what changes in everyday life where there's no solstice?
December 21, 2009 8:13 PM   Subscribe

Latitude Filter: So, today is the Solstice (shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere; longest in the Southern), with all its cultural significance, which got me thinking about what's it's like living near the equator, where the days are all (more or less) the same length throughout the year?

After reading this piece:


which details some of the long-standing cultural associations in places, mostly Europe and North America, where the Solstice occurs, I started thinking about the ways that the seasons and their changes affect my daily routines and attitudes.

But, recently, I learned/realized that in the Tropics the days would be of equal length all year round. (Wikipedia claims that in Singapore, near the Equator, the days stay within a few seconds of 12 hours consistently.) Living in the northern USA, I suppose I always associated nice warm weather, as in summer time, with *long* days, but then, I'm realizing in the parts of world that have the most summer-like weather, the nights are consistently "longer" than what we'd have during summer in Temperate climate. And before anyone jumps in, I know, the totals for day and night add up to the same wherever you are - in the Polar region weeks and months of near total darkness followed later by long periods of day light add up to same totals as in the Tropics, where each day is divided evenly between 12 hours of light and dark - still, the effect on human perception and culture is obviously different, which leads to my questions:

- In what ways does having nights and days of pretty much equal length influence the culture and lifestyle of communities near the equator?

- How are everyday routines different for people living in places that don't experience the Solstices?

The image I keep having is of people in the Tropics sitting around the camp fire at night for long periods and thus inventing/telling stories to pass the time. Also, with 12 hours of night, the role of spirits, ghosts, and other mysteries that defy the "light of day" would seem to be accentuated. But these are just the examples that came to mind.

Anyway, I know this is an odd topic, but I find myself fascinated to realize that what for me is a common pattern of life/culture, the shifting length of day/night throughout the year, doesn't happen in large areas of the world near the equator.
posted by 5Q7 to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'm from Canada, but lived in Malaysia (the city of Johor Bahru, just a couple kms from Singapore) for a year as a teenager. I found it really odd that the days were all the same length, just because I wasn't used to it. For one, it felt like summer all year, but the sun never stayed up until 9-10pm the way I am used to at the height of the heat. I don't think that changed the way anyone behaved, though. Lots of outdoor parties, cooking outside, eating outside.

Monsoon season was the equivalent of winter, I guess. Regardless of the length of day/night it's pretty cloudy and grey on and off, everyone stays inside.

I find that my ability to remember when during the year certain events happened is thrown off by the lack of familiar weather markers. I mean that here in Canada, if I'm trying to remember (say) when a friend had her baby I can think to myself "well, I remember going to the hospital right after work and it was already really dark out, so it must have been November or December." I can't do the same with the things that happened in Malaysia. What time of year was that conference? Well, it got light at breakfast, started getting dark just after dinner, was hot and muggy. Must have been sometime between January and December. I'm sure someone who lived there longer would be better at discerning the seasonal changes though.

If you want some stories on the other side of how day/night length affects behaviour and culture, ask me about my time living in Inuvik, NWT. Weeks of no sun at all, an then weeks of the sun never setting. Now that can play with a person's mind, and has some interesting cultural ramifications.
posted by arcticwoman at 8:30 PM on December 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was recently talking with a coworker who spent a week on Tarawa, an atoll near the equator in the middle of the Pacific. The one comment he made which struck me as the most interesting was the fact that, due to the principles of rotational velocity, the day/night terminator is moving a lot faster there than it does farther north, so sunrise and sunset happen very quickly. No long, drawn-out twilight. I have no idea what implications that might have, but it was an interesting observation.
posted by Nothlit at 8:32 PM on December 21, 2009

There are parts of Africa (I can't remember which) where time is measured not from midnight but from sunrise (0600 or 6:00am for the rest of us). This would be a pain in the ass if sunrise moved around as it does away from the equator, but there, it makes a hell of a lot more sense than midnight.
posted by ErWenn at 8:32 PM on December 21, 2009

Update: the part of Africa I was thinking of is East Africa, specifically in the Swahili culture. Wikipedia.
posted by ErWenn at 8:36 PM on December 21, 2009

Not really a changing-day-length thing, but one thing that surprised me about the tropics was how quickly it gets dark after the sun sets. There's no twilight like we know it in the temperate regions, just sunset and then boom, it's dark a few minutes later. No evening strolls through lingering light as the lamps slowly come on, no "white nights", no watching the sky gradually turn deeper and deeper blue until the light fails altogether.

Closer to your actual question, there's a somewhat-related discussion in Guns, Germs and Steel about climatic barriers to trade and cultural expansion/interchange. For example, east-west trade across temperate zones of Asia and Europe was more feasible than north-south trade between temperate regions of N and S America because of the tropical barrier between.
posted by Quietgal at 8:37 PM on December 21, 2009

Well... living in Malaysia, I can tell you that there aren't very many campfires any more. :P Maybe out in the villages, but in the capital city, life is more or less like in any other urban environment except without pesky seasons to screw things up. There are ghost stories, sure - there's some local variety of vampire, the pontianak, that stakes out wells or something, but they're no more part of the local 'culture and lifestyle' than vampires are to the US. Actually, perhaps less.

