Spring into the History of the Names of the Four Seasons

Why do we call the seasons spring, summer, fall, and winter?

In 2024, the first day of spring lands on March 19. It marks the vernal equinox—the astronomical beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere as it tilts closer to the sun. With warmer temperatures and more daylight, the conditions are perfect for April showers and May flowers. The origin of the word spring is deeply rooted in this idea of new growth bursting from the earth.

As is the case for all four seasons, the history of springtime began thousands of years ago as ancient cultures sought to name different periods of the year based on weather patterns. The word season itself came into English as the Old French word saison derived from the Latin sationem meaning “time of sewing” relating to the natural connection between farming and the seasons. Let’s take a closer look at the etymology of the names of the seasons, beginning with spring.

Spring in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring

The season after winter and before summer is when vegetation appears in the Northern Hemisphere from March to May and in the Southern Hemisphere from September to November.

Astronomy: The period from the vernal equinox to the summer solstice.

The earliest use of spring dates back at least 1,000 years to the Old English verb springan which had a few meanings including “to leap, burst forth, fly up, or to spread, grow”. Other Proto-Germanic languages adopted similar words such as the Old Norse springa and the Old High German springan both of which came from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root sprengh meaning “to move or hasten.”

Spring’s journey to becoming the name of the vernal season began in the 14th century in Middle English with the phrase “springing time” referring to a period of the year when plants began to sprout. Spring wasn’t used exclusively for the season, though. The noun also described the moonrise (spring of mone) and the sunrise (spring of dai).

By the 1520s, the phrases “spring of the leaf” and “spring of the year” were common ways to describe the season of lencten, the Old English word relating to Lent, the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter in the Christian calendar. By the mid-16th century, the name for the time period called “spring of the year” was shortened to “spring.” It had officially become the most common word for the season of budding flowers and new beginnings.

Summer in Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer

The season between spring and before fall comprises the warmest season of the year in the Northern Hemisphere from June to August and in the Southern Hemisphere from December to February.

Astronomy: The period from the summer solstice to the autumnal equinox.

Summer has been in English for over a millennium though it’s spelled a little differently now. The word somor described “the hot season of the year” in Old English. Other Proto-Germanic languages had similar words for this season such as sumar used in Old Saxon, Old Norse, and Old High German. These words came from the PIE root sm- which led to the first words for the summer season in other ancient languages (even older than Old English’s somor) including the Armenian amarn, Old Irish sam, and Old Welsh ham.

The word somor eventually transformed into summer (a noun for the season) sometime before the 12th century. Middle English words were often spelled differently than their Old English counterparts because of foreign language influences. Summer also has been used as an adjective (as in “summer vacation”) since the beginning of the 14th century and as a verb (as in, “They summered at the country house”) since the 15th century.

Fall in North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Autumn/Fall

The season after summer and before winter is the third season of the year when crops and fruits are gathered and leaves fall in the Northern Hemisphere from September to November and in the Southern Hemisphere from March to May.

Astronomy: The period from the autumnal equinox to the winter solstice.

Autumn and fall are used interchangeably to describe the season between summer and winter though fall tends to be more popular in American English and autumn is favored in British English. Marked by colorful foliage, harvest festivals, and pumpkin-spice-flavored everything, this season was first called autumnus a few millennia ago but the origins of this Latin word are not very clear.

Fall in Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What can be traced is the adoption of autumnus into other languages such as the Old French autumpne in the 13th century. Autumpne was pulled into Middle English in the late 15th century and the spelling changed to autumn in the 16th century. Before this adoption of autumn, the season was called harvest in English from the Old English hærfest from Proto-Germanic harbitas (source also of Old Saxon hervist).

Fall has been used interchangeably with autumn since the mid-17th century in British English (though it’s not that popular across the pond anymore). It came from a shortening of the mid-16th-century phrase “fall of the leaf” which used the Old English noun/verb fall to describe “a drop from a height” from the Proto-Germanic word fallanan.

“To put it more pretentiously, there was always something transient, unstable, mysterious, emotionally undefined about autumn and fall, unlike the other seasons which are so well defined,” said Tony Thorne, a lexicographer at King’s College London. “Maybe that’s why people could not easily decide on one permanent name throughout our history.”

Winter in British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter

The fourth and coldest season of the year in the Northern Hemisphere is from December to February and in the Southern Hemisphere from June to August.

Astronomy: The period from the winter solstice to the vernal equinox.

