12 Strangely Wonderful Summer Solstice Celebrations Around the World
As the shortest night of the year fades into twilight, and dawn breaks on the longest day, the world celebrates: it's officially summer.
Festivities around the world honoring the Summer Solstice are rooted in pagan religious customs—the end of June historically marked a time for nature and new beginnings for Germanic, Slav, and Celtic tribes. Ancient celebrations of song, dance, bonfires, and feasts stood in as prayers for fertility, good fortune, and bountiful harvests—celebrations that are still practiced today (if a bit modernized).
Here’s how they get down in the northern hemisphere.
Wachau Midsummer Night in Tyrol, Austria
Austria’s solstice celebration is a scene to behold, as torches and bonfires are lit up on mountainsides in the Wachau und Nibelungengau valleys. The best place to see the spectacle is on the deck of an illuminated ship, like the Brandner, that sails down the Danube River through Wachau Valley as fireworks erupt from the riverbanks.
Mount Olympus Trek in Greece
The Summer Solstice, according to some versions of the Greek Calendar, marks the first day of the year. It also occurs one month before the opening of the Olympic Games. Today, a faction of locals make the trek up Mount Olympus, a tradition that has lasted some 2,500 years.
Secret Solstice Festival in Reykjavík, Iceland
In the land of the midnight sun, you may never see sunrise or sundown—but doesn't dissuade the Icelanders from throwing a serious party. The Secret Solstice music festival, in central Reykjavík, entertains carousers for 72 hours of straight sunlight with esoteric local acts akin to Sigur Rós, one the country’s most famous musical exports.
Jāņi Day in Riga, Latvia
According to ancient Latvian legend, the shortest night of the year must be spent awake by the glow of a bonfire and in pursuit of a magical fern flower—said to bring luck to lovers—before concluding by cleansing one’s face in the morning dew. Known as Jāņi Day (after the pagan deity Jānis, bringer of good fortune and fertility), locals hold great feasts, such as the one at Riga’s Ethnographic Open-Air Museum, with traditional Lïgo foods including cheese made with caraway seeds, bacon-filled pie, and sweet beer.
The Skansen Museum in Stockholm, Sweden
Few celebrate the beginning of summer like the Swedes, who brave the long, dark winters of the north. During the day of “Midsommar,” considered a national holiday in Sweden, locals don folk costumes, light bonfires, and dance around maypoles (midsommarstång). The most famous demonstration of the revelry might be at Stockholm’s outdoor Skansen Museum, where guests bind birch wreaths and continues the festivities through the night.
Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England
On the dawning of the summer solstice, the sun rises directly above the Heel Stone of Stonehenge—a mysterious prehistoric monument whose origins, depending on who you ask, were as an ancient burial ground, an astrological observatory, even a supernatural phenomenon. Some 37,000 people of all beliefs, from robed modern druids to New Agers to sun worshipers to simple onlookers, gather to dance and drum through sunrise.
Drăgaica Fair in Buzău, Romania
During the Drăgaica Fair, Romania’s oldest midsummer celebration held annually in Buzău, locals observe the Hora Dragaicelor, a pagan ritual in which a group of young girls, dressed in white with bedstraw flower crowns, perform a rain dance around a central Drăgaica (bride) to ensure a year of good and abundant harvests.
São João Festival in Porto, Portugal
Thousands gather in the center of Porto to celebrate the nativity of Saint John the Baptist and midsummer via a street festival of concerts, car rallies, dance parties, and endless food and drink. Come midnight, partygoers gather along the Douro River for a spectacular fireworks display to honor the sun. However, of all the ancient pagan courtship rituals, the origin of Portugal’s most infamous tradition—the hitting of plastic hammers (or garlic flowers) over each other’s heads—remains unknown.
Wianki in Kraków, Poland
The Wianki, held annually in Kraków on June 21st, is named after the pagan Summer Solstice custom of floating handmade wreaths down the Wisła river. In recent years, it’s become known as the Fête de la Mustique (Feast of Music), a large-scale outdoor event where thousands (150,000 attended in 2014) gather for concert performances by dozens of artists, culminating in a fireworks finale over the water.
Solstice in Times Square in New York, New York
June 21st isn’t just about the Summer Solstice—it also happens to be International Yoga Day, a time of reflection and striving for inner peace. Last year, 11,000 yogis rolled out their mats during Solstice in Times Square for meditative stretching sessions held throughout the day.
Sankt Hans Aften in Copenhagen, Denmark
The Danes spend St. John’s Eve, known locally as Sankt Hans Aften, dining with family and friends, followed by the lighting of bonfires (where a straw effigy of a witch, a pagan symbol of winter or death, is thrown on the fire) and the singing of Holger Drachmann's Midsommervise, or Midsummer Song (1885). The country’s most iconic burnings take place on the beaches of Amager, along Nyhavn in Copenhagen, and on Frederiksberg Garden's lake.
Enyovden at Etar in Bulgaria
In Bulgaria, the celebration of Enyovden is regarded as equal in importance to Christmas or Easter and continues to be one of the largest festivities held at Etar, an open-air museum set on the banks of the Sivek River. According to tradition, on Enyovden, both the young and the old cleanse themselves in forest rivers or brooks, while women weave floral and herbal crowns said to possess the power to heal and to attract love.