Sunset Will Be Later Tonight

Sunset tonight will be later than last night. This statement of hope is true for half the year. Tonight, however, begins a period of acceleration in the increase of daylight, noticeable even to astronomers without clocks and telescopes. It is noticeable for a quarter of the year, to May Day. [In our neck of the woods, southeast Pennsylvania, we reached 10 full hours of daylight, up from about 9 hours 20 minutes, on January 27. That’s an average gain of about 7 minutes per week. In the next 4 weeks we’ll pick up another full hour, or 15 minutes per week. The rate peaks at the spring equinox. —KD]

It was that observation, I think, that led the ancient Celts to make Groundhog Day (well, actually, they called it Imbolc) more important than midwinter, also called the solstice. [The Romans, however, who contributed our calendar, celebrated the solstice with the Saturnalia, which we co-opted and now call Christmas. —KD]

It means, of course, that winter, which began (for the Celts) on All Saints Day, is over. So that damn rodent in Punxsutawney can stay in his hole. His forecasts are always wrong or irrelevant or both, as he has his seasons mixed up, at least according to the Celts. [Have you noticed that no one ever says what will happen if the groundhog does not see its shadow? And here’s another question: How do they know it’s Phil, not Phyllis? I can’t imagine getting that personal with a rodent. —KD]

Like any period of hope, the hope for the end of winter may be dashed. The great Blizzard of 1888 (which I can’t remember) lasted from March 11 to March 14. I choose to ignore this thing I can’t remember. The great Blizzard of 1996 (which I can remember) topped ’88’s, and it ran from January 6 to January 8, when it was actually winter by anyone’s reckoning. [For that matter, most of our blizzards are in Feburary or March; January is generally too cold for those big storms from the south. —KD]

The most memorable (to me at least) Groundhog Day was in 1974. The comet Kohoutek was visible in the evening sky, having crossed Earth’s orbit on its return to the Kuiper Belt on February 1. I had been looking for it since the press announced its visit in November 1973. I got off my commuter train and was walking home looking at the last of the sunlight. And there Kohoutek was. Its tail spread out, it was apparently following the sun behind the houses. Comets are confusing things. Their tail is gases boiling off their surface and blown away by the solar wind. Kohoutek, which appeared to be moving with the sun from east to west, had in fact circled the sun and was heading west to east into its own tail.

I didn’t need a groundhog to tell me it was spring because at long last it was afternoon, not evening, when I got off the train.


I ran this file through my spell checker, which wanted to replace Punxsutawney with (0) Punctuating (1) Tungsten (2) Unexciting (3) Youngstown (4) Pakistan (5) Punkest (6) Pakistani

[It also missed the fact that it’s groundhog, not ground hog.—KD]

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