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Monday, February 17, 2014

Between Winter and Spring

The day that falls directly between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal (Spring) Equinox is a day of great power. For Celtic Pagans it is Oimelk or Imbolc, when Ewes begin lactation, in later Christian traditions it is the purification of Candles (Candlmass) as well as the Purification of the Virgin. St. Valentine's Day and even Ground Hog's day also echo the recognition that, at this time of year, something is definitely stirring in the winter darkness. For an in depth look at the manifestations of this recognition see here: http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/imbolcfebruary2/p/Imbolc_History.htm and here: http://www.naic.edu/~gibson/cal/ What all these feasts and celebrations share is the recognition that “light” is returning to the world. The nursing Ewes are symbols that life, having emerged from the obscurity of the womb, is now beginning the long rising arc into radiance. The purification of the virgin, a Christian holiday, hearkens back to the Hebrew tradition of a woman's emerging from her postpartum sequester and returning to active life in the community. These notions, and others, point to one simple and powerful natural fact-spring is coming-life stirs and begins to grow. But when exactly does this day come? A little nerddom with our magic. Let us remember what causes seasons. The Earth rotates on its axis at 23.5 degrees to the sun. As we see, the rays of the sun strike the earth's surface most directly on the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (where we live here in TN). On the Winter Solstice they strike most directly in the southern hemisphere and on the Equinoxes they strike evenly in both hemispheres. The cross quarters are those days which fall between equinoxes and solstices. All such cross quarters have celebrations associated with them.
The calendar dates of the Solstices and Equinoxes are well defined, varying slightly from year to year but always representing specific moments in the Earth's path about the sun (the summer solstice, for example is the moment when the sun has “traveled” as far north as it is going to and begins retreating to the south). The dates of the cross quarters are not so well defined. This is not so much because they do not represent specific astronomical “moments”, but rather, these moments are not considered important to modern cultures (except for their faint echoes in Groundhog's day, Halloween, etc.). Arguably, the specific dates of these, or any such celebrations, do not matter so much as what they represent. New years Day, for example, does not fall directly on the Winter Solstice but it (as well as Christmas), is strongly associated with the meaning of the solstice. If anyone is inclined to acknowledge the importance of Imbolc (Oimelk) I am happy to raise my flagon of mead with them even if the party comes a few days early or late. However, because my geekdom raises my eyes to the heavens, and because I mourn how far we Earthlings have come from understanding that our feasts celebrate real cosmic events, I will suggest that the real date of the February Cross Quarter, at least for this year, is Monday February 17th. True, or “solar” North is 0 degrees of arc on the compass. According to timeanddate.com, the sun first appeared on the horizon at 119 degrees of arc on December 22 2013 (the date of the last Winter Solstice). On March 20, 2014, the day of the Vernal Equinox, the sun will rise at 90 degrees of Arc. The distance between sun rise on the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox is, therefore 29 degrees of arc. This means that on the day that falls directly between the Solstice and Equinox the sun should rise at 104.5 degrees of arc. According to timeanddate.com, the sun will rise at 105 degrees on February 16 and 104 on the 17th. So, go outside, look up at the sky, note where the sun is and rejoice. This image is from Sharp's Ridge in Knoxville TN. It is taken with the Sun Surveyor App. The compass point of sunrise varies from that given by timeanddate.com but the sun's path directly between that taken on the winter solstice (green line) and that taken on the Vernal Equinox (pink line). \