Ring in the New Year!

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Nowadays most new year celebrations around the world begin on December 31st, New Year’s Eve, and continue into the early hours of  January 1st, New Year’s Day. But this hasn’t always been the observed date.

The earliest New Year celebrations are believed to have been in Babylon (Mesopotamia) about 2000 BC. They took place in late March, at the time of the first new moon following the spring equinox. The festival was called Akitu, the name being derived from the Sumerian word for barley, which was harvested in the spring. Other ancient cultures celebrated the new year during different seasons: for the Egyptians, Phoenicians and Persians the new year began with the autumn equinox, and for the Greeks it was the winter equinox.

For the early Romans, the new year began on March 1st. At that time, the Roman calendar was only ten months, as created by Romulus,the legendary first king of Rome around 700 BC. January and February were added by the second Roman king, Numa Pomplius who reigned from 715 to 673 BC. The first time the new year was celebrated on January 1st in Rome was in 153 BC. It was moved to January as this was the time when two newly elected consuls began their one-year terms of office. But some people continued the tradition of starting the new year on March 1 – until Julius Caesar changed things by introducing the Julian calendar, which decreed that January 1st became the only observed date.

In medieval Europe the celebrations accompanying the new year were considered pagan and unchristian, and in 567 January 1st was abolished as the beginning of the new year. Throughout this period it was celebrated at various dates, including December 25 (the birth of Christ) March 1, March 25th  (the Feast of the Annunciation) and Easter. This situation lasted until 1582, when the Gregorian calendar was introduced (named after Pope Gregory X111). It was adopted by most Catholic countries almost immediately, but only gradually by Protestant ones. Britain did not adopt it until 1752 and until then, the British Empire, and the American colonies, continued to celebrate the new year in March.

Today, much of the world celebrates New Year on January 1, but there are several cultures that celebrate it on different dates. The Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, starts on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month of the Chinese calendar. It lasts for 23 days and ends on the 15th day of the first lunar month in the following year’s calendar.

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The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated in September, and Diwali, India’s new year is in October. In Japan, the New Year holiday is one of the most important of the year. It is called Oshogatsu (New Years Days) as it is celebrated for three days, from January 1st-3rd. Sending cards to each other is an important aspect of the holiday. The Japanese Post Office holds all the cards back until January 1st when they are delivered, all over Japan!

There are many New Year traditions in different countries around the world and it would be impossible to mention them all, but here are just a few. Eating certain foods features in many traditions:

In Spain, a dozen grapes are eaten, one for every stroke of midnight, symbolising people’s hopes for the twelve months ahead. In other parts of the world, legumes are eaten as they are thought to resemble coins which suggest future financial success. In Italy, lentils are favoured and in the southern United States it’s black-eyed peas.

In Cuba, Austria, Hungary and Portugal, pork features on New Year’s Eve menus because pigs represent progress and prosperity, while in the Netherlands, Greece and Mexico, ring-shaped cakes and pastries are a sign that the year has come full circle. And lastly . . . in Norway and Sweden, rice pudding is served with an almond hidden in it. The person who finds it can look forward to twelve months of good fortune.

Other New Year traditions have nothing to do with food:

A Mexican tradition involves the colour of underwear a person chooses. Those who want to find love wear red, while those who seek wealth and luck wear yellow. In Ecuador they set fire to scarecrows filled with paper at midnight on New Year’s Eve to banish anything bad that happened in the past.

In the USA, the evening is celebrated with both formal parties and family activities and a variety of public events. One of the best known celebrations is held in Times Square in New York and is known as the ‘ball drop’. This involves a huge 12-foot/3.7m ball made of Waterford crystal and weighting 11,875-pound/5,386 kg, being lowered from the roof of Number One Times Square down a 77-foot-high flagpole*. The ball reaches the roof, 60 seconds later and signals the start of the new year.

*I came across three different heights for this. Two different Wikipedia sites gave 70 and 141 foot, respectively, and another site gave 77 foot. I went with the middle one.

