creating community through celebration

A Question of Perspective

It seems an odd confession coming from the Artistic Director of an organization closely attuned to the changing of the seasons, but I’ve always been a little bit confused about what summer actually is. Of course, we know it as the warm weather time, with endless long, sunny days, punctuated by barbecues, vacations and baseball on the radio. With two children in school and being a professor myself, I’m embedded in the “academicentric” calendar that starts summer in early June and ends it the first weekend in September. But when does it actually start and end? On what basis is that decided, and by whom?

Of course a glance at the calendar would tell us that summer begins on June 21st, with the arrival of the Solstice, and continues until the Autumnal Equinox, about September 22nd.* Then we have fall until the shortest day arrives in December, neatly defining the seasons. The same naturally holds true for the Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox. The nice thing about this arrangement is that we get four evenly divided seasons, solidly defined by the greatest regulating force imaginable, the grand gavotte of the solar system.

Why then, in many traditions, is the longest day of the year referred to as midsummer? For Nordic people, Midsummer’s Eve is the biggest festival of the year, in Pagan traditions, litha is occasion for bonfires and wild celebration. Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set on the eve of the summer solstice. While the normal calendar delineation of the seasons seems to yield a consistent, useful and manageable way of marking our time, clearly there is another way to slice the cake.

That would be the Solar Calendar. If you think of summer as the time of year with the most sunlight, and winter as time with the least, them why would you start summer on the very day when the hours of light start to diminish, and winter at the point where the days begin to lengthen? A more logical way to define the seasons would be to use each solstice as a center point for a quarter of the year. If, for example, you started by assigning about 91 days to each season (365/4 = 91.25), then you would start autumn about 45 days after June 21st. That would put it right about August 5th. Forty-five days and change would put you just about on the Autumnal Equinox, and another forty-five would take you to the Winter Solstice.

Continue walking around the circle of the year like this, and you find Solar Summer beginning, of all things, on May Day. Maybe that’s why the song goes, “…to welcome in the summer, to welcome in the May-O”. Wiccans, Pagans, Druids and ancient peoples of various stripes set up their seasonal celebrations to correspond with this Solar Calendar where the solstices marked the high points of the respective seasons of light and dark and the equinoxes represented the liminal or transitional times when the veil between the worlds grew thin.

If logic seems to side with the solar assignment of the season, then why do we insist on something else? Here’s my theory: For agricultural societies, season-driven as they are, hours of sunlight is only one of the factors that dictate the productivity of the fields and the nature of the labor. Climate - temperature and rain cycles - plays a larger role.

We all know that some of the hottest weather occurs in late August (the “dog days”) and September. Why wouldn’t they be part of summer? Similarly, you can call late February “spring”, but it doesn’t feel like a season of rebirth with cold winds blowing the snow into head-high drifts. It just makes sense to group the warmest days into “summer” and the coldest ones into “winter”. Then we get the transitional seasons of spring and autumn lined up with the months when either flowers bloom or leaves die. The standard calendar does a pretty good job of doing just this.

So why doesn’t climate align with the solar calendar? After all, it stands to reason that the warmest temperatures would occur during the most hours of sunlight and the coldest at times with the least. In reality, the temperatures tend to “overshoot” the solar phases due to a variety of climatic reasons, some atmospheric and some geographical in nature.

Perhaps the biggest reason why hot weather seems to hang around well into the time of shortened days, and conversely cold weather into the time of longer light, is the buffering effect of the earth itself. The ground soaks up and concentrates heat during the day and releases it at night. Once it has achieved maximum heat buildup during the longest days, it takes awhile for the concentrated energy to ebb, even though the renewal cycle is less and less powerful. Even more dramatic is the moderating effect of large bodies of water which are really very effective storage devices. They take longer to gain and release heat than the air, and so moderate the climate. That is why those of us who live in coastal California enjoy a ”Mediterranean” climate, free from great fluctuations and extremes of temperature.

And so we have two different calendars: a Seasonal Calendar that signals what kind of weather to expect, and a Solar Calendar that marks our place relative to the light and the dark. They are superimposed, one over the other and while our daily activity is pretty much attuned to the Seasonal Calendar, the rituals and metaphors tied to the Solar Calendar still enliven our celebrations and enrich our traditions.

One thing is certain: Summer is A-Cumin In. Just when is that? Well that’s a question of perspective.

-David Parr, Artistic Director

*Note: I say “about” because the exact time of the solar alignment of the equinox slips about six hours every year or one day every four years. Don’t worry though, leap year sets things right again.

Here’s a good discussion of the Summer Solstice from a Pagan perspective.

And if you’re of a scientific bent, here’s more on the “lag factor” of the seasons.