Friday, June 21, 2013

Standing Still for the Solstice and Summer Break

My drive to my office in the morning, a less than grueling 4 miles, takes me past the elementary school in Mendham Borough. Today, in addition to the usual parade of soccer vans turning into the driveway, an unusual number of parents were walking with their kids to the school. “It must be the last day of school,” I thought. I glanced at the date on my Jeep’s “information center." Aha! June 21. Summer is officially here. It had crept up on me.

Today is the solstice, which derives from sol stet, Latin for “the sun stands still,” since it seems to pause in the sky before reversing direction and drifting back toward the equator: Alban Heflin, Feast of Epona, Alben Heruin, Feill-Sheathain, Vestalia, Gathering Day, Johannistag, Litha, Sonnwend, Thing-Tide, and so on and so forth. The ancient Chinese celebrated Li, the goddess of light. Slavs and Celts leapt through bonfires. Modern-day Druids still celebrate the wedding of heaven and earth. The ancient Druids used to have more fun with it though, by burning human sacrifices inside wicker men – at least if we can believe the Romans. Julius Caesar first noted the Druid practice in his Commentaries:

“Others have figures of vast size with limbs formed of wicker branches; they fill them with living men, which, when set on fire, envelop and kill the men in the flames.” (For those whose Latin isn’t rusty: Aliī immānī māgnitūdine simulācra habent, quōrum contexta vīminibus membra vīvīs hominibus complent; quibus succēnsīs circumventī flammā exanimantur hominēs.)

Nowadays, while I enjoy warm weather as much as anyone, I don’t celebrate the specific day particularly, but I do remember celebrating the last day of school – like those Mendham kids today. The final day of the school year always was on or within a few days of the solstice – and it was no sacrifice.

School systems around the world have summer breaks, but the American one is unusually long. There is a common notion that it is a holdover from the days when most people lived on farms and kids were expected to do their share of the labor. This isn’t true. For one thing, summer is the wrong time of the year for that. The big need for farm labor is in the spring and the fall, and these are precisely the times when rural schools in the first half of the 19th century had their breaks. CUNY historian Kenneth Gold in his book School's In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools explains that summer vacation is an urban invention. Not only did urbanites (at least those able to afford to do so) flee the hot cities for the countryside in summer, but influential 19th century educational reformists such as Horace Mann and Amariah Brigham argued strongly for the long summer vacation’s adoption. Brigham (a psychiatrist) wrote that the 11-month school year then common was a factor in “a growing tide of insanity” among young people.

Well, we can’t have that. Better to send the kids home to drive the parents insane, which has been standard practice since the 1890s. In the benighted days when I was in elementary school, parents had a somewhat easier time of it. “Be back in time for dinner,” was the instruction I got when going out the door in the morning to play and meet up with friends. Today this would be considered parental neglect, but then it was entirely normal. Now parents structure more of their kids’ time, which, of course, places huge demands on their own. We regularly hear calls these days to drop the “outmoded” long vacation, and re-extend the school year to 11 months, though only a few school districts have done it. I suspect the biggest advocates are harried parents who want some respite of their own.

Summer vacation remains enormously popular among kids, of course. I’m not so sure it does them any harm, and I know I enjoyed it. (I even read more – albeit mostly scifi – in the summer than during the school year.) It’s not just young kids who like their summer breaks. College-level vacations are longer yet – most of those students have been out of class for a month already. The 50-year-old sappy "start of summer" love songs that play on the radio every May already (thankfully) are gone from the airwaves. Try taking the summer break away from college students and they might just burn the would-be re-schedulers inside wicker men.

See You in September


  1. Ok, I've never heard the insanity plea as the reason for summer vacation, but it sounds like a good one. I know my parents went out of their way to sign us up for swimming lessons, camp, anything to get us out of the house during summer. But we didn't mind playing outside with neighborhood kids. But I was never much for camp, or organized sports. These days, I wish we had a summer vacation from work. :)

    1. "'No dice son, you gotta work late'
      Sometimes I wonder what I'm a gonna do
      But there ain't no cure for the summertime blues"

      ...or something like that