The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Summer Solstice: Romance, Rituals, and Resolutions

Midsummer is an ideal time for new beginnings and a fresh start.

Summer Solstice Sunset in Provincetown

Our entire biological system is linked to the rising and setting of the sun. Circadian rhythms affect every aspect of our being in ways that many of us living in modern civilization have become disconnected. Inspired by the omnipotence of the sun, civilizations have celebrated the first day of summer—also known as the Summer Solstice, Midsummer, or St. John's Day—for eons.

The summer solstice—which usually occurs on June 21st and is the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere—is the longest day of the year. Historically, the summer solstice is one of the most sacred days of the year. When there is more sunlight each day, our mood and energy is biologically pumped up. Midsummer is a supercharged time physically and emotionally, which makes it ideal for making resolutions to: kickstart new habits, strengthen human relationships, and let go of negativity.

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Do you feel a biological difference in your energy level and mood between the summer solstice and the winter solstice? Do you feel like your batteries are fully charged this time of year? Now is the time to create daily habits that will be hardwired into lifestyle changes that will keep your spirits buoyed as the days become shorter.

New Year's resolutions don't last. Midwinter is one of the most difficult times of year to forge new beginnings and change habits. I recommend that you make a commitment to break bad habits and form healthier relationships in a summer solstice celebration. Your odds of creating lifestyle changes that last are highest in the Midsummer of June. Hardwire new habits of mindset and behavior in Midsummer and they are more likely to stick.

Here Comes the Sun . . . Scandinavian Summer Solstice Traditions

Midsummer is the period of days that surround the summer solstice. In Europe, celebrations and rituals accompany the actual solstice or take place on a day between June 21 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures.

My family is from Norway. Like most Scandinavian cultures, Midsummer celebrations and rituals have huge significance and are among the most jubilant celebrations of the year. My family calls Norway the land of the “Noonday Moon and Midnight Sun” because the sun never really sets in the summertime . . . and it never really rises in the wintertime. Midsummer’s Eve has more importance in Scandinavia than other regions because the winter can be so depressing and triggers severe Seasonal Affective Disorder in many Nordic people.

Midsummer Bonfire in Finland

My daughter’s mom is from Finland. My daughter spends every Midsummer with her relatives in Finland where they head to the lake and burn huge bonfires. In the Finnish Midsummer celebration, bonfires are a common ritual. Often two young birch trees are also placed on either side of the front door to welcome visitors. Some Swedish-speaking Finns also celebrate by erecting and dancing around a Midsummer maypole.

Another Scandinavian ritual is to leap through the flames by jumping over a fire pit or bonfire. The purpose of jumping over the fire is partly to purify, but it is believed that those who jump successfully wil marry during the following carnival. Globally, there are a wide range of rituals for the summer solstice, but common summer solstice themes tend to revolve around warding off negative spirits, marriage, and fertility.

Traditionally, the power of the bonfire was based in a belief that, "maidens would find out about their future husband, and spirits and demons were banished," says Ruth Reichmann of the Max Kade German-American Center. Another function of bonfires was to generate magic. It was believed that the bonfire would boost the sun's energy so that it would remain powerful throughout the rest of the summer’s growing season and guarantee a good harvest in the fall. Before Christianity, Midsummer was thought to be one of the times of the year when magic was strongest. It was considered a good night to perform rituals that could change the future.

Midsummer has long been thought to be a time of magic. Folklore tales believed the summer solstice was a time when evil spirits would appear. To thwart the evil spirits, Pagans would wear protective garlands made of herbs and flowers. One of the most powerful of the Midsummer plants was called 'chase-devil', which is known today as St. John's Wort because of its ties to “St. John’s Day” and is prescribed by some herbalists as a mood stabilizer.

Regardless of how superstitious you are—or if you believe in herbal remedies—I am a strong believer in the power of the placebo effect. If you believe that St. John’s Wort may help you in some way, maybe it will? In the past it was also believed that herbs picked at Midsummer were of higher potency, and that water from springs collected at Midsummer could bring good health.

In parts of Norway, there is a custom of arranging mock marriages, both between adults and between children (in a completely platonic way) that is still kept alive today. The wedding is meant to symbolize the blossoming of new life. Such weddings are known to have taken place since the 1800s, but the custom is believed to be older.

Midnight Sun in Norway

Norwegian girls will wear garlands of flowers in their hair at Midsummer and put flowers under their pillows at night with a wish for new romance and dream of finding true love. The term "Honey Moon" literally comes from the Pagan name for the Midsummer moon because the mead made from fermented honey was part of wedding ceremonies performed at the summer solstice.

Creating a Summer Solstice Tradition

I have an annual solstice party in which I build a fire for guests to jump over and have a tradition of having people write a wish for something they want to invite or banish from their lives on a piece of paper, and then burn it in the fire. Oftentimes, a Duraflame log needs to take the place of a roaring bonfire. . . but the power of the ritual isn’t diminished by the size of the fire. For the significance of literally incinerating negativity from your life, please check out my Psychology Today blog: Simple Ways to Turn Negativity into Self-Nourishment.

In my hometown of New York City, a Scandinavian celebration for the Swedish Midsummer Festival is held in Battery Park every summer and attracts thousands of people annually, which makes it one of the largest Midsummer celebrations in the world. A Midsummer celebration which also honors Swedish heritage and history, has been held annually on the sound in Throgs Neck in New York City since 1941. Midsummer is celebrated in many places across America with large Scandinavian populations.

If you’d like to have a summer solstice gathering this year you can check out this link to find the specifics of when the solstice occurs in your hometown by following this link.

Conclusion: The Summer Solstice Celebrates Positive Psychology

The rituals of the summer solstice are a timeless way to remind us that the simple things in life—like connecting with other people, our own biology, and Nature—provide us with the most sustainable types of happiness. In John Helliwell’s World Happiness Report, the Scandinavian countries scored the highest. Yes, national economic wealth is a factor in these findings. But, Helliwell and colleagues found the importance of social connectivity and simple rituals and traditions like celebrating the summer solstice build social capital, happiness, and resilience and play a huge role in our well-being.

If you don’t traditionally celebrate the summer solstice, why not try it this year? Midsummer is an ideal time for new beginnings and a fresh start.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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