Twice a year, the Earth experiences the phenomenon of the shortest and the longest days as the Sun passes at the extreme northern and southerly points. These periods have been the subject of celebrations, rituals and folklore for millennia: candles are lit, bonfires tended, feasts held and special foods eaten. Sometimes the origins of many of the rituals and celebrations have been lost in the mists of time but regardless of culture, civilisation or era, what is continuously celebrated, even in our post-modern age, is the celestial panorama that activates the seasons and which has set the pace of life on Earth for millions of years.
What then is this celestial phenomena that is so intrinsic to our life here on Earth? The first thing to understand is that there are two periods known as solstices. The word solstice is from the Latin sol, meaning Sun and sister, meaning still. Hence the solstice is the point at which the Sun seems to ‘stand still’ just before it seems to ‘turn’ and start its journey north or south.
We in the southern hemisphere experience the June solstice, known as the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere, as the winter solstice. The date varies between 20th and 22nd June, depending on the year. The reason for this variation is mainly due to the calendar system – most Western countries use the Gregorian calendar, which has 365 days in a year, or 366 days in a leap year. As for the tropical year, it is approximately 365.242199 days, but varies from year to year because of the influence of other planets. This is the length of time that the Sun takes to return to the same position in the cycle of seasons, as seen from Earth. The orbit of the Earth around the Sun as well as its rotation on its axis, such as the “wobble” in the Earth's axis (precession), also contributes to the changing solstice dates.
A solstice on the 22nd June will not occur until 22nd June 2203 and the last time we had a solstice on the 22nd occurred on the 22nd June 1971. This year the June solstice will occurr on 21st June 2015 at 4:39pm GMT (2:09am ACST).
The June solstice occurs when the Sun is at its furthest from the equator when it reaches its northernmost point. It is also known as the northern solstice because it occurs when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer in the northern hemisphere. The June solstice has the longest hours of daylight for those living north of the equator. People living or travelling north of the Arctic Circle can see the “midnight sun”, as the Sun remains visible throughout the night.
In the southern hemisphere, the June solstice marks the shortest day of the year, as the Sun sits at its furthest point and for those living or travelling south of the Antarctic Circle, the Sun is not seen during this time of the year.
The Importance of the June Solstice
The June solstice marks the first day of the summer season in the northern hemisphere. In Australia, apart from the indigenous people, most of us are migrants from the northern hemisphere and have brought along with us the customs as well as the collective memory of this period. Our ancestors would have noticed that during this time of the year, the Sun will have appeared to rise and set, and then stop and reverse direction after this day. On this day, the Sun does not rise precisely in the east, but rises to the north of east and sets to the north of west allowing it to be in the sky for a longer period of time.
In the southern hemisphere, the June solstice is experienced as the shortest day of the year when the sun has reached its furthest point from the equator and marks the first day of winter.
In ancient times, the June solstice was an important point as it was a point of reference in the management of calendars which in turn served as the schedule for the planting and harvesting of crops. It was also a traditional month for weddings, when food was abundant, the weather was fair for travelling and the length of the days ensured that both work and socialising could be done with relative ease and safety.
The importance of being able to calculate and forecast the length of the year was something many societies invested heavily in. The calibration of the calendar with the seasons was also important in determining propitious times for ritual and sacred observances to the gods.
Stonehenge, the Neolithic megalith on the Salisbury plain in England, was built around 3100 BCE. It seems to have had been erected with multi-purposes in mind, one of them it is believed was to establish when the summer solstice occurred. Interestingly, the sun rises at a particular point on the horizon as viewed from the centre of the stone circle on the day of the June solstice. This may have been the point at which the counting of the days of the year occurred. There are many other megalith structures in Europe which experts believe may have been built for similar purposes.
In ancient China, the summer solstice was observed by a ceremony to celebrate the Earth, femininity, and the “yin” forces. It complemented the winter solstice that celebrated the heavens, masculinity and “yang” forces. According to Chinese tradition, the shortest shadow is found on the day of the summer solstice because this is when the Sun is at its highest elevation in the northern hemisphere.
Midsummer festivals and celebrations were held at this time and they varied in many ways but the most central theme in all of them was that of fertility and growth. In ancient Gaul, the Midsummer celebration was called the Feast of Epona, named after a mare goddess who personified fertility and protected horses while the ancient Germanic, Slav and Celtic tribes celebrated Midsummer with bonfires. Many of these customs were absorbed after Christianity spread in Europe and other parts of the world. In many parts of Scandinavia, and eventually with the spread of Christianity to the New World, the Midsummer celebration continued but observation moved to the 24th June, St John’s Day, in honour if St John the Baptist instead of the pagan gods.
Native American tribes in North America held ritual dances to honour the Sun with the Sioux holding one of the most spectacular. Preparations for the dance included cutting and raising a tree that would be considered a visible connection between Heaven and Earth. Around it, tepees were set up in a circle to represent the cosmos. A ritual dance was performed where all participants abstained from food and drink and their bodies were decorated in the symbolic colours of red (sunset), blue (sky), yellow (lightning), white (light), and black (night).
The Importance of the December solstice
The December solstice is also known as the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere and the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. The December solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. Again depending on the year, the December solstice occurs annually on a day between December 20 and December 23. On this date, all places below the equator, in the southern hemisphere will have the Sun directly overhead on the Tropic of Capricorn. In the southern hemisphere, we experience the longest day of the year in terms of daylight hours.
In contrast, in the northern hemisphere, the December solstice marks the day of the year with the least hours of daylight. For those living or travelling north of the Arctic Circle towards the North Pole, the Sun will not be visible during this time of the year.
