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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Summer and Winter Solstices: What’s the Difference?

Summer solstice sunrise at Stonehenge.
Summer solstice sunrise at Stonehenge.

Strawberries, cherries, and an angel’s kiss in spring

My summer wine is really made from all these things

By Lee Hazelwood, written ca. 1966

A strawberry full moon lit the night sky this past week. Strawberry moons happen once a year, usually at the end of June. The name comes from Native American tradition and refers to the beginning of the brief period when strawberries are ready to pick. In Europe, this full moon is often called a honey or mead moon. Sometimes, is referred to as a rose moon. Strawberry moons occur concurrently with the summer solstice only about every twenty years. This year, they did not coincide. The solstice will take place next Tuesday, June 21st.

In the northern hemisphere, it will be the summer solstice. In the southern hemisphere, the winter solstice will take place. But what is a solstice and what is the difference between a summer and winter solstice? This week’s post will answer those questions as well as discuss the folk customs and symbolism associated with the solstices in the Celtic tradition.

Equinoxes, Solstices, and Science

The short version is that the summer solstice is the longest day of the year, and the winter solstice is the shortest, darkest day. Here’s why. The earth not only revolves around the sun, but its poles, through the course of the year, move towards then away from the sun. This affects the amount of sunlight and, thus, warmth in each hemisphere, causing the changing of the seasons.

The focus has shifted but the war continues. Pray for peace in Ukraine.
The focus has shifted, but the war continues. Pray for peace in Ukraine.

There are two solstices and two equinoxes each year. I think going through the timeline of what happens on each of these days within the confines of one of the hemispheres will make what a solstice is clearer. In the northern hemisphere, the vernal or spring equinox (March 19th, 20th, or 22nd) has approximately an equal amount of daylight and nighttime hours. But, as the earth’s northern axis slowly turns towards the sun each day, the amount of sunlight / daytime increases incrementally. This builds until, at the summer solstice (June 20th, 21st, or 22nd), there is the maximum amount of sunlight and daytime hours and the shortest nighttime.

After the solstice, the axis begins to turn away from the sun, so that, each day, there is less and less sunlight. At the autumnal equinox (September 22nd or 23rd), the hours of daylight and nighttime are again about equal. Finally, at the winter solstice (December 21st or 22nd), there are the fewest hours of daylight, making it the shortest day. Of course, as the amount of sunlight decreases, air temperatures drop, resulting in the changing seasons.

On the calendar used in the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice marks the first day of summer. The winter solstice is the official start of winter. However, on the Celtic calendar, mark mid-summer and mid-winter respectively. In the Celtic tradition, Summer begins at Beltane (May 1st) and winter begins at Samhain (November 1st).

Celtic Folk Traditions: Summer Solstice

At the summer solstice, the Celts celebrate the sun’s warmth by lighting bonfires. This ancient tradition continues today. Formerly, fire wheels also were rolled down hills. This folk custom is rarely practiced today. A folk tradition that has died out is jumping over fire. In the past, Celtic lovers would hold hands and jump over fires to bring good luck to their relationship. Jumping a fire also was said to benefit crops. The higher the flames, it was believed, the better the harvest would be.

The summer solstice is a wake-up call. Summer is half over. Winter is coming.
The summer solstice is a wake-up call. Summer is half over. Winter is coming.

The summer solstice is a cause for celebration. It is the height of sunshine and summer days. But, for the ancient Celts, it also was a wake-up call. Summer was half over. From here on out, days would get shorter and, eventually colder. Winter was coming. You’d better get your planting finished so you would have a sufficient harvest to get through the long, cold winter months.

Because of this awareness of seasonal reality, the Celts didn’t just party at the summer solstice. They prayed and offered sacrifices in the hope the goddess would protect their crops and give them a good harvest. They also prayed for protection from evil spirits.

But the Celts didn’t just pray, they acted. They blessed their homes and their livestock. The most common way of doing this was to hang fennel and honeysuckle above doorways. Also, they picked herbs for medicinal purposes. And it was a good time to do it. According to Celtic belief, the summer solstice was a potently magical time, especially for magic for protection, healing, and love. They believed that, at this time, herbs were filled with light so those picked at this time were powerfully magical and effective in treating illness and injuries. If you pick herbs in celebration of the summer solstice, just remember to ask the plant’s permission first, then offer thanks and a blessing. This is done out of respect.

Summer Solstice Themes and Symbolism

This time of year, parallels young adulthood, so it is a time of hope and ambition, a time filled with potential. It is a fertile period, a time of growth, passion, and vitality. It symbolizes joy and new beginnings. Celtic spirituality also considers the summer solstice as a time for appreciating nature and recognizing the sacredness of all life.

Celtic Folk Traditions: Winter Solstice

At winter solstice, the ancient Celts put lights and shiny objects in pine trees to encourage the sun's return.
At winter solstice, the ancient Celts put lights and shiny objects in pine trees to encourage the sun's return.

As with the summer celebration, at winter solstice, bonfires were lit. This was done to encourage the return of the sun. For the same reason, they also placed lights in pine trees (in groves, not in homes) and placed shiny star-like objects in the trees.

On the night of the solstice, the community gathered for a feast. Cattle was slaughtered, but not just for the barbeque. Bulls were offered in sacrifice along with prayers that the gods and goddesses would bring them safely through the long, dark winter, and return the sun to them.

A Celtic folk custom associated with the winter solstice which continues to this day is bringing evergreens into the home. Because these plants stayed green and alive through the winter, the Celts believed they contained powerful magic. They brought these plants, specifically holly, ivy, and mistletoe, into their homes in the hopes that that magic would rub off in them, keeping the entire family alive and well through the cold, dark season. Since the winter solstice takes place just before Christmas, these evergreens (along with the pines decorated with lights and shiny objects) made their way into the traditions of the Christian holy day.

Winter Solstice Symbolism and Themes

The themes of winter solstice may seem solemn, if not depressing. This solstice is associated with darkness and death. But it also is a time of hope. The Celts believed in the never-ending cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Remember, in the Celtic year, winter solstice is mid-winter. That means it’s halfway to spring, the time of rebirth and new life. After all, from a scientific perspective, at the solstice, the pole turns back towards the sun. Gradually, the hours of sunlight will increase. Warmth will return. By spring, green buds will appear. The world will come alive again. Winter solstice is a time for renewal. It is the symbol of preserving, of hoping in the midst of darkness when all seems lost. For that reason, the winter solstice is as much a time to rejoice as the summer solstice is.

Whichever of the two solstices you’re about to experience, I wish you blessings of joy and peace.

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Slan go foil!

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