It doesn’t matter where you are the in the world – our heliocentric sense of time cycles us through seasons of darkness and short days, followed by those of rebirth and late twilights. As the sun reaches its highest point of the calendar year and seems to stands still on the day of the summer solstice, it burnishes hopeful observers with new possibilities, new resolves, and the chance to celebrate nature, art, and each other.
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Officially on June 21, some places celebrate the solstice a couple of days before or after, so that it falls on a weekend eve (a much kinder approach for the morning after an all-night party). Alaska is one major destination for summer solstice celebrants, but we’ve got some other suggestions, too.
Stonehenge, United Kingdom
As anyone who has visited the British Isles can attest, there’s a certain air of poetic, ancient mysticism to be found no matter where you go. Electric green hills. Thickly layered clouds. Always the threat of a misty rain. Mysterious sheep in the distance. Centuries of burials, battles, and stone monuments.
Nowhere does this elemental sense of mystery feel more present than at Stonehenge, the gobsmacker of an inscrutable human structure that has tongue-tied scholars and visitors alike since prehistoric times. Although no one has been able to draw hard conclusions over just what Stonehenge’s circle of massive stones, or sarsens, was meant to convey, its circular shape and alignment with the sunrise and sunset on solstices hints at some sort of connection to the calendar. Renewed interest in the magical and ceremonial properties of Stonehenge prompted a gathering of white-robed Neo-Druids to gather there in 1905 on the summer solstice for a ritual honoring the beams of sun through the ancient stones.
This trend caught on, and despite a clash with government forces in the 1980’s, thousands of pilgrims the world over come to range around the monument each solstice. From pious folks in robes to villagers in parkas and free love types bearing beads and face paint, the gathering is friendly, reverent, and all-inclusive. After a night spent in revelry and anticipation, the sun broaching the horizon is greeted with cheers and drumming – certainly an experience to remember as Stonehenge’s great shape stands in stark silhouette, slowly illuminated. Another summer, another century.
The Swedes take the summer solstice – or Midsommar – very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that the country recognizes the date as a national holiday every year. With a sun that barely sets at all and cabin fever after months of being cooped up inside during the dark winter, the whole country explodes in a celebration with food, friendship, and ample servings of local alcohol.
Midsommar has been celebrated for centuries with bonfires, the raising of maypoles, and good dose of superstition – for instance, vivid dreams that would foretell one’s future spouse – and many of these traditions continue today. Whole families gather in the countryside to pick flowers for the maypole, eat a feast of pickled herring and boiled new potatoes, and toss back shot after shot of Scandinavian schnapps to the accompaniment of rousing drinking songs. Aquavit, the schnapps in question, is a strong liquor infused with herbs. The most pungent taste of these is the distinctive caraway seed – think pumpernickel bread. Appropriately loosened by these libations, dancing on the grass is encouraged, and sometimes tradition-minded Swedes even don local costumes.
Stockholm’s outdoor Skansen Museum is often a popular destination within the city for Midsommar celebrations, but towns across the whole country will be celebrating, from the woods to the oceans. Prepare to be welcomed by the friendly locals and asked to raise a glass yourself. And, if you’re feeling a bit superstitious, putting a selection of seven flowers beneath your pillow when you do finally go to bed may still foretell the future.
Seattle’s quirky Fremont neighborhood is reached over a whimsical blue bridge with a Rapunzel painted on the window. This same winsome spirit guides its annual Fremont Solstice Parade and Celebration, which has drawn crowds to the self-proclaimed “Center of the Universe” since 1989. With a large population of Scandinavian settlers and a Northern location, it’s no surprise that Seattleites take Midsummer seriously, especially when it heralds the beginning of the sunniest season of the year. However, Seattle’s solstice merrymaking takes the revelry of the day and adds an iconoclastic Northwestern twist.
The true centerpiece of the day’s festivities lies in the Parade, where a series of spindrift and elaborate floats constructed out of everything from papier mache to trash bags travels through the neighborhood and to the end point of Gasworks Park, which overlooks Lake Union. Accompanying these floats are dancers, humans dressed like art, attention seekers, and various characters that lend the whole thing a carnival-esque air. A three-legged dog sporting an Elizabethan collar wouldn’t be out of place here. The unofficially official parade cheerleaders and conductors are a series of naked bicyclists, often elaborately painted or bewigged, riding by and amiably ringing their bells. An ad-hoc, free-wheeling parade if there ever was one, bicyclists just ride up the day of and join in the fun.
Despite the occasional nudity, the Fremont Solstice celebration is family-friendly. During the entire Midsummer weekend, the neighborhood hosts a street fair, beer garden, free musical performances, and a pageant at Gasworks Park, the terminus of the parade. Come as a spectator, come with your bike, or come as you are to usher in the season.
New York City
We wouldn’t blame you if the bright lights, big city of Times Square isn’t the first place that comes to mind for a ritual honoring tranquility, centeredness, and enlightenment. Times Square has to be one of the loudest places in the world, and we mean the adjective in every sense: loud colors, loud costumes, loud talking, loud honking. Who would have thought that in this delightfully colorful urban center, one of the world’s largest yoga practices would find its home?
Sponsored by the Times Square Alliance, blocks of Broadway are set aside on the summer solstice each year, and one and all are invited to come, lay down a mat, and say ohm together in a spirit of shared renewal. Thousands of yogis of all shapes and sides participate in the free day of yoga, which features back-to-back classes led by renowned instructors from dawn until the (very late) dusk. A little planning may be required, including registering at the event’s website, but what’s a little planning to get your spot?
Proof that the peaceful mind can be attained anywhere, Times Square’s celebration will leave you attuned to the beauties of the coming season. Plus, after a day of treating your body as a temple, a little night-time solstice indulgence is well earned.
Like Sweden, Alaska is a Land of the Midnight Sun, and so it should come as no surprise that the summer solstice is kind of a big deal. What better place to celebrate the longest day of the year than in a place whose summer twilight stretches until the morning? Not to mention, in a festival that fetes nature, Alaska’s pristine scenery comes out on top.
Pretty much all the larger towns of Alaska have something scheduled on this day. Anchorage’s Summer Solstice Festival packs the downtown’s Town Square for live music, a beer garden, and even an intriguingly named “chainsaw art test.” Similarly, Fairbanks’ Midnight Sun Festival is considered the largest single-day event in the state, and features a street fair atmosphere with loads of live music. A bit more rustic, the Seldovia Summer Music Festival gets you out of town and near the woods and water to listen to music under the not-appearing stars. Expect locals to wish you a cheerful “Happy Solstice!” as you’re out and about.
Always a haven for DIY-ers, many Alaskans prefer to hike up on mountains and hills and ring in the sunset with music-making, campfires, and parties of their own. Astoundingly, the sun appears again, only a few hours later. Nothing like a panorama of Alaska’s beauty to herald the dawning of summer.
Even if you can’t make it to another place for the summer solstice this year, remember that the essential ingredients are all there: the sun – no matter where you are – friends, nature, food, revelry… and perhaps a flower crown or two.
If you’re working in Alaska, you can make the summer solstice a memorable event with new friends. Check out our Alaska summer job openings and we hope to see you up here!