The Old English word winter came from the Proto-Germanic word for the season, wintruz. Other languages also borrowed their words from this source including the Danish and Swedish words of the same spelling, vinter. Wintruz likely comes from the PIE wend, nasalized of the root wed- meaning “the wet season,” a fitting name for a season characterized by dreary rain showers or blustering snow.

This is also the root that gave us the Old English word for ​​wæter. Both the noun and the adjective “winter” (as in “winter vegetables”) have been around since at least the 12th century while the verb (as in, “They wintered at the beach”) appeared in the 14th century.

As an adjective in Old English, the Anglo-Saxons counted years in “winters” as in Old English ænetre “one-year-old” and wintercearig which might mean either “winter-sad” or “sad with years.” Old Norse Vetrardag, first day of winter, was the Saturday that fell between October 10 and 16.

Worth Pondering…

Spring passes and one remembers one’s innocence.
Summer passes and one remembers one’s exuberance.
Autumn passes and one remembers one’s reverence.
Winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.

―Yoko Ono

Change of Seasons

The summer solstice is today

‘Tis the solstice…and you know what that means! Well, I hope you know what that means because I don’t.

Well, literally it means that it’s the longest day of the year so pack in all the activities you can. You’ve got all the time in the world. Visit a museum, set out on a cross-county RV road trip, run a marathon, make pie from scratch, go to an indoor surfing fitness class, head out on a hike, climb a mountain (any mountain will do), swim across the lake (any lake will do), brainstorm what to do with those extra minutes of sunlight. Now is your chance!

Helena, Montana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today is the summer solstice, aka the longest day and shortest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Forecast: burnt hotdogs, fireworks, and sunniest warm day you could even imagine.

It is the day on which:

  • The Northern Hemisphere has its longest day
  • The Northern Hemisphere has its shortest night
  • The Northern Hemisphere has the most direct intense solar radiation
  • The sun will be directly overhead at noon as viewed from the Tropic of Cancer
  • Any location north of the Arctic Circle has 24 hours of sunshine
  • The North Pole has been receiving 24 hours of sunshine every day since March 21—yes, the past three months

Today is the summer solstice, aka the official start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day of the year. In terms of astronomy, the June solstice marks the sun’s northernmost point in our sky for the year. The sun rises the farthest north on the horizon—and is highest in the sky at local noon.

For the Southern Hemisphere, it marks the longest nights and shortest days. After this solstice, the sun will be moving southward in the sky again.

Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is a solstice?

The word solstice comes from the Latin words sol (sun) and stitium (still or stopped). Ancient cultures knew that the sun’s path across the sky, the length of daylight, and the location of the sunrise and sunset all shifted in a regular way throughout the year. In fact, they built monuments to follow the sun’s yearly progress.

The solstice is a time to recall the reverence and understanding that early people had for the sky. Some 5,000 years ago, people placed huge stones in a circle on a broad plain in what’s now England and aligned them with the June solstice sunrise.

Creek Indian houses, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We may never comprehend the full significance of Stonehenge. But we do know that knowledge of this sort wasn’t limited to just one part of the world. Around the same time Stonehenge was being constructed in England, two great pyramids and then the Sphinx were built on Egyptian sands. If you stood at the Sphinx on the summer solstice and gazed toward the two pyramids, you’d see the sun set exactly between them.

Today, we know that the solstice is an astronomical event caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and by its orbital motion around the sun. Indeed, the Earth doesn’t orbit upright. Instead, our world is tilted on its axis by 23½ degrees. Through the year, this tilt causes Earth’s Northern and Southern Hemispheres to trade places in receiving the sun’s light and warmth most directly. In fact, our planet is closest to the sun in January during the the Northern Hemisphere’s winter.

Besh-Ba-Gowah Archaeological Park, Globe, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where should I look for signs of the June solstice in nature?

Everywhere! For all of Earth’s creatures, nothing is as fundamental as the length of the day. After all, the sun is the ultimate source of almost all light and warmth on Earth’s surface.

Living in the Northern Hemisphere, you might notice the early dawns and late sunsets and the high arc of the sun across the sky each day. You might see how high the sun appears in the sky at local noon. And, also be sure to look at your noontime shadow. Around the time of the solstice, it’s your shortest noontime shadow of the year. And in to the out-of-doors, you know the peaceful, comforting feeling that accompanies these signs and signals of the year’s longest day.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Is the June solstice the first day of summer?

No world body has designated an official day to start each new season and different schools of thought or traditions define the seasons in different ways. In meteorology, for example, summer begins on June 1. And every schoolchild knows that summer starts when the last school bell of the year rings.