The net effect is that the yearly calendar has more impact than the non-existent seasons. The school year starts on the first Monday in January, for example, and ends sometime in November, with school holidays spaced more or less evenly out throughout the year. Festivals are another story, because a lot of our traditions originate from places with seasons- the Chinese still celebrate the solstice, although we have to consult a lunar calendar to figure out when it is, the Ramadan is still adhered to by the Muslim community and so on. Right now Christmas decorations, complete with fake snow and styrofoam reindeer, are up in shopping malls everywhere.

As for everyday routines, the long and the short of it is that they don't change - they're not what you're used to, but they don't differ from day to day, or month to month. You never have to buy new clothes at the start of each season (though of course, practically speaking, that doesn't mean we don't), and you can set your meal clock by the position of the sun - when I moved to Australia, I always had to tell myself "dinnertime!=sunset", because that was what I was used to. And daylight savings screwed with my mind every single time.

On preview: yeah, and you can have a barbeque anytime you feel like it, and the monsoon season has more of an impact - although that depends on where exactly you live. Some places feel the monsoon more than others. I can never remember when it is exactly; it's just more rain.

Also, arcticwoman, I grew up here and I'm no better at discerning the seasons than you are. The difference perhaps is that I always remember what month something happened in, rather than seasonal markers - so if I'm trying to remember when someone had her baby, I'd think "Hmm, I think it was around mid-year, so maybe it was sometime in June? July?"
posted by Xany at 8:50 PM on December 21, 2009

I lived in the tropics for several years as a kid (0,32', 12 hour days all year), and I can't really think of any 'cultural practices' related to the length of day.

I guess there's a much more constant association of time with light. It got light an hour or so before we got up - perfect for managing an early morning swim before school if that's what you were into. Then it got dark up to an hour before our bedtime, which meant you have to come inside and start being less active around then. It was just normal.

Being an island, we noticed Equinox (spring and autumn) and the associated king tides, but the only think I remember about 'longest day of the year' stuff is from books (specifically Will's birthday in The Dark Is Rising).
posted by jacalata at 9:01 PM on December 21, 2009

Most of my childhood was near the equator, 2 hours of difference between the longest and shortest days. Sunset was always sometime between 6 and 7pm, and so you could tell approximately what time it was just by looking at the sun, so I have a pretty good intuitive feel for what "4 o'clock" is like. Except it's totally broken in North American latitudes! I might feel like its 4, but then I look at a clock and it's more like 7.
posted by AlsoMike at 9:53 PM on December 21, 2009

Wow, these observations are really interesting! Now that several folks mentioned it, I was struck when traveling in Southeast Asia recently by how abruptly the transition from day to night occurred. No twilight to linger over - BANG, it's dark. But I can see how this could make keeping track of daily routines easier ("now it's dark; must almost be bedtime," etc.) than in more Temperate climates. Neat.
posted by 5Q7 at 10:52 PM on December 21, 2009

I've lived nearly all my life here in the tropics (Singapore), besides for a 4-year stay in the US. I think in modern times, the differences in lifestyles are pretty small; basically its just like summer the whole year round. You get used to the constancy of the environment, and like somebody upthread mentioned, the calendar year plays a much more important role than the nonexistent seasons.

In some sense human/cultural events play a more important role in regulating time than nature... like say with the earlier example of weather markers, instead of remembering it was cold outside, or that the day was longer, you'd remember that oh, it was near Chinese New Year because all the decorations were up, or that it was right after National Day.

The monsoons also play a role... I always associate Christmas with rain, because it tends to rain a lot in December.

When I first went to the US to study and experienced my first winter, I kind of had the same thoughts as you, but in the other direction. I think having seasons causes you to be a lot more aware of the natural environment surrounding you, and of the passage of time. In the tropics time can just zoom by without you really noticing it, but you can tell when winter comes, and see the changing landscape around you. So I think being in a seasonless envrionment does make you a bit different psychologically. But that's more to do with the weather changes than just the changes in length of day.

I've had some thoughts about how this might have influenced people in ancient times though, but its all my own half-baked conjectures. I think its quite likely that not having such annual events has an effect on a civilization's ability to estabilsh a calendar, and thus affect other related technologies. The people would not really have a sense of what a year is, and so their lives might be governed by a lot shorter cycles of time, like say months based on the moon. I'm sure this will have some effect on their customs, beliefs, and other things. Or maybe I've been playing too much Civ 4.