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New York Ball Drop Event for 2012 at Times Square. Author: Replytojain. Creative Commons
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Ball Drop in Times Square, view from the Rockefeller Center, taken in August, 2011. Author: Erik Drost. Creative Commons

In Britain, it is traditional to stay up all night and welcome the new year in. It is often celebrated with parties and family get-togethers, toasts of champagne, singing and dancing and fireworks. As the clock in London known as Big Ben, strikes midnight, people all over the UK cross their arms across their chests, link hands and sing Auld Lang Syne to remind them of old and new friends. Many English homes also continue a custom similar to the first-footing described below as part of the Scottish Hogmanay celebrations. On the stroke of midnight, people open the back door to let the old year out and ask the first dark-haired man to be seen to come through the front door carrying salt, coal and bread. This means that the following year everyone in the house will have enough to eat (bread), enough money (salt) and be warm enough (coal). When I was a child, it was always my dark-headed dad who was booted out with his lump of coal, salt and bread a little before midnight. He generally came back in at midnight, when everyone linked up to sing Auld Lang Syne and wish each other a Happy New Year.  shutterstock_91873745

In Scotland, the New Year celebrations are called Hogmanay. Festivities involve drinking and revelry in traditional Scottish style which lasts for a day or two into the new year. One of the traditions is first-footing, whereby neighbours pay visits to each other at midnight imparting good wishes for the coming year. Traditionally, first foots brought along a gift of coal for the fire, or shortbread. (Some sites also include whisky and a black bun – a rich, dark fruitcake, encased in pastry). It is considered especially lucky if the first person to enter the house after the new year is rung in is a tall, dark, and handsome man.

The Edinburgh Hogmanay celebration is the largest in the country and one of the most famous New Year celebrations in the world. It is focused on a major street party along Princes Street. The cannon is fired at Edinburgh Castle on the stroke of midnight, followed by a large fireworks display.

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Hogmanay fireworks in Edinburgh on New Year’s Eve, 1 January 2009. Author: Robbie Shade. Creative Commons

Scotland is also the birthplace of the well-known and well-loved New Year song, Auld Lang Syne. On New Year’s Eve we all gather together to sing the song that has become a part of the night’s festivities in many countries, despite most of us not knowing the words, let alone the meaning of them! So what is Auld Lang Syne all about . . .?

The Scottish poet, Robert Burns, was the first person to write down the lyrics of the poem in 1788, although a version had existed for almost 80 years before that time. Some of the lyrics were ‘collected’rather than composed by Burns. The ballad Old Long Syne, printed in 1711 by James Watson, shows many similarities and is most probably derived from the same old song. Burns is said to have sent a letter to the Scots Musical Museum with a note saying: The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man. 

The melody we know today did not appear until after Burns’ death and singing the song on Hogmanay soon became a tradition across Scotland. It rapidly spread to the rest of Britain, as well as the US and Canada.

As for the meaning of Auld Lang Syne, there are too many verses for me to add a translation of the whole song here, but the actual words, Auld Lang Syne, mean old long since – or times gone by in the old Scottish dialectThe song focuses on old friends and whether times past will be forgotten. It asks that we remember people of the past with fondness.

Here’s a translation of the first verse and chorus:

The Song

Verse One:
Should old acquaintances be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot
And auld lang syne?

Chorus:
For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

The Translation:

Verse One:
Should old acquaintance be forgotten
And never remembered?
Should old acquaintance be forgotten
For times gone by?

Chorus:
For times gone by, my dear,
For times gone by
We will take a cup of kindness yet
For times gone by.

To finish, here’s a version of Auld Lang Syne I found on YouTube. I love this version by the Scottish singer, Dougie MacLean. It was uploaded by saminnyc. I really wanted a version with bagpipes, but most versions with bagpipes did not have vocals. So I decided on this one. The Scottish voice more than makes up for the bagpipes:

All that remains for me to do now is to wish every one of you out there a wonderful and Happy New Year!

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References:
1. From History Vault: http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/new-years
2. From Info please: http://www.infoplease.com/spot/newyearhistory.html
3. From Protect Britain: http://projectbritain.com/year/newyearseve.html
4. Various Wikipedia sites for info. and some of the images used in the post (others from Shutterstock or Pixabay).

