Could there be a more appropriate place to celebrate the solstice than in Times Square? Since 1904, the winter solstice (that's "New Year's Eve" to you) celebrations have evolved from a fireworks display on the roof of the Times Tower to the introduction of a New Year's Eve ball lowering to the "eyes of the world" extravaganza that it is today when a worldwide audience, more than a billion strong, watches as 2,000 pounds of confetti are scattered over more than half-a-million revelers packed into Times Square on December 31st.
The Times Square Alliance has introduced a counterpoint to New Year's Eve with "Mind Over Madness Yoga", celebrating the summer solstice (the longest day of the year). Throughout history, many cultures have associated the summer solstice with a renewal of mind, body and spirit and a celebration of creative expression - of art, music and the sense of joyfulness and fun that the sunshine evokes in all of us. And what better place to celebrate than in Times Square - for the past hundred years, America's center for creativity, energy, bright lights and over-the-top artistic expression.
We like to think of ourselves as innovators here in Times Square, but we can't take credit for the creation of the summer solstice - it's been celebrated in many forms since the dawn of recorded human history. Below you'll find a brief overview of the cultural, historical and scientific significance of the summer solstice across the world's diverse cultures.
THE SOLSTICE AND THE CALENDAR
The summer solstice usually occurs on June 20/June 21/June 22 in the northern hemisphere and on December 21/December 22 in the southern hemisphere.
In Chinese astronomy, the phenomenon known as Xiazhi roughly corresponds to the summer solstice – it begins when the sun reaches the celestial longitude of 90° and ends when its celestial longitude is 105°. Xiazhi usually begins around June 21, and ends around July 7, though the term sometimes refers in particular to the day when Sun is exactly at the celestial longitude of 90°.
In the USA, Canada, and some other countries, the summer solstice is regarded as the start of summer. In other countries, including Ireland, the UK, China, and Japan, the summer solstice is regarded as midsummer. For example, in Ireland, summer begins on May 1 and ends on July 31. Similarly, traditional East Asian calendars refer to the summer solstice as the "extreme of summer" and not the start.
CULTURAL AND SPIRITUAL SIGNIFICANCE
THE PRE-CHRISTIAN SOLSTICE
The solstice has been observed as a special moment of the annual cycle of the year since neolithic times. The concentration of the observance is not on the day as we reckon it (commencing at midnight or at dawn), but on the pre-Christian beginning of the day, which falls on the previous eve.
Today, Summer Solstice is still celebrated as a Wiccan sabbat (one of eight major seasonal festivals), called Litha. Every year, a celebration takes place at Stonehenge. This tradition dates back to pre-Christian fertility celebrations.
Midsummer has been Christianized as the feast of Saint John the Baptist. In the 7th century, Saint Eligius warned the recently-Christianized inhabitants of Flanders against pagan solstitial celebrations:
"No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [summer solstice rites] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants."
Despite the Saint’s imprecations, modern Solstice celebrations contain a rich mix of Christian and Pagan elements.
In Denmark the solstitial celebration is called Sankt Hans Aften ("St. John's Eve"). It was an official holiday until 1770 and, in accordance with the pre-Christian tradition of beginning the “day” at sunset, it takes place on the evening of June 23. On this evening, medieval wise men and women (the doctors of their day) would gather healing plants for use throughout the year (it was believed that plants picked on this night possessed special potency). The solstice has been celebrated in Denmark since the times of the Vikings by visiting healing water sources and making a large bonfire to ward away evil spirits. Speeches, picnics and songs are also traditional. In the 1920s a tradition of putting a witch made of straw and cloth on the bonfire emerged as a remembrance of the church's witchburnings from 1540 to 1693.
Midsummer's Eve is in Sweden and Finland considered the greatest festival of the year, comparable only with Walpurgis Night, Christmas Eve, and New Year's Eve. Before 1316, the summer solstice was called Ukon juhla, after an old Finnish god, Ukko. The biggest bonfire at a given celebration was called Ukko-kokko (the "bonfire of Ukko"). At present the midsummer holiday is known as Juhannus, or midsommar for the Swedish-speaking minority, and is the year's most notable occasion for drunkenness and revels. Will ‘o wisps were believed to appear on this night and mark the location of hidden treasure. Because Midsummer is one of the times of the year when magic is believed to be the strongest, it is seen as a good night to perform rituals to look into the future. Today, young girls pick bouquets of seven or nine different flowers and put them under their pillow in the hope of dreaming about their future husband.
In Estonia and Latvia, Midsummer's Eve and St John's Day are two of the most important days in the calendar, marked by bonfires and parties. Traditional diversions include jumping over bonfires and flower-picking.
In Jersey, off the coast of Normandy, the custom known as Les cônes d'la Saint Jean was observed as late as the 1970s - horns or conch shells were blown. Ringing the bachîn (a large brass preserving pan) at midsummer to frighten away evil spirits survived as a custom on some farms until the 1940s and has been revived as a folk performance in the 21st century.
In parts of Norway, a solstice custom of arranging mock marriages, both between adults and between children, is still kept alive. The wedding was meant to symbolize the blossoming of new life. Such weddings are known to have taken place in the 1800s, but the custom is believed to be older.
In Great Britain, from the 13th century Midsummer was celebrated on Midsummer Eve with the lighting of bonfires, feasting and merrymaking. The tradition declined significantly during the Reformation, but persisted in rural areas up until the nineteenth century. Other Midsummer festivities had uneasy relations with the Reformed establishment. The Chester Midsummer Watch Parade, begun in 1498, was held at every summer solstice in years when the Chester Mystery Plays were not performed. Despite the cancellation of the plays in 1575, the parade continued; in 1599, however, the Lord Mayor ordered the parades banned and the costumes destroyed. The parade was permanently banned in 1675. The association of the solstice with dramatic performance was permanently cemented, however, by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Top Image Photo Credit: Adam Pantozzi