While Midsummer and the Summer Solstice bring to mind pagan druids at Stonehenge and flower crowns and maypoles in verdant Swedish fields, the longest day of the year was widely celebrated in ancient Mesoamerica as well. Like most Mexica rituals, this celebration required abundant flowers and offerings of food. Besides maize, cacao - or chocolate - was probably the best-known sacred food in Mesoamerica. But there was another substance that the Aztecs and Mayans counted as food of the gods.
But first, what is the Summer Solstice?
The etymology of the word “solstice” comes from the Latin word for sun (sol) and sistere that means to stay still. If you were to observe the procession of the equinoxes (where the sun sets on the horizon day after day, appearing to move either towards the north or south), you would notice the the sun seems to set in exactly the same position for three days, before it starts making its transit in the opposite direction. Alongside the spring and autumn equinoxes these were very important dates for the Mayans.
Ancient astronomer priests would have studied the night’s sky and noted the changing position of the setting sun to guide their agricultural patterns and rituals. In fact, their observations were so accurate, that the orientation of specific buildings, like Mexico City's sacred Templo Mayor, would have been designed specifically so that the Sun could be watched from a fixed point as it crosses the horizon.
The zest of wealth and sex.
Sacred foods play an important role in Mesoamerican histories and myths as well as in their rituals. This humble kitchen spice we take for granted was celebrated as a sacred gift provided by the earth.
Salt was a major commodity in the Mesoamerican economy and important to the process of dyeing textiles. Mesoamericans recognized that salt was vital for human health and the proper functioning of the body and before the advent of refrigeration, brining was one of the main ways to preserve food. Salt was associated with sex and fertility as well, likely due to the brackish sweat released during sexytime. So as a source of wealth and sex, it is natural salt had its own deity and rituals.
The “Goddess of Salt,” Huixtocihuatl ( pronounced Weex-toki-wat-l), was celebrated during the annual summertime ceremony known as Tecuilhuitontli. The sixteenth-century chronicles call Huixtocihuatl the “elder sister” of the rain gods. Legend has it Huixtocihuatl was in a heated argument with the Tlaloques, the Aztec Rain Gods and they tried to drown her in salt water. That was how she discovered the substance.
Now let’s get back to this salty solstice…
Viewed from the top of the Templo Mayor, sunrise would have taken place behind Tepetlaoxtoc, in the western foothills of the Sierra de Patlachique, across the briny waters of Lake Texcoco where the Basin’s saltworks were, where coincidentally, the first day of the seventh month, or Tecuilhuitontli, was devoted to a celebration in honor of Huixtocihuatl.
During the festival, the Aztecs celebrated Huixtocihuatl with a big feast. The celebrants were primarily those associated with the production of salt. The chronicles of the Spanish historian, Sahagún, mentions “the old men, the salt people, the salt makers, the salt preparers, and the salt merchants, the salt traffickers, the people of the salt marshes.” Typical of any Mexica fiesta with all the pickled tias and uncles, they imbibed great quantities of the sacred beverage known as pulque - yet another sacred beverage!
Mesoamerican Feminists, They’re just like us.
The Summer solstice marked the beginning of the rainy season, during which the feminine pantheon was uniquely celebrated by Mexica noblewomen. This ancient maternal observance, Xopan, fell during the period when the power of the goddesses were at their height. During this solar transition, the women would give thanks for gifts such as the mysteries of life, creation, menstruation, pregnancy, and intuition. It was appropriate for men to honor them and join in their feasting.
“It was customary that an altar should be made on which all the goddesses are arrayed, with Huixtocihuatl at the center, beneath a bower of flowers, and offerings of food placed before them. The women should wear their most beautiful regalia in a thousand colors, and paint their arms and faces yellow, with red lips and spots of red upon their cheeks, while the men, if men are present, should dress simply, in white. Cookies shaped like moons and rabbits, cooked squash-blossoms on blue-corn tortillas, tamales, and other delicacies, are served at a feast, in which the women first dance with one another, and only after permit the men, if they should deign to invite men, to join them. “
- from the Florentine Codex, Book 2
Create your own Summer Solstice Ritual
Traditionally people celebrated renewal, life, fertility, the potential for a good harvest, inner and outer abundance, self- awareness, the release of negative energies and the complete return of the sun’s light on the summer solstice.
Make the most of the longest day and the shortest night of the year by celebrating the summer solstice with the fun ideas below!
As our ancestors did, celebrate by gathering plants and healing herbs. It’s long been believed
that they are at their most potent on the Summer Solstice. Five common plants associated with the Summer solstice are Arnica (Golden Aster), Diente de Leon (Dandelion), Salvia (Sage), Hierba Buena (Mint) and Cancerina (Heather). Bundle the herbs in cheesecloth and make packets for your full moon baths.
Enjoy the Beach
To honor the gifts of salt from the oceans, visit the beach. Take your tapete (or beach blanket) and meditate in the sun’s radiance. Reflect on the earth’s pollution, endless rivers of plastic, and overfishing. Think of ways you can help to maintain our natural waterways clean and thriving. Volunteer to pick up trash. Give up eating non-sustainable sea food. Donate to Save the Whales.
Calibrate your home energy and get rid of negative vibrations with a cleansing ritual. Smudging is an ancient practice of smoking dried bundles of herbs for purification, rooted in Native American traditions. Shamans smoked sage to cleanse themselves and their space of negative emotions and attract healing, wisdom and longevity.
Sage is a feminine herb that removes anger and bad energy. It also offers strength, wisdom, and clarity on the way to your goal. Sweetgrass is a sage balancing herb with masculine energy that calls for kindness and love. Traditionally, the space is first incensed with sage to remove negative energy, and then positive vibes are invited using sweetgrass or Palo Santo.
Build an Altar
If it's time to refresh your personal ofrenda, this is a good time to do it. Use a fresh, brightly
colored altar cloth. It's traditional to decorate your summer solstice altar with fresh flowers and a candle, preferably white, yellow or orange. Use symbols of the summer season and the ocean, like pearls and shells or a small jar of sand and a chunk of driftwood. Complete the altar by burning sweetgrass, sage or palo santo.
Plant a summer garden
Take inspiration from our ancestors who utilized this solar alignment to cultivate their milpas and plant a heat resistant container garden. Bright blooms like Lantana and Begonia tolerate a range of conditions and Cempasuchitl (marigolds) will be available all summer to harvest for your altar. Fragrant herb gardens to spice up your cocina can include Hierba Buena (mint), oregano and romero (rosemary). If you live in a hotter, drier climate, you can't go wrong with succulents and cacti. If you live in a more humid area, try a hanging basket with Mexican shrimp plant and asparagus ferns. If you’re a gourmet, kickstart your summer garden with the trifecta of tomates, chiles ( peppers) and frijoles ( beans). Make sure all your containers are well draining and put a weekly calendar reminder on your phone for watering.
Have a picnic
Go outdoors and invite your friends. Consider your venue. Look for a spot with a picnic table
if you can't stand ants. Otherwise, bring your brightest cobija and lay out your goodies on the grass. Some easy meal suggestions are zesty esquites served in paper cups, spicy chamoy fruit cups ( mango and papaya are in season) and storebought tamales from your favorite tamalera. Complete the spread with aqua de jamaica and bring games like scrabble and UNO. Don’t forget to bring utensils , cups and a garbage bag! Always pack it in and pack it out.
Above all, have fun! Don’t do anything you don’t want to. Embrace your inner hedonist. Do whatever feels good today and soak in some of that sunshine.