2018

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Today is the last day of 2017. I will probably stay up tonight to “see in” 2018, but I’m not about to follow other traditions, such “first footing“. It’s all superstition anyway.

I think it’s interesting and a little illogical that we celebrate arbitrary dates throughout the year, such as midsummer’s day or May Day, though I understand that the origins of these celebrations. When the Church ruled (in at least the part of the world that I come from) and when times were uncertain and you could be fine one minute and dead of the plague the next, superstition comes naturally.

I can understand the joy that a winter solstice or other celebrations at that time of can bring. We are, at those times, at the lowest point of the year, and things can only go up from there. Strangely the low point of the year in the Northern Hemisphere comes at the top of the calendar. Who arranged that?

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There are no equivalent large celebrations around the time of the summer solstice, at least in the places in the Northern Hemisphere that I have lived. In the middle of the summer, winter is so far away, and I guess that we don’t want to celebrate it. In the Southern Hemisphere the summer solstice occurs round about the time of Christmas and New Year. In either hemisphere we celebrate the summer solstice by getting out in the sun more.

In the spring, in the Northern Hemisphere, there are some celebrations of May Day, around the time of the Vernal Equinox. At that time of year, we are leaving the darkness of winter and the short days for the longer sunny days of summer, and that is probably worth a celebration. May Day actually falls closer to the middle of the climactic spring than the equinox does.

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Of course any spring festival coincides with the increased fertility of the soil, plants and growing and animals are mating, spring plantings are complete, humans also respond to this. Some spring festivals acknowledge this time of the quickening of the blood in various ways, and sometimes the establishment, notably the Church, tries to suppress or at least put the reins on some of the excesses.

Autumn is the time of harvest and any festivals around the Autumnal Equinox acknowledge this fact. However the tone of such celebrations is likely to be restrained as people buckle down for the chills of winter.

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In the Southern Hemisphere, all this is messed up. The calendar is the same, so the southern Spring Equinox happens in September, around the twenty first of the month. Since most of the traditions have been imported from the Northern Hemisphere, mainly from Europe and particularly the UK, there is no obvious spring celebration to copy.

However, the southern Autumnal Equinox happens in March, and there is a northern celebration at the beginning of May. May Day is celebrated as an almost purely political holiday, with roots in the union movement, and is not, generally celebrated in the same way as May Day is in the Northern Hemisphere.

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When people emigrate from the Northern Hemisphere, specifically from Europe, they often experience homesickness. It can take a lifetime to shake off, but most people eventually relocate their roots. In particular, people from the Northern Hemisphere often find it strange that Christmas falls in the summertime.

People from the Northern Hemisphere expect Christmas to be in the winter. Short days, inclement weather and the perennial question “Will it be a white Christmas?” At one time carollers used to travel from door to door, wrapped up in thick coats, scarves and wearing woollen hats. Father Christmas is well wrapped in thick red and white clothes as he takes orders in the frantic malls before Christmas.

In the Southern Hemisphere, Father Christmas still wears his thick red and white clothes, and sits in a grotto decorated with fake snow and snowflakes, but he is most likely to be near hypothermia as the mercury rises.

There is however a southern version of Father Christmas. This version wears red swimming trunks and usually retains the red hat with the white rim and the white bobble, but may sport sunglasses and wear jandals on his feet. He may even carry a surfboard. He may be lying in a sun lounger shaded by a parasol, and with a non-alcoholic (of course) fruit based drink to hand.

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While Rudolph and his team may feature south of the equator, in Australia Santa’s sleigh is pulled by six white kangaroos, known as “boomers” (at least according to the song recorded by Rolf Harris). The implication is that the traditional reindeer can’t handle the summer heat in the Southern Hemisphere.

I’ve drifted somewhat from my initial topic, which was the New Year. New year in the Southern Hemisphere is about beach parties, if you are below a certain age. For those above a certain age, New Year means backyard barbecues.

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Beach parties can be riotous, to the point where police intervention is required, but largely they are good natured and convivial gatherings. New Year comes towards the beginner of the seasonal summer, and the celebration doesn’t really equate to any Northern Hemisphere celebration.

The northern Christmas and New Year celebrations are constrained by the short days and the long nights and are celebrated indoors in cosy snugness. In contrast the southern celebrations revel in the long days and short but warm nights and celebrate the outdoors.

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I think that we in the southern hemisphere got the best deal. If Christmas and New Year in the northern hemisphere had, for whatever reason, fallen in the summer, then the southern hemisphere Christmas and New Year would have fallen in the winter, and we would have got the short nights and the bad weather.

We would have had to celebrate Christmas and New Year indoors and during the short winter days. There’s no doubt that it would be enjoyable, the interactions with family and friends, but I’m glad that our main holiday falls in the summer.

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But, whatever, the New Year is in ninety five minutes, at least here in Wellington, so, when it swings around to you, I hope that you have a good and enjoyable New Year. I’ll sit here in my t-shirt and shorts, with bare feet enjoying their freedom from shoes, and wish all you there in the Northern Hemisphere, togged up in your woolies and gloves and hats, a Happy New Year.

Tau Hou hari!

