Lighting Up the Summer Solstice

Get ready for Litha, the festival of light that celebrates the summer solstice.

Photo by Patti M. Walsh

Contrary to popular belief, the summer solstice is not a day—it’s the exact moment when the Earth’s North Pole tilts furthest toward the sun. This year, that occurs at 10:58 a.m. EDT on June 21.

The Science

Astronomically, the phenomenon is caused by the Earth’s tilt, spin, and orbit around the Sun.

Lines of latitude begin at the Equator and terminate at the North and South Poles. The Equator is 0° and the poles are 90°. North of the Equator, latitude is designated with a + number; south, with a − number.

While the Earth always tilts 23.5° in the same direction, its orbit constantly changes the Sun’s position above the lines of latitude. When the Sun sits directly above the Tropic of Cancer (+23.5°), the North Pole is most inclined toward the sun, thus initiating summer in the Northern Hemisphere and winter in the Southern Hemisphere.

The opposite is true south of the Equator. Summer in the Southern Hemisphere occurs when the Sun is directly above the Tropic of Capricorn (–23.5°), which is when winter begins in the north and summer in the south.

Diagram courtesy of NASA

At the Arctic and Antarctic Circles (+90° and –90°, respectively), the Sun does not set on the summer solstice and never rises on the winter solstice.

Although the hottest days of the summer lie ahead, the Sun will recede a little each day, until the December 21 winter solstice, when the days begin to lengthen.

The Science

The Celts called solstice Litha, from the Old English word líða, meaning summer months. It celebrated the goddess Danu, the mother of the Tuatha Dé Danaan. As a fire festival, it featured bonfires, torchlight processions, and flaming tar barrels that careened downhill into water.

Before the Celts, Stone Age people conducted rituals of life and death on solstices in places like Stonehenge and Newgrange to drive out evil and ensure fertility and prosperity.

But before we measured tilt, latitude, or years, before the Celts, before Newgrange, and even before the Tuatha dé Danann, the ancients offered a different explanation.

Twice a year—once each on the summer and winter solstice—the Oak King and Holly King battled for dominance of the natural world. During the warm days of Midsummer, the Oak King reached the height of his strength. That’s when the Holly King emerged. His power culminated at the winter solstice, at which point the Oak King is reborn, perpetuating the succession.

‘The Oak King’ and ‘The Holly King’ by Anne Stokes

Rob Traquair, a middle-school teacher in Colchester, Vermont, tells the story in a delightful video with music by Jethro Tull.

Check out Oak King vs Holly King: The Bi-Annual Battle of the Ages on YouTube.

May the light of the season be with you.

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