Long before we could use astronomy apps on our smartphones, the ancients closely followed the position of the sun in the sky. Thousands of years ago, many monuments and structures around the world were designed with the annual cycles of the sun in mind, and some even align in special ways on the solstices and equinoxes.
During this year’s summer solstice, on June 21, the Earth will be tilted toward the sun at its most extreme angle, with the sun directly over the Tropic of Cancer, at 23.5 degrees north latitude. Those in the Northern Hemisphere will experience the maximum intensity of the sun’s rays and the most hours of sunlight of the entire year.
In some parts of the world, people blend pagan and Christian traditions to celebrate Midsummer in conjunction with Saint John the Baptist’s birthday on June 24, which can include bonfires, barefoot walks and more. Others recognize the longest day of the year with such traditions as baseball games, polar plunges and visits to prehistoric monuments. Let us count the varied ways that people celebrate the solstice.
Dance around a maypole in Sweden
Dancing the Sma Grodorna (“The Little Frogs”) dance around a maypole decorated with flowers and leaves, while wearing flower wreaths, is a traditional way to celebrate Midsommar, an official holiday in Sweden. Revelers dress in traditional costumes (long, flowy skirts and aprons for women and trousers with long socks for men, with differences by region), dance and play games at large parties. Family games (called femkamp) include sack races, croquet and kubb, which involves tossing sticks to knock down a collection of wooden blocks.
Locals enjoy pickled herring and boiled potatoes with dill, along with salmon and meats. Dessert involves sweet strawberries with cream or ice cream, or in a cake, and aquavit liquor is drunk to the singing of “Helan Gar,” a popular drinking tune.
It’s a time full of magic and superstition. Some Swedes walk barefoot in the dew, believing it will improve their health. Others hold that if young women silently collect seven specific types of flowers and sleep with them under their pillows, they will dream of the men they will marry.
New Sweden, Maine, which was founded as a Swedish colony in 1870, hosts its own Midsommar Festival, generally on the weekend closest to June 21.
Watch a baseball game under the midnight sun in Fairbanks, Alaska
The Fairbanks Midnight Sun Baseball Game is a 118-year-old tradition that began in 1906 as a bar bet. Teams play on June 21 each year, with the first pitch thrown around 10 p.m. No artificial lighting is used—that far north, the sunlight lingers past midnight on the solstice. While different teams have participated over the years, today the Alaska Goldpanners, a collegiate summer baseball team founded in 1960, carry on the tradition. This year, the Goldpanners will take on the Michigan Monarchs.
“It’s a magical setting in a nostalgic ballpark with fans from all over the world, not just Fairbanks,” says Alaska Goldpanners General Manager John Lohrke. “It doesn’t hurt that over 100 Goldpanners have passed through Fairbanks as collegians and gone on to play in the major leagues.”
Fairbanks also hosts the Midnight Sun Festival (this year on June 24), with 12 hours of celebration, featuring live music on three stages, vendors and an assortment of activities.
Gather around a bonfire in Barcelona
In Barcelona on June 23, the Canigo Flame is carried to Sant Jaume Square in the center of the Old City, where representatives take some of the eternal flame, a symbol of Catalan unity, to light bonfires in their neighborhoods. June 24 is the birthday of Saint John the Baptist (Sant Joan in Catalan). Friends, family and neighbors share outdoor feasts featuring savory tarts and “coca de Sant Joan” sweet breads, while celebrating with music and fireworks. Swimming in the sea at midnight is popular on the coast, and some stay up all night, enjoying outdoor concerts and nightclubs to mark the official start of summer.
Plunge into the ocean in Puerto Rico
At the stroke of midnight on June 23, some people in Puerto Rico plunge backward into the ocean to stave off negativity and bring luck. This leap of faith is part of Noche de San Juan celebrations, which mark the eve of Saint John the Baptist’s Nativity. Puerto Ricans disagree on how many times you should submerge yourself in the water, with some arguing three times is sufficient, and others preferring 7 or 12 backward plunges for the desired results. Before the midnight dip, the holiday features a busy beach day with cookouts, music, games, swimming and dancing.
