What is childhood summer all about? Fun in the sun, relaxing, no alarm clocks or school bells, climbing trees, swimming, freedom, sunshine, and magic. It seems so obvious, so why am I so unsatisfied with this explanation? I keep wondering about the meaning of summer . . . the deeper meaning. If in the fall we turn inward, store up our strength and inner warmth, because in the dark winter we come face to face with ourselves . . . then what is the summer about?
The polar opposite of winter then would be, maybe . . . looking outward to the community, festivities and celebration, the pinnacle of the strength and warmth we’ll need later, expansiveness. Looking outward, outside of ourselves, as far as the sun and the universe, finding the spiritual in a bigger sense. Spirit in the cosmos. The outer light. In nature, many plants expand in this way, transforming their flowers into swelling fruits, growing seeds inside, looking towards the harvest. In our mediterranean climate I think of the ocean’s upwelling as this kind of swelling and transformation too, bringing nutrients to the ocean’s surface along with the cold air that brings our summer fog. Summer has a slow and steady feel to me, sometimes even dreary, after the excitement and bursting growth of spring. Now the energy is just under the surface.
I wrote last week about why this is important to me, finding meaning that connects the cycles of nature to our human lives. At our house, the children have had trouble falling asleep ever since daylight savings started and the sun is still up at bedtime. Maybe the solstice is the time to find strength from the fiery sun because we are all exhausted from staying up so late! In reality, June solstice celebrations around the world include: purification, chasing away evil, improving our selves, expressing gratitude for the sun and for life, marking the agricultural year, asking for help from divine powers, marriages, and plenty of celebration through gatherings, song, and dance.
As I look for symbols, songs, and traditions for this season, I am blown away that around the world, communities celebrate the sun and fire around June 21. In northern climates the day is long and the night is short, and in the south it’s the reverse. But even right on the equator, ancient peoples noticed that the sun was at it’s highest point and for them, too, this was important, central to life.
The Celtic festival of Litha is celebrated by modern Pagans at the solstice. In South America, Andean communities celebrate Inti Raymi, the festival of the sun, dispersed throughout the Andes by the Inca Empire. North American indigenous plains communities gather for the Sun Dance. The European Christians brought us St. John’s Tide on June 24th for Saint John the Baptist — in Spanish San Juan and in Portuguese São João. This festival has been syncretized the world over to give us so many rich festivals, music, dance, and traditions that take on those names.
All Year Round says this about St John’s Day:
At a time when Nature rushes on, relentlessly pursuing her goal of fruiting and seeding, we are challenged by St John to pause, reassess our intentions and the direction of our life. He asks us to straighten and balance the landscape of our soul.
. . . Summer joys are transient: the days grow shorter and the year’s path leads on towards midwinter and Christmas — the Festival of Birth. Within each one of us a child waits to be born, the offspring of our efforts to overcome human insufficiency.
From ancient times Midsummer has been the principal season for fire rituals. These included fires of purification . . . The customs of leaping over the fires . . . arose out of a belief in their cleansing powers . . . The most noble quality of Fire is its ability to transform substance. In the alchemy of the soul there is always the possibility that the dross in our lives may be changed into something more precious. By ‘burning up’ what is unfruitful within us, we gain the strength to rise above ourselves, to jump over our own inner St John’s Fire.
The sun is a strong source of power that stands apart from the Earth, different from soil, water, and air; it gives life to all of us, and we each have our own way of understanding it’s power with the self-conscious perspective that humans have.
I’ve been gathering South American solstice traditions that have meaning to our family. I’m not exactly sure how they connect to the spiritual meaning of the solstice. I hope that while I look for meaning, my experience will come across to my children through these activities, somehow. Here they are.