Crowds gather at Stonehenge for summer solstice

Sunrise at Stonehenge, where modern pagans will gather to see the solstice © Getty Images

Tonight, the Northern Hemisphere sees its shortest night of the year, as Earth tilts on its axis towards the Sun. Summer is here, and people in rainy Britain are desperate for decent weather.

This evening, thousands of people will arrive at the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge to celebrate the shortest night of the year. In the darkness Arthur Pendragon, who claims to be the incarnation of an ancient king, will lead rituals and chants; people will play instruments, sing and drink together, before gathering to watch the rising of the midsummer sun.

These modern pagans are celebrating the Northern Hemisphere‘s summer solstice – the moment in the year when the sun is highest in the sky. They say it is a sacred time, when the life-giving power of the sun is at its most intense.

In the natural world, summer is a season of plenty: the weather is warm; crops are beginning to ripen; baby animals born in spring are beginning to find their feet.

Changing seasons affect humans, too. In the UK and Ireland, an estimated two million people suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder – a condition that strikes in the grey, cold days of winter. Symptoms can include depression, sleep problems and an inability to concentrate – and doctors think they could well be caused by biological reaction to a lack of sunlight, as short, dark days clash with the ‘circadian rhythms’ that regulate healthy sleep patterns.

Sufferers of SAD – as it is appropriately known – can be treated with special boxes that supply powerful UV light even in the deepest winter months.

But for some inhabitants of Northern Europe, where the effects of dull and wintry weather are most common, there can only be one solution: leave for warmer climates.

According to one tabloid newspaper survey in the UK, 48% of Britons were serious about moving abroad. And for most of those, the famously bleak British weather was the main reason for leaving. The top choice for destinations? Places like Spain, Dubai and Australia – where the sun shines nearly all year round.

As the Pagans gather at Stonehenge tonight, they may well find themselves celebrating summer in the rain. Perhaps some will consider moving further afield, where sunshine – and the way of life that comes with it – is more forthcoming.

Sunny side up?

For many rain-soaked citizens of the UK, a new life in the sun is an attractive dream. Emigrants fantasize about a perpetual summer: a life lived slowly. Sun means relaxation and contentment; lying on the beach, not running in the rat race.

But there are some who have a more wintery outlook. Life isn’t all fun and games, they say. Sometimes you have to stop lazing around in the sun and do a bit of work. It is no accident that the countries doing least badly in Europe’s economic crisis are the ones that get a nice lot of damp, chilly rain.

You Decide

  1. What is your favourite season? Why?
  2. Would you rather be poor in a sunny country or rich in a rainy country?

Activities

  1. Humans have been worshipping the sun for thousands of years. Choose a sun god from any historical culture, and put together a short fact sheet introducing your chosen deity to your class.
  2. As a class, try to list as many ways as possible that your society has adapted to your country’s usual climate.

Some People Say...

“Time spent working is time wasted.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So bad weather really does make people miserable?
Apparently so. It can have other health effects too. Rainy seasons can discourage people from taking exercise, and lack of sun can cause a deficiency of vitamin D.
What? How?
Humans get vitamin D from their diet, but it can also be produced naturally within the human body, when enough sunlight penetrates the skin.
And what does vitamin D do?
It is mainly associated with healthy bones. Vitamin D deficiency causes rickets, which makes bones weaken and bend.

Word Watch

Stonehenge
Stonehenge is an ancient stone circle, built by prehistoric British tribes some time before the year 2000 BC. It was used as a religious site, although the gods worshipped there have long been forgotten. One clue is that the huge stones of the circle were carefully aligned to the movements of the Moon and the Sun – part of the reason the circle is still used for solstice celebrations today.
Northern Hemisphere
The Earth’s axis of rotation is slightly tilted compared to its orbit around the Sun. At one end of the Earth’s huge circular path the North Pole tilts towards the Sun. This is summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Six months later, the Earth has gone halfway around the circle. At this point, its South Pole points towards the Sun – summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
Circadian rhythms
Circadian rhythms tell the human body when it is day and when it is night. If you fly to a different timezone, these rhythms will take time to adjust, so your circadian rhythms think it is night time even while your rational mind knows it is day. This is what causes jet lag.

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