The days turn in twenty-four hours. The winter solstice in Dublin is at 1747 on Monday, 21st December.
Miss Rabbage would have been delighted at such precision. The solstice marked the beginning of winter in the scheme of things taught in the junior class 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. However, 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 reassuring. 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. 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 rationalize 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 here in November, while snow is not unknown in early May. Maybe the seasons themselves are a human attempt to classify the movement and forces of nature; measuring and predicting and classification give a pretence of order. Anyone who has stood and watched the rain coming in sideways on a June day, when the temperature hardly reaches double figures, and walks on the beach in sunshine on a Christmas Eve afternoon, knows how illusory are our attempts at prediction.