So yesterday we started talking about midsummer, and midsummer’s eve, and midsummer’s night. This wasn’t a concept I grew up with. There was the summer solstice, which in my mind had a certain precision and meaning — you can point to an exact minute when it (whatever it is exactly) is said to occur, and there was a convenient shorthand for what it was: the longest day of the year. More facts muddy the meaning. For instance, the whole view is hemisphere-centric; in the antipodes, everything’s reversed. For another thing — and if someone who really knows their stuff happens across this, feel free to correct or clarify or even excoriate — there’s no such thing, really, as a single longest day of the year. Several days around the solstice share the distinction as (to be imprecise) sunrise and sunset times waver and move in different directions.
Then there’s midsummer. To a literalist such as your correspondent, that ought to be a time between the summer solstice and the fall equinox, and at some point I may have tried to puzzle out just when in early August that might be. But midsuummer, the one celebrated by nonliteralist northern Europeans and literary types such as Shakespeare, really refers to the solstice time. But with a twist: it doesn’t mark the astronomical solstice day, and depending on which brand of midsummer you subscribe to, it may last for several days.
And that’s something I like. The notion of a single moment in which we mark the reversal of the process that makes the days long, the world full and warm and fruitful, is just a little too bittersweet for me. There’s no denying the change that comes after the solstice as the summer grows long. But I prefer having a few days, anyway, to take in the early dawns (not that I see so many) and the long light of the evenings.
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