Saturday, June 20, 2009
A solstice is an astronomical event that occurs twice each year, when the tilt of the Earth's axis is most inclined toward or away from the Sun, causing the Sun's apparent position in the sky to reach its northernmost or southernmost extreme. The name is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because at the solstices, the Sun stands still in declination; that is, the apparent movement of the Sun's path north or south comes to a stop before reversing direction.
The term solstice can also be used in a wider sense, as the date (day) when this occurs. The solstices, together with the equinoxes, are connected with the seasons. In some cultures they are considered to start or separate the seasons while in others they fall in the middle. The English expressions "midwinter" (winter solstice) and "midsummer" (summer solstice) may derive from a tradition according to which there were only two seasons: winter and summer.
The celebration of Midsummer's Eve was from ancient times linked to the summer solstice. People believed that mid-summer plants, especially Marigold had miraculous healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night. Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southwards again. In later years, witches were also thought to be on their way to meetings with other evil powerful beings, though this is not the case today.
In Sweden, Mid-summer celebration originates from the time before Christianity; it was celebrated as a sacrifice time in the sign of the fertility.
The solstice itself has remained a special moment of the annual cycle of the year since Neolithic times. The concentration of the observance is not on the day as we reckon it, commencing at midnight or at dawn, but the pre-Christian beginning of the day, which falls on the previous eve. In Sweden, Finland and Estonia, Midsummer's Eve is considered the greatest festival of the year, comparable only with Walpurgis Night, Christmas Eve, and New Year's Eve.
In the 7th century, Saint Eligius (died 659/60) warned the recently converted inhabitants of Flanders against these pagan solstice celebrations. According to the Vita by his companion Ouen, he would say:
"No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [summer solstice rites] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants."
Indeed, as Saint Eligius demonstrates, as Christianity was introduced to previously pagan areas, midsummer celebrations came to be often translated to new Christian holidays, often resulting in celebrations that mixed purely Christian traditions with traditions derived from pagan Midsummer festivities.