Litha, also known as Summer Solstice or Midsummer, is honored throughout the UK with celebrations taking place across the country on the longest day, which this year falls on 21 June.
For some cultures, the solstice is seen as the beginning of the summer, while others acknowledge it as midsummer. Litha is marked with celebrations across the northern hemisphere, the most famous of which is held at Stonehenge. Thousands of revelers gather at the ancient site in Wiltshire the night before Summer Solstice so they can watch the sunrise.
Stonehenge is widely believed to be a prehistoric temple built to mark the movements of the sun. The giant stones are believed to have stood in the same spot from 3,000 to 2,000 BC and are positioned to align with the sunrise on the two annual solstices. The heel stone and slaughter stones at the site are aligned with the sunrise on the summer solstice. If one stands in just the right place inside the Stonehenge monument on the day of the summer solstice, one can see the sun rise directly above the Heel Stone, which stands just outside the circle to the north-east.
To witness solstice traditions at Stonehenge, revelers arrive at the ancient site before the sun has even set on the day before. A sunset ceremony, led by a Druid priest takes place before they get into a circle and walk around the stones three times. The Druids believe that this ceremonial act acknowledges the sanctity of the site and that it introduces them to the higher beings of Stonehenge.
As the morning draws closer, worshippers will begin to set up small circles. Within these circles, they will call to the elements – earth, air, fire, and water – one at a time. To Mother Earth in the north, Air in the east, Water to the west and Fire to the south. There are speeches and announcements made to faeries and legends before everyone turns to face the rising sun and raises their hands. The white-cloaked and hooded druids gather among the standing stones to celebrate the summer solstice at dawn. They joyously welcome the first rays of the sunlight by tapping the heel stone while chanting “ARISES “O” SUN”, amidst the early morning dawn chorus of the birds. This group celebration and prayer is said to summon good energy and send it out around the world.
Summer solstice celebrations are important rituals throughout the magical isles that make up the UK and Ireland. Festivities in pre-Christian times focused on fairies, unicorns, and other mystical creatures until Christianity duly stamped these traditions out. Nowadays, certain areas are reviving these processions and plays. In Cornwall, a relay of bonfires is lit across the highest points and tors of the moors, from Ding Dong in Madron to Bodmin Moor’s most northern reaches, with each ignition being a signal to light the next. In Penzance, the Golowan Festival, which is Cornish for midsummer, ends in a riot of color and music in a street party which makes its way through the town on the first Saturday after the solstice every year.
Stonehenge may be the most famous Summer Solstice celebration in England, but it is by no means the only stone circle where revelers gather in celebration of this festival of light. England has more than 1,000 stone circles where gatherings take place on Summer Solstice – from Casterligg in the Lake District to Swinside in Cumbria, the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire and the Duddo Stone Circle in Northumberland.
In Wales, modern-day druids mark the celebration at the prehistoric site of Bryn Celli Ddu, an ancient sundial on Anglesey. Like Stonehenge, Bryn Celli Ddu too is built in alignment with the sun’s seasonal movement to ensure solar rays shine into its ancient entrance. On the summer solstice, the chamber and passage of Bryn Celli Ddu are aligned to the rising sun
Since 2012, Cadw and the Anglesey Druid Order have been inviting the public to take part in a summer solstice dawn celebration at Bryn Celli Ddu and witness how the sun streaks into the inner chamber, casting a shadow on the back stone.
Scotland’s Orkney Islands, with its best–preserved Neolithic monuments in Europe, is also a special place for people to celebrate the summer solstice. In addition, the Standing Stones of Calanais, Dun Carloway Broch and the replica Iron Age house at Bosta beach on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides hold summer solstice gatherings.
The celebration of Summer Solstice in Ireland is tied to their ancient landmarks. Ireland has one of the most prominent Neolithic sites known as Newgrange in Co. Meath, which dates back 5,000 years. In the same area, summer solstice celebrations at the Hill of Tara has been taking place for 6,000 years. The seat of the ancient kings of Ireland commands views as far away as Offaly and Louth.
Midsummer festivals and bonfires have also been a tradition in Ireland since Pagan times and it continues to thrive. Before environmental concerns over fumes from bonfires brought in certain rules, communities across Ireland would light a flame in celebration of the day. The tradition still lives on throughout Ireland with a few restrictions of times of day when bonfires are allowed.
- Rosa Medea is Editor-in-Chief of Life & Soul Magazine. She writes about sustainable lifestyle and living. An England dweller, she will be dodging the crowds at Stonehenge this Summer Solstice and heading for a low-key celebration wherever the sun takes her.