Vail Daily column: In light of the summer solstice | VailDaily.com
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Vail Daily column: In light of the summer solstice

Enjoy every minute of the solstice Monday, from sunup to sundown.
Sophia Gianfrancisco | Special to the Daily |

Grilling out with friends and family, playing competitive yard games until late in the evening, hiking or walking the dog after work and finishing the day with a breathtaking sunset. These are merely a few of the moments we treasure on these long summer nights. Monday marks the longest day of the year, the summer solstice.

Here in the northern hemisphere, this year’s summer solstice lands on Monday; however, due to the structure of the calendar, it can appear on the June 20, 21, or, rarely, June 22. Most of us already know that it is the longest day of the year, but do we really understand why the day is so long or how culturally significant the solstice has been throughout history? In light of this year’s summer solstice, let’s take a short science and history lesson on the matter.

First the science. The Latin word for solstice is sosltitium which translates to “sun stands still.” But what exactly causes this apparent solar stall? If you think back to the globe in your old classroom, it was not aligned straight up and down, but instead, tilted at an angle. The axis of our Earth is tilted at an angle of 23.5 degrees. It is interesting to note that during the summer solstice, the earth is actually at its furthest point away from the sun. This shows us that it is not the change in distance from the sun that impacts seasonal change or length of day, but the tilt of the Earth on its axis that causes these phenomena.



During this time every June, the North Pole is at its maximum tilt toward the sun. At the same time, the South Pole is at its maximum tilt away from the sun. This means that, at the same time we are celebrating the longest amount of daylight, those south of the equator are grumbling about their short winter days during their winter solstice.

Now for the history. Throughout history, cultures have celebrated the summer solstice in different ways. The most famous celebration is in Stonehenge. Each year, to this day, tens of thousands of people gather around the ancient megalith to celebrate the summer solstice. The ancient Celts left no written record so the ancient rituals, as well as the construction of Stonehenge itself, are still somewhat unknown. But we do know that Stonehenge is oriented to align with the sunrise on the winter solstice and the sunset of the summer solstice. Celebrations may have involved bonfires and feasting and may not have even occurred at Stonehenge. Regardless, people still travel there from all around the world to celebrate in a place of such historical significance and intrigue.



The Chinese view the summer solstice as a time to honor the earth — the winter solstice honored the heavens. The summer solstice was the yin, or femininity, where the winter solstice was the yang, or masculinity. The celebration of both summer and winter solstices were equally important as they valued the overall balance between the two.

Traveling west, the ancient Romans honored the goddess Vesta during the summer solstice. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth who protected marriage. The summer solstice was a time where all woman were equally welcome into her temple to worship and make sacrifices. Any other time of the year, married women were not allowed into the temple.

Finally, many Native American tribes would celebrate the summer solstice through sun dances in symbolic dress. The Sioux have the most notable sun dance that continues today where they dance around a decorated sacred cottonwood tree.



Regardless of how you choose to celebrate this year’s summer solstice, be sure to get together with friends and family to appreciate the longest day of the year. After all, the days are only going to get shorter, but there will still be plenty of the daylight left for this summer in beautiful Colorado.

Marshall Kohls is a naturalist for Walking Mountains Science Center. He has spent one summer in Colorado and is looking forward to another and quite possibly many more.


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