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As ancient peoples began systematic observation of heavenly phenomena, they noticed the wandering habits of the Sun, easily measured by its changing location at its daily rising. Over half a year the rising point would be a little further to the north each day and then it would appear to pause and begin moving south. In the Northern Hemisphere, it would reach its north-ernmost point just as the summer began and its southernmost point as a prelude to the coldest days. The word "solstice" is derived from the apparent pause, from the Latin sistere, to stand still. The phenomena of the changing position of the rising sun is due to the 23-degree tilt to the Earth's axis. The axis changes daily as the Earth rotates around the Sun.

The Sun's movements were so obvious, and so equated with changing weather, that some form of acknowledgment of the solstices occurred in cultures around the world. Some of these festivals continue into the present and many were observable in the recent past. Among the oldest records of solstice celebrations are found in the remains of the ancient megalithic cultures, such as the one that led to the building of Stonehenge. Such stone monuments were frequently oriented to include an alignment to the point of the rising sun at the summer solstice, presumably an occasion for the community to gather for ritual observances.

In astrology, the solstices were important markers. The Sun entered Capricorn at the winter solstice and Cancer at the summer solstice. While important markers in constructing a horo-scope, the solstices were little used in its interpretation.

In modern times, as Paganism has been revived, the summer solstice has become a major occasion for ritual gatherings, among the oldest and certainly the most famous being the gatherings of the Druids at Stonehenge. Until quite recently, the summer solstice was celebrated in Germany with a picnic and bonfire. Couples would attempt to jump the bonfire as a sign of the strength of their relationship. Neo-Pagans mark the solstices as two of the major festival occasions (called sabbats ). The ancient winter solstice, called Yule, has survived in a radically altered form as the Christian's Christmas, but is now being celebrated in its own right.


Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1988.

Farrar, Stewart. What Witches Do. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1971.

Lewis, James R. Encyclopedia of Astrology. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.

Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. New York: Womans Press, 1937.