Skip to content


When I was working on my doctorate, I reviewed thousands of documents: court records, wills, rent rolls, correspondence, petitions, tax records, censuses, parish registers, minutes of city or privy council meetings, and perhaps a dozen other types. In most cases, they offered only fleeting glimpses of the people who lived and worked and died in post-Reformation London. It was rare and indeed wonderful to stumble across an ordinary person who popped up here or there in multiple different sources and allowed me to build up a slightly more nuanced understanding of his (or rarely her) life. Perhaps because of this limit in my sources, one thing seemed very clear to me at the time: for most people, daily life is more influenced by season than by year or even decade. Religious change may have been decreed from on high, new taxes raised, or a tenant’s landlord change, but on a daily basis no change like that compared to the distinction between summer and winter, or the incidence of plague or drought.

Having spent the six years since I left Oxford in an office, I’d unconsciously dismissed this observation as irrelevant to modern life, but I’m increasingly coming to believe that it is no less true today than it was 400 years ago. Working in a factory or an office–with its artificial air and lighting–certainly does insulate an individual from seasonality, but there are a multitude of forces that push in the opposite direction.

Parents, obviously, feel these effects acutely. The passage of school terms and their intervening holidays, measured in weeks, have a direct impact on their daily schedules. They also have a less direct affect on people working in a wide variety of industries. Medicine, tourism, and service industries more generally  see a noticeable uptick in activity when school is out. But other industries have their own inbuilt seasonality. Accountants, of course, have a famously busy period of each year, and it is understandable that those who work outside (construction, farming, painting, etc) are dependent on the annual cycles of weather and light. And of course many professions have their own ‘seasons’ that follow the course of the year: retailers, politicians, judges and lawyers, athletes and academics, to name but a few. And even people like me–trapped inside for most of my waking life–are not wholly immune to seasonality: things slow down noticeably in August and December, and both mood and productivity improve as the days get longer.

Seasons do make a real difference, and not just professionally. The types of things I do with my evenings and weekends depend more on the time of year than on the year itself. The things I do, the places I go, and even the alcohol I drink in June 2012 bear more resemblance to June 2007 than to January 2012. And while I’ve never gone in for SAD–shortening days always remind me that Christmas is coming–I can say that I am more creative and energetic in the summer.

In part, of course, seasonality defines itself physiologically and physiologically: light levels, temperature and precipitation all create their own constraints on behaviour. But these are reinforced and possibly even exceeded by human collusion: for completely understandable reasons, we peg events to the seasons, and we use those events to make the passage of time. Those events might be religious (Christmas at the winter solstice or Easter and Passover at the spring equinox) or social (the summer school holidays corresponding to the growing season; Halloween and Thanksgiving after the harvest; Ascot, Wimbledon and Henley at midsummer). It need not be thus–in places where seasons are less pronounced, it’s not surprising to find lunar calendars, so that the holy [lunar] month of Ramadan moves slowly through our own [solar] calendar. But in either case we mark the passage of time through annually recurring events.

We do measure the passage of lifetimes as well, but I would argue that their random distribution makes them less poignant than the annual events. The recognition of moving from one state of life to another, and the anniversaries thereof, are personal and momentous rather than continuous events. Again there are both religou and social markers. In the Catholic Church, our sacraments are meant to co-opt grace on the passage of human life: baptism (most frequently soon after birth), confirmation (puberty), marriage or holy orders (adulthood), and extreme unction and the rite of Christian burial (death). We have our secular markers as well: civil marriage, reunions, anniversaries, retirement parties, etc. These are meant to mark the passage of a life. The UK  has even experimented with naming ceremonies, a societal mechanism to mark a birth as a secular alternative to a christening. I’m not entirely convinced they’ve been particularly popular though. It turns out there are relativley ew markers like the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, which marks the passage of decades on a society level: celebrations of V-E day or emancipation day have trouble surviving to be celebrated much beyond the first generation., and so in some sense these societal mechanisms for marking the passage of longer periods of time seem to rely on personal connections as well.

I believe this makes sense because annual events are in proportion to our lived experience. As in archtecture and art and urban planning, exceeding human proportionality may have great impact, but it’s unlikely to inspire sympathy or loyalty or long-term engagement. (I’ll leave you to guess whether I’m a Jan Jacobs fan.)



Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *