germanic, Slav and Celtic tribes, many pagans celebrated Midsummer with bonfires. After Christianity spread in Europe and other parts of the world, many pagan customs were incorporated into the Christian religion. In many parts of Scandinavia, the Midsummer celebration continued but was observed around the time of St John’s Day, on June 24, to honor St John the Baptist instead of the pagan gods.
In North America, many Native American tribes held ritual dances to honor the sun. The Sioux were known to hold one of the most spectacular rituals. Usually performed during the June solstice, preparations for the dance included cutting and raising a tree that would be considered a visible connection between the heavens and earth, and setting up teepees in a circle to represent the cosmos. Participants abstained from food and drink during the dance itself. Their bodies were decorated in the symbolic colors of red (sunset), blue (sky), yellow (lightning), white (light), and black (night).
There are many solstice observances held by New Age and Neopagan groups throughout the world. In the United Kingdom, an organization known as English Heritage will provide managed open access to Stonehenge for the June solstice in 2008. Thousands of people, including modern-day druids and pagans, gathered at Stonehenge in 2007 for this occasion.
In some parts of the United States, events that focus on the theme of the summer solstice are held. These events include: local festivals featuring art or music; environmental awareness activities that focus on using natural sunlight as a source of energy; and family gatherings.
In northern European countries such as Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, the Midsummer Festival is one of the most festive summer celebrations. Celebrations occur when the summer days are at their longest – and in the north it is the time of the midnight sun. Midsummer festivals generally celebrate the summer and the fertility of the earth. In Sweden and many parts of Finland people dance around maypoles. Bonfires are lit and homes are decorated with flower garlands, greenery, and tree branches.