|Sol in his chariot; ancient Roman floor tile|
It's the pinnacle of the solar year, when the Greek god, Helios (and his Roman counterpart, Sol, as in "Solstice"), drives his chariot of the Sun higher in the sky than it will be again all year.
The date varies according to year and time zone, and while the Solstice often falls on June 21, this year, the sun reaches its high point at 3:34 pm, Santa Cruz time, Monday, June 20. It's the longest day of the year, followed by the shortest night.
Unless you're a vampire, that's reason enough to celebrate, right there. And celebrate they did, once upon a time, when daily life revolved around the cycles of the seasons. But these days, if it doesn't involve BBQ, gifts, and a three-day weekend, it doesn't really count as a holiday.
But in the old pre-Christian pagan calendar, the seasons were more closely aligned with the cycles of Nature, and the transitions between them were a big deal. Spring began February 1, with the first thaws. Merry May 1 was the beginning of summer. Fall began on August 1 with the harvest season. November 1 marked the start of winter.
On the quarter days between seasons, when the borders between our knowable world and the Otherworld were thought to be most fluid, fairies, witches, spirits of the dead, and other assorted mischief-makers were thought to slip through the cracks and run amok in the mortal world.
Pagan cultures celebrated the Feast of All Souls/Day of the Dead at the beginning of November, and it didn't take long for the Christian Church to muscle in on the festivities with All Saints (or All Hallows) Day, November 1. Which is how this particularly eerie quarter day became Hallow's Eve, better known as Halloween. Its counterpart among pagan folk was the equally uncanny and raucous May Eve.
But the two biggest festivals in the pagan year fell between the quarter days. The Feast of Midwinter broke up the long, cold slog between November and February with feasting and merriment, coinciding (more or less) with the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year (and the longest night). Since all cultures were already celebrating this festival of light in the middle of darkness, the Church rebranded it as Christmas (the Feast of Christ).
The Church tried to repurpose Midsummer, as well; they moved it away from the Solstice to June 24, the designated feast day for St. John the Baptist. June 23 became John's Eve, or Midsummer's Eve, another otherworldly time dominated by witchery and the fair folk.
But Midsummer had already been a major event in the folklore calendar for centuries, connected to the Solstice. The Druidic tribes of Britain built the massive, megalithic sundial that is Stonehenge to mark the annual rising of the Midsummer sun.
And Will Shakespeare had plenty to say on the subject in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where a lovers' spat between the King and Queen of the fairies sparks a ripple effect of romantic complications among various mortals in the moonlit forest.
Sadly, Midsummer isn't such a big deal these days. (Except in northern climes like Scandinavia, where they celebrate 20+ hours of sunlight with a vengeance, as an antidote to the 20+ hours of darkness they endure during the winter.)
|It's a marvelous night for a moondance...|
Do whatever you can to make it last, because it's all downhill from here. As soon as the sun reaches this highest point in the year, the days inevitably start getting shorter.
But here's another thing: this year, we also get a Midsummer full moon smack on the same day as the Summer Solstice. Overnight on Sunday-Monday, some 11 hours before the Sun does his thing, the moon will reach her maximum fullness for the month.
What does that mean to us neo-pagans? Well, the last time King Sol and Queen Luna danced their Midsummer tango was in 1967 (aka: the Summer of Love). So be prepared for anything!