Saturday 20 June 2020

Midsummer's Day (Summer Solstice) is Not the start of summer

I don't agree with the current meme that the Solstice is the start of summer the season; clearly it's already part-way through. One giveaway is that this is Mid-summer's Day and Night.

Another is to look-around at what is happening, has happened, in the natural world: the spring flowers have gone, the trees are in full leaf; spring has been over for at least some weeks.

This error reflects the modern mind. We are happy to live by astronomical observations of a pretty advanced kind; because the solstices and equinoxes could neither be detected nor predicted until the later 100s AD. It needs The Authorities and Instruments to tell us about such matters (with any degree of precision).

Yet we are ignorant and uninterested and mistrustful of things we can actually observe for ourselves - like looking at flowers and trees; we have no faith in our own personal experiences.

Also, the error is revealing of our inability to perceive that seasons are not of equal length, nor do they occur at the same times in all places, nor are they at exactly the same time each year.

All of this we could know for ourselves; yet there is a very modern desire to conflate astronomy, geography and annual variation under one, top-down, officially dictated-in-advance date.

How characteristic this is of our mainstream current weaknesses, credulity, passivity, shallowness.

Note added:

Midsummer is quite something up here in the far North. If not land of the midnight sun; we are land of the midnight "Nautical Twilight"... I was up with a migraine a couple of nights ago; and I heard the birds' dawn chorus starting at 03:20 - although the sun didn't officially rise for another hour-plus.


a_probst said...

Midsummer for the Solstice makes sense--after all the days start getting shorter. It's more like being over a hump.

Pentheus said...

Interesting thought. Reminds me of Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer."

Maybe I am projecting, but this post reads like the explication of a sonnet which you are not able to write yourself.

Bruce Charlton said...

@P - It's flattering, but it is a projection - (unfortunately) I don't think in terms of lyric poems.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ap - Well, summer is a season, not astronomy. And the shortening of days is not usually obvious for several weeks; probably not until around the cross-quarter day of Lammas at the start of August.

dearieme said...

"This error reflects the modern mind." More specifically this error reflects the unceasing, unreflective copying of American notions and vocabulary. Believe it or not, old fruit, I have often seen online Americans refer to the "official" start of summer.

In Britain we do not, thank goodness, have an official summer. There is a convention among meteorologists of thinking of summer as June, July, August. Many of us probably have a habit that approximates to that, modified at the edges by what the weather is like.

I remember one summer when we lived beside the New Forest and were visited by friends from Cumberland. "You have proper summers here" they said, pointing out that local people clearly owned a summer wardrobe of shorts and short-sleeved shirts.

I refrained from pointing out that there are parts of the island that sit north of Cumberland where people often sport shorts and short-sleeved shirts in summer - but not often, I think, at the altitude that our Cumbrian friends inhabited.

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - Modern mind, American mind - what's the difference? Certainly not in the UK where a supposed police event in the USA is regarded as sufficient grounds for repurposing, dismantling and destroying *the entirety* of the UK institutional and public structure at a fortnight's notice. Any excuse or No Excuse is good-enough, when the Global Establishment say It Is Good.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ap - " It's ... like being over a hump."

My point is that the day length changes only slowly at the solstices, most rapidly at the equinoxes - therefore it is more of a plateau than a hump!

Matthew T said...

"Far North" - come on!

Anyway yes, I say the same thing every year. Similar with Christmas, I wish it was mid-winter to break up the monotony.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MT - If you look at a globe, you'll notice that only a small proportion of the world's population live further than 55 degrees North, or South.

Karl said...

@dearieme: Having grown up in America before the Internet, I can testify that Midsummer was called the "official" beginning of summer (though of course no official source was ever cited) in newspapers and in schoolrooms long before you had the opportunity to overhear us.

Karl said...

This excessive deference to merely astronomical dates is what gave Pope Gregory his pretext for immortalizing his own name and dividing Christendom with his disruptive and needlessly complicated calendar reform.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Karl - It's a very bizarre thing to have an official beginning to a season in Secular societies; although in liturgical religions it makes sense (and serves a useful purpose) to celebrate and reflect on the seasons, as well as other things - which does entail setting a date and having annual cycles.

