The summer solstice, otherwise known as the longest day of the year, falls next week on June 21, marking the return of brighter evenings.
Though the lifting of all restrictions across the UK has been postponed until July 19, there’s still plenty to do to make the most of the long summer days.
England entered step three of the roadmap of lockdown on May 17, allowing people to mix indoors for the first time since last summer, and groups of up to 30 can now gather outside.
Read on below to find everything you need to know about summer, the solstice, traditions, the significance of Stonehenge – and how to celebrate it in lockdown.
When is the longest day of the year?
In the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice, or longest day of the year, takes place between June 20 and 22 each year.
This year it falls on Monday, June 21 – when the UK will enjoy 16 hours and 38 minutes of daylight. The sun will rise at 4.52am and set at 9.26pm.
The solstice officially marks the beginning of the astronomical summer, which ends when the autumn equinox falls on September 22. Day and night will be at almost equal length on this day, as the sun crosses the celestial equator and moves southward into the northern hemisphere.
What happens during the summer solstice?
There are two solstices each year – one in the winter and one in the summer. The summer solstice occurs when the tilt of Earth’s axis is most inclined towards the sun and is directly above the Tropic of Cancer.
Traditionally, the summer solstice period fell between the planting and harvesting of crops, leaving people who worked the land time to relax. This is why June became the traditional month for weddings.
It might seem like a day to celebrate, but it actually signals the moment the sun’s path stops moving northward in the sky, and the start of days becoming steadily shorter as the slow march towards winter begins.
However, we won’t notice the days becoming shorter for a while. The shortest day of the year isn’t until Monday, December 21, known as the winter solstice; it lasts for 7 hours and 50 minutes in Britain, which is 8 hours, 48 minutes shorter than the June solstice.
At the winter solstice, the Earth’s axis is tilted furthest away from the sun directly over the Tropic of Capricorn,c bringing only a few hours of daylight.
In the southern hemisphere the dates of the two solstices are reversed. The winter solstice occurs on the same day in June and the summer solstice the same day in December.
The term ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin word ‘solstitium’, meaning ‘sun standing still’. Some prefer the more teutonic term ‘sunturn’ to describe the event.
Astrologers say the sun seems to ‘stand still’ at the point on the horizon where it appears to rise and set, before moving off in the reverse direction.
Equinox and solstice explainer graphic
Summer solstice traditions: why is Stonehenge so significant?
Stonehenge in Amesbury, Wiltshire is the most popular place for Pagans to celebrate the longest day because it famously aligns to the solstices. The rising sun only reaches the middle of the stones one day of the year when it shines on the central altar.
Built in three phases between 3,000 B.C. and 1,600 B.C Stonehenge’s exact purpose still remains a mystery. The stones were brought from very long distances – the bluestones from the Preseli Hills more than 150 miles away, and the sarsens probably from the Marlborough Downs, 19 miles to the north.
The day marks the ancient middle of summer. It has significance for pagans who have always believed that midsummer day holds a special power.
Midsummer’s eve was believed to be a time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest, and when fairies were though to be at their most powerful.
Over the centuries, the June solstice has inspired many festivals and midsummer celebrations involving bonfires, picnics, singing, watching the sun rise and Maypole dancing. Many towns and villages across Britain still mark the day.
One ritual was the lighting of fires, heralding the start of shorter days, although this doesn’t really happen anymore. The idea was that flames would keep the dark away.
10,000 people travelled to Stonehenge to celebrate the summer solstice in 2019
Credit: RUSSELL SACH – PHOTOGRAPHER
How to celebrate the summer solstice 2021
Stonehenge always welcomes an influx of garland-wearing hippies, druids and curious tourists who head to the mysterious stone circles and wait for the sun to appear.
Crowds of around 10,000 traditionally greet the moment dawn breaks, as the sun rises behind the Heel Stone, the ancient entrance to the Stone Circle, with a mixture of cheers and silent meditation each June.
Unfortunately, due to the lifting of restrictions being postponed until July 19, English Heritage have decided to cancel the annual event for the second year in a row.
Last year, English Heritage live streamed the sunrise and sunset at Stonehenge, and put together a programme of activity including interviews with experts and historians on the symbolism of solstice. Tune in again this year on the English Heritage website to experience the solstice remotely.
Elsewhere, in Penzance, Cornwall, the Golowan Festival celebrates midsummer every year. This year a trimmed down event will take place from June 19 to 28, through a combination of locally-hosted, safely managed events, videos and live streamed content.
These will include a two week exhibition in town celebrating 30 years of Golowan, the public display of the schools and community-created parade images, live music where possible and other creative activities that prevailing circumstances permit.
Read more: Britain’s most mysterious stone circles