Credit: thegarethwiscombe photo

June 21 is the summer solstice. This major celestial event marks the first, official day of summer. But just what does all of that really mean beside the end of school and the start of vacation time?

The Farmer’s Almanac states that “the word solstice comes from the Latin words for ‘sun’ and ‘to stop,’ due to the fact that the sun appears to stop in the sky.”

The solstices—summer and winter—are caused by the relationship of our Earth to the sun. As the days get longer, the sun rises higher and higher in the sky. During the summer solstice, the sun is at its peak, with its rays striking our Northern Hemisphere directly. On this day, we experience the longest day and the shortest night of the year.

Subsequently, the Southern Hemisphere has its longest day and shortest night in December. After the summer solstice, our days will gradually get shorter and shorter, leading to winter. The sign of Cancer (the crab) is associated with the summer solstice because the crab walks backwards, symbolizing the shorter days to come.

This is all due to the way our planet rotates around the sun on its tilted axis, an imaginary line that runs through its center. You can see this by using a globe. It is because of this rotation that we get the solstices and equinoxes. During the equinoxes—spring and fall—the sun sits directly overhead at high noon on the equator, making day and night the same length of time.

The sun appears to move north for six months of the year and south for the other six months. When it reaches its highest northern point (June 21) and its lowest southern point (Dec. 22), we have our solstices.

Why isn’t the longest day of the year also the hottest day of the year? Even though our Earth is absorbing the sun’s rays, it takes a few weeks to release it. This happens during July and August. That’s when our ocean waters are the warmest.

To better understand how the solstices work, we must first look at the imaginary lines through the Earth. We mentioned the axis or tilt on which the earth slowly spins. This line goes completely through the Earth and through the North and South poles. The Earth rotates at a 23.5 degree angle in its journey around the sun. This tilt is the reason that we have our four seasons.

Another important marker is the equator, a line that runs around the center of the Earth at 0 degrees. Other lines parallel to the equator are called lines of latitude. These number from 0 (the equator) to 90 degrees. Two important lines of latitude are the Tropic of Cancer in the Northern Hemisphere and the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere. The sun is directly over these lines at 23.5 degrees twice a year, resulting in the summer and winter solstices.

We humans have been in awe of the power of the sun since the beginning of time. Ancient and modern civilizations have long celebrated its power, which is at its peak during the summer solstice.

The most famous summer solstice celebrations in the world happen at Stonehenge, the remains of a prehistoric but architechturally sophisticated monument built by the Neolithic people in Wiltshire, England, and one of the most famous structures in the world. Archeologists believe the ring of standing stones was built sometime between 3000 B.C. and 2000 B.C. The structure consists of two different types of stones, bluestones and sarsens, the largest of which is estimated to weigh 40 tons.

Though its definitive purpose remains somewhat of a mystery, Stonehenge has been long revered as a spiritual place. It appears to have been constructed in a way to directly align itself with the summer solstice. Each year, on the day of the summer solstice, thousands of solstice enthusiasts descend on this ancient and mysterious monument to watch the sunrise.

Summertime fun facts

Bonfires were built on the first day of summer to boost the sun’s energy and keep evil spirits away.

The Druids called the solstice the wedding of heaven and Earth, resulting in the popularity of June weddings for good luck.

The word “honeymoon” is associated with summer. Pagans called the first moon of summer a honeymoon and drank fermented honey as part of wedding celebrations.

In ancient China, the summer solstice was a celebration of the Earth and “yin,” or female energy.

Summer school vacations were the brainchild of educator Horace Mann in 1840. Before the early 19th century, there were no such breaks. These came later to coincide with planting and harvesting.

The Eiffel Tower in France grows as much as six inches in the summer because the iron expands in the summer heat.

July is National Ice Cream Month because most of the sweet treat is consumed in the United States during the month of July.

Whatever you choose to do this summer, make it a happy, health and safe one. Don’t forget to enjoy a good book and look for the Amsterdam News in your classroom on Thursday, Sept. 12!

This Week in Black History

June 17, 1862: Congress authorizes President Abraham Lincoln to begin accepting Black soldiers in the Union Army.

June 18, 1991: Wellington Webb is the first Black elected as mayor of Denver, Colo.

June 19, 1865: Though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, slavery continued in Texas until June 19, 1865, when word reached Galveston, Texas, that all slaves were free, sparking the yearly celebration known as Juneteenth.

June 20, 1911: The NAACP is incorporated in New York.

June 21, 1832: Happy birthday to Joseph Haynes Rainey, the first Black representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.