Written by: Ronan McCabe
As I write this, in the closing days of April, it feels like Sweden’s climate is playing a cruel game with us. The flux between sun and hope, and snow and despair, is seemingly endless. I take comfort in the small gradations of seasonal promise: the soon-to-blossom buds developing in the trees, the daffodils embracing their yearly limelight, and the longer days which have revitalised us all. Arriving in Stockholm at the end of last August, I caught a glimpse of what this promise holds, however short lived. Something has never been so eagerly awaited. For now – I have been reassured by those accustomed to the climate – this is a normal step in the process. Summertime will soon be upon us.
Seasonal variation is due to changes in the duration and intensity of solar insolation (radiation), changes that occur in accordance with Earth’s axis relative to the sun. In temperate climates, such as Sweden, summer is defined as the season in which the midpoint is the maximal annual degree of solar insolation, the so-called summer solstice.
What summer ‘is’, in such astronomical terms, is fairly straight forward. But what is perhaps more interesting is the question of what summer ‘means’, to different people in different parts of the world.
Summer traditions would appear to be the most obvious mode through which people collectively imbue the season with meaning.
In my corner of the world, the Hebridean islands of Scotland, such traditions have largely faded. However, standing stones and the names of the landscape – often including the word ‘fairy’, a word used by the pre-Christian people to mythologise the forces of nature – allude to a time when we held greater communion with the natural world, and likely celebrated its changes. Despite this lack of tradition, growing up in this remote wilderness hugely influenced my perception of summer. For me, it has always embodied the ‘fullness’ of the surrounding biota: the myriad of greens from every species of tree and grass, the smell of wild garlic, fields of bluebells, and primroses tucked in at the banks of rivers in which you could swim amongst the salmon.
Interestingly in summer traditions that survive to this day, the idea of the season representing the ‘fullness’ of the natural world remains. An obvious example is that of Midsommar right here in Sweden. On the 24th of June of this year, during the summer solstice, many Swedes will escape the bustle of city life to make for florally-infused celebrations in the countryside with family and friends. The ‘pagan’ roots of Midsommar are widely acknowledged. With celebrations centred around flowers, wreaths and the leaf-laden Majstång, this doesn’t seem so farfetched.
Indeed, the summer solstice has been, and continues to be, celebrated in a similar fashion all across Europe and in many places has historically been denoted St. John’s night. In Krakow, Poland, for example, a wreath (Wianki) festival is thought to bear similar origins.
The temporal regions of the southern hemisphere have their summer months at the opposing time of year to the north. In Australia, Christmas and New Year celebrations are thus celebrated in weather quite contrary to my experiences, with the old cliché of beaches and barbeques in many cases holding true. And although taking place during the winter solstice, the Inca festival Inti Raymi is to this day celebrated by indigenous cultures of South America with festivities communally centred on food and colourful expression.
In China, the traditional festival of Duanwu, or Dragon Boat festival, falls close to the summer solstice. Celebrations are based on the story of Qu Yuan, a poet and venerated official, in the ancient state of Chu. Qu Yuan is said to have opposed the king of Chu’s decision to ally with the neighbouring state of Qin, seeing Qin as untrustworthy and dangerous. He was subsequently branded a traitor and banished. From exile, Qu Yuan would persist in his opposition to this allegiance to no avail. As Qu Yuan feared, Qin eventually overthrew and conquered Chu. Upon hearing this, Qu Yuan is said to have thrown his body into the river to the horror of the local citizens for whom he was still held in high regard. To find Qu Yuan, they took to their boats and threw meat wrapped in rice (dumplings) into to the river to deter the fish from eating his body. To commemorate Qu Yuan, Duanwu celebrations involve dragon boat races and the eating of zhongzi (glutinous rice dumplings).
In contrast to temporal regions, tropical regions may actually experience little to no seasonal variation. This is the case in Singapore where the sun rises at 7 in the morning to set at 7 in the evening; the weather also shows minimal fluctuation, hovering at a humid 27 degrees Celsius. Although the concept of ‘summer’ may hold little meaning – for it doesn’t exist – there are mid-year breaks that hold a certain equivalence. In these mid-year breaks, it is often the case that schools will close and people will take leave from work to travel outwith the country. Indeed, with modern modes of transport, international travel is now a central feature of summer for many.
Whether it is a celebration of summer, or a summer of celebration, this brief tour through our global seasonal activities has shown how our species has imparted meaning, collectively and individually, to the changes that occur around us. Not only can we perceive these changes but we can understand ourselves within and, in a sense, as a part of them. This perspective is perhaps unique to us human beings. As the summer months of the northern hemisphere come into bloom, we will once again find ourselves in this much awaited context. Whether it is the beer gardens of Germany, dancing around a Majstång here in Sweden, swimming in the rivers of Scotland, racing dragon boats in the rivers of China, or simply soaking up the sun that has been so dearly missed, seek the ‘fullness’ of life and store it for the next year to come.
In the meantime, let’s light our Valborg bonfires to chase away the snow!