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Summer Solstice Facts

Thu, July 05, 2018 16:55

By Simon Willis

 The Summer Solstice came and went last Thursday. If this is supposed to be the longest day of the year, it was something of a non-event, probably because most of us are engaged in such activities as working for a living or studying for re-sit examinations. Note that since December 21 last year, the days have been getting longer. Recently, daylight is at least a couple of hours old before you board your transport to work. Sunlight lingers long after you have returned home. However, after this date, it is the slippery slope until mid-December, when you will feel as if you are going out to work in the middle of the night. 

Up to the year 2000, this newspaper used to devote its back page on Sunday to a general knowledge feature entitled ‘Five Questions’, which comprised open-ended WH-questions. As a nod to those heady days, let’s indulge in a revival of this factual extravaganza courtesy of The Egyptian Gazette.

 When is the Summer Solstice celebrated? Does it have to be capitalized?

 Excuse me, that’s two questions. One at a time, please. However, I’ll let you off for the moment. By tradition (nothing is said about whose tradition), the Summer Solstice is celebrated at noon on 21 June when the sun is directly overhead and the full force of solar energy can be felt. This is good news for those of you who have solar panels to heat your water and power the television. Yes, the Summer Solstice must have capital letters because the proofreader says so and she looked it up in her Children’s Oxford English Dictionary.

Since ancient times the longest day of the year has been celebrated by lighting fires on hilltops and dancing around them – the fires, not the hilltops. In some places, long after the fire has gone out, leaving glowing embers, children are lifted over them and are cleansed by the smoke. Indeed, the Summer Solstice is a time to be happy – not ecstatic, overjoyed, exultant, or even a bit delighted – and you can take the opportunity to remove unwanted things from your life, such as a mother-in-law, a worn-out toothbrush, or that book about soil mechanics you bought second-hand five years ago and still haven’t read.    

 How important was the Summer Solstice in ancient Egypt?

 Very important. It was the most significant day of the year when the sun was at tis highest and the River Nile was beginning to rise. Ceremonies would be staged in honour of the goddess Isis, since it was believed that she was mourning for her dead husband, Osiris and her tears made the Nile water level increase. Accurate prediction of the Nile flooding was of crucial importance for agriculture and survival so the appearance of the star system Sirius, which is the brightest object in the night sky at a mere 8.611 light years away. The appearance of Sirius marks the beginning of the ancient Egyptian New Year. According to the mythology, the sun god Horus defeated his uncle Set, the lord of darkness of evil at this time of the year. This victory over the dark and evil forces is linked with rebirth, auguring well for the restoration of divine order and fertility. Meanwhile, every pharaoh hoped that on his death he would make his way safely through Duat, the ancient Egyptian afterworld, and come into the light-filled kingdom of Ra, joining him in his solar boat to become one of the immortal stars. Ra is also honoured with Horus at the time of the Summer Solstice. 

 Why do solstices occur?

There are two solstices a year, when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is towards or away from the sun, which means the sun reaches its northernmost and southernmost extremes. The word ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). This is because the sun shows no apparent north of south and comes to a standstill. The solstices are connected with the seasons. In Britain the period around the June solstice is known as midsummer, and Midsummer’s Day falls on 24 June. Similarly, 25 December marks the start of the Christmas celebrations and visitations by unwanted mothers-in-law and the receipt of presents of new toothbrushes and books on soil mechanics. This date coincides with the point when the sun begins its return to the northern hemisphere.

 Who celebrates the Summer Solstice in the English-speaking world?

 In Cornwall, in the extreme south west of England, midsummer bonfires are lit on hills. This tradition was revived by the Old Cornwall Society in the 1950s. In recent years, English Heritage, a body that oversees the preservation of…erm…English heritage, allows groups of eccentric people to celebrate the longest day at an ancient stone ring, known as Stonehenge in England’s west country. One of the stones of this structure casts its longest shadow touching the so-called Heel Stone, after which there is a wire fence and the A303, the road to goodness knows where in that part of the world. 

In the US, the New York City Swedish Midsummer celebrations are held in Battery Park, south Manhattan. This event attracts between 3,000 and 5,000 people, making it one of the largest celebrations of its kind after those in Leksand and the Skansen Park in Stockholm. Swedish Midsommar is also held in other places with Swedish and Scandinavian populations, such as Chicago, Minneapolis and Lindsborg, Kansas. Wait a minute. These midsummer bashes involve Swedes in the US and don’t really count as events in the English-speaking world.

 What do we do to celebrate the Summer Solstice in Egypt?

 Nothing.

 When will the next Summer Solstice come?

 If the celestial bodies are still rocking and rolling around in space on the same paths, you can bet 21 June will be the next longest day of the year. However, it will not be a Thursday. Try Friday, unless 2019 is a leap year.  

 We do hope you have enjoyed learning all about the Summer Solstice, which henceforth shall be capitalized as it deserves.

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