`Winter' is slippery concept

Season: Through the ages, its location on the calendar has been open to interpretation.

Medicine & Science

December 01, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Today is Dec. 1, late autumn in the year 2003.

Or is it? Like so many concepts of time, it depends on your perspective.

If we were in Saudi Arabia, the official Islamic Calendar would say today is the sixth day of Shawwal, the 10th month in the Islamic lunar year. And the year is 1424, not 2003.

Elsewhere, the Hindu, Hebrew or Chinese calendars might well prevail.

Our own Gregorian calendar is the most widely used today, but it has changed over time, too. The name December, for example, is derived from the Latin decem, for 10. It was the 10th month of the year until the first century BC, when Julius Caesar inserted July and August.

Also open to interpretation is the notion that we're in the final three weeks of autumn.

Officially, winter this year begins with the solstice, at 2:04 a.m. Monday, Dec. 22. But for the purposes of the National Weather Service, each season is three calendar months long, and winter runs from Dec. 1 through Feb. 28. Meteorologists start recording their 2003-2004 "winter" statistics today.

But who says winter must begin in December?

First, of course, it's a hemispherical conceit. For people in the Southern Hemisphere -- south of the Equator -- December marks the official start of summer. But even that convention isn't universal.

Costa Rica is in Central America, 10 degrees north of the Equator and well inside the Northern Hemisphere. But for "Ticos," it's the beginning of summer, not winter.

That's because December marks the start of the dry season. It's sunny and hot, and the school year ends. Families who can afford it head for the beach, crowding the resorts and jamming restaurants. May to November is their rainy season, and they call it winter. Schools are in session and the beaches are nearly empty.

Even in Western Europe, winter hasn't always arrived with the winter solstice, or even in December.

The solstice is the moment when, because of Earth's tilt on its axis, the sun appears to stand directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn -- 23.4 degrees south of the Equator. From our perspective in the Northern Hemisphere, it is the time of the sun's southernmost rise and set -- the weakest noonday sun, shortest period of daylight and longest night.

As such, it was the darkest, gloomiest time of the year for the ancients. No wonder the Celts regarded it as the middle of winter, not the start. By the same reasoning, the summer solstice, about June 21, marked midsummer. It's still referred to as Midsummer's Day in some countries.

For the Celts, winter began on Samhain, the "cross-quarter" day that fell on Nov. 1, midway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice.

Samhain and the arrival of winter, with its hardships, cold and scarcity, were associated with malevolent forces. Samhain was appropriated by Christians as All Saints (or All Hallows) Day, with the dark Celtic traditions surviving in our Halloween (All Hallows Eve) celebrations.

The winter solstice was, for the Celts, a time for rituals designed to bring about the rebirth of the sun. If they worked, the sun would begin to creep north again each day, bringing warmth, longer days and a rebirth of the natural world. Their winter ended Feb. 2, another cross-quarter day they called Imbolc. It meant sheep's milk, and it marked the time when ewes began producing milk in anticipation of their lambs.

Christians pre-empted Imbolc for the celebration of Candlemas (Candle Mass), marking the presentation of the Christ Child (the Light of the World) in the Temple of Jerusalem.

An old Scottish couplet, "If Candlemas be bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the year," captures a folk belief that was carried to the Germans and evolved into Groundhog Day. If a groundhog emerged from his burrow on a bright, clear Feb. 2 and saw his shadow, it meant six more weeks of winter.

But however you look at it on this Dec. 1, it's a long time 'til spring.

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