Yet June 21 is perhaps the most widely recognized day upon which summer begins in the Northern Hemisphere and upon which winter begins on the southern half of Earth’s globe. There’s nothing official about it but it’s such a long-held tradition that we all recognize it to be so. It has been universal among humans to treasure this time of warmth and light.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Is the summer solstice a time to celebrate?

People around the world celebrate this sunny late June day in different ways ranging from sunrise gatherings to bonfire-lit revelry and sauna relaxation. Keep reading to learn about some of the most interesting summer solstice traditions around the globe. You just may get a few ideas for how to celebrate on the big day. Before you make any decisions, though, check out what the summer solstice means for your zodiac to make sure those plans will align with the universe’s larger plan for you.

Perhaps one of the most coveted seats in the world for the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice traditions is on the grounds of the Neolithic structures at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. Ingeniously designed to showcase the ascending light of the solstice, the sunrise on this occasion aligns perfectly with a circle carved in stone at the site. Theories of its origin vary but both mystical seekers and history buffs convene here on the solstice to witness an architectural wonder built, some say, to worship deities of the Earth and the sun. Stonehenge is one of the ancient mysteries researchers still can’t explain.

Another wonder of ancient architecture, the pyramids of Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula are a wonderful place to celebrate the longest day of the year. The precise construction and engineering of the pyramids create a visual display twice a year in which the central pyramid of El Castillo is bathed in pure sunlight on one side and full shadow on the other. Thousands of spectators come from near and far to celebrate the summer solstice in view of this ethereal spectacle in which the pyramid appears to be cut in two.

Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The indigenous people of New Mexico paid close attention to the sun. In addition to the Pueblo-built sandstone buildings of Chaco Canyon, the state is also home to the Aztec Ruins National Monument in Aztec. Ancestral Pueblo people had a strong relationship with the cosmos. They built the back (north) wall of the monument to perfectly align with the rising and setting sun as it touches the horizon during both the summer and winter solstices. Despite its name, the Aztec Ruins National Monument was not built by the Aztec people (that was just an incorrect guess from early settlers) but instead by the Ancestral Pueblans. It took approximately 200 years to build these structures which date from around the 12th century.

Despite holidays at all times of the year, the summer solstice is when Swedes really celebrate. Is it so surprising that inhabitants of one of the world’s most northerly countries want to celebrate a day full of sunshine and warmth? The Midsummer (or Midsommar) Festival takes place across the country. The day is brimming with ancient agrarian symbolism from walking barefoot in the morning dew for good health to ringing floral crowns around women’s hair to celebrate beauty and fertility. If you want to join in the fun of this summer solstice tradition, stock up on pickled herring for a snack and strawberries topped with whipped cream for dessert.

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why doesn’t the longest day have the hottest weather?

People often ask, if the June solstice brings the longest day, why do we experience the hottest weather in late July and August?

This effect is called the lag of the seasons. It’s the same reason it’s hotter in mid-afternoon than at noontime. Earth just takes a while to warm up after a long winter. Even in June, ice and snow still blanket the ground in some places. The sun has to melt the ice and warm the oceans and then we feel the most sweltering summer heat.

Ice and snow have been melting since spring began. Meltwater and rainwater have been percolating down through snow on tops of glaciers. But the runoff from glaciers isn’t as great now as it’ll be in another month even though sunlight is striking the Northern Hemisphere most directly around now.

So wait another month for the hottest weather. It’ll come when the days are already beginning to shorten again as Earth continues to move in orbit around the sun bringing us closer to another winter. And so the cycle continues.

Soap Lake, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line: Time to celebrate! Ah, the summer solstice. It’s the longest day of the year, the first day of summer, and the official kickoff for warm-weather festivities.

Worth Pondering…

This is the solstice, the still point of the sun, its cusp and midnight, the year’s threshold and unlocking, where the past lets go of and becomes the future; the place of caught breath.

—Margaret Atwood

When Does Spring Start? Here Is Why Each Season Begins Twice.

Some measure seasonal shifts by Earth’s position relative to the sun while others use annual temperature cycles. Here’s the difference between astronomical and meteorological seasons.

The first day of spring is Monday, March 20, 2023, at 5:24 p.m. EDT. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, this was marked by the arrival of the Vernal Equinox (otherwise known as the First Point of Aries). Vernal translates to new and fresh and equinox derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night).

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Every year, weather forecasters welcome the arrival of spring on the first day of March—while others contend that the spring really begins a few weeks later with the equinox which falls on or around March 21. So who is right about when the seasons begin and end?

