Monday, 23 June 2014

Let the Sun Shine in

This past Saturday depending upon where you live, the June Solstice - the time where the sun "passes over" the Tropic of Cancer marking the beginning of summer for the Earth's northern hemisphere, was observed.  Here in Paris, it was at 12.51 PM local time, just after noon.  

For those of us living north of the Equator, the day is marked by the greatest number of hours of sunlight one will receive during the year.  Again, here in France, the sun rose at about 5.45 AM, and set at 9.57 PM.  That is about 16 hours of sunlight, although there continued to be a fair amount of light (twilight?) until after 10.30.  (Paris is a lot farther north than most Americans think, so we have sunlight until quite late during the summer).

The day here was marked by a fun musical festival; several spots all over the city had guinguettes - pop-up locations for musicians, often with food and drink nearby - offered a host of different types of music, all for free.  We took in several of these along the banks of the Seine and into the Sixth Arrondissement on the Left Bank.  

Summers in Paris are quite delightful.  Late sunshine, typically pleasant weather, small outdoor cafés.

Of course, there is a price to pay.  We now begin the descent from the solstice, with hours of sun growing slightly shorter with each passing day.  When December rolls around, we won't have many hours of sun at all.

I had heard some years ago that each spot on Earth has more or less the same number of daylight hours cumulatively during the year.  The distribution of course, is radically different.  The famous 'land of the midnight sun" above the Arctic Circle will have days when the sun seems never to 'set' due to the tilt of the Earth along its axis.  Extreme northern cities will often be thought to have perpetual sunlight, but in fact, the sun does go down in such places, with the glow of twilight or daybreak providing illumination.  Stockholm, Sweden for example had a sunrise at 2.50 AM and sunset at 11.57.  

My manager is a Swede, and he returned home Friday to Sweden to celebrate - it turns out, the country has a national holiday to mark the solstice.  Not sure what they do exactly - maybe they play Abba records all night? Perhaps they use the extra light to assemble pressboard furniture with hex wrenches?

If one lives just on the equator (say, for example, in Ecuador, or Indonesia), then there are approximately 12 hours of daylight every day of the year.  There aren't 'seasons' in the sense Americans think of them, and June and July have the same sunrise and sunset, save for the adjustments due to Daylight Saving Time in some places.  My wife hails from a place alomst exactly on the equator, and was not accustomed to the long nights of winter or long days of summer.  

Geography has profound impacts on culture and religion. In antiquity, humans of course knew nothing of the Earth's tilt, its movement around the sun, or why we experience time changes.  In some cases, the events were ascribed to a god or gods who controlled such things.  The Greeks believed that Apollo carried the sun across the sky in a chariot drawn by four horses.  The Celts and druids of England made temples to worship the sun, welcoming its 'return' in spring.  The solstices were holy days to the pagans, and indeed, many aspects of Christian celebration in December is in some ways grafted on to the practices of our forebears.  

In modern-day Islam, the diaspora of its adherents can have some unexpected consequences in this department.  Ramadan - the famous period marked by fasting from sunrise to sundown - is not fixed to the Gregorian calendar, instead following the periods of the moon.  Observant Moslems are not supposed to eat or drink, including water, whilst the sun is up.  

In a faith that arose in modern-day Saudi Arabia, the differeing seasons are somewhat inconsequential.  In Riyadh, there are aprroximately 13 hours of daylight on the June Solstice, and approximately 11 hours on the December Solstice.  It's a bit more difficult to fast in June than December in Saudi Arabia, but there are many adherents to Islam in Denmark and Sweden these days.  I presume that there are some Moslems who live north of the Arctic Circle, meaning that they potentially could live in a place where the sun does not "set" for two months.  How does one avoid drinking water for 60 days and live?

This apparently is an issue that is debated within the academic circles of Islam, and a uniform solution has not been arrived at.  Some Moslems default to the nearest Islamic country - in northern Europe, that often is Turkey.  Others will observe the rise and set in Mecca.  

We personally do not have this issue, so we enjoyed the sun and the sangrias (too watered-down, as it turned out).  France enjoys the common fable of the ant and grasshopper - known in France as La Cigale et La Fourmi.  

We ignored the warning of the song, and enjoyed the warm sun. After all, alors que le soleil brille, pourquoi ne pas faire du foin?

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