Another solstice

Dec 21st, 2010 | By | Category: Personal Columns

The winter solstice – at last.  At least with more daylight, driving on packed snow and ice will be easier.  With the severe cold, finding energy for anything other than simply functioning is a challenge.

The solstice marked the beginning of winter in the scheme of things taught at High Ham Primary School. The world was a very orderly place and the seasons broke down into four neat quarters – winter ran from the solstice until the spring equinox; spring from the equinox until the summer solstice; summer from the solstice until the vernal equinox; and autumn from the equinox until the winter solstice.

I liked the way the year was knocked into such an orderly shape. The bit about solstices moving from one day to another was troublesome – if you couldn’t rely on the earth and the sun to be in the right place at the right time, what could you rely on? Generally, though, the idea of seasons bounded by precise astronomical moments was pleasing. The main problem with our year was the weather – it could be blazing sunshine in early June when it was meant to be still spring; and returning to school at the beginning of September when the leaves were turning and there was a chill in the air created no sense of there still being three weeks of summer left.

Discovering the Celtic year caused a blurring of the seasons’ boundaries. Everything moved forward. The year ended at Halloween, a custom that still persists with the payment of land rents in some places, the bonfires on 31st October were to drive away the evil spirits in the coming year. Spring began on 1st February with Saint Brigid’s Day; summer came at May Day; and autumn came with Lughnasa. Being Celtic, it wouldn’t be as precise as that – hot August days don’t seem very autumnal and the beginning of November was also a harvest festival, but having four quarters fits neatly with the desire of the Anglo-Saxon mind to rationalise everything.

Met Eireann, the Irish weather service, have another system using the calendar months: winter is December to February, spring from March to May, summer June to August; and autumn September to November. Children in National Schools find themselves being taught about Saint Brigid and spring beginning on 1st February, only to have the weatherman say it’s a month later.

The seasons don’t conform to human boundaries; snowdrop shoots break the ground  in November while snow is not unknown in early May. Seasons themselves are a human attempt to classify the movement and forces of nature.  The feebleness of humanity in the face of those forces is apparent in every news bulletin.

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