Nature’s New Year (1)

December 20, 2020

At two minutes past ten in the morning, on Monday 21 December, the sun's solstice will occur. A traditional turning of the new year, and a welcome moment at which to turn thoughts towards 2021.

At two minutes past ten in the morning, on Monday 21 December, the sun (sol) will appear to be stationary (sistere) for a moment, having reached the farthest point south in its declination, hovering, so it would appear, over the Tropic of Capricorn. The exact moment means little, but for those of us observing from northerly latitudes, the day itself is significant: the last of the days to be shorter than the previous one, following the last of the nights to have grown longer than the one before.

Most people call this the Winter Solstice, because more people live north of the intertropical zone than south of it, but it is, of course, the Summer Solstice in the south, the longest day.

Traditionally, New Year is celebrated at different times by different communities, and not at all by many. Some traditional New Years, such as the Chinese Yuan Dan, or first morning, are at the start of the northern spring. Some, especially those that are defined by reference to the stories associated with peoples’ faiths, are at times of the year less obviously connected to natural phenomena. These include Rosh Hashanah, the Hebrew New Year.

Across the globe, all people agree on one thing: that the year is cyclical. Where we disagree, is on how to divide the cycle up. At temperate latitudes, the Earth’s to-and-fro tilt gives rise to dramatic and predictable seasonal changes: the extremes of winter and summer separated by the transitional seasons of spring and autumn.  The higher the latitude, the shorter the transitions and the greater the extremes. In the Northern Hemisphere, with its great land masses of North America, Eurasia and most of Africa, vast tracts are remote from any direct influence from the ocean currents. Closer to the edge, and in few places more than in Britain and Ireland, the oceans and the sun work together to make for idiosyncratic climatic conditions.

In tropical and subtropical regions, oscillations in daylength are less extreme – virtually changeless at the equator – and have far less influence on climate and on life. Seasons are more often defined as wet or dry, and are affected more by patterns of flow and temperature in the ocean and in the jet stream. Here, the idea of a year having a beginning and an end has emerged less often in local traditions.

In pagan and early mediaeval Britain, the year was most commonly said to begin on 25 December, a date recognised conventionally as the winter solstice. Under the Normans, between 1087 and 1155 the English year was deemed to begin on 1 January, before England and Scotland joined much of continental Europe in beginning the year at the Feast of the Annunciation on 25 March. In 1600 (in Scotland) and 1752 (in England) New Year was moved back to 1 January. 

By 1752, though, Britain had a new calendar. The Romans had brought with them their calendar, devised at the behest of Julius Caesar in 45 BCE as an improvement on earlier versions that kept slipping out of synch with celestial reality. But the Julian calendar was also flawed, and across Europe it was replaced by a new one, commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. It took 170 years for Protestant Britain to fall into line with much of the rest of Europe, and the effect was to move the date forward by 11 days: a solstice falling on 9 or 10 December would thenceforth occur on 20 or 21 December (today the two calendars are farther apart, and differ by 13 days).

But in the 4th century, had the Gregorian calendar existed, it would have differed with the Julian by just a single day.  This was when the idea of Christmas Day – a festival to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth – first took hold.

It is commonly believed that the dating of Christmas Day, 25 December, was decided upon so that pagan Northerners, most of whom celebrated Yule or some other form of solstice festival, would more readily merge their customs into those of the new faith. Prior to the mid fourth century the birth date of Jesus was paid little heed. The only evidence that might have enabled a calculation of the date is the Luke Gospel that explains the Nazarene family’s presence in Bethlehem by their need to comply with a census taking place at the time. The census, however, took place in 6CE, at least ten years after Jesus was born. Nevertheless, by 381 and the First Council of Constantinople, the date of 25 December was fixed, based on allegorical interpretations of biblical text associating the arrival of Jesus with the return of the world into light, and the return of the sun to its northward declination: in other words the solstice.

So solstice, Christmas and New Year have long been associated – effectively the same thing conceptually, separated only by the circumstances involved in fixing dates: the impossibility of measuring precisely the moment of solstice or the exact length of the year in ancient times; the tendency for earlier calendars to drift away from celestial reality; and civil corrections in later versions.

Wildlife conservation in 2020

Later this holiday, I shall look forward to what should be a momentous year for conservation, if only because 2020 was supposed to have been, but the major developments on the global stage we have been anticipating have been postponed. There are reasons for hope and optimism – much needed we will all agree.

In the meantime, my ever-positive colleague, RSPB’s Director of Global Conservation Martin Harper, recently gave this upbeat assessment of 2020 from a conservation perspective. Do read it, but here are a few highlights to be going on with:

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