Candelmas Day has arrived, which means winter is half over! And the melting snow outside my window makes me hopeful that the increase in solar radiation will accelerate the melting. I love snow, but even I am tried of these big ugly frozen mounds of icy snow that the plows pushed up into the curb lane at all the intersections in our neighborhood. Today is the first day in over two weeks that the kids in Fairfax County will return to school on a normal full day schedule.
The year 2016 is a leap year, election year, and on Tuesday morning, we reach “Candelmas” aka Ground Hog Day which is one of the cross-quarter points of the Druid/Celtic calendar, which means winter is exactly half over. There will be as much sunlight this week as there was during the last week of October and even though there is still a lot of snow on the ground in some places, and temperatures are not quite as warm as they were on Halloween, we can take comfort in the fact that the sun is setting noticeably later each night, and the earth is beginning to feel the effects of the increased solar radiation.
The celebration of “ground hog day” was brought from Europe by the Pennsylvania “Dutch” (actually Germans) in the early 1800s. In Germany they call it Candelmas day, which is believed to be a Christianization of the older Pagan holiday of Imbolc. The date of Candelmas, as celebrated by the Catholic and Lutheran churches, is linked to the date of Christmas – it is 40 days and 40 nights since Christmas. Luke 2:22-40 is the only Gospel that mentions the presentation of the child Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth. In Judaism there is also a ritual purification of a mother that takes place 40 days after the birth of a child, hence it is also called the feast of the Purification of the Virgin.
Imbolc is a much older pagan holiday associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid (equivalent to the Greek Athena or the Roman Minerva). In Ireland it is celebrated as St Brigid’s day. The lighting of candles on this day may have predated Christianity. The ancient Celts knew this was one of the cross-quarter days, half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It also marked the beginning of the birthing season for new lambs among the flocks, and other changes in the natural environment associated with the longer hours of sunlight.
Today marks the official end of the three darkest months of the year, and we now have the same number of hours of sunlight as we did on Halloween. We now enter the three months astronomically when the seasons switch from one steady state to another, and the rate of change of the orientation of the earth’s rotational pole to the radius of the earth’s orbit around the sun reaches a maximum. That’s a fancy way to say that the days are getting longer again in the northern hemisphere, and the increased hours of sunlight results in more heat reaching the surface of the earth in the mid- northern lattitudes, which is the engine that drives the change of seasons. By March 1st the official start of meteorological spring, weather patterns that have persisted throughout the winter months will begin to break down as the increased heat will stir the mixing bowl.
All weather patterns shift over time, and especially at this time of year, changes in the heat balance of the oceans and atmosphere tend to push the colder arctic air into retreat over the nation’s midsection, moving the jet stream to a more northerly track. On a micro-climatological level, for any given location, if you are in a cold pattern at the present time, in 4 to 6 weeks, you are likely to be in a warm pattern, and especially as we get into the period from March 1 to March 21, there are likely to be wide variations in temperature and precipitation patterns for any specific locale. So if you get an unseasonably warm spell during the first week of March, you could say that “spring came early,” but if you experience only a mild variation from the norm, then spring will seem to come “on time” in mid-March near the equinox. So Phil can really do no wrong. So when I read the many blog entries and articles online that attempt to quantify the “accuracy rate” of Punxsutawney Phil or his other groundhog cousins around the country, I find it amusing. How do you quantify the success or failure of a no-lose proposition? Phil can do no wrong! Even when he is wrong, he is right!
As I said, it’s a “heads I win, tails you lose” proposition. Either spring will start on March 1st, by the meteorological definition, or it will begin on March 21, using the vernal equinox as the demarcation point. Either way is correct- they are just two different sides of the same coin, so to speak. Astronomically speaking, based on the number of hours of sunlight, spring is already here, even though it takes about a month for the weather to catch up. During the first week of March, somebody somewhere is going to have unseasonably warm temperatures, and that warm air will track from west to east, so almost everyone gets to experience spring arriving “early.” For the people who have unsettled weather and storms at the beginning of March, within a few weeks, that pattern will shift so that a different location has storms at the end of the month… hence March will come in like a lion and go out like a lamb (or vice versa)… another piece of folk wisdom that is almost always right! ;-0
Both Punxsutawny Phil in Pennsylvania and General Beauregard Lee in Georgia predict that spring will come EARLY because they did NOT see their shadows!