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!]

The Start of New Year

an old post card
an old post card (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to sources on the Internet, the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere occurs at 10:51 am UT on 21 June (this year, 2014). That translates to 10:51 pm in New Zealand. Just as in the Northern Hemisphere the start of the year corresponds roughly to the winter solstice  there, I like to think that the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere corresponds to the start of the year in the Southern Hemisphere. I don’t think that I would get much support to the start of the year officially changed, though!

The Earth at the start of the 4 (astronomical)...
The Earth at the start of the 4 (astronomical) seasons as seen from the south and ignoring the atmosphere (no clouds, no twilight). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The year can be divided into halves by the solstices, the winter solstice marking the sun’s most negative elevation with respect to the South Astronomical Pole since the previous June. From that moment in time the sun starts to move higher into the sky until, at or around 21 December, when the summer solstice occurs.

Midway between the solstices falls a time when the day and night are roughly equal in length. Around this time the sun crosses the celestial equator, and this time is called an equinox. There are two in the year, one when the sun is apparently moving south in the sky (the vernal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere) and one when it is moving north in the sky (the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere).

The Sun & the ecliptic rotation around the Ear...
The Sun & the ecliptic rotation around the Earth : The green Sun is the one of the vernal equinox (march), it is followed by a summer solstice Sun. Then automn equinox and winter solstice. The ground plane (latitude 50°N) is green, the rotating ecliptic plane is blue. Also represented are the celestial equator, the two tropics and the rotation axis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Each of these quarter points of the year is or was celebrated with a festival of some sort, some of which, particularly the winter solstice were supposedly characterised by “unrestrained revelry“. The summer solstice was comparatively restrained, the vernal equinox was a celebration of new growth, and the autumnal equinox was a harvest festival, a gathering in and celebration of bounty produced by the year’s hard work.

What I wasn’t aware of is that there were other events called “Cross Quarter moments”. These are moments halfway between the equinoxes and solstices, and they are known as Embolc, Beltaine, Lughnasad, and Samhain. The Cross Quarter moments. the solstices and the equinoxes are set out in order for 2014 in the chart referenced here.

English: Wheel of the Year with Fire Festivals...
English: Wheel of the Year with Fire Festivals and Quarter Festivals, Neopagan holidays: Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lughnasadh, Mabon, Samhain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two of the Cross Quarter moments I have heard of, Beltane and Samhain. Beltane falls between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice and is roughly at the beginning of May, so corresponds roughly with May Day. It is astronomically the beginning of summer, but seasonal lag means that the season starts a little later than this.

English: Beer brewed during the night of Samha...
English: Beer brewed during the night of Samhain. Français : Bière brassée pendant la nuit de Samain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Children (usually girls) still dance around the maypole or maytree, but few of them, and probably few of the adults have any idea of the origins of this ritual. Although it probably is related to Beltane or the start of summer, the significance and symbolism of the maypole is still debated. Some of the possible suggestions seem dubious and far-fetched, and I don’t think that is wrong to suggest that they reflect the prejudices of the people that make them. In particular it appears that Puritan Christians may have over-emphasised some aspects of the dance and celebration to argue for its banning.

English: Dance around the maypole during the M...
English: Dance around the maypole during the Midsummer celebration, in Åmmeberg, Sweden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Morris dancing is also associated with a spring festival, usually Whitsun. It may possibly have been associated with Beltrane, but I don’t know the history of morris dancing, Whitsun and Beltrane or spring festivals in general well enough to assert this. There is a long tradition of ancient non-Christian rituals being adopted and given a Christian slant, so this may be possible.

Cotswold-style morris dancing in the grounds o...
Cotswold-style morris dancing in the grounds of Wells Cathedral, Wells, England — Exeter Morris Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Samhain also has a long history and probably pre-dates Christianity. It is associated with the beginning of winter and marks the point where all crops are gathered and animals prepared for winter. Once again the Christian church has adopted the festival and the roots of “harvest festivals” are to be found in Samhain’s pre-Christian traditions.

English: A Donjari float used in Saijo's fall ...
English: A Donjari float used in Saijo’s fall harvest festival. I took this photo in October 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Christian church adopted the festival as All Saints (Hallows) Eve or Halloween. I note from the Wikipedia article that I linked to that some people consider that Halloween has no relationship with Samhain, but considering the similarities of the two traditions which happen at the same time of the year, I think that this seems unlikely.

