Solstice: A Midsummer Night’s Feast

Today is the Summer Solstice, the “longest day of the year,” celebrated since pagan times with food and drink, and festive traditions.

As you must already know, AllSpice is all about the food, drink, and festive traditions. We suspect, since you’re reading this, you enjoy these things, too.

So, for your celebratory pleasure, here are
Ten Cool Things About the Summer Solstice

10. There’s some science going on. The earth spins around an axis, an imaginary line going between the north and south poles. On the summer solstice, the “axial tilt” of the planet is “most inclined” towards the sun. While today is the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, it is also the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere: for folks in South America, Australia, New Zealand and points south, that N-S axis is tilted away from the sun. (For bonus points: The tilt of the axis is 23.5 degrees; thanks to this tilt, we enjoy the four seasons.)

9. This year is a special summer solstice. Summer solstice officially occurs at 7:09 p.m., the earliest start of summer since 1896. Even if you’re really old, this is the earliest beginning of summer of your entire life.

8. Hold it right there: The word solstice comes from the Latin words for “sun” and “stoppage.” The sun stops moving northward on this day. After tonight, the nights will begin to grow longer, days shorter, and the sun will move farther away in the sky. (Cue the sad trombone).

7. Sweet dreams are made of these – The summer solstice is scientifically regarded as the first (official) day of summer, but colloquially it has long been called midsummer (Sommersonnenwende in German). In folk magic, midsummer was a powerful night and the time for small rituals and customs, mostly for young maidens seeking suitors and fertility.  In Norway, if a girl puts flowers under her pillow, she will dream of her future husband. We’ve made a love-ly list of traditional herbs and spices for romance.

6. Lord, what fools these mortals be! It was also believed that spirits (bearing both good fortune and ill) were out in force on Midsummer’s Eve. Think back on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and of all the mischief caused by those naughty fairies. (Kevin Kline turned into an ass! Classic!)
To keep mischievous fairies away, and to celebrate the power of the sun, many midsummer festivals feature huge bonfires that burn through the night.  Put your bonfire to good use and make some supper while you’re scaring off evil sprites. And enjoy some fairy cakes while you’re at it.

5.  How sweet it is. The midsummer moon used to be called the “Honey Moon” (!), after the mead that was made from fermented honey. Mead was drunk in the wedding ceremonies performed at the summer solstice.  Druids celebrated the solstice as the “wedding” of heaven and earth, and the belief that midsummer (June specifically) is a lucky time for weddings has endured to today.  Mead isn’t really my cup of tea, I really love tea or lemonade made with granulated honey.  Here are some more tasty summer beverage recipes.

4. Go burn it on the mountain. Many of the modern-day celebrations of the Summer Solstice take place in Europe, and in places colonized or otherwise influenced by European culture (Brazil, Canada, US). With the advent of Christianity in Europe, the solstice/midsummer holiday in many places is associated with the birth (and feast) of John the Baptist. In these celebrations, “St. John’s Fires” are lit on mountaintops, and people celebrate with dances, games, and outdoor meals. Some sources say that strawberries are customarily gathered and eaten on this feast day, maybe for a dessert like this.

3. Goodness, gracious. Speaking of fires, many of the John the Baptist – Midsummer – Solstice celebrations seem to encourage dangerous — or at least foolhardy — behavior. In many regions where bonfires burn, revelers jump over the fire. In Hungary, girls traditionally do the jumping, with boys as spectators. In most other European countries, men and boys run through the fire. In Latvia, both sexes jump through the fire, girls wearing flower wreaths, boys wearing oak leaf crowns. Coincidentally, in the Latvian town of Kuldiga, revelers mark the holiday by running naked through the town. Runners are rewarded with beer, and police are on hand to keep “puritans” from interfering with the naked run.
Celebrations in Ireland and Italy, which opt for mere fireworks instead of raging bonfires, seem tame by comparison.
In Portugal, people carry a whole plant of flowering garlic with them (or a little plastic hammer), which they use to bang their neighbors over the head for good luck. For less violent uses of garlic, look here.

2. They call it mellow yellow. Traditional colors and symbols of the summer solstice are gold and yellow, the sun, oak trees, and sunflowers. Some chefs create a solstice menu of all foods that are yellow and/or lemony.
Lemon Olive Oil Cake
Lemon Pepper Chicken With Thyme Gremolata
Asparagus with Lemon Sauce
and Preserved Lemon, Vanilla, and Arugula Salad would make a light and summery feast, as would anything using our
Lemon Zest
Lemon Extract
Lemon Pepper Seasoning
or Eureka Lemon Olive Oil.

1. Friends, Food, Festivity. Whether you go to the trouble of putting up a maypole, or piling up wood for a bonfire (sadly, but safely, this is prohibited in Des Moines and most incorporated towns nearby), or just want to have a party, the summer solstice is, at its heart, a time to celebrate the golden outdoors.  Enjoy the delicious first summer fruits and berries, make use of the burgeoning bounty of the garden (or the farmers’ market!), and enjoy refreshing drinks by the (tiny and law abiding) “bonfire” on the grill.

Happy Summer To All of You!

Photo credit: “Summer Solstice,” by saltychip on Flickr.