A ROUGH GUIDE TO THE SEASONS
Basically this page stems from an urge to set my thoughts down on the idea of the Seasons in the UK. I do this because of an increasing frustration at school led insistence on ‘set’ patterns in everything. Perhaps it also stems from a latent autism in thinking on my part. Either way, it bothers me that we as a society are becoming so removed from the reality of ‘natural rhythms’ that we have to hear it from a pseudo-expert for answers! **
Nb. (This page is a petty thing and I suppose this marks where my own journey into Old Fartdom begins.)
According to the UK met office there is more than one season. A meteorological season and an astronomical season. See HERE for their idiot answer. I say this ‘idiot answer’ because a Solstice – according to our ancestors – is the celebration of the MIDDLE of a season (not the start). You may now see where science and history needs to be read concurrently?
Incidentally, I am all for the introduction of ‘Anti-Universities’ as a repost to the insistence of one line of study as the pinnacle of excellence. One must be a polymath. Read Euclid by all means but seek out Sima Qian as balance.
That said, this treatise is not a full-proof argument, it is not a great masterpiece of classic literature. However, I shall press my case with my usual research and thought-provoking ideas.
** If you can’t be bothered to trawl through my evidence, I have come to the following loose conclusions:**
A season cannot be pinned to specific dates, although the moon phases do play an important part. But if you want a more accurate guess, then follow the following rule of thumb:
Spring. Early to Mid-Febraury to The End of April
Summer. The End of April to roughly the Middle of August (at a stretch)
Autumn. The Middle of August to somewhere in November.
Winter. Somewhere in November to the Middle of February.
I recently heard a discussion continue for a number of days, based on three streams of thought.
1. The UK Met Office declared in late Feb 2013 that Spring was officially the 1st of March. This of course is a homogenized and lazy view based on a long country with varying climates from ‘top to bottom’. East Anglia is drier than Kernow. (It actually gets less rain than parts of the Sahara…)
2. There is a school of thought that has decided the Spring equinox (the day when the amount of daylight is equal to the amount of night), is the first day of Spring.
3. A third school sees the first day of Spring as traditionally beginning the day after the Spring Equinox.
From my own observances and research into the ideas of natural balance, all these ideas are wrong. In order to push my point I will separate the various ideas into the four obvious sections. It must be noted here that `The Seasons` have nothing to do with the weather and nothing to do with whatever month you find yourself in. For example it snowed in June in 1976 – one of the hottest and driest years thus far recorded. Indeed it has snowed in May, as well as September in recent years. This is not global warming in action.
I would also like to point out that the Seasons are an ancient concept, certainly going into our history by a few thousand years and most likely several thousand years, if not into ancient pre-history. As we have developed as a species, invariably we have moved from living in the wilds of nature into more robust accommodation, eventually ending up in a situation where 80% of the world now lives in an urban environment. I would also like to point out that we have an entirely different calendar from our ancestors. We have changed our recording system, 3 times in the last 2,000 years, indeed Russia, Israel and China and the Kurds all use different systems still. We also have a concept of months, which the ancients had no concept of. Theirs was a life led by what they saw about them in everyday life.
That said, I myself like to follow what nature is actually doing, not what the weather or the newsman is telling me. So, signs of mating, nest building and early budding are certainly on the list. Snow does not tell us anything. On the 20th of March 2013 there were well developed frog spawn in the pond. Certainly a sign that `spring` started a few weeks before for two frogs and not on some predesignated date.
Note to the BBC: `Spring Watch`. You are so late in the season as to be positively in early summer!
When does Spring start?
From my own observations, as somebody who spends much of his waking life outside, I would suggest Spring starts on or around the 14th of Feb.
I come to this conclusion for the following reasons.
Our earliest records of an idea of Spring are referenced in manuscripts from Egypt, Babylonia and other ancient civilisations. Unfortunately, we have no accurate record of exactly when this occurred, but merely a reference to it as a concept. For example the annual floods in the Nile in mid August (interestingly called the Arga Noah) were relished as a time of growth in the large agricultural society – A Spring if you will. Interestingly the Egyptians only had three seasons. Retake (Roughly mid June to mid September), Penet, (The hypothetical Autumn), and Sh emu, (The hypothetical Winter). Perhaps other areas of the planet on the same latitude should also follow a 3 season system rather than relying on the four seasons which don’t fit the cycle? After-all at the equator, there is a wet and dry season…
Later civilizations such as the Etruscans and the Romans gave us a much firmer idea of when the seasons began and we can see hints in their worship of deities – much of which were taken on by the Christian church.
If one look as at early fertility rights, Feb 14th stands out as a pretty obvious attempt to appease the Gods in the late winter so that crops would grow in the `Spring`. Now if one follows this train of thought it would make no sense to then wait another month before declaring Spring as having arrived. We, by this stage in the year have already ploughed our fields and the crops should be sown…
If one also looks further afield and at our own worship of the moon, the early February change of moon was celebrated -hence Chinese New Year – a culture who is still intrinsically linked to agriculture. Easter is also set by the moon (just a hint of the old religion then – although whether Eostre actually existed is uncertain.)
