Celebrating the Solstice!

Nicola here, talking about midsummer and using it as an excuse to post some gorgeous pictures! Yesterday marked the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and the shortest day in the Southern.  The June solstice is considered to be the beginning of summer and it’s rather nice that finally the warm, sunny weather has arrived in the UK so it really does feel like summer here.

I’m reading in various places that the solstice today is the earliest since 1796. The dates of the solstice occur within a relatively small range (June 20th or 21st and December 21st or 22nd.) As 2024 is a leap year, the time of the solstice occurs a whole 18 hours earlier than it did last year. The last year a solstice was this early, 228 years ago, Napoleon and Josephine got married, Edward Jenner administered the first smallpox vaccine, George Washington issued his “Farewell Address” and “Auld Lang Syne” by Robert Burns was first published.

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The Magic of Standing Stones

FirstChristina here. There are certain places that feel timeless and really evoke the past, and stone circles, standing stones and cairns always have that effect on me. What is it about them that draws us in and has fascinated people for so long? Perhaps it’s the sheer mystery of the how and why? Because we can’t be sure exactly what they were used for, they make our imagination run riot. It’s easy to picture ceremonies honouring the sun, moon or stars, perhaps featuring druids in flowing white robes, chanting and dancing. Who knows if that ever actually happened, but it’s a nice fantasy.

FourIn the past couple of weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to come across two places featuring such ancient monuments, and each time I found myself spellbound. They have a certain aura and just being among them gives us a feeling of awe and of stepping back in time. Most such monuments were built thousands of years ago, but they are so well constructed they’ve survived and stood the test of time. It’s mind-boggling when you consider the enormous amounts of work and manpower that must have been required, and the primitive tools in use back then. I never tire of watching programmes with theories as to how it was accomplished.

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Old stuff

Jo here. My husband and I took a short break over into Dorset to visit  the coastal visit of Charmouth on the JuraQ3458t Ammonite, c50mm, C-beachssic Coast. This stretch of coastal cliffs  shed rocks under the influence of the sea, revealing fossils from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, so we thought we'd go fossil hunting. We didn't find a great deal, but it's always pleasant to wander about at the sea edge.

Charmouth We realized we were almost half way to Stonehenge, so we decided to leave early on the third day and go there. The delights of living in a small country with a lot of interesting old stuff.

For one reason or another, we'd never been, which was a shame as people used to be able to wander about the stones at will. However, we were curious about the new set up there and it was only about 90 minutes further. There's a new visitor center over a mile from the stones, and shuttle buses running continuously to take visitors there.

Q3537w Jo at StonehengeIn my opinion, the trouble with really famous places is a) that there are always a lot of other people there, but b) that we see and know so much about them that we don't get the impact that others did in the past. However, the organization is now very smooth, and the stones are impressive, no matter how you look at it. Of course, people are fascinated by how prehistoric people moved such stones from far away and arranged them in a purposeful design. I'm more interested in why, especially with a place like Stonehenge, where people went to great effort to create structures over millennia. The stones are only the last of many effortful layers.

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The Lights of the Solstice

DSCN1430Joanna here, writing about the Winter Solstice.
And lights.

If you want to be picky about it, we're two days past the solstice, which was on December 21 this year, but I will just go ahead and talk about the Winter Solstice anyhow.

So. What is this Solstice I speak of?

Your ordinary woman in the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Centuries and in all the days right back to when women woke up and stretched and strolled out of the cave in Laxcaux, France, might watch the sunrise every morning.

Authorial intrusion here to say that I wake up every morning at sunrise because that is when the dog and cat wake up and they want my company. They are worried if I don't get up.
They are determined.

But, anyhow, let's say our historical woman is shuffling through the farm yard to empty the chamberpots or feed the chickens. She Before sunrise 2notices the sun does not just get out of bed any old where along the horizon. When she stands on the doorstep in July, the sun is rising from that pointy pine over there.

Every morning the sun gets out of bed a little to the left of where it got up the morning before.
Not enough so's you'd notice it from one day to the next.
But enough so's you notice it over weeks and months.

In December when she drags herself out of bed and stands shivering at the door, there's the sun waking up all the way over next to the church spire.

That extreme, leftmost sunrise she sees, on December 21 or 22, is the Winter Solstice. From then on, day by day, the sunrise heads back in the other direction. Our New Year is tied to that astronomical event, being a little inexact about it.

But did our pre-tech ancestors know about the Solstice?
And why would they care?

StonehengeSunrise1980sWe are not talking quantum mechanics here. Our actually-very-bright ancestors were well aware that the change in where the sun rose was related to length of day. The shortest day of the year is . . . ta dah! . . . the Winter Solstice. In London, that means about eight hours of daylight. Six months later, the Summer Solstice, June 21, is the longest day, with over sixteen hours of sun.
Well, folks noticed.
They lined up Stonehenge with the solstices because they noticed.

The long and the short of it is, folks used these astronomical events in practical ways — the Winter Solstice was a good time to slaughter beasts you couldn't afford to keep for the whole winter. And they celebrated.

The Solstice meant a long, cold, hungry time was still ahead, but from that date, every day was going to be a little longer. The sun had begun its journey back toward summer.

Is it any wonder folks celebrated this 'rebirth' of the sun with fire festivals? Traditional December celebrations often have a fire theme, linking to that ancient joy in the return of the sun. Lucia_in_Vienna

In Northern Europe, on Santa Lucia's Day, young girls are crowned with lighted candles. The old Iranian festival of Yalda celebrates the birth of Mithra, the God of Light and Truth, associated with the sun. One custom calls for eating red-colored fruit, perhaps to bring to mind the red of the sunrise.

Yule, the big Midwinter celebration of Germanic peoples, involved feasting, blood sacrifice, getting as drunk as possible, and lighting bonfires. Four hundred years ago the 'Yule log' was dragged in — a huge log, by preference — by the men of the house, who were rewarded with free beer for this service. It's said households competed to see who had the largest log.
Really, some things never change.

Bûche_de_Noël,_with_chocolate_moose_and_meringue_mushrooms,_2009_(2)If you make or buy a Bûche de Noël dessert, that's a modern interpretation of the Yule Log. Much easier to drag one of those into the house or whip it up in the kitchen than to bring in a Yule log.
In the spirit of author intrusion, I will say that I used to make these every year.

So, since we're celebrating the Season and enjoying the lights that remind us of the Solstice and the upbeat message it brings …

What kind of Holiday lights and candles do you have out now or are just packing carefully away?
Something beloved and traditional?
Or do you like to experiment every year?