Dog Days and Cat Nights
August 14, 2018
When the heat arrives in July and August each year inevitably someone comments that it is the “Dog Days” of summer. What, exactly, are Dog Days?
It’s actually in reference to the star Sirius which, ancients believed, contributed to the excessive heat beginning in mid-July. Although you can see Sirius – it is the star which is nearest to our solar system – throughout the year, it is in summer when it rises in conjunction with the sun each morning. It is this phenomenon which prompted the term Dog Days. There is some debate as to when Dog Days occur and it depends on who you ask.
From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“Various computations of the dog days have placed their start anywhere from 3 July to 15 August and lasting for anywhere from 30 to 61 days. They may begin or end with the cosmical or heliacal rising of either Sirius in Canis Majoror Procyon (the “Little Dog Star”) in Canis Minor and vary by latitude, not even being visible throughout much of the Southern Hemisphere. Sirius observes a period of almost exactly 365¼ days between risings, keeping it largely consistent with the Julian but not the Gregorian calendar; nonetheless, its dates occur somewhat later in the year over a span of millennia.
In antiquity, the dog days were usually reckoned from the appearance of Siriusaround 19 July (Julian) to relieving rains and cool winds, although Hesiod seems to have counted the worst of summer as the days leading up to Sirius’s reappearance.
In Anglo-Saxon England, the dog days ran from various dates in mid-July to early or mid-September. Canonical “dog daies” were observed from July 7 to September 5 in the 16th-century English liturgies. They were removed from the prayer books at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and their term shortened to the time between July 19 and August 20. During the British adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, they were shifted to July 30 to September 7.
Many modern sources in the English-speaking world move this still earlier, from July 3 to August 11, ending rather than beginning with or centering on the reappearance of Sirius to the night sky.”
The star Sirius is the brightest star in our skies as it is a mere 8.7 light years from Earth. It is best observed in the winter as it is seen quite near the very recognizable constellation Orion. Orion dominates the night sky, appearing on the southern horizon. Sirius can be seen just below and to the left of Orion’s ‘belt’.
Dog Days are not exclusive to the American experience, however, and on August 16th each year, it is celebrated as follows:
“It is possible that the Roch, the legendary medieval patron saint of dogs celebrated by the Catholic Church on 16 August, owes some of his legacy to the dog days. From the period of his self-proclaimed protectorate over the island, the Danish adventurer Jørgen Jürgensen is remembered in Iceland as Jorgen the Dog-Day King (Icelandic: Jörundur hundadagakonungur).”
I would be remiss if I didn’t also share the legend of Cat Nights. I had never heard of such a celebration until researching for this post. But according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, they are described thusly:
“The term ‘Cat Nights’ harks back to a rather obscure old Irish legend concerning witches and the belief that a witch could turn herself into a cat eight times, but on the ninth time (August 17), she couldn’t regain her human form. This bit of folklore also gives us the saying, ‘A cat has nine lives.’ Because August is a yowly time for cats, this may have prompted the speculation about witches on the prowl in the first place.”
But back to Dog Days. One of my earliest memories is of the very first summer after my family moved to Yakima… must have been late July or August 1962. My mother was insistent that we ‘younger’ children (I turned 5 in 1962) go to bed at 8 p.m. It did not matter that it was still light outside. Since, in the northern hemisphere the sun does not set until well after 9 p.m that time of year and in Yakima is was closer to 10, we went to bed regardless. And it did not matter that it was uncomfortably hot. We went to bed regardless. It was a few years later that we got air conditioning which made the hottest of days bearable.
What I vividly recall is lying in my bed – which was under a window and watching the lightweight cotton curtains billowing in the hot wind and hearing the sounds of children playing outside. I know I thought it was terribly unfair that I had to be in bed, unable to sleep, while the rest of the neighborhood was having fun.
I moved away from Yakima in great part to avoid the excessive heat which arrived in mid-July each year and often remained until late August or early September.
Ironically, these past nine years I have found myself back in my hometown to help with my dad (who is now 95).
This year and last – as his body fat diminished – he has a much more difficult time managing his body temp. He’s frequently cold, even on the very hottest of summer days, and a battle rages over whether the thermostat is set to cooling or heating! Frequently the furnace is running and the indoor temperature is close to 80 degrees. Either my brother (who lives with my dad) or I will switch it to AC only to have dad turn on the furnace despite the outdoor temp being over 100 degrees. The picture to the left is one I took a few days ago in Yakima, right after switching the thermostat back to cool.
On a recent trip I was lying in bed, trying to go to sleep, and harkened back to 1962… and just like then it was hot and difficult to get comfortable. Of course the reason was because my dad had turned the furnace on!
A couple of links about Dog Days and Cat Nights: