The word solstice originates from the Latin words sol, meaning sun, and sistere meaning ‘to stand still.’ The summer and winter solstices both occur when the sun reaches a specific point in the sky, after which it stops and reverses its direction. This events takes place twice per year, once in each hemisphere.
The Summer Solstice
The summer solstice occurs during each hemisphere’s summer, and is also known as the estival solstice or midsummer. In the northern hemisphere, this solstice occurs on June 20th, 21st or 22nd each year. It is the longest day of the year, as well as the beginning of summer. The summer solstice occurs when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, with Earth’s axis tilted towards it, above the Tropic of Cancer. The earth is furthest from the sun at this point, which shows that summer’s warmth issues from the tilt of the earth’s axis and not the distance the planet is from the sun.
The summer solstice is connected to many celebrations, in different cultures, including the Pagan Midsummer. Paganism and Wicca celebrate the season with a festival known as Litha, during which the sacred union between the god and goddess is honoured. The beginning of the summer also marks the best time to plant, and subsequently harvest, many foods. Stonehenge has been considered a place of Pagan worship for thousands of years. Many people travel here each year to observe the sunrise on the summer solstice, which is aligned with the central Heel Stone.
The Winter Solstice
In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs between December 20th and 23rd, each year. The time of the winter solstice corresponds with the moment the North Pole is aimed away from the sun, with the sun shining directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. This marks the longest night and shortest day of the year, and several countries refer to the winter solstice as the ‘extreme of winter’ as a result. In many ancient cultures, this period signified a time of death and rebirth. As with the summer solstice, thousands of people attend Stonehenge to witness the winter solstice and the way in which it aligns with the setting of the sun.
In ancient times many cultures also believe that dark spirits walked the earth during the winter solstice. Neighbours would gather together and remain awake all night, talking, eating and sharing stories to avoid running into these entities.
Many people believed that there was going to be a cataclysmic event, which would cause the end of the world, on the winter solstice in 2012. This was a result of the Mayan calendar ending on this day. As the world never ended, new age beliefs and theories have suggested that the earth shifted on this day, and has entered a higher state of consciousness.