O Holy Night

carol-singersI’d intended to include this section in my post about the history of Christmas carols yesterday, but decided against it when I realised I had more to write about than was wise for a single post. In addition, the focus on this carol is very appropriate for today, considering what day it is! Of course, carols like Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing, While Shepherd’s Watch and several others would also fit the bill, but O Holy Night was on my mind.

So here we are again, enjoying another Christmas Eve. Children everywhere will be getting very excited. What the heck …. I’m excited, and I want to wish everyone in Blogland a really wonderful Christmas.

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Now for the serious stuff . . .

I was reading one of Natalie Scarberry’s posts a few days ago on her blog Sacred Touches and on it she’d put a video of my favourite Christmas carol, O Holy Night. I’d never heard it sung by male voices before (oh, my sheltered existence! 🙂 ) but I was pleasantly surprised. The finale is excellent.

O Holy Night has been my favourite carol since I was thirteen or so and a member of our school choir. Every Christmas we had a Carol Service in the church for school and families to attend. One year the choir sang O Holy Night, and the lead singer was a sixteen year old girl (who looked positively ‘grown up’ to me at the time). Her name was Gwyneth and she was Welsh – and she had an incredible voice. She hit the high notes perfectly, the sound resonating around the church. I tried to copy her for years!

I’ve found several versions of this carol on YouTube. Some are sung by traditional boys’ choirs, others by a variety of groups and trios. I liked several of them, but have decided to put two quite different versions here now.

The first video features the carol sung in the traditional way, the way we were taught to sing it (well, minus the soprano voice once Gwyneth had left school). The second one – the one I found on Natalie’s post – is a modern arrangement and really needs listening to all the way through to hear the finale.

So here’s the first version by Affiniti Music. It’s a wonderful combination of an amazing soprano voice, enchanting harp and beautiful violin, resulting in a very lovely Celtic sound – plus background orchestra and a great smile-jerking choir of cheeky-looking little boys.

Lastly, here’s the version I’d decided I wouldn’t like … until I heard it. It’s not the traditional sound and, being the old-fashioned type, I’d decided I wouldn’t like it even before I played it. . . But I was wrong. It’s very modern-sounding, and a lot different to the traditional versions I know, but the force of the male voices impressed me. The American accents add to the different feel to British ears, of course. It’s by Home Free.

See what you think . . .

The words of O Holy Night were written in 1847 by Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure* a wine seller and poet. He was asked by the parish priest to write a poem for Christmas, and he obliged by writing the beautiful words of a poem entitled Minuit, chrétiens (Midnight, Christians). Realising it should have music to accompany the words, Cappeau approached his friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, who agreed and duly composed the music. I’d say they made a great team.

*Roqumaure is a small town in southern France.

Now it really is time for me to wish everyone a very Happy Christmas, Happy Jul/Yule, Happy Midwinter/Midsummer – or whatever festival your own culture or religion follows at this time of year.

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A Chirp about Carol Singing

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The word ‘Carol’ means a dance or song of praise and joy, originally written to be sung on various occasions throughout the year. Christmas carols are songs or hymns with lyrics specifically on the theme of  Christmas, and have been sung over the Christmas period for hundreds of years.

Singing and dancing at celebrations long predates Christianity. Over three thousand years ago (perhaps as far back as five) people would have danced and sung joyful songs as part of festive worship at stone circle like Stonehenge.

Early Christians adopted the pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice for Christmas, giving people Christian songs to sing. The first known Christmas hymns were in Latin and date from 4th century Rome. Another famous hymn was written in 760 by Comas of Jerusalem for the Greek Orthodox Church, and it was soon after this that composers across Europe started writing Christmas carols, too. Unfortunately, they were still written in Latin and were not very popular as most people couldn’t understand the language. By the 13th century, few people were still interested in celebrating Christmas.

But things were already afoot to change that . . .

In 13th century France, Germany and Italy, a tradition of Christmas carols in regional languages became popular, under the influence of St Francis of Assisi who made the birth of Christ into a live theatrical event. The first carols in English appeared in 1426 in a work of twenty-five Caroles of Cristemas by Shropshire chaplain, John Awdlay. These were possibly sung by groups of wassailers or minstrels as they went from door to door.

