Summer Solstice: a guide to celebrating the longest day of the year


Stonehenge. Wiltshire. England. 'Stonehenge From Inside 5' by dannysullivanCreative Commons Attribution

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Location: Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England

Date: 21 June each year

Level of participation: 3 - stay up until sunrise

Summer solstice is a subject of much controversy. Having inspired ancient druids to perform rituals at stone circles and Burning Man founder Larry Harvey to incinerate an effigy, its very name causes discord. The solar event, when the sun is directly above the northern hemisphere, indicates that hemisphere’s midsummer. However, because the same moment is midwinter in the southern hemisphere, it could more neutrally be called the northern solstice.

But try telling that to a Scottish druid. The celebrations to mark the longest day of the northern year date back to pre-Christian times and inspire various rituals, from fertility rites to invocations of agricultural success in the coming months.

In Sweden, ‘Midsommar’ inspires dances around a decorated pole, folk music, flowery decorations for the home, and even more time spent in the sauna than usual. Across Scandinavia, people come together to consume pickled herring or fresh fish, potatoes, vodka shots and the first strawberries of the season, and to sit around bonfires. The fires honoured the sun god in pagan times and they still signify the triumph of light over darkness; Danish versions include a straw witch, a reminder of the country’s 17th-century witch-burnings.

One of the most famous summer solstice celebrations, at England’s Stonehenge, has long been surrounded by controversy. From 1972 to 1984 neo-druids, new-age travellers and other alternative communities converged on the Neolithic stone circle for the Stonehenge Free Festival, along with cult bands such as Hawkwind and Gong.

In 1985, authorities stopped a convoy of about 100 vehicles from setting up the festival, an encounter that ended with the notorious Battle of the Beanfield, in which police in riot gear clashed with travellers. Immortalised in a song by The Levellers, the incident became a symbol of the discontent welling on the margins of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s intolerant Britain.

Having been closed for many years, Stonehenge reopened for the summer solstice in 1999. The event now attracts more than 20,000 participants, from those who simply want to see in dawn to white-robed druids who observe the sun rising over the Heel (sun) stone. Neo-pagan purists now complain that too many people treat the event as a pre-party for Glastonbury Festival, diminishing the significance of the various ceremonies and potentially damaging the ancient site.

Summer solstice is celebrated throughout the United Kingdom, where, in reality, it marks the beginning rather than the middle of the country’s brief sunny season. With its rich Celtic heritage, Scotland is a great place to find gatherings, from the Ring of Brodgar on the Orkney Islands to the Beltane Fire Society’s Lughnasadh (‘corn king’) ceremony in Edinburgh.

Local attractions: some 40km north of Stonehenge is the Avebury complex, arguably the most impressive remaining prehistoric earthworks in Europe.

More info: www.stonehenge.co.uk

See other top festivals in June here.

This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals.

This article was first published in December 2010 and was refreshed in April 2013.