Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Sunday 25th June 2017 | Manchester, UK

Winter and Summer Solstice

Solstice occurs in June and December, and marks the longest and shortest days of the year, as well as the change of season. It is commonly associated with the ancient European Druids, but many global cultures also hold these times of year as periods of spirituality. ‘Solstice’ means ‘sun stands still’, and hence it has been commonly seen as a peaceful time of reflection for many.

For thousands of years up until the present day, Druids have celebrated the cycles of the universe through winter and summer solstice, believing that everything in existence is interconnected by spiritual energy. Druids also accept that nature is cyclical, and hence governs our movements as characters within this connected world, such as harvest in the autumn and preservation in the winter.

Although there is some evidence that the ancient druids of England did not celebrate solstice at Stonehenge, modern Druids still gather there in the summer and winter solstices, as well as the autumn and spring equinoxes, due to the site’s historically perceived spirituality. It is important for them to gather beneath the open sky to hold their sunset ceremony, participate in group prayer thanking the elements and the gods, then celebrate the rising sun to mark the end of the solstice, whether it be summer or winter.

Winter solstice in particular has been widely observed amongst different cultures and religions throughout time, for example Christmas was adapted to the time of the solstice – which was possible, as the Gospels do not specify a date for Christ’s birth. There is much discussion over why this date was chosen, with many believing it was deliberately coinciding with the pagan festival of solstice in an attempt to attract or even convert pagans to Christianity. The symbolism of the festival, of the rebirth of the sun, was mirrored in the birth of the Son of God. There was also a Roman feast ‘Saturnalia’ during a week of December celebrating the lengthening of days, and honouring the god Saturn.

Similarly, summer solstice has been reflected in cultures across the world. Germanic, Slavic and Celtic pagans welcomed summer with bonfires, a practice that is still widely held in European countries today. The Sioux Nation of Native Americans carry out a ritual sun dance at midsummer, a practice that has lasted hundreds of years. For the ancient Chinese, summer and winter solstice represented yin and yang respectively; celebrating earth and femininity in the former, and heavens and masculinity in the latter.

Solstice can be used as a term to encompass the celebrations of these many cultures and religions that herald the change of seasons, from Druid gatherings at Stonehenge to the Native American sun dance. It is interesting to think of this historical tradition in light of current Christmas publicity, and how little global societies truly differ in their timing of seasonal celebration.

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