For the sun, it’s the big day out.
Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year and the beginning of summer on the Gregorian calendar. Some will greet the great day with celebrations; others may just be interested in all of the scientific facts under the sun.
According to the National Weather Service in Albany, the sun was set to rise at 5:16 a.m. and set at 8:37 p.m. for a total of 15 hours and 21 minutes of sunlight. In the Northern Hemisphere, the solstice was observed at 1:45 a.m.
“That’s the moment the sun reaches its highest point against a stellar background,” said Richard Monda, a Schenectady astronomer whose “Star Talk” column is published each month in The Sunday Gazette.
The solstice is easy to understand. Monda said June 21 is the time when, in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun reaches its highest point in the sky.
“Every day, the sun makes a little higher arc in the sky until the first day of summer, then it makes a lower arc across the sky until the first day of winter,” Monda said. “Like a child on a swing, when it reaches the end of its travel, it seems to stay still. And that’s where the word ‘solstice’ comes from.”
“Solstice” is derived from Latin words that mean “sun” and “stand still,” according to published reference sources.
“The sun is overhead on the first day of summer at the Tropic of Cancer, and that’s as far north as one will ever see the sun overhead,” Monda said. “North of the Tropic of Cancer, the sun will never be overhead.”
The Tropic of Cancer, one of five major circles of latitude that mark maps of the Earth, indicates the northern edge of the tropical zone, crossing Mexico. All of the United States is north of the line.
Astronomy students know other interesting numbers come at solstice times.
“If you go north of the Arctic Circle on the first day of summer, anywhere above the Arctic Circle, you’ll have 24 hours of daylight,” Monda said.
The daylight and darkness durations will switch six months from today. On Dec. 21, the winter solstice and the first day of winter, nine hours of sunlight and 15 hours of darkness will be observed.
Hugh Johnson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany, said available summer sunlight will begin to decrease after the solstice. At first, people won’t notice seconds and then minutes they’re losing at dusk and dawn.
“By the end of July, it [sunset] will be 8:15 p.m.,” he said. “In August, we really go into free-fall. In the beginning of the month, it’s 8:15 p.m.; by the end of the month, it’s 7:32 p.m.”
Sunrise will also arrive later and later, as summer fades into autumn and autumn changes to winter. By September, Johnson said, the sun will come up around 6:20 a.m.
Monda said the sun’s solstice time does not mean the Earth is at its closest point to the star.
“On July 4, we are at our farthest from the sun, 94 million miles,” he said. “For the Earth, it’s the tilt that causes the seasons, not our distance from the sun. If the Earth were not tilted as it rotates, we would have no seasons. We would have the same kind of climate all year round.”
Some groups are taking advantage of the light today to celebrate the season.
“The origins of midsummer are based in European traditions in some cases,” said Ellen McHale, executive director of the New York Folklore Society in Schenectady. “Those kinds of traditions were replicated in this country as people came from Europe.”
McHale said the summer solstice, autumnal equinox, winter solstice and spring equinox were — and remain — important dates on the European calendar, especially in agrarian or rural cultures.
“You’re at a point of change,” she said. “You’re recognizing the seasons are changing.”
Festivals or celebrations were held, McHale said, partly for superstitious reasons. Sometimes, people would be leaving a period of plenty and entering a time when food and other resources could be in short supply.
“I think it’s human nature to be uneasy with change,” McHale said. “People don’t necessarily embrace change freely.”
Solstice celebrations include light after dark in European countries.
“People light bonfires on midsummer,” McHale said. “It’s sort of symbolism of the sun.”
She added that while some celebrations with European roots have become part of American culture and folklore — Halloween is one — solstice celebrations have never become popular in the United States.
“I think part of it may be we aren’t much based in an agrarian society any more,” McHale said. “Those cycles of growing and harvesting are not that important any more.”
Europeans who have immigrated to America observe the sunny day. On Friday, a Swedish midsummer party was held in Manhattan’s Battery Park. Music and dancing around a midsummer pole were part of the proceedings.
On Saturday, members and friends of Albany’s Pagan Alliance Church gathered at John Boyd Thacher State Park in Voorheesville to observe the solstice — called Litha in the church’s Wiccan belief system.
Cynthia Stebbins, a church founder, said the church’s summer potluck picnic always includes a skit from mythology.
“One of the traditional things we do, we have a battle between the Oak King and the Holly King,” Stebbins said. “Litha is the longest day of the year, and the Oak King represents the sun and the Holly King represents the night. We do a pretend battle where the Holly King mortally wounds the Oak King. On Dec. 21, the Holly King is defeated by the Oak King and begins to rule again.”
The church also offered an early safety tip for sun worshippers in the group, a tip that is still good today: “Don’t forget the sunscreen,” read a line in a picnic announcement. “It’s the sun’s biggest day of the year.”
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