Winter Solstice

One Christmas, when I was a teenager, I was given a present of a five year diary. As each year was allotted only five lines, I decided it was useless and chucked it to the back of a drawer.

Waterlow Park: how can you remember what winter feels like in May?

Many years later, when I started writing historical novels, I noticed that if I wrote a winter scene in, say, August, I couldn’t remember exactly what being cold felt like. What plants, if any, were out in the garden, what birds were around, what temperature was it? I wasn’t sure. And it’s those little touches, like one’s ears going pink with cold and stinging, which bring your story alive.

21st December; the plane tree glows in the winter sun

So one day in early January day in the 1990s, I retrieved that five-year-diary from the back of a drawer, and turned it into a useful writer’s weather diary. What should I include? Daylight hours were essential. I was brought up in the country and many of my stories have a country setting, so I needed to note the weather, the temperature – in Fahrenheit, of course – and what nature was doing. What birds were around? Had the dawn chorus started – or stopped? What were the trees doing and what flowers were blooming? What was happening in the farming year?

I put down anything I thought would be useful to me as a novelist. For example, in October, I noted what date I started wearing gloves.

The low winter sunlight turns the lime twigs pink

21st December, the day I wrote this post, was the winter solstice; daylight hours in London were 8.04 am to 3.54 pm. (Up in the Shetlands, daylight lasts less than six hours.) This is what my weather diary noted for 21st December over five years:

Winter jasmine in December

Year 1: 43º F. Still cold. My jasmine very pretty. Good holly year – holly likes warmer winters, mistletoe prefers it cooler. Plane trees’ bark is peeling.

Skeletons of trees in winter

Year 2: 45º F. Bare trees show remains of large untidy magpie nests. In winter, birds roost in woods, not in their old nests.

Ornamental seed heads give winter interest.

Year 3: 32º F. Very cold. Fog lingering – Dickensian. Hazel catkins emerging. Outside, my ears sting and my breath puffs like a dragon.

Crocuses open in March

Year 4: 41º F. Chilly. Dull but dry. Large orange cones on spruces. Little green crocus spikes up.

Friendly winter robin sitting on a post

Year 5: 40º F. Bloody cold. Wind from east. Fallow deer and young run round in rings – playing? Black ash buds. Blackbirds and thrushes enjoying holly and ivy berries.

Very early primrose in December

I also noticed another curious thing that happens between the winter solstice on 21st December and 5th January. Between these two days, the daylight hours are uneven. On the winter solstice, daylight hours in London are, as I’ve said, 8.04 am to 3.54 pm. But, instead of decreasing at either end, the evenings continue to get longer, even though the sun begins to rise fractionally earlier. For example, daylight hours on December 26th are 8.06 am to 3.57 pm, and on January 4th they are 8.06 am to 4.06

Why is this? It puzzled me for years. The answer is the perihelion effect.

At the solstices, December and June 21st, the sun is at its closest to the earth’s poles: north on 21st December, and south on 21st June. But, the earth is not a perfect ball, the poles are very slightly flattened. The result is that, over the solstice, the days are fractionally longer than 24 hours. I promise you that, when this was explained to me properly by a chap of a scientific bent, I understood it perfectly – for about twenty minutes.

Looking forward to warmer weather and late spring wild flowers

So from today until 5th January, the daylight hours are, to all intents and purposes, static, as the Latin word solstice, meaning ‘standing still’ suggests.

I shall be taking a Christmas break and will return with the lengthening days, on Sunday, 5th January.

I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and my best wishes for a prosperous 2020.

Elizabeth Hawksley





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10 thoughts on “Winter Solstice”

  1. What a brilliant use for your 5 year diary. So clever of you. I would never have thought of that. And if I had, I expect I would have kept it up for one year and that would be that. I am so bad at that kind of routine.

    Echoing Jan, I have enjoyed your blogs very much. I learn such a lot.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, Elizabeth. Actually, I enjoyed the five years of keeping the weather diary. Sometimes, I was somewhere different – like in Cornwall in the south-west staying with an aunt, and one year I was up in the Shetland Islands for a week or so. It was interesting seeing how different the daylight times were. For example, March lambs were skipping about in the south of the UK, but only just new born in the chilly north-east.

  2. A wonderful way to end the year – thank you so much for the infinite variety of your blog. I wish you a lovely, restful Christmas, and may the new year bring you joy.

    1. Thank you, Prem. I wish you a happy and peaceful New Year, too – and to all my readers. Your (plural) comments are always stimulating and interesting.

  3. An interesting post as usual, Elizabeth. Thank you for blogging bout such various subjects. Hope you enjoy a lovely Christmas and my very best wishes for the coming year.

    1. Thank you, Gail. I have some interesting and varied topics in mind which I think will make good blogs – but things don’t always go according to Plan A, so I shall keep them under wraps for now. Often it’s the last minute, unexpected topic which is more successful that I thought it would be.

      On 31st December I always print out my stats for the entire year and see what worked and what didn’t – and sometimes the answer is unexpected. But that is part of the fun of blogging.

  4. Elizabeth, thank you very much for putting in all the time and effort to write such fascinating blog posts. I always learn something and it is a much anticipated part of my Sunday. Love how diverse your subject matter is – I never know what topic or country you’ll be delving into. Have a lovely Christmas and enjoy your vacation from blogging.

    1. Vicki, how kind of you. You’ve made my day! When I was about fifteen, I decided that I would try and be interested in everything – though I have to be honest and say that I failed utterly when it came to sport. I was pigeon-toed as a child, which probably didn’t help. I’ve always loved history, I’ve always been a bookworm and my mother taught me to speed read which I was about eight. All that helps when researching blogs.

      I hope that you, too, have a lovely Christmas.

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