Many popular carols of today originate from a collection first published in 1582, again in Latin. Amongst them are Christ was born on Christmas Day and O come all ye Faithful, the latter appearing in its present form in the mid-18th century (though the words possibly originated in the 13th).

During the strict Puritanical rule of Cromwell in 1647, Christmas celebrations became almost non-existent, those who still continued to enjoy them doing so in secret and risking severe punishment if they were caught. Puritans not only disapproved of general merriment, they did not believe in religious songs. Their strict ban on such things not only affected Christmas in England, but in some other English-speaking areas too (as in the Massachusetts Bay Colony).

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Public notice from 1656 in Boston regarding the celebrations of Christmas. Public Domain.

It was two hundred years before Christmas recovered from this setback. In 1822, the English MP and amateur historian, David Gilbert, published a collection of old carols. Eleven years later, William Sandys published a volume of tunes still sung today, including The First Nowel (the Angel Did say), and Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

One interesting carol originally from the 17th century but later republished in 1833 by William Sandys, is I Saw Three Ships (come sailing in.)

I like the catchy tune of this carol although the lyrics are open to interpretation. In the carol the ships are sailing into Bethlehem – which is highly improbable as the nearest water (the Dead Sea) is 20 miles/32 km away. One interpretation is that the three ships refer to the ships that carried the relics of the three kings to the cathedral in Cologne in the 12th century. Another suggestion is that the ships are actually the camels used by the Magi, as camels are frequently referred to as ‘ships of the desert’. Other interpretations exist, too.

I like a few versions of this carol but I picked this one because I love the Celtic music and of course, the lovely voice of Orla Fallon (of Celtic Woman). It was uploaded to YouTube by iscrazy4horses:

In the 1840s, Christmas in England began to take on a completely new feel. This was due, firstly, to the intervention of Queen Victoria and her new German husband, Prince Albert.

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Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1854. Photographer Roger Fenta. royalcollection.org.uk  Public Domain

Not only were traditions from the continent adopted, new music books were published to widen the appeal of carols. These carols included Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The First Noel, Good King Wenceslas and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (the latter a New England carol).

Here’s a fun version of Good King Wenceslas sung by Irish Rovers. It was uploaded to YouTube by BrothersCharles.

This is what the story of King Wenceslas is actually about for anyone who doesn’t know. I’ve quoted it directly from Wikipedia:

Good King Wenceslas  is a popular Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian  king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the day after Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus 1, Duke of Bohemia…

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Good King Wenceslas from a 1879 book by Henry Ramsden Bramley. From an engraving by the Brothers Grimm. Public Domain.  

The second reason for the increased enthusiasm for Christmas in the 1840s  was because these new changes were taken on board by a young writer called Charles Dickens.

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Charles Dickens in 1842, the year before the publication of A Christmas Carol. Author: Francis Alexander. Public Domain

In 1843 he published A Christmas Carol.

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Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. Date 1843/2008. Photographer: Heritage Auctions Inc, Dallas, Texas. Public Domain

In the book, readers ‘see’ the reality of grim Christmases of the past compared to the festive, music-filled Christmases that had now become the norm.

Meanwhile . . . in Austria in 1818, the beautiful carol, Silent Night (Stille Nacht), was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr.

The English translation of Silent Night was published in 1859 by episcopal priest John Freeman Young (then serving at Trinity Church in New York). It has become the favourite carol of many people.

Christmases of the 20th and 21st centuries have continued to extend the Victorian Christmas as a festive, secular celebration, obsessed with tradition. The singing of carols was popularised still further in 1961 when the Oxford University Press published one of the most popular carol books in the English-speaking world: Carols for Choirs.

Many more Christmas songs have become popular over the last century, most of them secular ones. One of the most well-known and well-loved songs is probably White Christmas, described by Wikipedia as ‘a 1942 Irving Berlin song reminiscing about an old-fashioned Christmas setting’.