I agree about astronomical religious calendars; but the biggest error was made way back when it was decided to calculate Easter based on the first full moon after the spring equinox - neither of which could be predicted at the time, nor for several centuries (until my local lad, the Venerable Bede, got them almost right).

dearieme said...

The problem with calculating Easter is that you have to pretend to know when Passover fell in whatever was the relevant year near 30 AD.

But you don't. The priests in Jerusalem would vary the date from that implied by the lunar calendar according to how hard or mild a winter they'd had - something to do with wanting "first fruits" as part of their rituals. When I first read that I wondered how on earth Christian priests had lost track of what must have been common knowledge amongst early Christians. I wonder still. Or did they just decide to overlook an unwanted complication?

dearieme said...

About the seasons:

The winter is forbidden till December
And exits March the second on the dot.
By order, summer lingers through September
In Camelot.

Chent said...

I think the problem is as follows. Astronomically, the summer solstice is in the middle of the summer and it's the period of maximum insolation. However, the land and the sea take some time to get warm so they are not the hottest days in the year. This is the seasonal lag, which is about a month in the UK.

So, when it comes to weather, midsummer would be about the end of July while the astronomical midsummer is the solstice. People are more interested in temperature than in the length of the day so this is why they say that the solstice is the beginning of the summer (which is not).

Anyway, in Germanic lands, the solstice is called "midsummer". In Catholic countries such as mine, it's Saint John's Eve. Since John the Baptist announced the coming of the Son, it is supposed that Saint John's Eve announces the coming of the sun. We see it more as a beginning than a middle.

Nicholas Fulford said...

The transition of the seasons is convention that is all. We are aware of winter's end as life starts its return, as the ice recedes, and the warmth of the sun begins to solicit the earliest of flowers from the thawing ground. Summer is the time of hot days, mosquitos buzzing and starting to draw blood. It is the time when nature goes wild in growth and feeds upon itself becoming fat for the thin days and cold nights that will eventually return. Autumn is the season where death's shadow is becoming felt as just over the horizon. It is not here - just yet - but everything is irrevocably heading there. The days are shortening, and animals are fattening. Farmers are harvesting and laying aside summer's bounty for the cold and dark period that lies ahead. Leaves turn gorgeous as the trees draw back and prepare for what lies ahead. Those who will sleep prepare their beds, and everything begins to slow as the bite of the cold frosts in intricate patterns. Winter is the time of death, of stillness, silence, white softness, and rest. Ice and snow and cold bite hard against the skin, and all but man and those few animals that thrive in the cold hunker down for the long haul. And on it goes, cycle after cycle, year after year. he solstices and equinoxes are solar demarcation points, and because of the seasonal lag due to the inertia of heating and cooling we mark the seasons at these points. But yes, it is true from an orbital perspective that June 20th is mid-summer. We humans like our metrics and points of beginning and end. It is actually rather peculiar as time is continuous. We like to know that we have reached the top and the bottom of each cycle, and the mid-points. For some reason it makes us feel more content, and often festivals occur at these times. (Don’t get me wrong, I like festivals, though I will admit that this period of Covid isolation has meant that the girth that I usually shed hangs around my hips and belly like a tiresome guest who ignores all signs to leave that other more social guests observe and follow. I now have to make festive with my own thoughts, and quiet walks in empty spaces.)

I went down to the lake on solstice morning to watch the rising of the sun, to see the transition of night to day, to hear the swans and geese, and like a few others to silently observe the sun and feel the warmth. It was a still morning, with not quite glassy water gently lapping on the shore. The light created those semi-hallucinatory patterns of plastic swirling and a slow trance like dance - almost dervish in its gentle hypnotic intensity. On such a morning I imagine Vaughan Williams composing Lark Ascending. It was like that - subdued, repetitive, circular, rising and joyfully exuberant without effort.