Jack-o-lantern
Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bonfires form a great part of the Samhain festival, maybe as an attempt to ward off the coming darkness of winter. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that there are still “celebrations” on 5 November, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes Day. An effigy of Guy Fawkes is burnt on a bonfire, in spite of the fact that Guy Fawkes was actually hanged.

All of the example above refer to the “Gaelic versions” of the various dates and festivals. It’s a bit simplistic to refer to a single “Gaelic version” as the dates and festivals have, naturally, changed over the years. Other cultures of course have their own versions of the various festivals. In the Tropics (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn the sun is overhead at least once in the year, an obvious time for a festival!

English: Vector version of a design from the B...
English: Vector version of a design from the Book of Kells, fol. 29r. Traced outlines in black and white representing three intertwined dogs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since we have just passed the winter solstice, we can look forward to longer days and shorter nights from now until the summer solstice, which for us in the Southern Hemisphere comes around 21 December. So far this year winter has been fairly mild and a little wet. As we move towards the vernal equinox we still have the bulk of winter to come, as the astronomical year does not match the climatic year because of the seasonal lag.

English: Winter landscape off Ham Wall Somerse...
English: Winter landscape off Ham Wall Somerset. The most peaceful place on earth created from worked-out peat diggings. Excellent wetland habitat with characteristic reed beds. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nevertheless it is a time to look forward and one can understand why the winter solstice is a such a time. It is a time of feasting, of using up some of the stores put away at the time of the autumnal equinox, the salted beef and cured hams. It is a time to relax, for mending and repairing, and for staying out of the weather as much as possible, as the weather of winter means that essential tasks only will be undertaken and the rush of springtime is still ahead. While the end of winter may bring shortages , it is still near the beginning and the stores are still full.

Russian Celebration Zakuski
Russian Celebration Zakuski (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

…for Christmas comes but once a year (Southern Style)

The Examination and Trial of Father Christmas,...
The Examination and Trial of Father Christmas, (1686), published shortly after Christmas was reinstated as a holy day in England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“At Christmas play and make good cheer, for Christmas comes but once a year” said Tomas Tusser. Many people would rather it didn’t. Christmas is a time when stress levels go through the roof. People eat too much, drink too much and spend too much, meaning that January, a time when people traditionally go on summer holidays in this part of the world, is a time of dieting and financial restriction. Without careful planning the later part of the year around Christmas and the New Year can get very messy.

Another area of stress is in the receiving and giving of presents. Trying to decide who to buy for and what to buy for them is always difficult and many people resort to providing cash or vouchers or gift cards, and it still doesn’t remove all the issues. A card for a department store may be just what someone wanted, or it might languish in a drawer until it expires. Apparently by some estimates $2 billion of credit on gift cards goes unredeemed. But then again, a tie or socks might also be banished to the back of someone’s wardrobe.

20091226 - Christmas presents - misc - gift ca...
20091226 – Christmas presents – misc – gift cards – GEDC1240 (Photo credit: Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL))

The religious aspects of the holiday (“Holy Day”) are often ignored, and though thousands may gather for the “Carols in the Park”, few of those attending will go to church during the holiday. These aspects also exclude those of different religions, nominally, but many non-Christians celebrate some aspects of the holiday anyway, and gather for family time and exchange presents.

Christmas parties are a feature of the period before Christmas, and again, while one might think that those of other religions than Christianity would be excluded, office and private parties do not exclude non-Christians. In fact parties around this time of year are an opportunity for people to eat and drink and socialize and religion seldom figures.

English: Christmas is over 1 It must have been...
English: Christmas is over 1 It must have been some kind of party in Gillingham around New Year’s Eve 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The secularisation of Christmas is both good and bad. Good, because it is not exclusive, but inclusive, and bad because it hides the traditional reasons for Christmas. But even within Christianity the reasons for Christmas are being lost – Christians buy Christmas trees and Christmas lights, and exchange presents, eat turkey and drink alcohol, all of which hark back to times before Christianity, to times often loosely called pagan.

Sunrise over Stonehenge on the summer solstice...
Sunrise over Stonehenge on the summer solstice, 21 June 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Indeed it is often said that Christmas is when it is simply to align with the so-called pagan festivals of mid-winter that celebrate the solstice. The winter solstice marks the time of year when the sun reaches its lowest point of the year and is closely related to the shortest day. Of course in this hemisphere the solstice is the summer one, and the sun is at its highest, so the day is the longest one. This usually happens around 21st of December.

