Universal Translator

Thursday, December 22, 2011


So today marks the shortest day on the calendar.  After today, the sun will started hanging out in the sky for just a little bit longer each day until we hit the summer solstice on June 20th next year. 

You know, when it comes to the seasons I always thought the Celts got it right and that we are doing it all wrong.

For example, here in the United States the winter solstice is considered the beginning of winter, which lasts until the vernal equinox when the day is approximately the same length as the night.  In turn, spring lasts from the vernal equinox until the summer solstice.  Summer lasts from the summer solstice to the autumnal equinox.  Fall lasts from the autumnal equinox until the winter solstice.  Rinse and repeat.

But this doesn’t really make a lot of sense.  Under our system, winter – the darkest of seasons – doesn’t begin until the days start getting longer.  Summer – the brightest of seasons – doesn’t begin until the sun starts losing its light. 

I prefer the Celtic calendar, which marked the seasons by four great holidays that fell between the solstices and equinoxes.  Thus, Samhain – on October 31st, marks the beginning of winter, which runs all the way to Imbolc, around February 2nd.  The winter solstice is thus mid-winter.  That makes sense to me, because it means winter includes the shortest days in the calendar – those both immediately before and immediately after the winter solstice.

Similarly, spring begins with Imbolc and continues until Beltain, around May1st.  The days continue uninterruptedly growing longer during this season of renewal, with the vernal equinox falling somewhere close to the mid-point of the season.

Summer begins with Beltain and continues until Lughnasadh, around July 31st.  Just as with the winter solstice, the summer solstice falls at about the midpoint of this season, which means the Celtic summer contains the longest days in the calendar – those both immediately before and immediately after the winter solstice.

And finally, autumn begins with Lughnasadh and continues until Samhain.  The days continue uninterruptedly growing shorter, with the autumnal equinox falling somewhere close the mid-point of the season.

I can understand why one would naturally tend to organize the seasons around the solstices and equinoxes.  They are fairly easy and important astronomical days to mark out.  But I love that the Celts – with their cyclical rather than linear concept of time – did not think of these days as the dates of a beginning, but as the mid-points of what the seasons were invented to describe.

So Happy Winter Solstice, everybody!  And be of good cheer.  As any good Celt could tell you, the winter is now half over!

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