Summer Solstice 2020: everything you need to know about the longest day of the year
With the recording-breaking amount of sunshine the UK has seen recently, it may feel like summer has already arrived, but the astronomical season doesn’t officially begin until later this month.
The summer solstice, otherwise known as the longest day of the year, is fast approaching, marking the return of brighter evenings. While festivals, barbecues and beach holidays are often enjoyed throughout the warmer months, many of this year’s summer events and activities will not be possible due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
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 20th and 22nd each year.
This year it falls on Saturday, June 20th – when the UK will enjoy 16 hours and 38 minutes of daylight. The sun will rise at 4.43am and set at 9.21pm.
The solstice officially marks the beginning of astronomical summer, which ends when the autumn equinox falls on September 22nd. 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 21st, 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 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.
Summer solstice traditions: why is Stonehenge so significant?
Stonehenge in Avebury, 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.
How to celebrate the summer solstice in 2020
Stonehenge traditionally 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.
While crowds of around 10,000 traditionally greet the moment dawn breaks with a mixture of cheers and silent meditation each June, English Heritage has been forced to cancel this year’s event due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Instead, the sun rise behind the Heel Stone, the ancient entrance to the Stone Circle, on June 21, will be livestreamed via the English Heritage social media channels.
English Heritage will also record footage for later broadcast and is putting together a programme of activity including interviews with experts and historians on the symbolism of solstice.
Nichola Tasker, Stonehenge director at English Heritage, said: “We hope that our live stream offers an alternative opportunity for people near and far to connect with this spiritual place at such a special time of year and we look forward to welcoming everyone back next year.”
Elsewhere, in Penzance, Cornwall, the Golowan Festival celebrates midsummer every year. This year the event was set to take place from June 19th to 28th, but like the Stonehenge celebration, it has been cancelled due to the global pandemic.
However, a virtual festival will still be taking place online, with dance, music, quizzes and other activities to be made available via the Golowan website and social media channels.