St Brigid’s Day (February 1st) is of course the traditional Celtic first day of Spring in Northern Europe. Which adds to the debate.
I must note here, that being the ever thoughtful chap, I have noticed that Mid-Feb always has a warm spell, which invariably tempts some plants to flower, before the inevitable decline back into cold rain, sleet and snow which is often called `The Blackthorn Winter` – a time when the plant is in flower! (Surely a hint of early Spring). At this time I have certainly seen and heard signs of growth and the insistence of the birds and animals to breed. This I would hazard is not a sign of global warming, as is suggested, it is merely an example of the animals being more in tune with the planet than us humans are.
The Mid-Season Equinox, which is when the amount of light is equal to the amount of dark in the `day` cycle, is something the ancients certainly would have been aware of as it is now widely recognized that Stonehenge and other henges were forms of calendars – although Calendar is of course a Roman based word, so to be pedantic we have no idea what the ancient Britons called it, and you will have to forgive me for using that word throughout…I say Mid-Season here, because looking at the ancient `calendar`; the priests marked the two solstices and the two equinox as important moments. The Solstices, were by tradition the Mid-points. Mid-Summer and Mid-Winter. What confuses me is why then we would go on to celebrate the Start of another season. It makes much more sense that the equinox was a good excuse for another mid-season celebration! It is much more likely we were thanking our Gods for making it happen at all or perhaps nudging them a bit if the weather is bad.
I have read many historical documents which reflect some recognition of this doctrine by suggesting there are traditional times of storms or drought, growth or famine. We as a modern human have been taught to ignore these concepts in our reading of factual history – mostly just recording the weather as a causal or incidental factor rather than a point of reference in the climate.
If we are to accept then, that mid-spring is in Mid-March, then the end of Spring finishes at the end of our month of April by logical conclusion. (Yes I am transferring a modern concept onto an older idea, but I am merely dividing the year into 4 or 8, which it is quite likely our ancestors did, in fact they would have had thirteen months as they most likely followed the moon.) In a few counties, Summer starts in Mid-April due to the arrival of the Cuckoo. First Cuckoo Day on the 14th of April in Sussex, is officially Summer according to old traditions…If you don’t believe me, then go to this mid 13th Century tune, ‘Summer is Here’…
There are some clues in the migratory habits of birds and animals too. Whilst field-fares hang on until the very last minute before flying North, it is now apparent that Cuckoos – those recognisable summer visitors – have already started to leave the Congo rainforest by early February, moving slowly north. We also traditionally bless the Salmon nets in mid Feb (the 14th), which is a sign that Salmon are running again.
When then does summer start?
Our traditional celebrations of May Day, I would suggest are a huge clue.
Putting aside the festivals of Jack-In-The-Green and The Maypole, again there were some quite amazing celebrations. The idea of the Summer bride comes from this day- a day when traditionally you could choose a spouse for a year and a day – A young couple could move in together for exactly a year and a day, if they still liked each other after this time then the marriage was confirmed. If they didn`t then the couple could split with no hard feelings. There was also the tradition of Finding the Robin or Robin of the Wood – a Robin being a short old horse, which represents the un-fertile previous half of the year. A man or woman were free on this day (even if they were married) to choose another lover for the first day of summer only – a suggestion follows that any person with the surname Robinson or similar derivative, is from one such liaisons…A tip here, do not be the Queen of May. In such traditions you were not expected to live beyond the year.
Beltane. The Celtic / Pagan festival which celebrated the second half of the year. It was officially the start of Summer to our ancestors so why not us? Don’t forget that the last day of April was Witches’ Eve, and that the whole month of May was indeed a dangerous month – for witches were powerful and could bring bad weather back from the old seasons! If you are intent on celebrating Bletane in some faux pagan rite, please note: Any fires MUST be lit in the morning before dawn of the 1st and kept burning all day (As opposed to the Autumn rites). I have it on good authority that all children go about banging drums and making as much noise as possible for the hour before dawn. Any maids among them are invited to wash their face in the morning dew to enhance their looks. Most of all have fun!
Hobby ‘Oss Ceremonies. It is thought that these ceremonies (like the one in Padstow) represent the battle between the seasons, the ‘Oss being a representative of the old season and is vanquished by a dragon of the new season.
May is certainly a month of Summer celebration, festivals continuing throughout what is now known as Whitsun. For example the Furry Dance in Cornwall, seeing the Bailiff out Bells in Buckingham and many walking festivals ta boot.
We have all been told that June is the month of Mid-Summer solstice. This is the day when the sun is at its highest – there is no longer day on the calendar. Generally June 22nd to be exact, but if we look at the old system of measurement, and to confuse you no doubt, a much older date was June 2nd! This is a useful thing to recognise if for example you are a historian, who is adamant that they must follow our date system and not the natural/solar calendar or visa versa…
Therefore, if June is Mid-Summer then one must wind back the clock by over a month…
Besides, May is always a beautiful month and I would suggest that some of the best weeks of the year sit somewhere between the 2nd and 4th week.
