by John Colgan-Davis
We all know when summer begins: the sun was at its farthest point north of the equator at 12:28 p.m. on June 21, and at that point it was the solstice, and summer was officially here.
The northern hemisphere is now awash in light, humidity and heat; tons of brightly colored flowers are now blooming, birds will have mated and be reproducing, and the biting and stinging insects will be back in all of their glory. That is the real, scientific summer.
But most of us do not really live with that designation; that does not really influence us much these days. The calendar and science may not like it, but it is after Memorial Day, and for most of us summer had already begun.
We have planted our bulbs, herbs, vegetables and flowers if we are gardeners. We pretty much know what we will be doing, where we will be going, what we hope to be able to wear, and where our kids will be for at least part of the next three months.
Day camp and summer camp plans have been made. We have dug out the shorts, short sleeve shirts and brightly colored clothes, changed the filters in the air conditioners and made hotel, campground, airline, beach home and/or cruise line reservations.
For most of us, summer means vacation and getting away, and that has precious little to do with the solstice. We have started preparing, so we were already in the midst of it when real summer arrived.
It is interesting to me that Memorial Day is the turning point that announces summer for most of us. When I was in school, holidays were still observed on dates that had some significance. February 12 was Lincoln’s birthday; that is when he was actually born. November 11 was Veterans’ Day because the Armistice that ended World War 1 went into effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
Memorial Day was May 30, and many people still called it “Decoration Day” because of the tradition of visiting cemeteries and placing flowers on the graves of military dead that had started after the Civil War. (By May 30 all of the flowers that symbolize remembrance are in bloom throughout the entire country.)
Then in 1967 the federal government officially changed the name of the holiday to Memorial Day. They then moved it and three other national holidays to Mondays the following year. It took a while, but the idea of the three-day weekend caught on; marketers responded with the sales and “special deals” connected with the national holidays, and Memorial Day became the unofficial start of summer. A new tradition was born.
It makes a certain sense. By the 1970s most American kids were in school, and the vast majority of those schools had vacations that started in mid- or early June. Most workers had won two weeks of vacation during the heyday of the union movement, and the ideas of a leisure and tourist economy were just starting to take root in the U.S.
For me, one the glories of summer was and still is outdoor music. I first went to “be-ins” and outdoor concerts in the mid- and late-1960s in Fairmount Park in Philly, Central Park and Randall’s Island in New York, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, and many other places.
There I saw such musicians as Taj Mahal, Canned Heat, Mother Earth, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone and many other of my musical heroes. Later I started playing at outdoor gigs and festivals myself, and I still love playing an all-ages outdoor gig.
I get jazzed seeing kids and parents enjoying live music together and kids seeing that music is really made by actual people. To me that is one of the true bonuses of summer.
So I am looking forward to summer and to travel and to making and seeing music. I hope your summers turn out to be filled with fun, good health, new experiences and joy. Whether we run on social time or calendar time, summer can be a wonderful time of the year.
John Colgan-Davis is a long-time Mt. Airy resident, a teacher and harmonica player for the Dukes of Destiny, a local rockin’ blues band.