Sunday, March 21, 2010

When did March 20th become the first day of spring?

Your Honor, I place into the record Exhibit A:

When this photograph was taken, this dapper gentleman was 71 years old. A decade earlier, when he was in his early sixties, the doctors discovered that he had cancer of the colon. They performed a colostomy and told him he had six months to live.

Oh, he lived. He lived for almost 35 more years. He outlived all of his doctors.

Finally, just three months and one day before his 96th birthday, he died on December 20, 1970.

He is Nathan Silberman, my maternal grandfather. He was born in 1875. I am now two years younger than he was when the photo was taken in 1946.

We always said my grandfather was born on the first day of spring. For several decades now the vernal equinox seems to have occurred on March 20th, not March 21st. When it changed, and why it changed, and whether the earth is speeding up or slowing down or merely sliding a little backward or forward in its orbit like a yo-yo on a string or possibly tilting a little more or less on its axis than it used to, I do not know. Perhaps it is related to the reason a leap day was not added in century years 1700, 1800, and 1900 but one was added in 1600 and 2000. I wish someone would explain it to me.

But this I know. Today, March 21st, the real first day of spring, is my grandfather’s birthday. He would be 135.

Your Honor, here is Exhibit B, a photograph of him with my grandmother and my mother around 1930.


  1. When you study old photographs, it is painfully clear that the subjects have no future vision of onlookers perusing their images after Death has visited. So it is with your maternal grandfather.

  2. With all due respect, when I study your comment, it is painfully clear that in your world, all photographs of people should be destroyed at the time of their deaths since no one could possibly be interested in looking at them ever again.

    Just what world would that be? It certainly isn't mine.

  3. March 21, June 21, September 21, and December 21. During my earlier years, those were the dates that the seasons "changed." Although I had not given much (read:any) thought to the change in the date, I, too, now wonder why the change. Thanks for stirring up the question.

    I love old photos, the older the better. I am much taken by the group photo. Thank you for sharing it with us. Your grandparents' images speak to me of strength of character, and your mother is very lovely.

    A posthumous and only one-day belated Happy Birthday to your maternal Grandfather, who, as you and I know, was born on the first day of Spring.

  4. WIKI has a lot to say about "equinoxes" and "solstices" but doesn't really explain why the dates vary by one day every so often. (Probably because our dear old Earth WOBBLES very slightly about its axis of rotation)

    Earth days are getting very slightly longer because tidal friction reduces the earth's angular momentum. The amount is tiny.

    Leap years . . IF ONLY the Earth went round the sun in EXACTLY 365 days, we wouldn't need Leap Years at all. But it actually takes 365 and 1/4 days. So our CALENDAR compensates by adding 29th. February every fourth year. But . . this OVER compensates, because the earth takes slightly LESS than the 365 and 1/4 days to whizz round the Sun. So at the century year (as you say), the leap year is missed out! But AAARRGGHH . . this second correction UNDER compensates . . so in 2000 the extra day WAS necessary!

    Necessary for what? Or put it another way . . . what would we Earthlings experience if we didn't bother with leap years at all?

  5. I love the old photos and I loved learning a little about your family.

  6. "in your world, all photographs of people should be destroyed at the time of their deaths..." Urgh? How do you figure that out? I love old photos of people who have left us. They are to be cherished, treasured - even though the subjects would have been blissfully unaware that these random captured moments would in far distant future times perhaps be pored over and lovingly considered. You seem to have thoroughly misunderstood my first comment but I forgive you.

  7. Thanks for commenting, everyone!

    Pat (in Arkansas), I guess "The times, they are a-changin'" is truer than we realized.

    Doctor FTSE, I had forgotten that Earth also wobbles on its axis. I remember reading that it takes 26,000 years to complete one of its little "revolutions" and right now we point at the North Star, but we won't always. And I suppose if we didn't bother with leap years at all, spring might come in November.

    Snow, keep those cards and letters comin'!

    YP, I sure did misunderstand you. I thought you were implying that earlier generations (the camera has been around for 150 years) were too dumb (dumber than us, anyhow) to realize that someone in the future, possibly a descendant, might gaze upon their captured countenances. Thanks for the clemency and pardon.