Solstice Fires

sunrise
Winter solstice 2020 in the Northern Hemisphere will be at 5:02 AM (10:02 UTC) on Monday, December 21.
What can I say about solstices or the winter solstice specifically that I haven’t said in years past?
You’ve probably seen photos of neo-Pagans celebrating at Stonehenge or elsewhere with the solstice sunrise. That’s a kind of fire, and other celebrations often involve a fire. A nice fire in winter certainly makes sense.
Of course, tomorrow will the summer solstice for those lucky people on the bottom half of the planet. No fires required, though you can still have one to look at while you sip a drink or to put under those shrimp when you slip them on the barbie.

Solstice is from the Latin solstitium, from sol (sun) and stitium (to stop) because those ancient observers believed that the Sun stopped and headed in another direction to start the winter solstitium.

It occurs in our calendar near the end of the year, but in ancient Egypt, this solstice marked the start of the new year. They observed the rising of the star Sirius which happen around this time. It coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile River which was important to agriculture.

According to Wikipedia, there are other celebrations on the winter solstice.

Kračun costumes
Korochun, Koliada, Koročun Kolyiadki, Kračun – there are several names for the Slavic pagan winter solstice holiday. The costumes are quite colorful.

Maybe I’ll write about those celebrations in the years to come. One celebration that I feel a bit of an ancestral connection to is the Slavic Korochun. Its origin doesn’t seem to be clear, but modern scholars tend to associate this holiday with ancestor worship. The winter solstice was a day to make fires at cemeteries to keep their loved ones warm. They would hold feasts to honor the dead and keep them fed. They also lit wooden logs at local crossroads. (Crossroads figure in folk magic and mythology – see this earlier post.)

I think setting a fire in a cemetery or burning logs at my local crossroads would be seriously frowned upon by the authorities.  Perhaps, just a Viking toast to the solstice tomorrow night?

Falling Into Winter

fall winter

It is weather folklore that says that autumn will arrive 90 days after the katydids start to sing. Based on my Paradelle observations, that made this past Tuesday (November 17) the arrival of autumn. That prediction is way off. Of course, maybe I didn’t pay close enough attention to the first katydid song. Maybe the insects in my neighborhood got a late start. Maybe weather lore is just weather lore.

It was looking autumnal last month and this week it has been feeling wintry. I needed to take in the garden hoses and liquids from the garage. I did my last lawn mowing and drained the mower’s gas. It was below freezing this morning. But I haven’t given in to getting the snowblower ready. I’m not jinxing November.

I posted earlier about what the scientists at NOAA think will be coming this winter but I honestly don’t know that I trust scientists or nature for long-term weather predictions. Still, I find myself looking for those predictions and writing about them as a kind of seasonal ritual. I’m not alone. My past weather posts always get an uptick in hits when the seasons are changing from people wondering.

Before we get to predicting the weather ahead, we need to decide how we are going to organize the year. You can use the astronomical calendar of equinoxes and solstices to mark changes in seasons. The meteorological calendar breaks the seasons down into groupings of three months based on the annual temperature cycle as well as our calendar. Of course, your local conditions probably don’t really match either method’s breakdown of the year.

And then there is phenology, which is my favorite. This is the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events in your area. That means the start of a season won’t follow either calendar. I like it because it requires you to observe nature – something people did quite seriously once upon a time and few people do today.  This means more than just saying “Oh look, the trees are changing colors” or “The crocuses look nice this year.” When did the trees start changing? Which species was first and when did it happen last year?”  I’ve been journaling my garden and plants around me for a lot of years and that first crocus bloom has become something I look forward to seeing and recording each spring. And it changes.

If you want to be a bit more of a “citizen scientist” you can join thousands of others in gathering environmental and climate change information from across the country in a program called Project BudBurst. But I do recommend some careful observation of your little corner of the world.

The Farmer’s Almanac is predicting for Thanksgiving  chilly conditions for most  zones with even some light snow forecast for the Rockies/Plains and points east and showery conditions for Texas, and most of Zone 5. (Check zones here)

I’m in Zone 1 on their map and that covers my New Jersey all the way up to Maine. Very different weather in there. For the 24th-27th (Thanksgiving time) it is supposed to be unsettled, with light snow/flurries but clearing in time for Thanksgiving.

Did you know that The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a different publication? That is the one my mom used to buy and I read as a kid, and I still buy a copy every year. It has a look and a style that has remained pretty much the same since 1792. It’s full of all kinds of crazy stuff.

As they say themselves, it has “fun facts, predictions, and feature items that have made it a cultural icon: traditionally 80 percent–accurate weather forecasts; notable astronomical events and time-honored astrological dates; horticultural, culinary, fashion, and other trends; historical hallmarks; best fishing days; time- and money-saving garden advice; recipes for refreshment; facts on folklore, farmers, home remedies, and husbandry; amusements and contests, plus too much more to mention.”

