Building a Summer Solstice Tradition

There are quite a few Summer Solstice articles on the Patheos Pagan Channel and all the ones I’ve read have been good.  I encourage you to read two or three or all of them and then ask yourself what they have in common, other than the date and perhaps a mention of the sun.  The answer is “not much.”

Summer Solstice is perhaps the least well-defined of all the eight celebrations of the Wheel of the Year.  That’s partially because it has no presence in the mainstream culture.  Imbolc has Groundhog Day and Ostara has Easter, which shares a name and a season even if it isn’t the cultural appropriation some Pagans like to claim it is. Winter Solstice has Christmas and Hanukkah, while fragments of Beltane and Samhain survive in May Day and Halloween.

But Summer Solstice?  I can’t think of a thing.  The de facto beginning of summer in the United States is the Memorial Day weekend.  Both culturally and weather-wise, the middle of summer is somewhere around the end of July.

In a mythological cycle based on subsistence agriculture, Summer Solstice isn’t very important.  Planting took place in the spring and the harvest won’t come till late summer or fall.  Summer Solstice is the longest day, but if your only source of light at night is candles, shortening days aren’t exactly something to celebrate.  That’s another reason why I argue the thousands of people who will crowd Stonehenge on Saturday morning are there six months and 12 hours out of phase.

You could easily drop Summer Solstice from your list of high days.  Still, it has astronomical significance, and there’s a nice symmetry that comes from dividing the year into eight roughly equal seasons. Plus it gives us an opportunity to build our own traditions around the Summer Solstice.

The first public ritual I ever led was Denton CUUPS Summer Solstice in 2003:  “A Druid Midsummer.”  That ritual – and the process by which it was created – deserves its own post, but for our purposes here, let’s just say it was successful and I hoped it would become a local expression of the fine old Druid tradition of celebrating the Summer Solstice, a tradition that dates far back into pre-history… if by pre-history you mean the late 19th century.

It was not to be.  The next year there was a strong desire to do an Egyptian temple ritual, and considering we wanted to honor Ra – a Sun God – Summer Solstice seemed the ideal time to do it.

As a group I think we put more time into that first Egyptian Summer Solstice than any ritual before or since.  This wasn’t one person writing and directing – it was a true group effort.  We met to talk about what we wanted to do.  We discussed how this would be very different from the Wiccan-influenced liturgy we usually used.  We identified resources and assigned people to research them.  We followed up with meetings to see how best to arrange the material we found.

We did lots of spiritual preparation too.  We all agreed to do nine nights of meditation, each on one member of the Ennead.  This began the hardening of my polytheism – my experience of each of the Neteru was so different I started to understand they had to be more than aspects or faces of one great deity.

We had a very small turnout for the ritual, which was disappointing.  But by that time we understood we were doing this for the Gods and not for any audience, so we went ahead with enthusiasm.  It went very well.

The aftermath went even better.  We had a huge turnout for Lughnasadh six weeks later, picked up several new members, and we’ve been going strong ever since.  When we started talking about the next year’s Summer Solstice there was no question we’d do another Egyptian temple ritual.  It’s become our local tradition – this Saturday will mark Denton CUUPS’ 11th consecutive year for Egyptian Summer Solstice.

Like the best traditions, this tradition developed organically.  We did something, found it to be a good thing, so we did it again.  And again.  And again.  It’s not a stagnant tradition – the main event of the ritual changes every year, and we’ve revised our opening liturgy and invocations several times.  The constant has been our commitment to the Neteru, and to the intent and form of ancient Egyptian temple rituals and our evolving understanding of them.

And of course, the Summer Solstice.

May your Solstice be blessed, no matter what tradition you observe… or build.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Merri-Todd Webster

    I’ve come to think of July 4th as the pop culture equivalent of the Summer Solstice holy day. Instead of bonfires, we have fireworks, but we eat seasonal foods, court sunburn, and talk about ideals of sovereignty–freedom, independence, self-governance.

    • Merri-Todd Webster

      Belated remembrance that that equivalence is only useful or applicable to folks here in the U.S.!

    • John Beckett

      Merri-Todd, I thought about the 4th of July, but all it shares with Midsummer is a rough time period. It has no historical or spiritual connections to the Solstice.

