Many societies, including our own, have decided that the calendar year should be held at the start of the recovery period after the lowest growing point of the year. This low point, called winter solstice, is when the heavily populated north temperate zone of Earth experiences its shortest day; the Sun rises and sets farthest south.
But why January 1, which falls 10 or 11 days after the solstice? Probably because the length of the day and the southernness of the Sun changes only slightly in the weeks surrounding the solstice. In ancient times when the calendar was first established, it took observers over a week to realize that the nights were getting shorter after solstice, the Sun was setting farther north, and the celebration of the new year was truly justified.
Thawing Out in January
Some of us can't help but focus on the brutal bite of cold during winter; others relish the world-transforming beauties that snow and ice bring. Either way, most of us living in regions with harsh winters find ourselves longing for at least a respite while awaiting spring. Can't we have a spell of milder weather just to give us a chance to recuperate? The answer is yes; amazingly, we can point our finger in advance to a specific period in the midst of winter when we stand an especially good chance of milder weather. The odd phenomenon is known as the "January thaw."
Perhaps you doubt the thaw's physical reality; you remember no such relief from the cold snap of January. Well, statistics show that between January 20 and 26 much of the United States — particularly the East and Midwest — have temperatures averaging several degrees higher than the month's average temperature. For a few days your thermometer may even climb many degrees above average.
However, before you get too excited, David M. Ludlum, dean of American weather historians, warns that we shouldn't count on the thaw; there are severe winters in which weather systems simply don't allow it to happen. Ludlum also notes the existence of a smaller and less frequently occurring rise in temperature between January 7 and 10.
The year's brightest constellations are the Geminid meteors. All of the bright planets lie quite close to our line of sight with the Sun during December 1993 and January 1994. But there are brilliant stars and meteors to make up for it. When you see a Geminid you are seeing a meteor that's unusual in several ways. First of all, the Geminids may be the only major meteor shower whose source is an asteroid. (Most meteor showers are thought to come from comets.) These meteors are the dust released in the tail of a comet during its return to the vicinity of the Sun hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
Even though there is no hazy cloud of gas visible around the Geminid asteroid (which exists around most comets), there is still a chance that this asteroid is actually the now inactive core of a comet.
Whatever else is true about this object, it certainly does have a remarkable orbit: the Geminid asteroid passes well within the orbit of Mercury, which is surprisingly close to the Sun. No wonder astronomers decided to call the asteroid Phaethon, after the Sun god's son. In Greek mythology Phaethon persuaded his father to let him drive a chariot to that fiery disk across the sky one day — and thereby brought himself and much of the world to fiery ruin.
Many people are of the opinion that the night sky is clearer in winter and the stars brighter. This is because winter evenings in the southeast and south sky just happen to offer the brightest of all constellation groups: the host of splendor that surrounds and includes Orion the Hunter.
You should have no trouble identifying Orion's Belt of three bright stars in a row. All are almost equally bright and equally spaced. By mid-evening Orion becomes upright and his most brilliant stars of all — the slightly ruddy Betelgeuse (pronounced BETel-joos, not "Beetle juice") and the slightly blue Rigel (RYEjel) — are located in the upper left and lower right of the belt.
Orion is the brightest of all constellations, but if you extend the line of his belt to the lower left, your eye will come to the single most brilliant star in the heavens: Sirius, the Dog Star of Canis Major (the Big Dog). A good stargazer's guide will help you easily find the bright constellations of Canis Minor, Gemini, Auriga, and Taurus, which form an arch of glory around Orion. You can enjoy these constellations on any clear winter evening. Mark December 13th, 1993, on your calendar and hope for cloudless skies. This night will bring us the peak of the Geminid meteor shower. From a good country site, 50 or 60 of these "shooting stars" might be glimpsed in your best hour, which will probably be midnight or later.
Don't worry if this is way past your bedtime, though. Plenty of meteors can be seen as early as 9 P.M. to 10 P.M. in some cases. The apparent source of the meteors is in the constellation Gemini, which climbs from low in the northeast to nearly overhead during the evening.
The night before the big night may also bring worthwhile Geminids. Observers in large cities won't get left out: you may catch a few dozen or more of the brightest Geminids, which should show splendid color and much variety of behavior and appearance. And this year there's no bright moonlight to hinder observations on either night.
