Celebrate the long days and short nights of the summer solstice

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

As many of us will remember from our school days, for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, the longest day and shortest night of the year occurs at the time of the summer solstice, which occurs on or about June 21 each year. For those based in Germany, the summer solstice of 2019 will occur at 5:54 p.m. local time on June 21.

From an astronomical point of view, the summer solstice is considered the first day of summer; ask a meteorologist, however, and he or she would likely counter that the summer has already come. Meteorologists base their conceptions of the four seasons on full months of the year, or said another way, summer is considered the season between June 1 and August 31.

The summer solstice occurs when the earth's inclination toward the sun is at a maximum. The sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer, and for every place north of this circle of latitude, the sun is at its highest point in the sky and we experience the most hours of daylight.

However, you prefer to slice and dice your seasons, that moment in time when the sun reaches the highest point in the sky has long been considered special, even magical. The massive rocks of Stonehenge, England’s famous prehistoric landmark, align with the solstice, making it a wildly popular place for sunrise visits on the day and one of the few times a year when site manager English Heritage allows visitors up-close access to the stone monoliths.

Many European cultures celebrate this time of year with rituals and holidays. Days closely related to the summer solstice include Midsummer and St. John’s Eve on June 23, a celebration on the evening before the feast day of St. John the Baptist. 

While it’s mostly the countries in the far northern latitudes – Sweden and Finland, for example – where the celebrations are most fervent, the day of the Sonnenwende doesn’t pass completely unnoticed in Germany.

Sonnwendfeuer is the tradition of alighting bonfires on high Alpine mountain peaks. Sacks stuffed with sawdust and oil are hauled up the steep slopes and arranged into the shapes of crosses or other symbols. As dusk falls on June 23, they’re set alight, creating points of light upon the stark stone mountain faces. Grainau is one place to witness such a phenomenon. On June 23, the Zugspitzbahn train extends its operating hours to allow visitors access to the Sonnenalm on Johanni am Wank, where a traditional party with live music takes place. A bonfire is lit, and guests can enjoy a panorama of the fires dotting the nearby mountain ranges.  Entry is free.

In other parts of the country, local organizations dedicated to preserving traditional culture often organize celebrations on or around midsummer and the solstice. It’s a great excuse to party in the great outdoors and enjoy all that wonderful late-night light. As with every seasonal phenomenon, these days will be gone all too quickly, so treasure them while they’re here.

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