For sun-blessed Malaysians the summer solstice probably means diggly-squat. Twelve hours or so of equatorial sunlight and darkness pitch up as regular as a teh tarik is to a roti canai.
For Parisian teens this astronomical event, falling on Friday 21 June this year, seemed to translate into a late night and a date with a McDonalds. It turns out that Big Macs and thick shakes are mega treats here reserved solely for special occasions. They therefore carry an almost rebellious quality: a two-fingers up to the usual healthy-than-thou fare served up by food conscious parents.
Each to their own. Not one has touched my lips since my husband suffered a severe bout of food poisoning courtesy of the golden arches.
Meanwhile, and BigMacs aside, it is safe to say that us northern hemisphere dwellers are certainly kept on our toes with the fluctuating daylight hours that accompany the change of seasons.
A fortnight after this celestial occurrence rewarded us with an 11pm sunset, parents, myself included, are still being driven batty by the upset the light nights causes to nocturnal routines: “…I can’t sleep mum, I’m trying but daylight’s peeking through my curtains”, just one of the vapid nightly exchanges.
The long daylight hours of the Summer Solstice falling on the 21 June bring out a little craziness in everyone!
The summer solstice marks the first day of summer. “Solstice” comes from a neat Latin phrase meaning “sun stands still”, alluding to the fact that it gives rise to the longest number of daylight hours in a day. Apparently, it’s all down to the earth’s north-south axis tilt (approximately 23 degrees) towards the sun, and the rest gets more technical.
Celebrated for time immemorial, records dating back to the ancient Inca and Egyptian civilizations reveal that old traditions and rituals were centered on fertility and the natural world. From the meticulous construction of the great pyramids to ensure the setting of sun in-between them, to the food offerings and, eek, human sacrifice, to the sun gods in the mountain-top temples of Machu Picchu.
Modern day celebrations are more low key. No blood-soaked sacrificial altars but plenty of feasting, maypole dancing and tambourine beating around colossal bonfires. Some of the most exuberant solstice parties take place in the Scandinavian countries of Finland and Sweden, lands of the midnight sun.
Thirty years ago, France decided to celebrate it through music; and why not. Every major town now holds a “La Fête de la Musique”, and mine of St Germain en Laye, just west of Paris, was no exception.
Just one of Paris’ many Fêtes de la Musique held to celebrate the Summer Solstice—Zumba dancers swinging to a Latino merengue beat
Standing in the town square that Friday evening there were crucibles of musical creativity every direction you looked, spilling out onto the surrounding back streets, courtyards and gardens. An internationally rich line-up of acts it was too: from a gravelly voiced French singer and accompanying accordion player, Zumba dancers swinging to a Latino merengue beat, nattily dressed brass bands and a team of Irish dancers jigging their sinewy legs to the world famous Michael Flatly’s trademark ‘Lord of the Dance’ number.
Music and dance from across the globe—jazz, Yiddish songs, gospel, Russian classics —to a piece of Ireland: these Irish dancers awed the crowds with the world famous Lord of the Dance performance.
Amateurs gave it a whirl too: a young boy, of no more than ten-years-old, studiously played his violin on a street corner to an admiring crowd.
I’m embarrassed to say that this was the first summer solstice I have ever celebrated. For despite my thirty years living in the UK, I never once ventured to the Brit solstice favourite of Stonehenge in southern England.
With no white flowing gown hanging in my wardrobe that would gain me a Druid pass—now an officially recognised religion in the UK—nor one of Britain’s 70,000 practicing wiccans, shamans or other daisy chain wearing members of the Pagan faith, the enormous knees up amid the necklace of ancient standing stones that form the 4000-year-old monument remained elusive.
Shame really, as I’m sure the experience would have been more enlightening than my night down the pub, or in front of the telly, joining the ranks the remaining 60 million Brits, for which the solstice had no real symbolism.
So the Parisian summer solstice was a petite milestone pour moi you might say. One in which normal routine is set aside to pause, reflect and have fun with other people in the ‘hood.
Late evening on summer solstice—St. Germain en Laye town square
Festivals do give rhythm to the year. This is one I’d be happy to repeat, provided, my kids don’t adopt the Big Mac rebellion in the town square.