When Is the First Day of Summer? 12 Facts About the Summer Solstice
The answer is more complicated than you think!
Break out the Slip ‘N Slide and the popsicles—the first day of summer is almost here! This year, the summer solstice falls on Sunday, June 20, in the northern hemisphere, marking the official start of summer. If you want to be really precise, it happens at 11:32 p.m. E.T. So perhaps break out the glow sticks instead? However you choose to celebrate—and there are many summer solstice traditions around the world you can look to for inspiration—you should brush up on some interesting summer solstice facts, including what a solstice actually is and who’s got the best view of the world’s sunniest show. While you’re at it, find out what the 2021 summer solstice means for your zodiac sign and plan your day accordingly!
What is a solstice?
The word solstice comes from the Latin word solstitium, which can be broken down into “sol” (sun) and “stitium” (stopped). Ancient people gave it this name because on both the summer and winter solstice, the sun appears to stop moving in the sky—at least that’s how it looks to people on Earth. Now we know that the Earth is moving around the sun and the solstice is when the Earth’s pole is at its maximal tilt towards the sun (for summer) or away from the sun (for winter).
The first day of summer
Technically speaking, the summer solstice means that on this day, the sun will be at its highest and most northern point in the sky, maximizing the amount of sunshine the northern hemisphere gets. Practically speaking, this means that it is the longest day—as defined by the number of hours of sunlight—and the shortest night of the year. Here are more amazing things that only happen in the summer.
It’s not always on the same day
Unlike Christmas or Valentine’s Day, which falls on the same calendar date every year, the summer solstice varies by a few days. This is because the date doesn’t depend on the human calendar but on the physics of our solar system. The summer solstice is exactly when the sun reaches its northernmost point from the equator. Based on our current orbit, the date rotates between June 20, 21, and 22. This year, June 20 also happens to be Father’s Day, so you’ll have even more reason to celebrate!
Although it depends on how you define summer
For millennia, the summer solstice has marked the first day of summer because it was an easy sign for early astronomers to recognize. Now that we have better forms of astronomical measurement and calendars to chart them, many scientists prefer to use the meteorological system of defining the seasons. This ensures that the seasons start and end on the same day each year, allowing them to better gather and analyze climate data. In this system, summer always begins on June 1 and ends on August 31.
Your shadow may disappear
During the summer solstice, the sun is the closest to directly overhead that it will be for you all year. This means that your shadow will be its shortest length. If you are lucky enough to live in the tropics, you won’t see a shadow at all, giving people and objects an eerily unreal look. Remember: Whether or not you can see your shadow, you still need to be wearing sunscreen—that’s just one of the summer health dangers you shouldn’t ignore.
Midsummer’s Day is the solstice holiday
Midsummer’s Day is a centuries-old holiday devoted to celebrating the midpoint of the growing season, halfway between planting and harvesting. It coincides with the summer solstice, give or take a few days. It’s a national holiday in Finland and Sweden, but it’s celebrated all throughout Europe. Popular activities include erecting maypoles, folk dancing, and eating plenty of traditional foods. One of the hallmarks is a giant bonfire that is said to chase away evil spirits and bring good luck for the harvest. Here’s more on how people celebrate this festival in Sweden.
Flowers as protection and decoration
Flower-adorned headbands, wreaths, and garlands are a common sight on the summer solstice, but they hold meaning beyond just being pretty. This custom stems from a superstitious pagan belief that evil spirits are unleashed on the summer solstice. Wearing protective garlands of herbs and flowers were worn to ward them off.
Mercury has no summer solstice
Here’s a fascinating space fact: Mercury has almost no axis tilt, so it doesn’t really have seasons. No seasons mean no solstices or equinoxes to celebrate. (Although that would be the least of your worries if you were living on Mercury!) Mars, on the other hand, has a similar tilt to Earth’s and, therefore, similar seasons.
Stonehenge is the place to celebrate
The 5,000-year-old megalith monument is known for being mysterious, but one popular theory for its construction is that it was built to identify and celebrate the summer and winter solstices. This is a tradition carried on in modern days, with thousands of tourists flocking to the site for bonfires, singing, and other rituals to mark the start of summer. This year it’s uncertain whether or not the festivities will happen live, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The site English Heritage says they are “cautiously optimistic about being able to offer open access in some form in 2021.” By the way, Stonehenge is just one of the ancient monuments built around the summer solstice.
But the Sphinx has the best view
The ancient enigmatic Egyptian Sphinx may have the best view of the summer solstice. Ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramids so that if you are looking at them from the Sphinx, the sun on the solstice sets precisely between two of the pyramids. Can you solve the Sphinx’s famous historical riddle?
“White nights” have no night at all
People who live close to the arctic circle will experience white nights (nights where the sun never fully sets) around the summer solstice. One way Alaskans like to both take advantage of the extra light and celebrate the solstice is by playing baseball. The Midnight Sun Game starts at 10 p.m. and continues all night—no artificial lights necessary.
We almost got a whole month dedicated to the summer solstice
The number of days in a month may seem arbitrary, and it can be frustrating to try to remember which ones have extra days. Plus, they don’t line up neatly with the weeks of the year. In 1902, an Englishman decided to solve this problem by making a calendar of 13 months, each with exactly four weeks. The extra month was named Sol, after the summer solstice, and inserted between June and July. Sadly, it didn’t take off. But that’s OK because the one day we do have is a big deal. Make the most of it with these nostalgic ways to celebrate the first day of summer.
- The Old Farmer’s Almanac: “Summer Solstice 2021”
- English Heritage: “Understanding Stonehenge”
- Gizmodo: “How the Quest for a Perfectly Rational Calendar Created a 13th Month”
- National Geographic: “Summer solstice traditions from around the world”