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.