Today is September 22nd, the Autumnal Equinox in the northern hemisphere. Your radio announcer or T.V. news anchorperson will proclaim today “The First Day of Autumn” or, more likely, “Fall.” That may work for those of you who live in the southern U.S., say, Arizona, or Georgia. But for those of us in the northern climes, it’s a different matter—if you’re paying attention.
This is something I’ve thought about ever since I was a child. It always seemed strange to me that our calendar declares the first day of a season to be a date on which anyone can tell that the season supposedly just begun has been in full swing for a while. Someone somewhere made the decision that the solstices (summer around June 21st, winter around December 21st in the northern hemisphere) and equinoxes (autumn around September 21st, spring around March 21st) mark the beginning of the season rather than the season’s midpoint. Why these days are noticed at all, I won’t go into. Hopefully you remember this from grade school earth science. If not, look it up—it’s pretty fascinating stuff, really.
The equinoxes, I grant, make a bit more sense. They mark the balance between hours of daylight and dark. After the Spring Equinox, the hours of daylight exceed hours of darkness; after the Autumn Equinox, darkness exceeds daylight. So, to say that autumn or spring begin on that day makes some sense. What fails to make sense to me is the designation of the solstices as the beginning of the season rather than the midpoint. After all, how can you begin a season associated with light or darkness on the day it turns away from its associated quality? There is a complete cognitive disconnect in declaring that winter, the season of darkness, begins on the day that the light begins to increase, or that summer, the season of light, begins on the day on which the darkness begins to increase.
It didn’t used to be this way. You’ve heard the terms “midwinter’s night,” “midsummer’s day,” “midsummer’s eve.” These were, once upon a time, associated with the solstices. Note the prefix “mid.” You don’t find those on most modern calendars.
The Celtic peoples, many of whom make up part of my extremely mixed ancestry, saw things this way. To them, the seasons, as all things in our world, didn’t spring full blown into being, but started, naturally enough, as an infant, grew to full adulthood, then grew old and died, making way for the birth of the next season. In this view, then, the dates are roughly thus: Winter begins November 1st, Spring begins February 1st, Summer begins May 1st, and Autumn begins August 1st. We still mark these dates in vague ways, commemorating old Pagan festivals and observances, usually with a Christian overlay: think Halloween, Groundhog Day (also Candlemas for some of us), May Day. Only Autumn seems to lack a well known association in modern society. Some, but not many of us, celebrate Lughnassadh or Lammas. These season-starting dates make sense if you live in the northern part of the world, and if you’re paying attention!
Living on the homestead, we do pay attention. It’s hard not to when we spend so much of our time outside. At our latitude, the shift in seasons is very apparent around the dates given above. The least apparent is Spring. As February begins, we’re usually settling into the worst of the winter weather, and can expect snow to be on the ground, at least in places, into April. But there is a subtle change, most notable in the buds on the trees, which begin to change color and swell, ever so slightly.
I have no favorite season. I’ve learned to love them all. But I’m afraid my favorite transition doesn’t help with family harmony. If I had to name a favorite, I would choose the transition from summer to autumn. I love the change from the growing season to the harvest season. For us, the berries are ripe, the majority of edible mushrooms have begun to appear, we begin to see the first slight tinge of fall colors in the trees and bushes. I love the bitter-sweetness of beginning to take leave of the warm, easy days and turning toward the cold, hard days.
Unfortunately, as the date for this is August 1st, it comes before Michelle’s birthday, and Michelle insists on a summer birthday! I have similar reservations: as a child of the U.S. school system, I know in my bones that autumn means the beginning of school. Even though most of my schooling was in Alaska, where the school year starts for most communities in the last week of August, I associate the start of the school year more with September. Still, by paying attention, I’ve seen the shift. Michelle acknowledges it too, but why pass up an opportunity for friendly teasing?
“Ah, the fresh smell of Autumn,” I’ll say, breathing deeply.
“Ah, the fresh smell of Late Summer!” she’ll reply.
But I digress. Today is the day the rest of the country climbs on the bandwagon in welcoming Autumn. Sorry, but those of us already on board have been eating the snacks and drinking the refreshments. We didn’t wait for you, but we’re glad you finally made it.