There is a brief lull between the harvesting of hay and harvesting of corn, which is also a sign that summer is coming to an end. “Between Haysel and Grain.” as it is described. In this time, many fairs were organised before the itinerant workers came from far afield for the traditional `hiring days` of July.
July I would hazard is the month that signals a change in weather patterns, after ‘Flaming June’. July is a wet month, the predominant weather fronts coming in from the Atlantic. It is a warm month none-the-less thanks to the Gulf Stream, but definitely heralds change, just as April does. July it is also claimed is a month of the first harvests and ‘Crying the Neck’ or ‘Crying the Mare’. In one 1826 account of this practice in North Devon, the writer refers to the end of the month as early Autumn!
During July there is a fascinating ceremony, known as Church Clipping or Clypping which is a sign of friendship to the mother church, but is actually Celtic in origin and is probably a reverance of the Earth Mother. In the ceremony the parishioners join hands around the outside of the church. It was believed to be a ceremony of thanks. (It must be said that the ceremony was also traditional on Mothering Sunday).
Note to the Ornithological. The Cuckoo, which hailed the start of Summer in April, has left our shores to return to the rainforest at the end of July.
Autmn is a complicated season to pin down. We traditionally look at Autumn as the month of harvests and dying leaves (as in Egyptian culture). But if we look at what has been noted over the years then things become easier (see previous note about July).
It is traditional for anybody who knows the North Sea and English Channel that August is a month of storms. Indeed many invasions have been timed to avoid this change in favourable circumstances – and those that didn`t learnt to their cost.
Lammas day or Lammastide, is August 1st, it is from the old English hlafmaesse or Loaf Mass. It is traditional for the first harvest of wheat to be made into bread and taken to the church as an offering a ceremony that certainly predates Christianity. But wheat isn`t the only thing to harvest. Soft fruit is also a major food stuff which has now grown and is busy converting starch into sugar to make it as attractive to birds as possible. Indeed early apples are also in harvest at this time.
Migration is again a hint here. The swift is a traditional summer migrant that is usually gone by mid to late August.
Lastly, look at the tradition of September Equinox, surely another example of Mid-Season thanksgiving? Not forgetting in September the amazing ‘second spring’, in which every plant indulges in one last spurt of growth before dying down for the winter. Scientifically this is caused by the plant needing to reduce its food source from sugars to starch, preventing damage during winter’s long cold months.
The Celts traditionally started their winter festivals on what is now Halloween. It was otherwise known as ‘Old Years’ night. (October 31st) Being fire worshippers it is interesting that we modern folk still honour these traditions by lighting fires and offering treats to the ancestors! (Although I know some Christians who knowingly refuse).
For anybody who truly wants to follow the Halloween traditions the gift to children at the door is an Allan apple and nothing else! The trick should be ducking for the apples!
If one looks for clues in the weather, then yet again, Winter is preceded by a month traditionally associated with storms. That’s right, you’ve guessed correctly. October.
However, the Feast of St Clement on November 23rd is also recognised as the first day of Winter (old style) as is St Catharine’s on the 25th. There is an accompanying song, “Cattern` and Clemen`, be here, be here, Some of your apples and some o` your beer” If one is to follow this tradition, you need to make the following mixture into a Cattern cake:
A mincemeat filling with honey and crumbs. Baked. “To bring luck to the house and farm.”
December the 21st/22nd is St Thomas Gray day. “St Thomas Gray, St Thomas Gray, Longest night and shortest day”. Another mid-season festival of thanks and the day when fires were lit to bring strength to the sun.
St Stephen`s Day or `Handbell Day` on December 26th is the traditional start of the New Year, when winter is celebrated as dying. Bells were rung and winter sports, such as the first day of the fox hunt were celebrated.
One cannot forget the dying of winter in the festival of plough Sunday (when the ploughs were blessed on January 6th), always the day before the fields were once again ploughed in preparation for the first of the early sowing of corn and wheat.
Britain`s biggest fire festival of Up-Helly-Aa! (Meaning `the end of holy days`) in Lerwick, Scotland is held on the last Tuesday in January. This was actually a festival to celebrate the old Christmas Eve, but was postponed until the end of January to celebrate the traditional End Of Winter festival of YULE!
Just to confuse matters, Feb 2nd (Candlemass) is seen in country law as the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, the time when the winter weather is half-over! A popular saying suggested that if the farmer has less than half his fodder left then there would be trouble before the weather improved.
As a last note, it was and still is traditional to note that the Great North Wind arrives in January. Surely a change in weather patterns, preceding a change in season?
NOTE: All images are my own or taken from Wikimedia Commons. No copyright infringement intended. I do not make money from this website and no commercial enterprise is in operation.