The longest day of the year — June 21, also known as summer solstice — offers the perfect opportunity to shake off any lingering cold weather blues, soak in the late-day warmth, and watch the sun disappear over the horizon.
Don’t have plans? We’ve come up with some easy ways to help you throw your own impromptu summer solstice celebration — but first, here’s the story behind the holiday and some little-known fun facts to share with your friends!
History of Summer Solstice
Summer solstice — also known as midsummer — is celebrated throughout the world, and particularly in northern Europe and the Baltic countries. While it’s believed to have originated with the ancient Egyptians who marked it as the start of the Nile’s flooding season, no one takes summer solstice more to heart than the Danes, whose time-honored traditions date back centuries to the Viking era.
In Denmark, one of the Nordic spots where the Vikings staked their claim, summer solstice began as a magical evening steeped in pagan ritual celebrating the summer light. Blazing bonfires were lit to ward away malingering evil spirits; flowers and herbs with medicinal properties were gathered for curative needs; and pilgrimages were made to healing springs. With the rise of Christianity, the pagan traditions were tidied up and packaged into the decidedly less hedonistic anniversary of the birth of John the Baptist (Sankt Hans) on June 23, which became Denmark’s official day of the solstice celebration known as Sankt Hans Aften.
Nowadays, the summer solstice is an excuse for Danes to stay up late and party — and who can blame them after a long winter in the dark? And what a party it is: People of all ages gather along the beaches that line the coast, fjords, and lakes. The daylight lingers to near midnight, when the sun attempts to set, teasing the horizon, before changing its mind and rising again in the wee hours of the morning. Bonfires are lit, speeches are made, songs are sung, and food and drink are plentiful. The celebrations culminate with an effigy of a witch burnt over the fire, a relatively contemporary addition to the litany of solstice rituals and a symbol of banishing evil spirits — much to the delight of neo-pagans, children, and pyromaniacs alike.
Your Turn to Party
Ready to join modern-day solstice revelers and stay up late to party? Don’t worry if you haven’t made plans — there’s still time to join in the celebration of the longest day of the year. Here are a few simple ideas.
1. Put together your own impromptu picnic party.
Pack some quick picnic food, make one of our favorite summer recipes, rally some friends, and spread a blanket at a local beach, lake, or park. The idea is to spend time with those you care about and create memories.
2. Light your own beach bonfire.
To party like an ancient Danish partygoer, head to the beach and light a fire to ward off those evil spirits (but make sure your beach of choice allows bonfires). Have everyone else bring a dish or a bottle of wine to share. And don’t forget long sticks for roasting s’mores or snobrød — skewered hot dogs wrapped in bread dough, a Danish campfire favorite.
3. Burn an effigy.
Harkening back to the days of witch hunting, the Danish burnt an effigy of a witch over a fire. Get your artistic friends or spirited teenagers to help build and transport your witch to the beach front. But, a warning: That 10-foot witch strapped to your car roof might prove a tad distracting to other drivers.
Other Ways to Celebrate Summer Solstice
If you’re just not in the mood to put together a makeshift party, there are plenty of other ways to acknowledge the day. Get some inspiration from these traditions from around the world.
Solstice Parade — Southern California
Santa Barbara is a sleepy SoCal enclave that comes fully alive around the time of summer solstice with a three-day event attracting more than 100,000 people from all over the world. It has become one of the largest celebrations of midsummer; the highlight of which is the parade with more than 1,000 parade participants and an impressive a display of floats, giant puppets and masks.
How to DIY: Have the kids make their own puppets and put together an impromptu puppet parade or show of your own.
Solstice in Times Square: Mind Over Madness Yoga — New York City
Each year, thousands of yogis from around the world travel to Times Square to celebrate the summer solstice with free yoga classes in the middle of the city.
How to DIY: Hold an outdoor yoga session with friends in your favorite local park and do some simple poses and stretches together.
Midnight Baseball — Alaska
The folks in Fairbanks take advantage of having some of the longest days on Earth. Since 1950 on summer solstice, the Midnight Sun baseball game starts at 10:30 p.m. and continues into the wee hours of the following day. With 22 hours of sun, no artificial lighting is needed.
How to DIY: Rally a team of players of all ages and skill levels for a post-dinner, let’s-not-keep-score game of baseball at a local field.
Midsummer — Sweden
Maypoles aren’t just for the month of May. In Sweden, they might as well be called midsummer poles. The pole is raised in an open spot and a traditional ring dance takes place around it.
How to DIY: Make your own midsummer maypole using these tips from Martha Stewart.
Kupala — Eastern Europe
This Slavic holiday with pagan roots was named for the Slavic goddess Kupala and was originally conceived as a fertility rite. Women weave garlands of flowers and float them on the water to predict romantic success. Others wear garlands to ward off evil spirits.
How to DIY: Pick up some flowers at your local florist (or nice artificial ones at a local craft store) and make garland headpieces.
Midsummer’s Eve and St. John’s Day — Estonia and Latvia
These are two of the most important days on the calendar in this part of the world, marked by bonfires and parties. Traditional diversions include jumping over bonfires (we don’t recommend this) and flower-picking.
How to DIY: Go ahead and pick some of your own flowers, but keep a safe distance from the bonfire!
Kasia Pawlowska is the associate editor at Marin Magazine. She enjoys sending and receiving postcards and perfect outfits for the right occasions. When she’s not busy writing and researching articles, you can find her with a crumpled New Yorker in her tote enjoying the Bay Area music scene. Kasia supports National Public Radio, PBS, and the World Wildlife Fund. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @ohhkasia.
Lynda Balslev is an award-winning cookbook author, writer, and food columnist based in Marin County. She authors the nationally syndicated food column TasteFood and writes about food, wine, and travel for various publications and media outlets including NPR, Parade, Relish, and Culture Magazine. Lynda supports ExtraFood.org in Marin and is a board member of the Marin Literacy Program. Follow her on Instagram @tastefoodtravel.