When I woke up this morning to a few new inches of snow, the temperature outside was -4°F, combined with a 23 m.p.h. breeze for a wind chill index of 28 below zero. The news anchor on WBBM 780 informed me that winter had just officially begun one minute ago.
When we were shoveling 13 inches of snow two days ago, our mail carrier remarked,”Can you believe it? It’s not even winter yet.”
As I write this now, the calendar on the wall next to me designates December 21 as “First Day of Winter.”
Nonsense. We’re three weeks into winter, as any meteorologist could tell you.
Okay, sure — by the astronomical reckoning, winter begins today, at the moment of the winter solstice, which was 6:04 a.m. Central Standard Time this trip around our annual orbit. All of this cosmic math is calculated very precisely by the people with the telescopes and the atomic clocks and compasses.
Most of us non-astronomers, however, spend our time down here on earth where the wind blows and the snow falls. Here at ground level, it has been winter for a while. (Hush, Australia and Argentina.)
Meteorologically speaking, spring encompasses March, April and May. Summer is June, July and August. Autumn is September, October and November — and winter (drumroll, please) extends through all of December, January, and February.
Isn’t that much more sensible and in keeping with the natural rhythm of things?
In the United States, for example, Memorial Day is generally considered the kickoff of actual summer. Memorial Day is observed on the last Monday in May, which can come as late as May 31. What comes immediately after that? June. Or, by meteorological reckoning, summer.
When does summer end? Here in the U.S.A., on Labor Day — the first Monday in September, which can come as early as September 1, the first day of autumn by meteorological reckoning.
Yes, in the spirit of American exaggeration, we do tack 6 or 7 days on to the beginning or the end of summer and chalk it up to the quirks of the seven-day week. But we know very well when summer begins and ends. You can literally feel it in the air.
Likewise, we know when winter begins. Parking bans go into effect here in cities all over the snowy Midwest on December 1.
And where have they stuck our tax deadline? On April 15, right smack in the middle of the middle month of spring, the most hopeful and optimistic time of year. Anything to cushion the blow.
As far as I can determine, even through newscasters often talk about the exact time that, say, “winter officially begins,” there is nothing official about it. Searching the United States Code, I have not found any law setting forth the beginning and end of the four seasons. The United States Naval Observatory is the keeper of our nation’s official time, but if you look at their page on “Earth Seasons,” you just get a table of perihelions, aphelions, equinoxes and solstices. Pure NASA gobbledegook of no use to anyone wishing to park a car, wear white pants, or complain about the wind chill factor.
So the good news seems to be that no legislative campaign will be necessary. There’s no need to spend $700 billion on a state-by-state drive to amend the U.S. Constitution, twisting arms in peculiar portions of Indiana.
No, sensible and reasonable reader, the power to declare when winter begins rests with you.
If you agree that it makes more sense to have winter begin on December 1 every year — rather than at 12:04 Universal Time on December 21, 2009 and at 5:30 on December 22, 2011 — then simply make up your mind that it is so, and correct anyone else who still clings to error. Fire off email to the officious news readers who have it wrong. Tell your father-in-law that he is mistaken. Raise your children to understand the true start dates of the seasons.
Just a short generation or two from now, we will no longer live in a world where people slavishly adhere to an “official” beginning of a winter which is bewilderingly already underway.
This will give us all that much more time to address the correct pronunciation of the adjective “short-lived.”