This almanac has me in a smaller Atlantic Corridor region which I’m thinking makes predictions more accurate? Both almanacs have websites that are free to use. I do like getting The Old Farmer’s Almanac free email newsletter with planting time suggestions and garden stuff and looking at this new-fangled World Wide Web thing at www.almanac.com. But I think for now I’ll just pour myself a neat one and settle down on the couch and read off some pages made from dead trees like God intended.

year end
Endings are often sad.

This Winter of Our Discontent

winter snow scene
Winter scene via noaa.gov

Weather is probably not your biggest concern this weekend with the election grabbing American headlines and the pandemic still the top concern around the world. But last month NOAA issued its annual winter outlook for the upcoming season and I have looked at that each year on this blog.

NOAA’s winter forecast for the U.S. favors warmer, drier conditions across the southern tier of the U.S., and cooler, wetter conditions in the North.

For Paradelle, they predict generally warmer than average temperatures, and near average precipitation amounts. Their forecast this year was largely based on the continued presence of La Nina conditions in the Pacific Ocean.

La Nina is a water temperature anomaly in the Pacific Ocean and you might think that it wouldn’t have much of an effect on the east coast. Strong trade winds move warmer water away from the Americas and so colder water takes its place and that is less favorable for the production of storms. We have all seen hurricane and tropical storms gain strength over warm water.
While a lack of storms means dry and warmer conditions in the south, it allows for chillier air and more storms to drop down from Canada into the Northern U.S.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that I will see less snow in my neighborhood. last year was light on snow, but you can get a lot of snow and still have a winter season warmer than average.
2020 has been a dry year so far in Paradelle. In my Tri-state area, we are about 5 inches below normal precipitation and New England is in a serious drought.

 

 

The Iceman Cometh

Cover photo from Becoming the Iceman

I’m not a fan of the cold. Winter is my least favorite season. When my feet are cold, I feel terrible. All of that goes against the philosophy of a man named Wim Hof.

Wim Hof, (AKA “The Iceman”) holds some world records for endurance and exposure to cold from doing things like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro wearing only shorts and shoes and running a barefoot half-marathon in the Arctic Circle. He stood in an ice-filled container for more than 112 minutes. This guy really believes in the natural power of the cold.

He teaches breathwork and the health benefits of cold plunges. He has millions of followers who say his method results in a wake-up call to the brain and body. Some say it has cured a variety of things from depression to diabetes.

Hof is Dutch. He is 61 years old. He summitted Kilimanjaro in 31 hours nearly naked. Climbers often take a week to do that with all kinds of cold-weather gear and oxygen tanks.

In the book, Becoming the Iceman, he says that it is unfortunate that we are taught to fear the cold and protect ourselves from it. Hof believes that the ability to control the body’s temperature is not unique to him, but is an ability that can be adopted – and should be adopted – by everyone.

What is called the Wim Hof Method includes a lot of breathwork.  It’s breathing that is like controlled hyperventilation.  Here’s an example: Do three to six sets of 30 to 40 deep breaths. That means a strong inhale through the nose and a relaxed exhale from the mouth. On that last breath of each set, you exhale and hold for one to three minutes. I tried that. It made me a little dizzy and there was no way I could hold my breath for even a minute. I guess I need a lot of breathwork training. After that held breath, you take a recovery breath and hold it for 15 seconds.

This may sound familiar to you if you have done meditation or pranayama (kundalini yoga’s breath of fire) or the tummo of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. All of these are rhythmic-breathing disciplines. I have tried these techniques in the past. Some people enjoy the resulting buzz in the brain as a natural high. Some people feel dizzy and start seeing flashes of light. Not everyone feels it’s a good thing.

As I said at the start, I don’t like the cold. Hof would tell me that after all that intense breathing, what I need next is cold exposure. He is of the school that believes you should immerse in freezing water, but he would be okay if I started with even a minute or two under a cold shower to get an effect.

The initial effect is panic in the brain. Like a meditator dismissing the intruding thoughts, he says you need to dismiss the panic and relax and focus. That focus can be visualizing heat inside you and generating warmth in your body.  (I agree. Warm is good!)

That cold shower also floods your brain and cells with oxygen. Your vascular system gets a boost. Endorphins, which are structurally similar to the drug morphine, are released. They are natural painkillers. Your opioid receptors are activated. They can bring about feelings of euphoria and general well-being. Hof believes it brings you fully into the present moment.

I read a long article in Outside magazine about Wim Hof. He has turned his philosophy into a business. That always makes me apprehensive.

He might answer my apprehension like this: “This method is very simple, very accessible, and endorsed by science. Anybody can do it, and there is no dogma, only acceptance. Only freedom.” That comes from his book, The Wim Hof Method, which I plan to read this winter while sitting in a warm house, possibly under a blanket.

Then again, maybe I will venture out into the cold after reading it. I do find that stepping out a cold morning for my daily walk is very “bracing.” Of course, I’m not naked or wet, so it’s nothing like what he is preaching.

He has a company called Innerfire and, despite his entrepreneurial side, he is a “counterculture” hero. He has more than a million Instagram followers. He has written or contributed to a shelf full of books. He hosts seminars around the world and there are certified Wim Hof instructors offering their own workshops. This is a business.