Christmas songs have become ‘big business’ nowadays and competition for top places in the charts is the norm. This video is of the song that topped the UK charts at Christmas for many years. It’s Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody, uploaded by Andrew MacLachlan. Not exactly a Christmas Carol . . .

We’ve come a long way from the austere, Latin hymns of early Christian times. Yet traditional carols from over the past few hundred years can still be heard over the holiday period around stores and markets in towns, and in restaurant and café – and we all love to sing along (well, most of us do!). Many carols have been given an upbeat arrangement, which – like everything in life – some people like and others don’t. We rarely see carol singers at the door nowadays (another thing people either loved or hated) but Carol Services in churches still take place, despite poor attendance at some.

All in all, to me, Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without these wonderful old carols.

*****

References:
1. http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/carols_history.shtml
2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml
3. http://musiced.about.com/od/christmasnewyeararticles/a/carols.htm
4. The Long, Strange History of Christmas Carols:       http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/assessment/2011/11/the_long_strange_history_of_christmas_carols.html
5. Various Wikipedia sites on individual carols and people mentioned in the post.

*****

WInter Solstice Celebrations Through Time

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Last year on this very date, I wrote a post about the winter/hibernal solstice and how people have celebrated it through the ages. As the basics of that haven’t changed I’ve decided to reblog the post for anyone interested to glance at.

The solstice happens at the same moment for everyone worldwide. It occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly point (23.5 degrees: over the Tropic of Capricorn). Naturally this makes climatic conditions in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres very different at that time and the celebrations vary accordingly.

This year, 2017, the winter solstice occurs on Wednesday, December 21 at 10.44 GMT. (As I write this, the time here in the UK is exactly that!) This means that at ancient sites like Stonehenge, as well as many other venues worldwide, people will be gathering on Wednesday evening/night to wait for the sunrise the following morning. Having visited Stonehenge for the first time in early May, and written a post about the site, I can understand the enormity of its appeal as a venue for both the winter and summer solstices. It’s simply mystical and awe-inspiring.

I won’t say anything else or I’ll be duplicating what’s in the post. So here it is…

Millie Thom

Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere over Asia

The word solstice comes from the Latin word, solstitium, which means ‘Sun standing still’. The December solstice is the day on which the Sun is at its most southerly point, directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn, before it reverses its direction and gradually starts to move north again.  The image above shows the winter solstice in the Northen Hemisphere over Asia.  (Author: Jecowa at English Wikipedia. Creative Commons).

To people in the Northern Hemisphere the winter solstice means the longest night, with the latest dawn and shortest day of the year, with the sun at its lowest point in the sky. The day after the winter solstice marks the beginning of lengthening days, as we head towards the summer solstice on June 21st 2016.

For those in the Southern Hemisphere the opposite is true: people will experience the shortest night and the earliest dawn, with the longest…

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A Fairytale Christmas at Doddington Hall

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Doddington Hall is a family home located in the village of Doddington about five miles from the city of Lincoln, UK. It was built in the 16th century and is similar in design to other Elizabethan halls built at that time. I don’t intend to write about the history of the Hall at this stage, but here are a few more photos of the East Front as we approached after getting our tickets at the Gate House. The unicorn sculptures and topiaries are significant in that the unicorn is the family crest.

The Hall has a large estate on which Christmas trees are grown and a careful programme of replanting is carried out. We’ve bought our Christmas trees here for some years now but this is only the second time we’ve actually been inside the Hall itself – and I’m really glad we did.

Between November 29 and December 23 this year, Doddington Hall is open to the public at weekends (10-4 pm) and on Wednesadays ( 3-7 pm). It has been beautifully and imaginatively decorated to present a Fairytale Christmas, many of the main rooms having specific themes with scenes and characters from well-loved fairy stories. The team responsible for creating the wonderful displays include Claire Birch – who runs the estate with her husband James – several members of staff, florist Rachel Petheran, the resident cutting gardener, and lighting and production designer Howell Thomas with students from Lincoln College.

On entering through the East Front doorway we found ourselves in the Great Hall. This room’s long dining table is decorated and set for a festive meal for some interesting people or possibly elves/gnomes/dwarfs.

