The summer solstice is always a bittersweet day. The longest day of the year. From now on the days will begin, almost imperceptibly at first, to get shorter. The wheel begins its six-month roll toward the cold, dark days of winter. Although the year whiplashes through these extremes in the temperate zones, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The changes are slow right now. In fact, the celebration of Midsummer doesn’t usually come until about the 24th. These long, languorous days can be like that.
I’ve been studying holidays for well over a decade by now. Some have origins that are obvious, such as the solstices and equinoxes. Although ancient peoples were quite capable of observing and marking these days, it seems their perceptions of the seasons were somewhat different than ours. Midsummer, to us, is the official beginning of summer. We all know, however, that we’ve had days that’ve felt like summer already. They start to come, often in May. “Meteorological summer” is actually June through August while “astronomical summer” begins today. Our calendars are a matter of convention. Not only that, but the motivation to mark special days began as a religious impulse. Otherwise we’d have no particular reason to tell one day from another.
But think of the ancients again. People were generally illiterate, and although the elites could mark and know the actual solstice, Midsummer marks what the weather feels like on the ground. Seasons, in antiquity, were understood by what was happening on the ground. For example, in Ireland February 1, the festival of Imbolc, was considered the start of spring. Ewes were lambing and that was a sure sign winter was beginning to end. With such and outlook, folk wisdom reckoned that summer began on May Day, or Beltane. In such a perspective, the longest day marks midsummer. Yes, the heat and humidity have really yet to set in, but the climate in Ireland and the British Isles is tempered by the Gulf Stream and doesn’t reach, say, Midwestern extremes.
Those of us raised in scientific worldviews have been taught from youth that summer begins today. People haven’t always seen it that way. Not everyone experiences the extremes of weather that temperate regions of the United States do. In the northern hemisphere—for the global south experiences its shortest day of the year today—the days get no longer than this. Wheels by their very nature spin. Our round planet now gives us shorter days until the other extreme is reached.