Editor’s Note: How Can the First Day of Summer Also Be Midsummer’s Day?

I awoke at 4 am on June 21 thinking the moon was full. I cured my moon ignorance about a decade ago. I would have known it was a waning, last-quarter moon had I not awoken so suddenly and been so disoriented. I climbed from bed, drawn downstairs and out the door by an uncommon light at an uncommon hour. 

Standing in the yard observing the pale moon, I gazed northeast, where a clearing broke the line of conifers bordering our property. Unmistakably, it was a predawn light backlighting the escarpment, spilling down, pinking the darkness. I consider myself an early riser, but that was still 90 minutes away. Was it always this light at this hour in June?

I returned to bed, and for the next hour, watched a storylike dream play through my head as clearly rendered as if I were reading a novel. I awoke from this deep sleep to go about my usual day. 

The solstice, our longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, is recognized as our official start of summer in the United States. Yet it’s also referred to by some as Midsummer’s Day. How could that be? Down the Google rabbit hole I went. 

Astronomically speaking, summer begins on the solstice, when the sun reaches its highest and northernmost points in the sky and the Earth’s North Pole tilts directly toward the sun. (“Solstice” is a combination of the Latin words “sol” for “sun” and “stitium” for “standing.”) That happened this year on June 21. 

Midsummer’s Day historically marks the midpoint of the growing season – halfway between planting and harvesting in the Northern Hemisphere. I’m a bit embarrassed that I couldn’t have figured this out, given that we grow 20-plus different vegetables on our property.

Midsummer (Midsommar) is a national holiday in Sweden, apparently second only to Christmas, and it was an ancient solstice holiday celebrated by many northern peoples. Traditionally, it’s not held directly on the solstice but on June 24, with Midsummer Eve on June 23. 

Turns out, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for why our first day of summer can also be considered “midsummer” in the ways that mattered most to people who relied upon what they grew through their own labor for sustenance. 

The summer solstice was believed to be a magical time for ancient pagan Celtic peoples. I had been roused from sleep and bed by a solstice dawn when I didn’t even remember it was the solstice until later that day. I think I experienced a bit of that magic – I have no other way to explain that strange experience – complete with a midsummer morn’s dream whose story is worth writing down someday.