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The resurrection of my late lamented website (mostly) on spiritual matters.

The Summer Solstice

One of the Eight Days of the Great Wheel of the Year

[This essay was originally posted to]

The Condensed Version

Just a few words about the Summer Solstice: what it is, astronomically, culturally, and mythologically. Whew!

The Summer Solstice is in June in the northern hemisphere, in December in the southern. It's the longest day of the year in either. But let's speak from the perspective of the north.

The apparent change in the lengths of days
results from the earth's "tilt" in relation to the sun.

The solstice (meaning something like "sun standing still") results from an apparent pause in journey of the sun from south to north; when it seems to reach its northernmost point (over the Tropic of Cancer, at 23-1/2 degrees north), it appears to hold still for a few days before reversing its direction and traveling south again.

(Living in Shenzhen, I have experienced a new phenomenon. We are at about 22 degrees north, which edges us barely over into the tropics. As a result, at this time of year, the sun just peeks into the windows on the north side of my house. That never happened in Rosemead!) [2023: I'm now even further south: Angeles City, in the Philippines, is a little over 15 degrees north, so this phenomenon is even more pronounced.]

Why do I say "seems," "appears," etc.? Because in fact it is the earth that moves, not the sun. (Or is it? I am reminded of what Hui Neng said in the Platform Sutra (Amazon): "It happened that one day, when a pennant was blown about by the wind, two Bhikkhus [monks] entered into a dispute as to what it was that was in motion, the wind or the pennant. As they could not settle their difference I submitted to them that it was neither, and that what actually moved was their own mind.")

The illustration at the bottom of this page shows the cause of the apparent motion quite nicely.

The mythic significance is a whole 'nother matter.

Winter solstice gets more attention in the northern hemisphere; traditions around summer are weak. The night before I first wrote this was the solstice; I was with a group of Chinese university professors, and asked them if they knew of any Chinese summer solstice traditions. They concluded that there weren't any. I asked them why winter had several (mostly associated with food), and summer had none. "Winter is scarier," they suggested; "You need to worry more about your health." (Everything's relative: I usually get sick from summer weather here in south China; winter can be downright pleasant!)

China aside, there are summer solstice traditions. This is the "Midsummer's Night" mentioned in the title of Shakespeare's play. And this brings up another point: In modern times, we call this the "start of summer." In fact it is not. If summer is the time of the longest days, then summer started about six weeks ago--around May Day--and will continue for another six weeks, until about August 1st. So this is indeed mid-summer, not the start.

The two solstices and two equinoxes, with the four "quarter days" in between (Halloween and May Day are two of them) make up the eight "spokes" of the Great Wheel of the Year, a tradition dating back to pre-Christian Europe. Christmas, near the winter solstice, is perhaps the best-known nod to the Great Wheel.

The traditions of mid-summer are spread all across the northern hemisphere. You can read about some of them in this article on Wikipedia.

Meanwhile, Happy Solstice!

How some moderns (but probably no ancients) celebrate the summer solstice.

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