Early in the morning of this day is when the summer solstice marks the astronomical and meteorological beginning of summer. This is when the Northern Hemisphere has its longest day and the shortest night of the year, setting into motion the warming pattern that gives July its heat.
Called “Sommersonnenwende ‘ in German, the summer solstice is also known as midsummer and first day of summer. It is the annual celestial event that has been calculated and celebrated in writing and temple structures by many ancient cultures. Stonehenge in England is one of the most famous of these dating as far back as 8,000 B.C.
Appropriately enough, the word solstice comes from the Latin solstitium, from sol (sun) and stitium (to stop), reflecting the fact that the sun appears to stop or stand still at this time. Fact is, the sun is higher in the sky throughout the day and its rays strike earth at a more direct angle, causing the efficient warming we call summer.
In Germany, the beginning of summer (Sommeranfang) and three days later, on June 24, the saint’s day of John the Baptist are celebrated with similar customs, with the Christian feast taking over elements of pre-Christian rites. Neither, by the way, is a legal or official holiday. Ancient pagan Germanic and Celtic tribes used to celebrate the arrival of midsummer with dancing and bonfires.
Many of these old customs can be traced back to the 12th century, possibly even earlier.
All across Europe it was long customary to dance around midsummer bonfires using nine kinds of wood in the blaze and weaving nine kinds of flowers into the dancers’ garlands. In some places, nine special herbs were gathered for good luck. Some regions of southwest Germany have maintained the custom of dancing around a “tree of life’ (a tall fir tree, lower bark shaved off leaving the top green and decked with flowers) on the summer solstice. This is the centerpiece of the midsummer ritual and everyone dresses in their festive best to play music, sing and dance.
Today there are still St. John’s or summer solstice bonfires in rural villages or towns carried out by clubs and youth groups with bonfires, recitations and songs. Betrothed couples jumping over the fire may seal their engagement at these festivities. Right around St. Johns day, farmers begin the first hay harvests. These last for several weeks and are followed in July and August by grain harvests and more festive traditions associated with summer.
There’s much going on in Stuttgart and a lot to see and enjoy during June the first of the summer months.