The December solstice in the calendar occurs less frequently on 20th or 23rd December and more often on 21st December or 22nd December. Again, this is due to the constricts of the Gregorian calendar. The last solstice which occurred on the 23rd December was in 1903 and will not occur again until the year 2303. A 20th December solstice date has occurred very rarely, with the next one occurring in the year 2080.
The December solstice marks the point at which the light is about to return. In many cultures, this was seen as the beginning of a new cycle, a ‘new year’. the need for observation of the December solstice and this ‘return of light’ can be seen in the megaliths like Stonehenge and Newgrange but over the course of history, many different schemes have been devised to determine the start of the year. Some of these involved the heliacal rising of certain stars like Sirius, which
The December Solstice Customs and Traditions
The influence of the December solstice has touched many civilizations and cultures over the centuries, and has been recorded in art, literature, mythology and religion. In the northern hemisphere, the December solstice occurs during the coldest season of the year. Although winter is a period of dormancy, darkness and cold, it is also the point at which the ‘turning of the Sun’ at the winter solstice signalled the return of the light. As a result, the December solstice has enshrined in itself a sense of hope and faith in the coming of lighter days and warmth always a cause for celebration. The return of the light was the primary reason to celebrate the fact that nature’s cycle was continuing and that there was both life and light after the darkness. One of the enduring themes of the December solstice celebrations was one of hope.
This theme is continued in the modern tradition of Christmas celebrations, especially for Christians. Associating the birth of Jesus Christ with such a significant time became very important in being able to convince the early Christian converts that the December solstice celebrated the birth of the “true light of the world”.
The December solstice is also seen as the reversal of the Sun's ebbing presence in the sky, and so concepts of the birth or rebirth of sun gods was a common theme. The theme of rebirth has been a cornerstone of celebrations with regard to life-death-rebirth deities. Additionally, the concept of new beginnings such as the ritual of redding (readying) performed during the period of the Scottish new year celebration of Hogmanay, is also an important feature. The redding is a ritual in which houses are thoroughly cleaned and bills are paid in order to meet the New Year with a clean slate.
The feast of Christmas is also referred to as Yule, which may have its origins from the Norse word jól, referring to the pre-Christian winter solstice festival. The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice. Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning Sun. A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honour of the Scandinavian god Thor. A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log.
In England, Germany, France and other European countries, the Yule log was burned until nothing but ash remained. The ashes were then collected and either strewn on the fields as fertilizer every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine. French peasants believed that if the ashes were kept under the bed, they would protect the house against thunder and lightning.
Reversal is yet another theme of this period and this was the centerpiece of the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia where slave and master reversed roles for the period. The festival began on the 17th December and lasted for seven days. It was held to honour Saturn, the father of the gods. During the celebration discipline was suspended there was a reversal of the usual order. Quarrels were forgotten while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed and slaves were served by their masters. Gifts were offered in the shape of imitation fruit which was a symbol of fertility), dolls, symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice, and candles reminiscent of the bonfires associated with the return of the light). A pretend king was chosen, usually from a group of slaves or criminals, and although he was permitted to behave in an unrestrained manner for seven days of the festival, he was usually killed at the end. Over time and paralleling the decline of the Roman civilisation, this festival degenerated into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime. This has given rise to the modern use of the tern saturnalia, meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry.
The Romans also celebrated the solstice with the feast of Sol Invictus, ‘the feast of the unconquered Sun’, to honour the return of the light.
The Solstices and Astrology
Astrologers see the solstices as the points where the Sun ingresses into the sign of Cancer at the June solstice, and into Capricorn at the December solstice. These are two power points which in a chart will straddle a house axis. So, think about where Cancer and Capricorn fall in your chart and consider that this is like the aperture in any megalith: the slit through which we experience the themes of the solstices – the hope and the return of light at the December solstice and the sense of fertility and growth at the June solstice. Where in your life do you turn to find the light in the days of darkness; and where do you experience the sense of growth and fertility? What is the condition of natal Saturn, as the ruler of Capricorn and the prominent sign in the December solstice? And what does the natal Moon, as the ruler of Cancer bring to the table? Both these planets are the dominant arbitrators of these periods.
Additionally, their condition in the sky will also add to the personal experience. In 2015, the Moon at the June solstice will be in the sign of Leo, separating from a square to Saturn. At the 2015 December solstice, Saturn will be at 10 Sagittarius, in a separating sextiles from Neptune.
Think about the solstices and the house axis that is highlighted and examine your chart for the solsticial experiences in your life. Additionally, if you are born close to a solstice you may find that these power point periods are very sensitive and bring an added ingredient to predictive work. At a personal level, for any person, the solstice points are ‘windows’ and there is benefit from taking note of what is visible through this window. To this end, observe where the solstice Ascendant (at the place where the Solstice is experienced) falls in the natal chart: the house and also any planet which is in the degree of, or a near degree of the solstice Ascendant. This suggests where the person may experience the ‘return of light’ or ‘fertility and growth’ depending on the solstice. Any natal or transiting planets captured by the solstice Ascendant will describe the experience of the person of that time. It will also be an indicator of the matters which are ‘highlighted’.
In closing, the solstices have always been important to human beings and we need to return them to the important place they once occupied both in the mundane and the personal realms.
 Time and Date sourced at http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/december-solstice.html [accessed 10/6/13]
 The heliacal rising is when a star or planet rises ‘with’ the Sun. From the Greek helios, meaning Sun.