It depends on why you’re asking. Seasons are defined in two ways: astronomical seasons which are based on Earth’s position as it rotates around the sun and meteorological seasons which are based on annual temperature cycles. Both divide the year into spring, summer, fall, and winter—yet with slightly different start and end dates for each. Here’s what they mean and how to tell them apart.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Astronomical seasons

People have used observable periodic natural phenomena to mark time for thousands of years. The natural rotation of Earth around the sun forms the basis for the astronomical calendar in which we define seasons with two solstices and two equinoxes. Earth’s tilt and the sun’s alignment over the equator determine both the solstices and equinoxes.

Ancient Rome was the first to officially mark those seasons with the introduction of the Julian calendar. Back then, the seasons began on different days than the modern era because of discrepancies with the Gregorian calendar used primarily today. Now, the start of each astronomical season is marked by either an equinox or a solstice.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The equinoxes mark the times when the sun passes directly above the equator. In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice falls on or around June 21, the winter solstice on or around December 22, the vernal or spring equinox on or around March 21, and the autumnal equinox on or around September 22. These seasons are reversed but begin on the same dates in the Southern Hemisphere.

Solstices mark the brightest and darkest days of the year. They are also driven by Earth’s tilt and mark the beginning of astronomical summer and winter. When the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, it is brighter and feels like summer while at the same time the Southern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, plunging it into a dark winter.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because Earth actually travels around the sun in 365.24 days, an extra day is needed every fourth year creating what we know as Leap Year. This also causes the exact date of the solstices and equinoxes to vary. Additionally, the elliptical shape of Earth’s orbit around the sun causes the lengths of the astronomical seasons to vary between 89 and 93 days. These variations in season length and season start would make it very difficult to consistently compare climatological statistics for a particular season from one year to the next. Thus, the meteorological seasons were born.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meteorological seasons

Since at least the 18th century, scientists have sought better methods of predicting growing seasons and other weather phenomena. Over time, that gave rise to the concept of meteorological seasons which are more closely aligned with both annual temperatures and the civil calendar.

Meteorological seasons are far simpler than astronomical seasons. They divide the calendar year into four seasons that each last exactly three months and are based on the annual temperature cycle. Winter takes place during the coldest three months of the year, summer in the hottest three months, and spring and fall mark the remaining transition months.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the Northern Hemisphere that means the start date for each season is March 1 (spring), June 1 (summer), September 1 (fall), and December 1 (winter). In the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are reversed; spring begins in September, summer in December, fall in March, and winter in June.

Meteorological observing and forecasting led to the creation of these seasons and they are more closely tied to our monthly civil calendar than the astronomical seasons are. The length of the meteorological seasons is also more consistent ranging from 90 days for winter of a non-leap year to 92 days for spring and summer. By following the civil calendar and having less variation in season length and season start, it becomes much easier to calculate seasonal statistics from the monthly statistics, both of which are very useful for agriculture, commerce, and a variety of other purposes.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The consistency of meteorological seasons allows meteorologists to make the complex statistical calculations necessary to make predictions and compare seasons to one another. “Dealing with whole-month chunks of data rather than fractions of months was more economical and made more sense,” climatologist Derek Arndt told the Washington Post in 2014. “We organize our lives more around months than astronomical seasons, so our information follows suit.”

So when is the first day of spring? It isn’t March 1 or the spring equinox—it’s both.

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But, if you live in Canada or the northern states you may argue, as I do, that we need a third means of determining the first day of spring. I suggest that spring really begins with the appearance of the first tiny leaves on the trees or the first crocus plants peeping through the snow? The First Leaf and First Bloom Indices are synthetic measures of these early season events in plants, based on recent temperature conditions. These models allow us to track the progression of spring onset across the country. 

When does spring start? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a look outside. If the birds are chirping, tree leaves are budding, the grass is turning green again—then it is spring!

>> DIG DEEPER

Worth Pondering…

She turned to the sunlight

And shook her yellow head,

And whispered to her neighbor: Winter is dead.

—A.A. Milne, When We Were Very Young

Winter Solstice 2022: What it Is, Why it Occurs, and How it is Observed

The Northern Hemisphere experiences its shortest day and longest night of the year today as the sun reaches its most southerly point in the sky

Good morning and welcome to winter. Not to get all dark at the beginning of the article but it is the shortest day of the year, meaning if you began watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy just before sunrise, it will be dark again by the end of the third movie.

Let us beat a hasty retreat. Jump into a hole, down to a cozy warren, deep below the surface.

Winter is as much about going deep, as it is about finding our way back out the other side.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The astronomical metaphor to keep in mind during these dark and chilling times is that starting the day after the winter solstice each day gets a bit longer. It’s only by two or three minutes—too incremental to notice—and yet brightness is accumulating every day as the season progresses.