  • Denise LeGendre

    “You could easily drop Summer Solstice from your list of high days.”

    Oh nooooo! I couldn’t. It’s one of my favorites. Whether or not Summer Solstice rituals have any agricultural or historical justification, the days are long, the weather is fine, the roses and honeysuckle are in bloom and the garden is picking up steam – who wouldn’t want to celebrate? I am grateful just to be alive in June and want to say a huge Thank You to the Gods, not to mention, simply savor every moment. To be honest, I have to work at coming up with gratitude between November and February – sure, there’s Yule but the weather is utterly miserable and it’s dark all the time – and by August, drought and heat may be making life less than fun but late June?! Life is sweet. What better reason for ritual than to mark and be thankful for that?

    • Jen’s Divination

      I am so with you Denise! This is the time of the burgeoning goddess and her work. As a woman, this is the holiday that I craft ritual specifically to honor my feminine divine and focus on the preparation to begin setting fruits from our labors starting at Imbolc.

  • JasonMankey

    I used to feel the same way, but have begun digging deeper into the holiday this year. Along with Yule, Midsummer has some of the longest lasting, continually celebrated pagan traditions. Even the more recent associations (fairies!) are still hundreds of years old.

    Up until relatively recently the celebration of Midsummer/St. John’s Night was an important holiday in many Northern European cultures. I’m taking it back.

    Geez John, have you not been reading Raise the Horns this week? :)

    • John Beckett

      I read it, Jason, and I appreciate the scholarship, but I’ve got zilch of a connection to any of it.

      Now, I have heard the faerie tradition, and I kept meaning to go to the woods and see for myself, but now Isis has me occupied.

    • Kauko

      I would disagree with the ‘up until recently’ statement. Midsummer remains to this day the most important holiday after Christmas throughout Scandinavia, Finland etc.

      • JasonMankey

        I should have phrased that better because I do know better. Typing “Midsummer celebrations” into Google brings up all sorts of contemporary celebrations in lots of Northern European countries. In the United States though, it’s been extremely marginalized, so much so as to be non-existent. About all we get here are reports from Stonehenge.

        • Kauko

          Certainly. It’s a shame, too, that Midsummer is so absent from American culture (aside from people who view it as the start of summer, I guess).
          I would also disagree with the article’s statement that Midsummer doesn’t have agricultural significance. After the sowing of crops over the spring months, this is now the time to ask the sky/storms deities to bring rain to ensure that the crops will grow well. With all the drought in the US in recent years, that should certainly resonate with people.

          • JasonMankey

            I was re-reading “Stations of the Sun” this week and Hutton comments in there that the time around the solstice was extremely important to farmers. There were the threats of draughts of course, but also of blight. Just because it’s in the ground doesn’t mean the work i done or that the worry ceases.

            I understand John’s distance from Midsummer. I feel it sometimes too, but I’ve been trying to make an effort to get closer to my “most forgotten sabbats” (Midsummer and Lughnassa) and find some inspiration for them in ancient traditions and customs.

          • Kauko

            I’m a great lover of afternoon thunderstorms over the summer months, so I’m personally all about honoring Ukko at this time of year. I’ve always loved to go outside and watch a storm come in. Unfortunately, we just don’t get storms like we used to here. Every time a storm is heading this way on the radar these days, it tends to break up before it gets here. And there are few mercies on a hot summer day like a storm that blows through and knocks the temperature down 20 degrees.

  • emonyna .

    I don’t know about the United States, but in Europe June 21th is “music festival day” ! (Wikipedia calls it either “World Music Day” or “Fête de la Musique”.) For many of us, it is then associated with going out, seeing people, partying in the streets, and any kind of music you can think of !
    On June 24th we lit bonfires for St John, and though it is not on the solstice, it is a close enough celebration !
    This time of the year is always fun and busy, so a solstice celebration could easily be slipped between the music and the bonfires…

  • Nathan Boutwell

    It’s funny that while Midsummer has no direct correlation, Shakespeare left its mark in the popular consciousness. We were in a local grocery store last night, and I didn’t catch the product, but the radio announcer said “You need it for Midsummer Night.” I had to wonder what kind of dream “it” inspired.