Watch a towering bonfire in Norway
Bonfires are a common way to celebrate Midsummer, but Ålesund, Norway, takes them to the next level. Slinningsbalet, scheduled for June 24 this year, is one of the world’s tallest bonfires. (It held the world record at over 155 feet tall in 2016 before a taller Austrian bonfire took the record a few years later.) Generally, teens and young adults build a massive structure out of stacked wooden pallets a few miles from town. The conflagration can be seen from Ålesund, from the nearby Mount Aksla viewpoint and from the harbor, where Queen Sonja and King Harald sometimes watch from the royal yacht.
Hike and play golf through the night in Iceland
Iceland’s midsummer celebration, Jónsmessa, is a time of positivity and goodness. Folklore says cows can talk and elves can interact with people during this time, and some Icelanders roll around naked in the morning dew to supposedly promote good health.
More often, Icelanders take advantage of the midnight sun. Some opt to join the travel association Útivist for a Midsummer walk over Fimmvörðuháls, a 15-mile stretch between the glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull in southern Iceland. The overnight hike lasts from 9 to 11 hours, with an elevation gain of 3,280 feet and many things to see along the way, including the 2010 volcanic eruption site. At the end, participants enjoy a bonfire and music.
Others prefer playing golf into the night. The annual Arctic Open tournament, held at Akureyri Golf Club in northern Iceland, began in 1986. Steindór Ragnarsson, the club’s general manager, says the sold-out event sees 260 participants play 36 holes each (18 per night). “It’s a unique experience teeing up at midnight with sunlight,” Ragnarsson says. “And since the sun never disappears, we play all night with daylight.”
Enjoy Native games in Nome, Alaska
Plunging into the Bering Sea for a “polar bear swim” is just one way that residents of Nome, Alaska, celebrate the summer solstice. The multiday Nome Midnight Sun Festival includes Native dancing, potlucks, music, a parade with floats, a river rafting race, beach bonfires, craft vendors and even a mock “bank robbery” skit celebrating the town’s gold rush era.
Briday Green is a lifelong Nome resident, and she’s been involved with organizing the festival for nearly a decade. She’s worked on bringing Native cultural events back into the celebration, including a blanket toss and other Native games.
“It’s very enjoyable,” says Green. “There’s not a whole lot going on during the winter here, because we’re all frozen in here, and the only way to get out of Nome is by jet. So when it’s time for midnight sun, everybody gets out and stretches their legs and has some fun and sees some excitement.”
Watch sunlight interact with ancient monuments in Malta
The 5,000-year-old Neolithic site Ħaġar Qim in southern Malta will be the location of a special summer solstice event from June 20-22 this year. Heritage Malta is hosting the event, along with another at Mnajdra, a megalithic temple that is just 1,640 feet downhill from Ħaġar Qim.
At Ħaġar Qim, on the summer solstice, sunlight crosses through a hole in the monument wall to create a crescent of light, which gradually morphs into an elliptical shape, before disappearing out of sight in a vanishing act where it appears to be sinking into the ground. Mnajdra includes three buildings, and on the summer solstice, the first rays of sun light up the edge of a megalith found to the left of the central doorway connecting the first pair of chambers to the inner chambers. While no one knows the site’s full history, it is believed that these are likely intentional placements to align with the longest day of the year. Some prehistoric artifacts from the sites, including shards of pottery and stone statuettes, are on display at the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, Malta’s capital.
Witness the sun align with Stonehenge
On the summer solstice, the sun rises behind the Heel Stone of Stonehenge, creating an incredible alignment people come from around the world to witness. The World Heritage Site on Salisbury Plain in southern England has been modified many times over the years, but its sarsen stones, installed around 2500 B.C.E., still align with the sun’s movements.
“Stonehenge is a really interesting monument,” says Jennifer Wexler, a prehistoric specialist for English Heritage. “It’s about 4,500 years old in its current form, but it seems to have a very important connection to the sun. It was carefully designed to actually align with the movements of the sun, which is pretty spectacular when you think about how old it is.”
A special event on June 20 and 21 allows visitors to stay at Stonehenge all night long, watching and observing. For those who can’t make the trip to Stonehenge, a livestream is available on English Heritage’s YouTube channel.
“It’s really lovely,” Wexler says. “People can go, watch the sun go down, see the full sun cycle, and stay all night and celebrate until the sun rises.”