From the Great Hall we headed across to the Brown Parlour, decorated  as The Sweet World of Hansel and Gretel. One of the central items on display is a gingerbread cottage, and there are candy sticks and other ‘sweet’ items hanging from the ceiling and in jars and containers around the room. This room also had a Christmas tree and a nice old rocking horse.

On leaving the Brown Room we entered the hallway in order to head up to the first floor. The elegant staircase has not escaped themed decoration, either. A beautifully made green beanstalk (as in the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk) follows the stairs right up to the top/second floor where ‘the goose that lays the golden eggs’ sits on a fluffy white cloud. But it seems the giant has detected intruders and his lowering boot shows he’s coming to investigate . . .

On the first floor landing we were greeted by a friendly looking dragon made of willow . . .

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. . . before we entered the first one of two bedrooms to view on this floor. This one depicted The Princess and the Pea story. An antique four-poster bed is cleverly piled high with mattresses with the princess lying on the top. Her dress sits on a nearby chair, next to a table on which was another Christmas tree.

Unfortunetely, in the other bedroom on this floor we couldn’t get any photos at all as it is really dark in there and no flash photography is permitted. The whole room has been cleverly transformed into a scene from Sleeping Beauty. The princess lies sleeping in a four-poster bed for a hundred years whilst around her the thorns and brambles of the forest continue to flourish.

After being greeted by the goose and descending giant on the top/second floor, we headed into a bedroom decked out as Aladdin’s Cave. This impressive display was also difficult to catch on camera because of the glaringly coloured lights, which could have been partially countered by using flash. The lights constantly changed colours in ‘the cave’ so we have three different coloured genies and treasures. It was also difficult at first to pick out Aladdin’s lamp.

Also on the top floor is the 96-foot-long Long Gallery, the room in which people of bygone times would have walked up and down for their exercise when the weather was ‘inclement’ (unpleasantly cold or wet). This was a particularly beautifully decorated room: a snowy woodland fairyland and realm of the (absent) Snow Queen. At the far end of the gallery, a throne awaits any lady willing to be photographed wearing the queen’s crown and fur coat. Our photos of this room aren’t too wonderful either, unfortunately, as it is fairly dark, especially at the end away from the windows.

Finally, on our way down, we found this very pretty little elf on the first floor who kindly agreed to let us take her photo. Thank you, Elf, for posing so beautifully for us. 😀

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I’m already wondering which theme will be chosen for next year’s Christmas decorations at Doddington Hall.

The Lincoln Santa Run 2016

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Today, Sunday December 11, we decided to head into Lincoln to watch the annual University of Lincoln Santa Fun Run, organised by the The Rotary Club of Lincoln Colonia in aid of a number of local charities. The university itself sponsors Macmillan Cancer Support.

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This was the eleventh time the Lincoln Fun Run has taken place, and just like the brilliant Christmas market held annually over the first weekend of December, each year has seen the event growing in size and popularity. This year, well over 2,500 santas took part – as well as over 200 canine ones. We’ve been a couple of times in the past but had never bothered to take photographs before. So today we went with determination!

The run was scheduled to start at 11.30 am, but we got there well before 10 o’ clock, purely to make sure we found somewhere to park – and to find ourselves a ‘viewing spot’ near the front in order to take the photos. Last time we went, we were a long way back in the crowds and all I managed to see was the odd flash of red now and then. 😦  So we mooched about and took a few pics here and there of the organisers making the final preparations to the route, as well as the gathering santas and supporters.

The ‘compere’ kept supporters entertained as we massed, and at one stage he asked whether any of us were visitors from distant places. It was interesting to note that amongst those were people from Australia, New York and California.

The photos below show one on the inflatable santas going up. The run eventually started behind this cheery chappie, at the other side of the castle.

Here are just a few photos of ‘The Gathering of the Santas’ – as we decided to call it. The santas in the blue suits were running in support of Nepal.

The ‘Run’ itself was a lot of fun and spectators added to that with their support of the participants. Some of the faster runners completed the 3.5 km (2 mile) run very quickly, but everyone was well encouraged and cheered on. The route involved two laps, part of which circled the imposing cathedral.

