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The summer solstice marks the official start of summer. In 2021, it falls on June 21 for the Northern Hemisphere and December 21 for the Southern Hemisphere — the date when each of Earth's poles is tilted closest to the sun, resulting in the longest period of daylight of the year. This astronomical occasion has been celebrated across the globe for centuries. Many of these rituals from ancient cultures have survived into the modern era, and have often evolved into arts events, light shows, and exhilarating contests. Check out these 14 celebrations to ring in the summer season around the world.
Secret Solstice (Iceland)
Held in the hot spring-heavy Laugardalur district of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, Secret Solstice invites revelers to party until the break of dawn — which they probably don’t even notice in this land of the midnight sun.
The music festival takes inspiration from Norse mythology, known as Ásatru, and aligns with Jónsmessa (St. John’s Night) on June 24. According to legend, for one night only, cows will be able to speak to humans while mischievous elves try to tempt people over to the dark side. Jónsmessa is almost sacred for Icelanders, so the hedony of the Secret Solstice takes place just before, or after, the date. In previous years, it has seen glacier cave raves, volcano concerts, and even a performance by the Black Eyed Peas.
Nit del Foc (Spain)
St. John the Baptist features in many European midsummer traditions. This is because in the early days of Christianity, the Catholic Church arranged the birthday of St. John to fall on the pagan solstice holidays, a move that was intended to supplant what it saw as heretical practices.
This is particularly true in the Catalan Countries. Whether you’re in the cultural hub of Barcelona or enjoying a beach vacation in the Balearic Islands, there will always be something to do on June 23, St. John’s Eve. Nit del Foc means “Night of Fires,” so expect a roaring bonfire wherever you choose to celebrate. Many revelers can also be seen munching on coca de Sant Joan (St. John’s cake), a sweet or savory pastry similar to brioche sold in bakeries and street food stalls. And if the fires get too hot, you’re in luck: Many Catalans choose this night to take their first sea swim of the year.
Ivan Kupala Night (Russia, Ukraine, and Other Slavic Countries)
Like the Catholic Church, the Russian Orthodox Church aligned St. John the Baptist’s birthday with a pre-existing pagan celebration. Ivan Kupala Night (June 23) is a fusion of Christianity and paganism: Ivan is the Slavic version of John, while Kupala is a pre-Christian Slavic fertility god.
Young people wear floral and herbal wreaths, symbolizing purity, and bonfire dances and swimming are common components of celebrations. People in Slavic countries were swimming in the wild long before it became trendy, taking to rivers and lakes on Ivan Kupala night to soak up the purported magic healing properties contained in the water. At the end of the festivities, women light candles on their wreaths and push them out into the water, in order to see what their future romantic life will hold. If the wreath sinks, it’s said she won’t be getting married that year; if it floats away with the candle still burning, it’s foretold she will have a long and happy love life.
Stonehenge Solstice (England)
The world’s most famous stone monument comes alive during the summer solstice. On a clear dawn, the sun will rise over the horizon and shine directly through the monument’s famous Heel Stone. The stones align perfectly with the solar rays, creating a spectacle that has wowed observers for thousands of years.
The Druids were one of England’s pre-Celtic pagan communities, and a small number of modern-day spiritual Druids are still around today. Dressed in white to honor the seasons, they come together at Stonehenge to mark the solstice. The start of summer marks the first harvest, which in Britain’s rural communities was a landmark moment that allowed farmers to (literally) enjoy the fruits of their labor and reflect on the year so far. The Druids celebrate both the winter and summer solstices by forming a circle around Stonehenge, chanting while linking hands. Sometimes, the hypnotic hum of a conch shell being used as a musical instrument drifts across Salisbury Plain.
Midnight Sun Baseball Game (Alaska)
Fairbanks, Alaska, is located just over 160 miles south of the Arctic Circle, but residents' mode of celebrating the Solstice isn’t so extreme — they have a good old-fashioned baseball game. The Midnight Sun Baseball Game has been held every year since 1906, and began as a bet between two local bar owners arguing over which establishment had the best baseball team. The prize? Bragging rights for the rest of the winter.
Players from the local team, the Alaska Goldpanners, take up their positions at around 10:30 p.m. The games often run until 2 a.m., during which time the sun has both set and risen due to the extreme northerly location. At midnight, the game is paused, and spectators seated in Growden Memorial Park stand to sing the national anthem and “Alaska’s Flag” song. The game attracts out-of-state teams, and even international teams from as far as Japan and Taiwan. It is often dubbed “baseball’s most natural fixture,” as artificial lighting has never been used.
As in many Northern European countries, florals feature heavily in Sweden’s summertime celebrations. The best way to enjoy Midsommar — Sweden’s most important holiday after Christmas — is to don a flower crown and head to a public park to join the revelry that will begin from noon onwards. Picnics usually include copious amounts of sill (pickled herring), new potatoes with chives, and spiced Swedish schnapps.
The maypole — a tree trunk also decorated with flowers — becomes the central fixture of the June event. Inevitably, partygoers will be dragged into an interpretive dance around the maypole called the små grodorna ("little frogs"). Holding hands with their partners, they’ll jump around like frogs, singing a silly ditty that pokes fun at the slimy amphibians and their lack of ears.
