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April 23, 2014

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Let the sunshine in with summer solstice

Alone among the notable days in the year, there stands the summer solstice, in splendid, sun-drenched isolation. It starts today, the longest day of the year, when the sun (Latin “sol”) stands still (“sistere”) and shines for slightly over 15 hours.

Why no love for the summer solstice, a day when you can do whatever you like outdoors from dawn to dusk and then some?

Every religion in the world has embraced the summer solstice’s wintry counterpart, Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year. The Romans bacchanalized on the Saturnalia holiday, China still observes the December Dongzhi festival, and the Scandinavian St. Lucy’s Day (Dec. 13) commemorates the winter solstice of the old, pre-Gregorian calendar.

Hanukkah, the Hebrew festival of light, can fall any time between late November and late December, bracketing the winter solstice. Perhaps you’ve heard of Christmas? A solstice ritual, pure and simple. Jesus Christ is 2,013 years old. Sun worship is ageless.

The Christian church likewise put a double hammerlock on the vernal equinox, which occurs in late March. It is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the Feast of Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary falls on March 25, near the date of the spring (vernal) equinox. Easter, which celebrates rebirth and resurrection, occurs soon after the vernal equinox, informally known as the first day of spring.

But the Christians have left summer to fend for itself. The purported birthday of John the Baptist occurs on June 24, but who remembers that? Homeopathic doctors, perhaps; the medicinal herb St. John’s wort is traditionally harvested on John’s birthday.

The church calendar calls this season Ordinary Time. Are you kidding? No! Extraordinary time! You can take longer bike rides, and you can ignore Mom’s pleas to come indoors. The stifling July heat waves are still weeks away. Chase the ice cream truck, play stoop ball, go bird-watching or go out to sea and stay there. Saturday morning is for sleeping in.

The pagans celebrated the summer solstice with the hoopla it deserved. Often called Litha, the holiday feted the wedding of heaven and earth at midsummer, which made the time propitious for human weddings, as well. Latter-day druids and their ilk like to congregate at Great Britain’s Stonehenge around this time of year. The stones align perfectly with the rising sun of the summer solstice, prompting speculation that the site was a celestial observatory, circa 4,000 years ago.

The Northern Europeans don’t take sunlight for granted, and Midsummer Night festivals proliferate from Shakespeare’s homeland north to the Arctic Circle. Sweden’s official website has a helpful video explaining the “holiday devoted to eating, drinking, dancing and assorted pagan rituals, second only in significance to Christmas.” The giddy Swedes head for the countryside to gobble pickled herring, hop through the “little frogs” dance and frolic in the rain; “No midsummer is complete without a sudden downpour,” we learn.

Across the peninsula, the dour Norwegians seem to be having much less fun.

“While the Swedes get the day off,” Oslo’s official website notes, “June 23 is a normal workday in Norway.”

Me, I’m a child of darkness. My favorite religious holiday is Tenebrae (“Shadows”), the dying of the light before Easter Sunday. But I think we’re all phototropic at heart, plant-like enough to crave the sun.

I’m not trying to push some new coinage on the world, such as Festivus, the “alternative” Christmas bruited on “Seinfeld,” or its cutoff cardigan cousin, Vestival, a December holiday when everyone is supposed to wear vests. And I’m not suggesting that the world’s great religions walk back the cat and recognize the solstice. But I want you to have a good time on June 21 and recognize it for what it is: a great, free gift of sunlight, from nature, with love.

Go skateboarding, throw horseshoes or hang out on the porch and complain about all the silly rubbish the newspapers are printing. Enjoy yourself, and advise others to do the same.

Alex Beam wrote this for the Boston Globe.

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  1. Very interesting article on the relation of religious celebrations and feasts to the seasons in nature. Who remembers the birthday of St. John the Baptizer? Catholics for sure! How? Besides Jesus and his holy Mother Mary, St. John is the only other Catholic saint whose nativity on June 24 is a solemnity, the highest mass celebration in the Catholic religion. Why? Mass days for saints are celebrated on their death dates because it is the day that their souls ascend into heaven. But, St. John, Jesus and Mary are the only 3 who have mass celebrations both on their nativities and deaths. That's very special. It bestows on St. John, the Baptizer, equal mass prominence as Jesus and Mary.

    Carmine D