And lastly, here’s a short video we made of the ‘Run’. (No, I haven’t got a tripod yet! 🙂 )

The Holly and the Ivy … and a Little Sprig of Mistletoe

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Traditional Christmas card with holly and mistletoe. Date circa 1880s. Author: Shirley Wynne. Public Domain

Over the last couple of years I’ve written a number of posts about Christmas traditions in the U.K. I’ve done posts about Christmas trees, Yule logs, Boxing Day and Wassailing. I’ve also written about the Winter Solstice celebrations and Christmas markets. So this year, my first ‘Christmassy’ post is about the use of greenery – other than the Christmas tree.

Evergreens such as holly, ivy, mistletoe, laurel, fir and yew have been used in Northern Europe since pre-Christian times to celebrate the winter solstice (December 21). Staying green in the middle of winter, and not dying like most other plants, meant that evergreens symbolised eternal life. Hanging greenery in the home would ensure that new vegetation would return with the coming spring, as well as warding off evil spirits.

Greenery was also used in Rome for Saturnalia, the mid-winter celebration in honour of the god, Saturn. Romans decorated their houses with greenery, lit candles and enjoyed feasting and exchanging gifts with family and friends.

As Christianity spread, pagan cultures continued many of their midwinter practices, despite the disapproval of the Christian Church. Eventually, by 1600, the use of greenery became accepted in churches, though it took on a Christian perspective.

Holly is perhaps the most popular and well-known of the Christmas evergreens. Its prickly leaves symbolise the crown of thorns worn by Christ at His crucifixion and the bright red berries symbolise his drops of blood. In Scandinavia, holly is known as Christ Thorn.

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European holly (Ilex aqufolium) leaves and fruit. Author Jurgen Howaldt. Creative Commons

In early days, holly was believed to be a fertility symbol as well as having magical powers and the ability to drive away witches, goblins and demons. In medieval England, when people were very afraid of such supernatural beings – which were thought to be particularly active at Christmas time – unmarried women would tie a sprig of holly to their beds to guard themselves against such things. In Germany, holly was considered to be a good luck charm against the hostile forces of nature.

In the 1640s, during the rule of Oliver Cromwell when Puritans banned Xmas, Christian country folk still continued to hang up bunches of ‘holy’ boughs of evergreens as a symbol of Christmas. This became the holly bough we know today.

We have two, smallish holly trees in our garden. One has variegated leaves and red berries, the other is not variegated and has yellow berries (Ilex aquifolium Bacciflavia). I always think of Christmas colours being red and green, so we don’t usually bring any of the yellow one indoors at Christmas, but it’s quite pretty all the same. Here are a few photos of the two trees:

Ivy is such a common evergreen. Various species grow in so many places – often to heights of 30 metres above the ground. The following  pictures show just three varieties of the hedera species.

And these are a few photos from around our village. The bird table is in our garden and the ivy growing up it started life in a basket of flowers sent by one of our children a few years ago.

Ivy needs to cling to something to support itself – which, in the Christian view, reminds people of the need to cling to God for support in their lives.

In Roman times ivy was the ancient symbol of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. Due to such association with pagan festivals, ivy was banned from the insides of churches and Christian homes, and used only to decorate the outsides. In Germany, a piece of ivy tied to the outside of a church was once thought to protect it from lightning.

Nowadays, ivy has become part of the traditional Christmas greenery, particularly as part of Christmas wreaths that many people hang outside their front doors.

Before I say a little bit about mistletoe, here’s a nice little version of the old hymn, The Holly and the Ivy that I found on YouTube. There are several versions of it but I liked the sweet little images in this one from MyVoxSongNurseryRhymes.

Mistletoe is one of the Christmas greens that everyone knows something about. Kissing beneath it has become the norm at get-togethers and parties. Some people avoid it like the plague, other people scheme and plan as to how they can entice someone they fancy to stand beneath it.

