The city of Fairbanks celebrates summer solstice in style: the first pitch of the 107th annual Midnight Sun Baseball Game will be thrown at 10:30 pm tonight, and the game will be played completely without artificial lighting.
On Saturday, thousands of locals and visitors will take part in the annual 10k Midnight Sun Run, which begins at the University of Alaska Fairbanks at 10 pm and winds through neighborhoods where residents line the streets to cheer on the runners or douse them with squirt guns and sprinklers. Even the most competitive racers will be appreciating the cold water this year: the weathermen are calling for high 80s to 90s that night. Many people also run in costume for fun; last year we saw everything from stormtroopers to lumberjacks to an octopus!
Sunday, downtown Fairbanks will be stretched to capacity with an expected 30,000+ people wandering through the Midnight Sun Festival between noon and midnight. With more than 200 vendors, many ethnic food choices, and a plethora of live musicians and entertainers, it is the largest street fair of the year. One of the highlights of this year's festival is expected to be the Dawg Gone Canoe Race; teams of two humans (a Dawg Driver and a Dawg Handler), one Dawg, and one canoe will float several miles down the Chena River, which flows through the middle of town.
Can Catholics participate in these celebrations? Every year, I hear a few pious people lamenting the involvement of Catholic youth in these events because of the pagan roots of solstice celebrations. Clearly, the Church condemns participation in pagan rituals; the first commandment proscribes superstition, idolatry, divination, magic and sorcery (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2110-2117). But does this prohibition relate to celebrations like the above?
Playing baseball in the middle of the night without artificial light. Running a 10k when you could be asleep, just for the fun of it. Wandering through a sea of tasty food, local arts and crafts, and music while soaking in the late-night sun. Canoeing down the river with a friend and a dog. These are not pagan rituals, they are ways to celebrate the glorious abundance of sunlight we are blessed with during the summer! "This is the day the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be glad in it." (Ps 118:24). God has given us a period of time when it never gets dark! Are we to sit in our houses and block out the light, because the ancient peoples who did not know God also celebrated the longest day of the year?
An ancient sermon attributed to St. Augustine contains an interesting reflection connecting the births of Christ and John the Baptist with the biannual solstices:
Christ is born and the days start increasing; John is born and the days start diminishing. So let man's honor diminish, God's honor increase, so that the honor of man may be found in the honor of God. s.380The Nativity of Christ and the Nativity of John the Baptist do, in fact, coincide very closely with the winter and summer solstice: We celebrate Christ's birth on December 25, and John's birth on June 24.
Celebrating the changing seasons of the physical year complements our celebrations of the Church's year. As long as we are not trying to rationalize participation in events which are opposed to Church teaching, there is nothing wrong with taking this time around the longest day of the year as an opportunity to praise God for another of the many ways He has blessed us!