After the Thunder Sleeps

First day of spring! That is, the first day it’s been bright and windless enough for us to take our picnic breakfast to the sea front.

If summer begins when I resume diving into the sea, it may be a ways off.

In the December issue of Sky & Telescope (I’m still catching up in reading the magazine, of which the March issue has already appeared) I encountered the usual statement, also made in newspapers, that December 21, the day of the solstice, was “the beginning of winter.”  Can it be logical to say that winter begins with the very moment when the Sun starts to return northward and the days start to get longer?

What is the extent of winter, when does it begin and end? Assuming that we’re talking about mid-northern-latitude English-speaking regions, and that our overall convention is to divide the year into four seasons, each therefore about three months long, winter might be defined in one of these ways:


– From the December solstice to the March equinox. This at least has the certainty of a “geometrical” definition.

– Using instead the points halfway between those quarter-days, so that the December solstice is in the middle of winter. The traditional halfway markers were the old cross-quarter days, All Saints’ Day (November 1) and Candlemas (February 2).

– Or the more exact halfway dates, Nov. 6 or 7 (depending on leap years) and Feb. 4 or 5.

– The months of November, December, and January.

– The months of December, January, and February.

– The time when it just feels like winter. “Subjective winter,” since no one can lay down exactly when it is, and it varies from place to place, year to year, and person to person. And the transitions between seasons can be ragged, switching and switching back. Autumn is interrupted by an “Indian summer.” The owner of Magnolia. one of the great gardens up along the Ashley River from Charleston, told me as he led me through his beloved groves of azaleas in spring bloom: “This isn’t really azalea country: we have many little winters.”

– Climatic winter, which would have to be defined by studying graphs of actual weather and by agreement as to whether you pick, as boundaries, the dates when temperature is half way between its extremes, or points defined by temperature in such a way as to make the seasons equal in length, or what. Winter as defined by actual climate may well be shifting and shrinking.

And if winter is defined in any of the other ways, its middle may be more than half way through it. The coldest and warmest parts of seasons, as of days and nights, are delayed.

Well, this is how I vote. Winter is the months of December, January, and February. Just the way I was brought up, probably. November remains for me an autumny month, however cold it gets, and March a springy one.

And it seems that the early Romans, and the early English, combined or ignored these three winter months in various ways (the early Roman ten-month calendar had a gap later filled by January and February; the early English Yule combined December and January).

For other cultures the seasons are different. For India the year is divided into monsoon and non-monsoon, and for southern India there is a southwest summer monsoon and a northeast winter monsoon, with relatively dry times between.

For gardeners, there is “the growing season,” from the last killing frost in spring (which has been getting earlier) to the first killing frost in fall (which has been getting later).

When I lived among the Navajo, I found that for them too there are really only two seasons, and winter is “after the thunder sleeps.” The thunder wakes only in summer. Or so we thought until a few weeks ago when the “thundersnow” hit New York.

5 thoughts on “After the Thunder Sleeps”

  1. Here in coastal northern California, we have a mediterranean climate. We typically have our rainy season from October or November through March or April, and the dry season for the rest of the year. Native plants leaf out and flower during the rainy season, which Easterners think of as “winter.” After the first rains, the hills transform from tawny browns to vibrant greens in a matter of hours.

    From June or July into September or October, a few miles inland from the coast, the weather gets oppressively hot, but the rising hot air sucks marine layer fog in to cover the coast — if you travel 15 miles from the coast over the first range of hills you can easily experience a 40 degree Fahrenheit difference in temperature. The nicest weather happens during the transitions from wet to dry, when we get a few glorious days or weeks of clear, warm, sunny weather.

    At least that’s how the weather was when I was growing up, and how old timers knew it. Now everything’s gone all wonky. We’re in the fourth year of an extreme drought. We just had a week of sunny weather with temperatures in the 70’s F. People were saying how nice the weather was. I found it scary. In February we should be getting blustery winds and plenty of rain, with lots of snow falling in the Sierras, not an endless dry summer.

  2. Here on the farm in Virginia there are activities that I associate with the seasons. Winter would include having all lawn furniture packed away, constant trips to the wood shed for the fire, heated water tubs plugged in for the horses, an increase in hay purchases, the chicken coop windows covered with see-through plastic, the root cellar with produce in it, power outages, and the inability to leave the farm because the drive is blocked by deep snow (as now). These pretty much coincide with the DJF months, so I would vote with you on that. (Speaking of voting, shouldn’t you include your second and third choice as per your voting system?)
    In Portugal, I think we will have two seasons. The first that starts with olive harvesting and orange blossoms and ends with the last oranges dropping from the trees; the second that spans the time of grey-greens, ochres, browns, and sand colors of the arid season.

    1. In inland central Portugal I’m not sure whether your weather will be Mediterranean like Anthony Barreiro’s in northern California, or Atlantic, or transitional between those.

      No, by Approval Voting (the kind I advocate) you can give a simple vote for any one or more of the dandidates, so I could vote for, say, December-January-February and also for a climatic definition if I felt I could live with that. No use of numbers. The system of numbering in order of preference, which I think too complex and obscure in result, is the one we’ve just had to use in voting for members of the board of Amnesty International UK (it was the variant called the Single Transferable Vote). My argument against this overly complex system (which was defeated in the 2011 national referendum) is at

  3. Very interesting post, Guy! My own take on the beginning and end of winter is the time of year that I can’t go bicycling with any regularity here in central Virginia. Many years I can keep cycling up until the second week of December, and I usually can’t begin cycling again until mid March. After that, even though there may be some weather interruptions, I find that the weather allows for riding at least half the days. So Dec 15 to March 15 is my “no cycling” winter time.

    1. That seems as if it must be related to the solstices and equinoxes but displaced. So one might say it’s really related to the cross-quarter days by delay. In other words, winter would start from the cross-quarter day (Nov 6, half way from September equinox to December solstice) if land and sea responded instantly to the amount of sunshine, but the delay in cooling pushes the beginning, in your area, to Dec 15.

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