|Sunrise in Angers, France, January 27, 8:55am|
When I first began teaching religion in Mississippi, many of my students had a hard time understanding why early religions made such a big deal out of solstices, equinoxes, and midpoints between them. Why, for example, was February 2 an important holiday in so many faiths?
Most of my students had not lived anywhere but the South. They had never experienced a winter in which the sun doesn't rise until after you've left for school and sets as you are returning home. The shortest amount of daylight in Mississippi in the winter is ten hours and the longest amount of daylight in the summer is fourteen hours. That four-hour difference is divided into two-hour increments between June and December and December and June. You might hardly notice a two-hour change over the course of six months. Because of their close proximity to the equator, Mississippians live in the daylight.
I grew up in New England, so I understand darkness. The difference in daylight in Boston is six hours of the course of the year. In the winter, we rode to school in the dark and we rode home in the dark. In the summer, we stayed outside playing until close to 9:00 pm.
Here in France, the difference is daylight from winter to summer is 7.5 hours. Winter days begin close to 9:00 am and end at 5:00 pm. By contrast, summer allows just enough darkness for sleep with the sun setting at 10:00 pm and rising just after 6:00 am. The further north you go, the more drastic the change. In Kiruna, Sweden, the sun does not set in June and it does not rise in December. In the southern hemisphere the seasons are opposite as is the amount of daylight. In Punta Arenas, Chile (about as south as you can go before hitting Antarctica), the daylight in June mirrors the daylight in France in December.
For early humans living in tribes, sunlight was survival. They mourned its dying in autumn and celebrated its rebirth in the spring. Surviving halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, around February 2, was worth celebrating. Daylight was returning, the children conceived in springtime and born at the onset of winter were growing stronger, hope became certainty.
Here in France the amount of daylight is growing, almost a minute on either end of each day. It is still cold and often rainy, but every extra moment of sunlight is worth celebrating. So, on February 2, whether you celebrate Candlemas, the feast of St. Blaise, the feast of St. Bridgid, Groundhog Day, the beginning of Lent, the feast of the goddess of the sea, or Imbolig, take note of the daylight and give thanks, for winter is half way over and spring is coming.