A correspondent notes that today is the first day of meteorological spring. "What on earth is this?" he wonders. Let me explain.
In the first place, I should explain that I am describing the situation in the Northern hemisphere, where winter solstice is round about 21 December and summer solstice in late June. If you live in the southern hemisphere, then your ancestor shouldn't have pinched that handbag in Victorian London, should he?
So - due to the angle of the Earth's polar axis to the plane of the ecliptic - or, to put it in English - because the Earth is tilted in its orbit - in the Northern Hemisphere summer, the North Pole points more generally towards the sun, and in winter, the South Pole does. This means that the end of the Earth pointing at the sun gets more heat and sunlight, and longer days. Indeed, at the Poles you get six months of light and six of darkness.
Now, if we were to take the length of the days as our guide to when the seasons are, then clearly the summer solstice would be the middle of summer. In which case, the season of summer would start about six weeks previously - ie just after Mayday - and would end six weeks later - ie just after Lammas. Likewise winter would start 6 weeks before Solstice - ie just after All Hallows - and end six weeks after Solstice - ie round about Imbolc/Candlemas.
It should be noted in passing that the whole set of quarter- and cross-quarter-days (or "proper special days", as we call them in the Beaker Folk) are about 4 days out from what the sun is actually doing. The best bet is not to try and explain this.
But - the fact is that the height of summer, or the depths of winter, do not coincide with the solar peaks and troughs. On 21 June, when the Sun's about to start digging up the potatoes and bringing in the Harvest Home, it's barely warm. The real heat of of Summer, at least in Husborne Crawley, is from mid July through late August. Likewise you barely ever get a white Christmas, but it doesn't half snow sometimes in February. This is due to thermal lag. The ground and, to a much greater degree, the sea start warming up when the days are long, but there's still warming up in August. The Arctic sea ice is at its greatest extent in March, not in December - and lowest in September. The real seasons lag behind the solar ones.
And so we have this arbitrary 6-week lag in our seasons. "Midsummer", so-called, is the start of summer. Vernal Equinox is the start of Autumn (or "Fall", if you live in the 16th century).
But why does "Meteorological Spring" start on 1 March? Simple. Because meteorologists aren't capable of coping with the concept of seasons starting on erratically-numbered days. They've moved all the seasons to start on the first of the month, so as to make their maths easy. Ironic, for the people with the most powerful computers in the country.