June 21, 2022
It’s quite possible that the summer solstice is the single most celebrated holiday in the history of humanity. Millenia before wall calendars and state-sanctioned holidays, there were only the rhythms of the land, its seasons and the celestial bodies. People began celebrating the summer solstice because it was literally a cosmic event that could be observed with the naked eye—by virtue of the setting sun.
Summer solstice comes exactly once a year, every year, and has been doing so since the dawn of time on this planet. In that sense, it is older than biological life on earth, older even than the oceans and oldest rock formations. In the first year of our planet, the tradition began, and it continues through the exact day that I am putting these words to paper. (I mean that literally. I am actually writing this on a physical notepad…how quaint!).
The summer solstice is defined as the longest day of the year, in which the sun sets over the horizon at the northernmost extent of its annual range. This signals a zenith, in many senses. It announces—at least in the Northern Hemisphere—the arrival of summer. It also marks the period of peak fertility for plants and animals at large. It is the peak of growth, of expansion of life.
For this and other reasons, the day has long been celebrated—oftentimes in bacchanalian fashion, with feasts and pagan rituals and also, apparently, orgies.
In many parts of the modern world, the summer solstice—as a holiday—has been forgotten. Northern Europe is the exception to the rule. In the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, it is still the most festive day of the year.
Things are a bit different in Ecuador, where days last almost exactly twelve hours every day of the year. This is particularly the case in the Jama-Coaque Reserve, which is located only twelve kilometers south of the equator line, and where I have spent many a summer solstice.
Even here, though, the cosmic implications can be visually observed. The balcony of the Bamboo House, from my favorite hammock, affords a prime view of the sunset—when the fog of the rainforest permits. The view west looks out over a perfectly green and wild valley, with a long mountain ridge in the distance, behind which the sun sets every day.
But it doesn’t set at the same place. The mountain ridge in the horizon has a series of small yet distinct peaks, on which the shapes of individual trees—some of them massive—can still be distinguished from the naked eye, as seen from my hammock. For the six months that precede the summer solstice, the sun increasingly tracks northward, setting behind different peaks with each passing month. Until, on the hallowed day, the sun reaches its northernmost point, whereupon it begins its six-month migration in the other direction. This happens at every single point on the surface of this giant rock in space that we call home.
This all leads me to one seemingly obvious point: one way or another, all life on our beloved planet is ultimately defined by its relationship with the sun. And the summer solstice is one of the most celebrated reminders of this simple yet cosmically significant fact.
To my fellow pagans out there, and to everyone, let us raise a toast to that great star to whom we all owe our existence.