Dragon Boat Races (China)
China’s traditional dragon boat races began as an homage to the classical poet Qu Yuan in the third century BCE. The festival (Duanwu) usually happens on the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar, which typically falls near the summer solstice. But because of its local climate, the province of Zhejiang holds its races on the summer solstice itself, a tradition that dates back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
Dragon boat races are thrilling to witness. Around 30 to 60 people break a sweat as they paddle their vessels, kept in sync by a drummer at the helm. The dragon-like canoes themselves are an intricate, streamlined work of art, and can measure up to 115 feet long.
Kildonas, the Greek version of midsummer, takes place on the Feast of St. John (June 24) and lights up villages across the country. Traditionally, the men take turns leaping over a fire three times, which is seen as an act of purification. Fathers hold the hands of their young sons as they take their first foray over the flames. Meanwhile, unmarried women fetch water from the local well and pour their jugs into a central pot, which is sealed overnight and believed to bring love and good fortune. It’s opened the next day, as married elders tell amusing stories and anecdotes.
In some mountainous villages, a mud or straw effigy is cast into the fire as a scapegoat for the sins of the community. Another fire slow-roasts meat, allowing the villagers to indulge in delicious food after two days of running, jumping, and heavy lifting.
Festa di San Giovanni (Italy)
St. John is the patron saint of the northern Italian cities of Genoa, Turin, and Florence. In the latter, most shops are closed on June 24, so the city’s residents can celebrate the day with their loved ones and show appreciation and affection by giving them thoughtful gifts.
Outside the family homes, the festival begins with a parade through the streets, where city officials take candles to the Duomo as a votive offering. Then, the real festivities begin, including the final match of a Florentine sport called calcio storico fiorentino. (Imagine soccer, wrestling, and rugby merged together and played in Medieval costume.) At the end of the day are the Fochi di San Giovanni — a spectacular fireworks display that illuminates the Arno River in the colors of the Italian flag.
International Yoga Day (India)
The summer solstice is clearly the best day for a sun salutation, as it’s the longest day of the year. In India, the birthplace of yoga, every June 21 is dedicated to this ancient practice. However, International Yoga Day is a relatively recent tradition, which began in 2015 to raise awareness of the physical and spiritual benefits of regular yoga practice.
In towns and cities across India, mornings are greeted with mass yoga sessions. In 2018, a new world record for the largest yoga session ever was set at Kota, a small city in Rajasthan. Over 100,000 people met to move through a vinyasa. Politicians and celebrities across India enthusiastically take part, and International Yoga Day is also celebrated around the world, with a particularly large gathering of yogis in Times Square.
Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival (Canada)
Another relatively recent tradition that has become a summertime staple is Ottawa’s annual Indigenous Festival. This three-week celebration begins on June 1 and ends on the solstice, attracting tens of thousands of people to the Canadian capital.
One of the most popular events is the Competition Pow Wow, a music and dance contest which features representatives from many First Nations tribes, from the Inuits of the Arctic regions to cross-border tribes such as the Mohawk and Algonquian. Festival goers can also experience Indigenous cultures through traditional cookery classes, or shop for hand-crafted goods at the marketplace, which went virtual in 2020.
White Nights (Russia)
The White Nights get their name from the fact that the sun doesn’t set in the city of St. Petersburg during the height of summer. They normally run from June 11 to July 2, a period in which St. Petersburg teems with activity no matter the time of day, thanks to the ever-present daylight.
Fans of Russia’s rich cultural heritage can attend the Stars of the White Nights program at the Mariinsky Theatre, with special ballet, opera, and orchestral performances echoing through the old venue’s hallowed halls. Music lovers can also get their groove on at the jazz festival. The true highlight of the White Nights, however, is the Scarlet Sails. It is the world’s biggest graduation party, with pirate battles and fireworks booming over the Neva River to celebrate recent grads. The moment everyone waits for is the appearance of a special red-sailed ship: the star of a popular Russian children’s book, brought to life for one extraordinary night.
Mountain Bonfires (Austria)
The Alpine region of Tyrol, which straddles the Austro-Italian border, looks highly unusual when seen from above on the summer solstice, as Christian motifs and secular shapes are emblazoned onto the mountainside. The tradition of lighting bonfires dates back to the Middle Ages, but didn’t take its present illustrative form until 1796. That year’s Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (which usually takes place in mid-June) was fraught with tension, as invading French troops lurked nearby, waiting to pounce. Tyrol’s residents prayed for protection. As a symbol of their devotion, they lit fires in the shape of a heart — it’s this tradition that continues today.
The best place to see the spectacle is the Zugspitz Arena valley, where around 8,000 fires burn in the darkness, and you can get a bird’s eye view from the valley’s cable car.
Inti Raymi (South America)
Many ancient civilizations in the Americas based life around the sun. The Inca sun god, Inti, was the most important deity, and the Inti Raymi festival (which takes place every June) is a huge event in the Andean cultural calendar.
The festival goes on for days, as it marks the start of the Incas’ solar new year. Music, dancing, and parades in traditional costume — including glorious aya huma (“second face”) masks — bring everybody out onto the streets. The vibrant festival was nearly stamped out by Spanish colonizers, but it was officially reinstated in 1944, and has been growing ever since.