There is no more pointless activity than updating the list of things that can cause you to be labelled a West Brit. Saying “Boxing Day”. Preferring Heinz Ketchup to Chef. Wearing a bow tie when not working as a waiter. Being Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. You know the sort of stuff.
As I was battling my way through blizzards to buy fresh supplies of
pemmican and Kendal Mint Cake, I decided I'd happened upon a new one. Nobody has actually thrown that insult at me for rejecting the firming orthodoxy – always there as an ambient annoyance – that spring begins on the first of February, but it suits my purposes here to pretend they have. Stop oppressing me. You'll regret it when my hard blue corpse is, like Jack Nicholson's in The Shining, found frozen to a hedge in early March.
Martin Heydon, Minister of State for New Market Development, last week proposed that St Brigid’s Day be made a bank holiday. “Her feast day on February 1st marks the first day of spring and it is the season when we celebrate hope and new life on Earth,” he said. A bank holiday in February is a sane notion. (My objections to naming a national day for a Christian saint will have to wait for another day.) A report in this newspaper informed me – here’s a good question for a table quiz – that February, July and September are the only months without a public holiday.
But what’s this lunacy about spring? We’re still having our tea in the dark and wearing cardigans when putting out the bins. By that calculation, summer begins at the start of May and ends before August has arrived. Why not just move Christmas to July and have done with it?
Some ancient poem in Irish probably tells us this is how it has always been done. I can’t be bothered to check, but, unless I’m making it up, bearded druids would, on the first day of Febru-Eve, leave the gutted cadavers of squirrels on doorsteps to appease the vernal demigods. So shut up and stop being a big Brit about it.
We get some notion of a typical spring from poems on the subject. “I heard a thousand blended notes while in a grove I sate reclined,” Wordsworth muses in Lines Written in Early Spring. Beware, Will. Plonk your bum in an Irish grove before St Patrick’s Day and you are likely to have your daffodils frozen off.
Check out the perennially beautiful Younger than Springtime from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. “Younger than springtime are you,” Cable sings. “Warmer than winds of June are the gentle lips you gave me.”
Oscar Hammerstein appears to be stretching spring towards the shortest day of the year. By that reckoning it could begin as late as April. I’m not having that. But it seems reasonable to identify the frisky season with warmer breezes and dryer pastures.
Whatever the fairies told your great grandmother as she was dancing naked round a burning straw effigy, spring, by all that is logical, must run from March until May
There is surprisingly little global agreement on when seasons begin and end. The druidical, St Bridgetian definition (or whatever you call it) is arguably less bonkers than that observed by boffins with telescopes. Astronomically, spring starts around the vernal equinox on March 20th and ends – if you can believe this – around the same date in June. Rodgers and Hammerstein would have been delighted to hear that Carl Sagan had no issue with the implications of Younger than Springtime. By this calculation, summer stretches almost to the end of September, when leaves crisp and children yearn for half term. These are the ravings of madmen.
The most common definition in western Europe derives from a simple calculation. The three coldest months are winter. The three warmest months are summer. The gaps between are filled with spring and autumn. January and February are the two chilliest months in Ireland. So, whatever the fairies told your great grandmother as she was dancing naked round a burning straw effigy, spring, by all that is logical, must run from March until May. You don’t genuflect to maypoles and sing the Red Flag in summer. You do that in late spring.
Obviously, raised happily in the city, I couldn’t tell you when so-called flowers come up or alleged birds return from wherever they sod off to in winter, but my mother was brought up on a farm in south Armagh. When I suggested that spring might begin on February 1st, she expressed polite astonishment. “Not where I come from,” she said.
The immortal Shirley Jackson, an American author whose stock has never been higher, would have been no more at home to the notion. “February, when the days of winter seem endless and no amount of wistful recollecting can bring back any air of summer,” she wrote in her tart memoir Raising Demons. Did you catch that? “Days of winter.” That is from the author of The Lottery and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Let us hear no more of this nonsense.