The Living World
The Unquenchable Chickadee
Bird watching is one of the great pleasures of winter, a little wildlife relief from the bleaker days of the season. I count on my bird feeder to consistently bring me a host of winter visitors each year. While I appreciate the variety of my guests, no bird is more lovable and vivacious than the chickadee.
The chickadee is easily identified. Look for a small bird (about 4 1/2" long) with both a rounded body and head, as well as a dark cap and dark "bib." Listen for its insistent call, "dee dee dee," for which the bird is named. If I say these birds are "indomitable" at the feeder, it may give the impression that they can't be driven off by other species of birds. While this isn't true — larger birds in the pecking order will frighten the chickadee away — the little bird is very persistent. It will be back in a second, exhibiting cheerful — often comical — behavior.
Among a number of species of chickadee in the United States, the most widespread are the black-capped chickadee and the Carolina chickadee. The former ranges over the northern half of the contiguous United States (roughly), the latter over the southeastern third. The male and female look alike, and the young look like the adults (not surprising considering how babylike the adults appear).
Full of zest and friendliness, chickadees have been known to feed from kindly people's hands and even to sit upon their shoulders. Of course, chickadees are also known for scolding (just try to move your feeder while they're eating); however, it is impossible to take it with anything but humor and to see it as anything less than an affirmation of life.
Special Days and Holidays
The Halcyon Days
We turn from discussion of the chickadee to a more mythical bird — the halcyon — and the tranquil period of weather associated with it. According to Greek legend, the halcyon would levitate for long periods of time over the waves of the Mediterranean Sea and then swoop down close to the water. The birds would sometimes hold themselves stationary over the waves, while quickly fluttering their wings. The Greeks who saw this behavior believed that the halcyon was nesting right on the water, usually during a two-week period of calm weather (winter solstice), and calming the waves.
According to classical scholar Guy Ottewell, the Greeks believed that the halcyon could avert storms, and they even carried the dried bodies of kingfishers to use as talismans against lightning. One Greek myth finds the origin of the halcyon in the story of Alcyone and her husband Ceyx. The father of this Alcyone was Aeolus, god of the winds — who could restrain the winds so that the halcyon would be able to nest.
Today the word "halcyon" means "calm" or "peaceful." It has also come to mean "happy," "golden," and even "prosperous." Unfortunately, no part of the continental United States is likely to have such peaceful days of weather around the time of winter solstice. So dig out the snow shows and ice fishing poles tucked away in the basement and enjoy.
Dates for New Years in 1994
Almanac for December and January 1994
6 Last Quarter Moon, 10:48 A.M.
7 Pearl Harbor Day; earliest sunset (4:35P.M.) at 40• N. latitude
13 NEW MOON, 4:27Am.; St Lucy's Day long believed to be the shortest day of the year); Geminid meteor shower peaks tonight.
14 Halcyon Days begin.
18 Sun eaters the constellation Sagittarius.
19 Saturnalia begins.
20 FIRST QUARTER MOON, 5:25 PM
21 Winter solstice, 3:28P.M.; Sun enters astrological sign Capricornus
24 Christmas Eve
1 New Year's Day; start of Japanese year 2654
2 Earth at perihelion (closest to Sun in space), 1 A.M.
3 Peak of Quadrantid meteor shower this morning (bright moon light hinders a bit)
4 LAST QUARTER MOON, 7 PM
5 Twelfth Night; latest sunrise (7:22A.M.) at 40 N. latitude
6 Epiphany; Eastern Orthodox Christmas
11 NEW MOON, 6:10PM
12 Very young Moon (ultra-slim crescent only one day past New) may be visible low in west just after sunset.
16 Venus at superior conjunction with Sun (unviewable)
17 Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday
19 FIRST QUARTER MOON, 3:27P.M.: Sun enters the
25 Christmas constellation Capricornus; snow in Miami and southern Florida, 1977.
26 Boxing Day (old English tradition of giving gifts in boxes after Christmas); Saturnalia ends; Mars at conjunction with Sun 20 January thaw may occur between now and January 26. (unviewable)
27 FULL MOON, 8:23 A.M.
28 FULL MOON, 6:06P.M.; Halcyon Days end
29 Total eclipse of the Moon, visible to all United States
31 New Year's Eve
Note: This column completes one year of "Seasons of Earth & Sky." I hope that by exploring life's natural cycles you've found yourself more in tune with your surroundings and better able to savor nature's worthwhile moments.