Norwegians—among the happiest people on earth despite living in such extended periods of darkness—have a word that snugly wraps up this winter philosophy: “koselig” (pronounced “koosh-lee”). It’s a combination of coziness and a connection to nature and others.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the past six months, the days have grown shorter and the nights have grown longer in the Northern Hemisphere. But that’s about to reverse itself.

Winter solstice 2022, the shortest day of year and the official first day of winter, is on Wednesday, December 21. How it all works has fascinated people for thousands of years.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide for Winter Camping

First we’ll look at the science and precise timing behind the solstice. Then we’ll explore some ancient traditions and celebrations around the world.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Solstices happen every June and December, though the exact dates vary by a day or two each year.

The word solstice comes from the Latin words sol, meaning sun, and sistere, meaning to stop—which reflects our host star’s seemingly brief pause in the sky on the solstice before reversing direction. 

The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere when the sun appears at its most southerly position, directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The situation is the reverse in the Southern Hemisphere. There, the December solstice marks the longest day of the year—and the beginning of summer in places such as Australia, Chile, and South Africa.

The solstice usually—but not always—takes place on December 21. The time that the solstice occurs shifts every year because the solar year (the time it takes for the sun to reappear in the same spot as seen from Earth) doesn’t exactly match up to our calendar year.

If you want to be super-precise in your observations, the exact time of the 2022 winter solstice will be 16:48 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on Tuesday, according to EarthSky.org and Farmers’ Almanac.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Daylight decreases dramatically the closer you are to the North Pole. Residents of Nome, Alaska, will be sunlight deprived with just three hours, 54 minutes, and 31 seconds of very weak daylight on Tuesday. But that’s downright generous compared with Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It sits inside the Arctic Circle and won’t see a single ray of sunshine.

The equinoxes, both spring and fall, occur when the sun’s rays are directly over the equator. On those two days, everyone has an equal length of day and night. The summer solstice is when the sun’s rays are farthest north over the Tropic of Cancer giving us our longest day and the official start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s no surprise many cultures and religions celebrate a holiday—whether it be Christmas, Hanukkah, or pagan festivals—that coincides with the return of longer days.

Since long before recorded history, the winter solstice and the subsequent “return” of the sun have inspired celebrations and rituals in various societies around the world.

Related article: Winter Listicle: Experience Winter Wonderlands in National Parks

Ancient peoples whose survival depended on a precise knowledge of seasonal cycles marked this first day of winter with elaborate ceremonies and celebrations. Spiritually, these celebrations symbolize the opportunity for renewal, a shedding of bad habits and negative feelings and an embracing of hope amid darkness as the days once again begin to grow longer.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of the ancient symbolsand ceremonies of the winter solstice live on today or have been incorporated into newer traditions.

For the Zuni, one of the Native American Pueblo peoples in western New Mexico, the winter solstice signifies the beginning of the year and is marked with a ceremonial dance called Shalako. After fasting, prayer, and observing the rising and setting of the sun for several days before the solstice, the Pekwin, or “Sun Priest” traditionally announces the exact moment of itiwanna, the rebirth of the sun, with a long, mournful call.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With that signal, the rejoicing and dancing begin, as 12 kachina clowns in elaborate masks dance along with the Shalako themselves—12-foot-high effigies with bird heads, seen as messengers from the gods. After four days of dancing, new dancers are chosen for the following year and the yearly cycle begins again.

Like the Zuni, the Hopi of northern Arizona are believed to be among the descendants of the Anasazi people, ancient Native Americans who flourished beginning in 200 B.C. As the Anasazi left no written records, we can only speculate about their winter solstice rites but the placement of stones and structures in their ruins such as New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruins indicate they took a keen interest in the sun’s movement. In the Hopi solstice celebration of Soyal, the Sun Chief takes on the duties of the Zuni Pekwin, announcing the setting of the sun on the solstice.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An all-night ceremony then begins including kindling fires, dancing, and sometimes gift-giving. Traditionally, the Hopi sun-watcher was not only important to the winter solstice tradition as his observation of the sun also governed the planting of crops and the observance of Hopi ceremonies and rituals all year long.

Related article: Winter RV Camping: What You Need to Know

The UK’s most famous site for solstice celebrations is Stonehenge. On the winter solstice, visitors traditionally have had opportunity to enter the towering, mysterious stone circle for a sunrise ceremony run by local pagan and druid groups.

Worth Pondering…

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden