“Summertime, and the living is easy,” are the opening words of Summertime’ – words written by DuBose Heyward the author of the novel Porgy on which the opera Porgy and Bess’ was based.
The song, co-credited to Ira Gershwin, was first heard in 1935 and is said to be the most-recorded song of all time.
Allied to George Gershwin’s haunting melody, these words are, to my mind, infinitely more memorable than, “Here comes summer (here comes summer) / Almost June, the sun is bright,” written and first recorded by … well now, who do you think? And if you’re thinking Cliff Richard, think again! Their author was Jerry Keller and the song, which was released in 1958, was Keller’s one-and-only hit. But when is summer? And is it at the same time every year, since I am sure I have heard different dates referred to as ‘the start of summer’?
The answers to these two questions are, respectively, ‘well, it depends’, and ‘well, it depends’. There are two summers every year, believe it or not. There is the astronomical summer and there is the meteorological summer and the dates do not coincide. The astronomical summer is defined by the Earth’s axis and orbit around the sun. This year … 2019 … the astronomical summer began on Friday, 21 June at 11:54 am EDT – Eastern Daylight Time – which is 4 hours behind UTC – Universal Co-ordinated Time, which is what we call ‘the time’ here in Scotland. So astronomical summer began here in Falkirk at 24 minutes past 3 in the afternoon of Friday, 21 June and will last until 10 minutes to 8 in the morning of Monday, 23 September. The precision of these times is explained by the fact that, in the words of the Meteorological Office, ‘Astronomical seasons refer to the position of Earth’s orbit in relation to the sun taking into account equinoxes and solstices.’ Since the exact times of the summer solstice and of the autumn equinox can be … and are … calculated, we can be very definite about these times, which vary somewhat from one year to another. But it is much more convenient to divide the year into four seasons based on the annual temperature cycle and meteorological state and so to determine a clear and consistent … if not strictly accurate … transition between the seasons, which is why the meteorological calendar exists. This calendar splits the twelve months of the year into four seasons of approximately the same length. In the meteorological calendar, summer starts on 1 June and lasts until 31 August, some three weeks ahead of the astronomical calendar. This arrangement does, of course, make it easier for meteorological observing and forecasting to compare seasonal and monthly statistics for different years.
Several millennia ago, the Romans … the inventors of bureaucracy among many other things … had ten named months in a year - Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, have recognised most of the names of our months; and you may already know that ‘septem’, ‘octo’, novem’ and ‘decem’ are the Roman names for the numbers 7, 8, 9 and 10; so September, October, November and December were the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months in the Roman year. The Romans also divided their year into four seasons, beginning in March; so Martius, Aprilis and Maius were ‘ver’ - spring; Junius, Quintilis and Sextilis were ‘aestas’ – summer; September, October and November were ‘autumnus’; and December and all the other days before ‘Martii calend primus’ – 1 March - were ‘hiems’ – winter, a period unworthy of any more specific name, when very little happened in agriculture.
So, millennia after the Romans devised a calendar in which summer started on 1 June, here we have just started our meteorological summer on - 1 June. Plus ça change!