I tried out the free minicourse on his website and it was an interesting teaser and I could certainly try some of the basic techniques on my own. But I am not ready to do any polar bear plunges into the Atlantic Ocean.

I would say this Iceman has arrived.

Wim Hof
from Hof’s Instagram page where he writes “If you trust the messages of nature, then nature entrusts you to be a messenger. Breathe and use the cold.”

Spring Weather Report

robin

The robins are back in Paradelle. Cardinals, bluejays and chickadees are very active at the feeders. Spring is here in astronomical terms and nature signs.  the temperatures are still cool most days and nights still deep into the mid/high 30s – but no frost. Not that we can’t have a late frost or even snow in April, but it feels like spring.

The only un-spring-like thing is that the coronavirus pandemic has changed our habits, holidays and outlook. I’m glad I can still work in my garden and tend my vegetable seedlings and get some sunshine when it’s available.

Back in October, we were supposed to look for signals of the winter ahead. I like to do a review for my Paradelle neighborhood, and that’s really all you can do because weather is local.

Here are some autumn 2019 signs I observed and their results.

“Much rain in October, means much wind in December.” That one held true.

“Thunder in the fall is supposed to foretell a cold winter ahead.”  No thunder here in the fall and no cold winter.

“A warm October means a cold February.” A warm October but not a particularly cold February. Very gray, cloudy month though.

“A Full Moon in October without any frost means a warmer month ahead.” No frost on that Full Moon night and November was, if not warm, mild.

Very few blooms in my garden late up until the Winter Solstice, which should have been a sure sign of a rough winter – but it wasn’t rough.

acorns
The remnants on my lawn of a bumper crop of acorns eaten by the squirrels.

The squirrels were very active in the fall – and very active during the mild winter and still this first full spring month. Acorns and squirrels have long been part of weather lore. A bumper crop of acorns and squirrels that are more active than usual is supposed to mean a severe winter.  We had both here in Paradelle but the winter was mild and almost snowless – much to the dismay of my neighbor whose landscaping company does snow removal in winter.  The weather lore rhyme “Squirrels gathering nuts in a flurry, will cause snow to gather in a hurry” was definitely not true here.

Candelora and Winter Weather

Per la Santa Candelora se nevica o se plora, dell’inverno siamo fora, ma se è sole o solicello, siamo sempre a mezzo inverno
(“For the Holy Candelora, if it snows or if it rains, we are through with winter, but if there is sunshine or even just a little sun, we are still in the middle of winter”)

candles

Candelora is a Roman Catholic religious festival celebrated in Italy on February 2. This year the day is also the American Groundhog Day, Super Bowl of football – and another day of the impeachment proceedings for President Trump. The Presentazione del Signore (Presentation of Our Lord) had been called the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary.

It is more popularly called the feast of Candelora and in English-speaking countries, it is known as Candlemas Day (Candle Mass).

On Candlelora, all the candles to be used in the church throughout the year are consecrated as the symbolic “light of the world.”

At one time, the custom that a Jewish woman, including Jesus’ mother, would be considered impure for the 40 days after the delivery of a male child and were not allowed to worship in the temple. After the 40 days, these women were brought to the temple to be purified.

February 2 is 40 days after December 25, the day the Church marks the birth of Jesus. This traditional Christian festival also marks the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple, a holiday was observed by Christians in Jerusalem as early as the fourth century AD. By the middle of the fifth century, the celebration included lighting candles to symbolize Jesus Christ as the light, and the ritual of blessing of the candles became common practice around the eleventh century.

The “coincidence” of our Groundhog Day being on the same day is one of the weather.  As the proverb of weather lore stated on the top of this post shows, noting the weather on February 2 is supposed to predict the weather for the remaining six weeks of winter.

Is it another coincidence that February 2 is also a cross-quarter day, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox? No coincidences.  Some people of the Northern Hemisphere have believed for millennia that if the sun comes out at the mid-way point between winter and spring, winter weather would continue for another six weeks. I have always thought that it seems more logical that NO sun on this day would suggest that winter would continue, but that’s not the tradition.

Since the sixteenth century, North American folklore has followed some old European traditions that if on February 2 a groundhog/woodchuck comes out of its hole after winter hibernation and fails to see its shadow because the weather is cloudy, winter will soon end. If on the other hand, it is sunny and the groundhog sees its shadow, it will retreat into its burrow, and winter will continue for six more weeks.

The weakest part of our modern American celebration is that those poor groundhogs do not “emerge” naturally from their burrows because of some internal clock, environmental conditions or planetary magic. They are forced into the public.

There are some scientific bases for using signs in nature to predict the change of seasons and weather. Our Groundhog Day and Candlelora has no scientific basis.

My friend, Patricia, lives in Florence and might be celebrating Candelora (‘Candelaia’ in Tuscan dialect) there this weekend. It is a tradition in Tuscany that goes back to the Middle Ages.  Florentine churches still distribute holy candles to parishioners on this day.