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Summer Solstice Festivals From Around The World

Jun 7th, 2024

The summer solstice has been a part of our world’s human history for longer than almost anything else, marking the longest day of the year and the shortest night. It’s celebrated on June 21 in the northern hemisphere and on December 21 in the southern hemisphere. 

Humans as far back as Neolithic times have celebrated or observed the passage of the sun and its arrival at its zenith, and our very culture today echoes the rituals and festivities designed to celebrate such an event. Here are just a few ways that cultures around the world today still celebrate the summer solstice!

An oil painting depicting a crowd of people on a beach surrounding a bonfire at night.

9 ways people have celebrated the summer solstice 

Midsummer Day – Europe

Midsummer’s Day is a celebration that’s been held in various European nations for centuries, especially the more northerly countries that experienced a far greater shift in the daylight hours. 

Ancient pagan communities had a keen sense of the passage of the sun across their skies, and so the solstice was one of the more significant calendar events that marked both the middle of summer and the longest day of the year. It was on this day that the sun would reach its highest point in the sky before retracing its steps back down toward its winter path, indicating the arrival of shorter days and the gradual turn toward winter.

Bonfires were an important part of solstice celebrations all over ancient Europe. Bone fires made from old bones and sticks (this is where we get the word “bonfire” from!) were lit to ward off evil spirits and to supplement the sun’s heat. Later, the bonfires became intrinsically tied to the success of the harvest and the prevention of disease; they also became a big part of fertility and courtship rituals, in which young couples would jump over flames and embers for good luck. 

It was also believed that waters had healing properties on the solstice and that bathing in the rivers and streams would bring about energy and restoration. Herbs collected on Midsummer Day were also believed to be more powerful and have greater healing powers.

Although many of the pagan practices were discouraged after Christianity spread through the continent in the early Middle Ages, summer solstice celebrations continued and were incorporated into the changing societies. The celebrations are strongest in Scandinavia where Midsummer Day is, in many places, marked by a full 24 hours of sunlight!

Here are just a few ways that nations in Europe still celebrate Midsummer Day today!

Sânzienele or Drăgaica (Romania)

Romania’s Sânzienele or Drăgaica festival is held on June 24 and celebrates both the middle of summer and the fairies who play a large part in Romanian folklore. Young women spend the day picking flowers, making wreaths and flower crowns, dancing around bonfires and courting young men. 

Midsommar (Sweden)

Dancing around maypoles is a big part of Swedish midsommar celebrations, as are flower wreaths, bonfires and courting rituals. It’s said that if a young woman picks seven flowers at midnight and keeps them under her pillow, then she will dream of her future husband. 

Jaanipäev (Estonia)

Translated to “Jaan’s Day” or “St. Johns Day”, this Estonian celebration of Midsummer Day typically involves much of the same festivities as other European communities. Here, though, it’s popular to light a large bonfire and jump over it in order to bring prosperity and to ward off bad luck. It’s also common to burn old fishing boats in the bonfires on the night before the solstice.

Jāņi (Latvia)

Latvians celebrate the solstice with dancing, bonfires, decorations and plenty of food and drink. Practices and celebrations center around fertility, harvest and prosperity in the future — one Latvian town holds a race at 3 a.m. where contestants run naked through the streets! 

Jāņi is such a big holiday in Latvia that it outranks Christmas in popularity!

Kupala Night (Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, Russia)

This Slavic celebration of midsummer involves lighting bonfires, jumping over embers and weaving flower wreaths. Water is a large part of Kupala Night, and people will bathe in rivers or streams and send wreaths and garlands afloat. Mock marriages between young men and women were also held to encourage courtship, marriage and fertility. 

Solstice Fire Festival — Pyrenees

Straddling the border between Spain and France, the Pyrenees Mountains come alive with fire during the Summer Solstice Fire Festival. In an elaborate display, villagers carry flaming torches down from mountaintops to light bonfires in the towns below. The tradition symbolizes the sun’s descent from its zenith and is an important transition for young people from adolescence to adulthood. Also included in the festivities are food, dancing and, most importantly, strong ties to family and heritage. 

Nativity of Saint John the Baptist — Europe, Puerto Rico

The Nativity of John the Baptist was celebrated by the early Christian church as a significant feast day in the liturgical calendar. Since their scriptures indicated that John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus, the feast day naturally fell on June 24 (six months before Christmas on December 25). 

However, the feast falling so close to the pre-existing solstice celebrations meant that the two celebrations became closely intertwined over the years. Bonfires celebrating the solstice soon came to also represent the “burning and shining light” of John the Baptist, and the healing waters came to also represent the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan. The healing herbs picked on the solstice became known as St. John’s herbs, to include the popular flower known as St. John's Wort.

Many countries celebrate St. John’s Day with customs similar to those of ancient solstice festivities, though with added Christian elements. Puerto Rico — which was originally named San Juan in honor of John the Baptist before being renamed —  celebrates Noche de San Juan Bautista (“St. John’s Eve”) by jumping backwards into the ocean seven times for good luck.

Capac Raymi — Peru, Ecuador, 

Capac Raymi was once one of the most important festivals for the original peoples of the Andes, along with the winter solstice festival, Inti Raymi. This elaborate ceremony honored Inti, the sun god, and ensured a bountiful harvest. Today, vibrant parades with participants dressed in traditional clothing, music, dance and symbolic offerings to the sun recreate the vibrancy and energy of this ancient ritual. It’s celebrated on or around December 21, which is when the southern hemisphere experiences its summer solstice!

Stonehenge — England

Still deeply shrouded in mystery, this prehistoric monument in England becomes a focal point during the summer solstice. Hundreds gather to witness the sunrise as the sun perfectly aligns with the towering stones. The exact purpose of Stonehenge remains a debate, but its connection to the summer solstice is undeniable and the construction too exact to be a coincidence. 

Secret Solstice Festival — Iceland

In terms of historically-significant festivals, this one probably won’t live up the centuries-old customs of the others on this list, but it’s a popular solstice celebration today!

This three-day music festival in Iceland takes place over the summer solstice, offering festival-goers 96 hours of sunlight in which to enjoy the music, events, art and culture under the blazing midnight sun. 

Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival — Canada

Held in Ottawa, this three-day festival celebrates the summer solstice alongside National Indigenous Peoples Day, fostering a spirit of unity and appreciation for the interconnectedness of nature and culture. Traditional food, music, dance and a pow wow showcase the rich cultural heritage of Canada's Indigenous peoples in this family-friendly event!

Midnight Sun Baseball Game — Alaska

Another more recent addition to the summer solstice celebration calendar, the Midnight Sun Baseball Game in Fairbanks, Alaska, is a must-see for any sports enthusiast. Held under the never-setting sun of the summer solstice, the game starts at 10:30 p.m. and can stretch well past midnight, offering a surreal experience where the thrill of the sport merges with the awe-inspiring natural phenomenon of the midnight sun.

Xiàzhì — China

The summer solstice in China coincided with the harvest season, most notably the wheat harvest, so festivals and rituals surrounding agriculture, harvest and, of course, the sun, were common in ancient Chinese cultures.

The festival was known as the Summer Festival or the Summer Solstice Festival, and while it’s not as popular of a holiday today as it was in ancient times, people still celebrate with food, family and ancestral worship.

Happy solstice!

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Featured photo Иван Иванович Соколов, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Second photo Peder Severin Krøyer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives on Oahu in Hawai'i. She loves to travel, camp, spearfish and hike. She's also part of a super cool canoe club and is pretty decent at it. Colleen enjoys Star Wars and also not being cold ever.

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