The longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, or the summer solstice, occurs today, Monday, June 21.
The day has been recognized by cultures across the world independently from each other and celebrated as the official arrival of summer for untold centuries.
The longest day of the year
The reason that day lengths vary is due to the sun’s position in the sky relative to the Earth. In this case, the sun has reached the highest position possible, due to the Earth’s poles having their maximum tilt towards the Sun, making possible a particularly long day in the Northern Hemisphere.
However, people from southern nations do not enjoy the same experience on June 21st; instead, this day marks their Winter solstice, or the shortest day of the year, as the Earth’s poles tilt away from the Sun and it reaches its lowest elevation in the sky.
The month of December also has a solstice, but in that case the positions are reversed. That is when the Southern Hemisphere experiences its first day of Summer, with an incredibly long day, whereas that is the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
Depending on the shift of the calendar, solstices can occur anywhere between the 20th to the 22nd day of the month, making the holiday a volatile one.
In Athens, the longest day of the year was measured in order to get a precise understanding of how long the day can stretch — and the results are fairly shocking. On June 20, 2016, the sun rose at 6:02 AM and set at 08:50 PM, making the day almost 15 hours long!
Traditions and celebrations
Since prehistory, the summer solstice has been seen as a significant time of year in many cultures, and it has been marked by festivals and rituals. In Europe and other temperate regions, the day used to be regarded as the middle of summer, and would have been referred to as “midsummer.”
The name “solstice” can be traced back to Latin roots, when ancient peoples noticed that the sun stopped moving north in the sky during summer, and eventually went southward when fall began. The word therefore comes from the words “sol,” which means sun, and “stitium,” which means still, or stopped.
To this day, cultures the world over continue to celebrate the day with feasts, bonfires, songs, and picnics.
In ancient Greece, the solstice was very important for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, in some calendars, it was seen as marking the start of the New Year for ancient Greeks, while also serving as a checkpoint to remind people that the Olympic Games were one month away.
Kronia, a festival celebrating Cronus, the god of agriculture, was also held around this time. Greeks would do away with social norms during the celebrations and embrace the New Year. Slaves would be invited to participate fully in celebrations as equals, and would sometimes even be served by their masters.
Today, midsummer remains an important holiday in many northern European and Scandinavian countries, where maypoles are erected, girls wear flowers in their hair and people gather around bonfires.