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The Solstice Again

The Sun rising over Stonehenge on the morning ...
The Sun rising over Stonehenge on the morning of the summer solstice (21st June 2005). A crowd of between 14,000 and 19,000 people greeted the sun as it rose at 04:58 BST. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, the time when the sun is furthest south in the sky and hence at its highest. From here on in, the days get shorter as we slide back towards winter.

In the Northern Hemisphere,  it is of course the winter solstice, and those living there can expect the days to lengthen, as they move towards summer. Today is the Northern Hemisphere’s shortest day.

English: Daisy Rock's "solstice gap"...
English: Daisy Rock’s “solstice gap”” This shows the gap in the rock along which the sunset is viewed on the longest day. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seasonal lag means that we can look forward to the warmest months of the year after the solstice, and those unfortunate enough to live in the Northern Hemisphere can look forward to a couple of their coldest months before things start to warm up.

I read somewhere that winter months are the months when people tend to put on weight and this was attributed to the fact that in winter, in the coldest weather people tend to exercise less and eat more. The reduced exercise is attributed to the tendency to stay home in the warm, by the fireside to avoid the often hostile weather.

Brooklyn Museum - Fireside Companion - Platt P...
Brooklyn Museum – Fireside Companion – Platt Powell Ryder – overall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And the eating more is because, well, what else is there to do but eat, when you are trapped by the weather. Our ancestors used to use up all the reserves that they had laid up for just this occasion, the hams and preserves, dried fruit and root vegetables and so on.

When the summer solstice happens, the weather is warmer and better, so people can get out an exercise, and, for our ancestors at least, agriculture kept them on the move, and the aim was to replenish the stores for the winter months, hence an emphasis on growing rather than eating. Besides, most crops would not be ready for harvesting.


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The winter solstice is one candidate for the start of the year. It marks a definite point in the cycle of the year. It’s after the solstice (a few months after the solstice) that things start growing again. The summer solstice is probably not a good choice as things are humming along then, ploughing and planting, growing and nurturing so it doesn’t really fit as the start of the year.

The spring or vernal equinox falls in March, around the 21st in the Northern Hemisphere. This is also a candidate for the start of the year, but to my mind, it is too late. Winter is tailing off at that time, things are starting to grow and because of the seasonal lag, it’s the start of spring. The year, are I see it, is already under way.


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Interestingly our fiscal year ends on 31st March. This is the date used by individuals to account for tax obligations. In many countries using the Gregorian calendar, the fiscal year ends on 31st December and almost aligns with the (winter) solstice based year. Other countries which use other calendars have fiscal years which relate to the local calendar.

As I have said the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere falls on 21st December (in most years). It is an astronomical point in time, not a whole day and can happen on 20th December. In the decade from 2010 to 2020 it falls on the 20th on three occasions.


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The summer solstice, Christmas Day, and the official 1st January New Year Day all fall within just over a week of each other. There is good reason to suspect historical links between these days, and there is much debate on the actual historical relationship between these events.

It is often said that early Christians adopted the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, to squeeze out or replace a pagan celebration at that time. This may or may not be the case (or it may be partially true), but what is evident is that many cultures outside of the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn celebrate a festival at around the time of the solstice.

World map with the intertropical zone highligh...
World map with the intertropical zone highlighted in red. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Between the two Tropics the sun is overhead twice in a year while the sun reaches a southerly point at the time of the southern solstice (winter in the north and summer in the south) and a northerly point at the time of the northern solstice, the hottest time occurs when the sun is overhead. This divides the year into unequal parts in these latitudes.

The climate of these regions is dependant on local conditions, such as whether or not the region is close to an ocean or is in the middle of a continent, and many tropical areas have wet and dry seasons, typically of unequal extents. One example know to many people outside the tropics is the monsoon season when a regions rainfall may predominantly happen.


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On the Arctic and Antarctic circle, at the solstices the sun just grazes the horizon at the summer solstice and the day lasts 24 hours. At the winter solstices the sun just barely reaches the horizon and the night lasts 24 hours. Closer to the poles the number of sunless days or days with the sum always above the horizon increase. At the poles the sun is below the horizon for three months and above it for three months. (I hope this is correct. I did research this a little, but I am not 100% sure).

Interestingly, I learnt recently that the sunset will continue to become later for the next few weeks. The reason for this according to the linked article is because we have tied our clocks to 24 hours exactly and the day is not exactly 24 hours long. Not only is it not exactly 24 hours, but its length varies during the year. In Wellington the sunset goes out to around 3 minutes to 9 and doesn’t dip below that time until 7th January 2015.

English: Sunrise at Winter Solstice (December ...
English: Sunrise at Winter Solstice (December 21, 2006 at 8 a.m.) as viewed through the doorway half way up Maiden Tower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(December data here, January data here).

While looking up these numbers I noticed that the day length in Auckland is nearly half an hour shorter up there. Also sunset is about a quarter of an hour later in Wellington meaning that when the summer weather finally arrives we will have an extra 14 minutes to enjoy the balmy evenings. That’s yet another reason to prefer Wellington over Auckland! We have more time to celebrate the solstice.

English: Wellington Harbour (New Zealand) view
English: Wellington Harbour (New Zealand) view (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Darn! I completed this on Monday but forgot to publish it. Better late than never, I guess!]