The End of the Summer

The End of the Summer August 30, 2023

When I was young “Summer” ended the day I went back to school. After three months of sleeping in and bologna sandwiches for lunch it was time for Friday night football games, Saturday soccer games, and homework. I can’t say I was always excited to go back to school, but I was always happy to see Fall roll around. September-December (and the first week of January) is the best time of the year.

My sunflowers are all starting to die.

As an adult without children adherence to the school calendar as a marker of the seasons feels a bit off, but my local Target charts the turning of the Wheel in much the same way, so it remains hard to escape all these years later. Seasonal aisles of garden supplies turn into notebooks and pencils, which will then joyously change into Halloween and Yuletide decorations. The child in me remains giddy for all of these transitions, and I eagerly await the rollout of pumpkin-spice every August and mourn its loss at the end of November.

Today though a hearty “Welcome Autumn” in early September on social media results in choruses of “The Autumn Equinox this year is September 22, there are still three more weeks of summer.” There are few things I dislike more than know-it-alls who are most often wrong. Sure, in a celestial sense Summer runs June 21-September 22, but the United States has never truly calculated time that way.

While I marked the start of Autumn with a return to school, our society has generally marked the start and end of the Summer season with the holidays Memorial Day (end of May) and Labor Day (start of September).* This roughly coincides with “meteorological summer” a breakdown of the Wheel of the Year into four very neat three-month periods. Summer is June-August, Autumn September-November, Winter December-February, and Spring March-May. That makes a lot of sense as most of us think of December as a Winter holiday, despite astrological Winter beginning towards the end of the month.

Depending on where you live the more arbitrary boundaries of the seasons may or may not work for you. When I lived in Michigan, certainly September was the month when it began to feel like Fall. There were warm days for sure, but also cooler ones, and by the end of September leaves had begun turning glorious shades of orange and yellow. California has been a different story, September is the hottest month of the year, and while the sunflowers in my garden look like they have been hit by Fall, air conditioning season out here is just beginning. School also starts earlier than when I was a kid, in my city of Sunnyvale the first day of public school was August 16.

I have always believed that you should celebrate the Wheel of the Year based on what is happening outside your backdoor. In Michigan Imbolc was not the start of Spring and in California the Autumn Equinox does not yet herald the colder part of the year. Using these sort of tropes in ritual suggests a disconnect from the natural world. In the United States, our perceptions of the Wheel of the Year are heavily influenced by British agricultural cycles and the Northeastern part of the country, and these ideas are repeated ad nauseam in books and parroted by national media outlets. Sometimes I can’t help but feel compelled to expect certain things to be happening in my backyard even if they are impossible. (It’s 30 degrees today in Silicon Valley, maybe we will have snow flurries!?!? No, no we won’t.)

The first apples at the farmer’s market are a sign Summer is giving up the ghost.

But, and you know there was a but in here right?, even with September being the hottest month of the year in my part of California I can’t help but still think of early September as the start of Fall. Sure the kids are in school and football is on TV, but there’s just an energy shift this time of year unrelated to the heat and sunshine. Some of it might be because most of us have simply “moved on” from Summer.

We grow up with a lot of investment in Summer. It’s a time for vacations, romances, and leisure. But it can also be tedious, and at this point in my life I’m just as likely to go on vacation in April as I am in August. As a kid I spent my summer days at the neighborhood pool, as an adult I spend my days in my un-air-conditioned office or on the road in a tent. I also just don’t like Summer very much. Sure gardening is fun, but it’s hot, there’s too much sun, and where I live the hills take on a rusty yellow hue as all the vegetation is dead. (Please children, get off of my lawn.) There’s so much to look forward to September-December and August especially feels like an unpleasant obstacle keeping me from Halloween decorations.

Autumn is a time for hard cider. (If you like such things.)

Maybe the end of Summer is more than a celestial event, more than the harvest of the grain, and more than just a transition from hot to pleasant. In my own life the end of Summer has usually come with a move away from more isolated pursuits and into larger gatherings of friends, neighbors, and families. I am not close to sweater weather out here in California, but the nights are growing longer, apple season is gearing up, and I already have a date picked out for our annual holiday/whisky party. There are several hot and unpleasant days in the month ahead, but there’s enough of a shift that I can’t help but think of Autumn.

An altar at Sacred Harvest Festival in Minneapolis just a few weeks ago.

So this weekend Demeter will once again take pride of place on the fireplace mantle in our living room, and bunches of fake grapes will take the place of (fake) Summer Lillies on our living room shrines to Aphrodite and Dionysus. I will revel in the changing energies swirling around me, and grin like a schoolboy when the Halloween decorations go up at Target. I will drink pumpkin cider in the evenings while cranking up the air-conditioned. When the autumnal equinox rolls around in three weeks I will honor balance and the changing produce at my local farmer’s market, but it will already be Autumn as this weekend I have reached Summer’s end.

*My “society” is the United States, if you live somewhere else, I’m sure you reckon time differently and probably use different markers.

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