Another thing is that people living in the tropics were probably a lot more laid back. You have decent weather and abundant food sources (from the jungles) year round. You never have to worry about the coming winter and how you're going to survive it. Again, I think this might have some psychological effects that ended up rubbing off on culture and perhaps religion. But like I said all this is just my idle speculation so its likely to be totally wrong; there is probably research about this (perhaps in anthropology?) that would make a much more reliable source of information.
posted by destrius at 11:14 PM on December 21, 2009

Hawai'i is about 21 degrees above the equator - and so is 'tropical'. We don't have a big difference in seasonal light - maybe an hour or so. It is sort of like our tides (since we don't have the continental shelf)- high tide is only two feet at the most. Newcomers think the whole year is the same. But if you pay attention, you feel the changes.

Hawai'i's sun is much more overhead than the mainland. It is very strong and even dangerous to those who are tricked by the cool trade winds. On Maui they have a sun celebration every year for Lahaina Noon - the day the sun appears directly overhead and you have no shadow.

A Native Hawaiian legend that relates to the sun is the story of how the god Maui caught the sun with a net to slow it down as it passed over his home (so his mother could dry her tapa). On the island of Maui the volcano is called Haleakala -- the house of the sun.

From what I know of native Hawaiians, seasons relate as much to winds, moons, stars and waves as sunlight. There were clear codes for planting, harvests, sailing and fishing times. Many still observe these, but they are not commonly 'taught' -- just known. I only know the the o'ama are running when I see all the poles out on the beach at dawn. (I think the moi season is a secret! darn!!) Certain fish, birds and animals are associated with certain times of the year - the plover arrives for winters, along with the humback whale. Both are mentioned often in native Hawaiian song and legends.

The cultural significance of living without the dramatic seasonal changes are probably too subtle for most of us caught up in modern life to notice. One thing I would say is that the Hawaiians were (and mostly are) extremely tied to the 'aina (the land - in a huge general term -- including wind, water, sun, stars, lifeforms, rocks, etc.). All significant rituals, chants and celebrations are 'aina-centric'. Even modern celebrations/rituals are mostly in nature, rather than closed off inside.

BTW, on another note, modern day surfers generally divide the year into winter surf (north shore) and summer surf (the smaller waves on the south shore). In between is a time for many surfer-bud phone calls and web-cam checks to see 'what's up' ... ;-)
posted by Surfurrus at 11:31 PM on December 21, 2009

ErWenn mentioned that the Swahili culture counted time from sunrise. Supposedly there used to be such a thing as "Italian time" which counted from 0 at sunset to 24 at the next sunset. This makes sense, I hear, if you are agricultural people who want to know how much time there still is to work in the fields before it gets dark. And Italy is far enough north that the days definitely flucutate in length.

It's hard to imagine how counting starting at sunrise could be practical away from the Equator, though.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:05 AM on December 22, 2009

I'm surprised more people from Singapore haven't popped up yet. Meetup?


The constant length of the day isn't a problem at all. If anything, it's kind of handy: you don't spend four months of the year never seeing the sun because you're commuting to and from work in the dark. And because twilight always kicks in around 6:30 in the morning, I can just drag myself out of bed as soon as it starts to get light and I'll always be on time for work.

As a bit of a derail, though: the thing that really messes with my head is that there are no seasons here. The running joke over here is that being a meteorologist in Singapore is the easiest job in the world, because every day the weather report's the same: "Low of 25, high of 30, 85% humidity; partly cloudy with a chance of showers in the afternoon, same as the other 364 days of the year".

(As destrius pointed out, we do kinda have seasons - it's slightly cooler and wetter during the monsoon, from November to January; April to June's a bit hotter and drier. But it's only a couple of degrees each way. I miss winter.)
posted by The Shiny Thing at 6:12 AM on December 22, 2009

Living in Malaysia messed with my internal New England-accurate clock. I never knew what time it was. Napping is pretty necessary there, because of heat and slower blood, so waking up in a 'OMG, I've overslept and missed the kids' school bus' (or similar) was common. Wearing a watch didn't really help because my brain just assumed it was inaccurate because of the position of the sun. I'm back in NE now and I have regained my special gift of knowing pretty much exactly what time it is.
posted by Pennyblack at 6:28 AM on December 22, 2009

Dry season, rainy season, mango season, pineapple season, duck season, rabbit season.
posted by emeiji at 6:45 AM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

No daylight savings.

We had an energy crisis in Colombia in 1992 that led the government to impose an electricity rationing. In an effort to save electricity Cesar Gaviria, the president at the time, decided to shift local time one hour forward. This was such an alien concept to so much of the population that about 1000 municipalities refused to comply with the measure - it took over a week to get the entire country on the same timezone. The whole time shift lasted for about a year but it was a hugely unpopular measure that became known as "la hora Gaviria" (the Gaviria hour).

You'd never imagine that something which happens seamlessly twice a year around the world would wreak so much havoc.
posted by juva at 1:42 PM on December 22, 2009

Daylight Savings ... I still don't understand that stuff ... and can completely support a country resisting it.
posted by Surfurrus at 8:31 PM on December 22, 2009

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