Halloween is over for another year, which leaves us with Remembrance Day and Christmas as the major holidays left for 2019. What might be less known is that Halloween in any given year is the eve of the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhein, the first day of what is now scientifically referred to as the “solar ” winter.
For anyone who’s not familiar with this definition of winter, it includes November, December, and January as the three ‘darkest’ months of the year following the autumn harvest that occupies most of October. This version of the season is observed in parts of Europe and most of eastern Asia. It differs from the practice in Canada of defining winter as the three ‘coldest’ months of the year.
Our version of the season arrives about a month to seven weeks after the start of the solar winter due to a climatological tendency called ‘seasonal lag’. This is caused by a built-in delay between a seasonal change in hours of daylight and the corresponding change in temperatures as the ground and atmosphere take extra time to warm up or cool down. Although November is only the fourth coldest month of the year, it is still cold and/or wet enough most years to give Canadians our first meteorological encounters with winter, whether in the form of heavy and persistent rainstorms of the type we get on the west coast, or the snowstorms experienced across the rest of Canada.
For me, this raises the question as to whether the solar winter should be given the same level of ‘official’ status as we claim for the astronomical seasons seen on many (but not all) calendars. To answer that, we have to determine how and why a season or anything else becomes ‘official’ in the first place.
According to most dictionaries, there has to be an established administration or authority to formally proclaim or bestow official status on anything, but modern usage of the term suggests this definition has become too narrow and outdated. Today, the term is used in a much broader way, to the extent that it’s becoming little more than a figure of speech with little meaning or authority.
The astronomical seasons are a good example of this, as are the ‘official’ openings of some buildings and highways after they’ve already been in use for some time. So then, if the definition of ‘official’ has become so fuzzy, why should we expand the winter season to include November? One possible answer is that we live in a time when almost nothing is considered newsworthy or even believable unless it has somehow been tagged by educators and the mass media as ‘official’, if only symbolically and without any real authority.
For some reason, those who have major influence over public perception of reality in Canada have adopted the astronomical definition of winter as the only legitimate definition, despite the evidence of winter conditions well before the December solstice. The winter tire season starts well ahead of the solstice across all of the country, and Environment Canada stops issuing fall frost warnings by the beginning of November every year because winter conditions are already considered to exist across the Great White North by that time.
The only claim the astronomical definition has to official status is its use by the International Astronomical Union for its own purposes. This is all well and good, but the World Meteorological Organization has a climatological definition of winter in the northern hemisphere that includes all of December, beginning about three weeks before the solstice. Is there any reason the WMO definition should be any less recognized than the astronomer’s version? The answer of course is no, and both definitions have equal standing in most parts of the northern hemisphere, with the major exceptions of the United States, and therefore Canada as well.
Some Canadian journalists are so biased against the WMO climatological winter, they often complain whenever Environment Canada issues a press release about winter based on the Dec. 1 bench-mark, with the press claiming it’s coming out three weeks early, i.e. three weeks before the December solstice which has nothing to do with the day-to-day weather. Meteorologists have the authority to issue official weather forecasts, so why question their authority to issue other official statements that make reference to a climatological rather than an astronomical definition of winter or any other season?
If recognizing or observing more than one official date for the start of winter runs the risk of confusing people, the only impartial alternative is to not formally or preferentially observe any particular day or definition. After all, the real seasons don’t usually change so abruptly that any exact time or date can be identified in any meaningful way. Most of the time, each season merges into the next over period of time that can range from a few days to a few weeks.
If adding November to winter seems to make the season too long, it should be noted that the end of January marks the end of the solar winter, after exactly the same customary three months that define most of the other seasonal schemes. February marks the beginning of the solar spring, which is observed in Canada and some other countries as Groundhog day on the second day of the month. The beginning of solar spring is also a factor in determining the Chinese New Year which has become a popular celebration in Canada and other western countries that have significant populations of Chinese origin.
Since most of our country is still too cold to say it’s spring that early in the year, our groundhogs are employed to ceremonially “predict” whether the spring weather will arrive early or late after this rodent’s big day. However here on the west coast, February is often mild enough to show at least some signs of spring, enough that many professional ecologists consider February and early March a transitional “prevernal” season between full winter and full spring in mild temperate climates (which translates to March and April in cool temperate climates like the rest of Canada).
Unlike some of the other professions that concern themselves with the seasons, ecologists seem to avoid making any official claims about how they reckon the annual cycles of time. That’s likely because the ecological seasons don’t have exact fixed dates that are supposed to apply everywhere at the same time. Their seasons change more gradually on time lines that vary from one region to the next. The ecological seasons are not even expected to be all the same length or duration, nor limited to the traditional four in number.
So in the end I think I’m with the ecologists; no official designations and no “one-size-fits-all” timing for the seasons.
(Chris Carss is a longtime weather observer/recorder for Environment Canada at his Chemainus home).