English: Musicians on Sydney Harbour during 20...
English: Musicians on Sydney Harbour during 2001 Xmas holidays. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The traditional northern hemisphere Christmas is in mid-winter, more or less, and the traditional fare is heavy mid-winter fuel of turkey with stuffing, vegetables including potatoes, with gravy and followed by heavy fruit pudding and mince pies.  In the southern hemisphere the solstice is, as I said, the summer one, and, really, the traditional fare is probably unsuited to the climate. The southern hemisphere is developing a tradition of holding a barbecue for Christmas dinner, thereby replacing the turkey with steak and the heavy root vegetables of the northern hemisphere with salad and the Christmas pudding with ice cream. The heavy room temperature ales favoured north of the Equator are often replaced by lighter chilled beer and lager.

New Years 2010-2011
New Years 2010-2011 (Photo credit: russelljsmith)

Some of the more modern symbols of Christmas northern hemisphere style have received a southern hemisphere make-over. Santa is still a fat old man with a beard, but his clothing is often changed to, more suitable for the climate, board shorts, though they will still be in the “traditional” Coca-Cola red, and even on the surfboard he will likely retain the floppy hat. The reindeer are, at least in Australia, replaced by kangaroos.

Santa Claus, Christmas Parade, Lambton Quay
Santa Claus, Christmas Parade, Lambton Quay (Photo credit: Velvet Android)

Southern hemisphere cities tend to put on “Santa Parades”. I don’t know if this happens much in northern cities, though I do see a website for a Santa parade in Toronto. It seems to me that the weather would be better in the southern cities! Strangely the big man, who always brings the end to the parade in the last float, usually wears the full regalia of red suit, boots, and cap. He must swelter!

This has been a rather unstructured look at Christmas with an emphasis on the southern hemisphere celebrations where they differ from the northern version of the same. All that remains is for me to wish anyone who stumbles across my blog a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Ngā mihi o te wā me te Tau Hou.

Pohutakawa
Pohutakawa (Photo credit: StormyDog)

Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring

Revolving earth at winter solstice on the nort...
Northern winter solstice

On 21st June we in the Southern Hemisphere get our shortest day of the year. This corresponds to the longest day in the Northern Hemisphere of course, and my wall calendar, which originates from the Northern half of the planet says that 21st June is the start of summer. I believe that the official start of winter, here in New Zealand, is 1st June.

That started me thinking. One would expect that 21st June, the southern winter solstice, would be the middle on winter, since the earth is tilted furthest away from the sun in southern latitudes at that date, and that the seasons would change mid way between the solstices and the equinoxes in both hemispheres for similar reasons. The equinoxes are the days when the night and days are the same length in both the northern and southern hemispheres. (Pedants will notice that I’m not being precisely correct in my explanations of equinoxes and solstices, but that doesn’t matter for my purposes.)

English: Two equinoxes are shown as the inters...
Equinoxes

It is obvious to anyone who has reached a sufficient age that the warmest and coldest parts of the year don’t correspond to the solstices and that the change from higher than average temperatures to lower than average temperatures and vice versa don’t happen at the equinoxes, though these latter events are probably not that noticeable. There is obviously some seasonal lag.

Image representing Wikipedia as depicted in Cr...

So I browsed to Wikipedia, which is a useful place to start, even if some people question its accuracy and veracity. I’ve not found it too bad, myself. Sure enough, there is an article on seasonal lag, and I’ve no reason to doubt the information there. To summarise, the authors of the article attribute the lag to the oceans which, because of the latent heat of their water absorb heat energy and release energy as the seasons change. I’m not sure that I completely understand the reasons for this, but there are undoubtedly deeper analyses on the Internet. The Wikipedia article contains one reference.

Apparently the seasonal lag is different in each half of the year. I believe that means that the four seasons are not all equal in length. Hmm, summer does seem shorter than the other seasons, but that may be only subjective. However, our shortest day is only four weeks away, so we will at least be seeing more daylight each day from then on. We will be on the upwards slide to Spring and Summer, even though Winter will not have bottomed out, and we can look forward to barbecues and a summertime Christmas!

Pohutakawa
Pohutakawa flowers. They bloom at Christmas, in early summer.