One little snippet I read regarding the origin of the name ‘mistletoe’ did make me laugh. Apparently, the name comes from two Anglo Saxon words: ‘mistel’ – meaning dung – and ‘tan’ – meaning stick. So next time you stand canoodling beneath the mistletoe, remember that you’re doing it beneath some ‘poo on a stick’. (Not my words!).

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Mistletoe is a parasitic plant which attaches to and penetrates the trunk and branches of a tree or shrub by a structure called the haustorium, through which it draws water and minerals from the host.

European Mistletoe on an apple tree in Essex, England. Author: Chilepine. Public Domain
European Mistletoe (Viscum album) on an apple tree in Essex, England. Author: Chilepine. Public Domain
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Mistletoe growing in a tree in the Wye Valley, UK, showing white berries in medium close-up. Author: Alexbrn. Public Domain

The name originally referred to the species Viscum album (European mistletoe) found in Great Britain and much of Europe. Separate species occur in Spain, Southern Portugal, North Africa, Australia and Asia.  Over the centuries the term has broadened to include other species of parasitic plants with similar habits found in other parts of the world. The Eastern Mistletoe is native to North America. Viscum album is not native to North America but it has been introduced in California.

Eastern mistletoe has smooth edged, oval, evergreen leaves in pairs along a woody stem with waxy, white berries in clusters of 2-6. The Eastern mistletoe of North America is similar but has shorter, broader leaves and longer clusters of 10 or more berries.

Eastern Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) in Northeast Texas. Author: Loadmaster (David R. Tribble). Creative Commons
Eastern Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) in Northeast Texas. Author: Loadmaster (David R. Tribble). Creative Commons

Mistletoe is an attractive plant which provides contrast and interest when used alongside holly, ivy and other greenery, as in many Christmas wreaths and other arrangements of foliage.

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The Romans treated it with great respect due to (what they saw as) its magical/mystical properties. Although all parts of the plant are poisonous, mistletoe’s healing powers have been recently recognised. It can be used in homeopathic recipes used to lower blood pressure and it may also have a role in cancer remedies. (The usual warning applies here: Don’t try this at home!)

Mistletoe was sacred to the people of ancient Britain and, as in ancient Rome, it was considered to have magical properties. In the Celtic language the name ‘mistletoe’ was ‘all heal’ as it was thought to cure diseases and render poisons harmless. It could also make humans and animals fertile and protect the house from ghosts and bring good luck.

Druid priests used it in their sacrificial ceremonies, and possibly, also in marriage ceremonies, and people meeting under a tree bearing mistletoe were forbidden to fight – even if they were enemies. The kissing custom is believed to have comes down to us from the Celts, so perhaps the friendship offered beneath the tree was the start of things.

Later on, hanging up the mistletoe in a house was originally done to ward off evil spirits, as was the case with most evergreens. The Victorians used it in doorways and hung it from ceilings and it eventually it became acceptable for the odd ‘mistletoe kiss’ to take place. Tradition has it that the more berries the mistletoe has, the more kisses are possible. With every kiss a berry was plucked until the berries were all gone and the kissing stopoed.

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I’m adding this final picture simply because I like it!

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The Mistletoe Seller by Adrien Barrere. Date: before 1932. Author: Adrien Barrere ((1874-1931). Public Domain.

References:

1. Christmas Traditions and Customs:

http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/hollyandivy.shtml

2. Fashion Era: ChristmasCustoms -The Tradition of the Holly and the Ivy:

http://www.fashion-era.com/Christmas/christmas_customs_holly_history.htm

3. Woodland Trust:

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/native-trees/holly/

4. Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holly

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedera

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mistletoe

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An Inappropriate Reply – FFfAW

Flash Fiction for Aspiring Writers is a writing challenge hosted by Priceless Joy. It involves writing a piece of fiction from the given photo prompt in around 75-150 words – give or take 25 words. If you’d like to join in with the challenge, follow the above link to see what to do. The challenge runs from Tuesday to Tuesday every week.

Here is this week’s prompt, kindly provided by Louise. Thank you, Lou!

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And this is my story:

An Inappropriate Reply

Quentin stormed into the morning room and thrust the letter into his wife’s hands. Amelia shifted in her chair, avoiding his outraged glare. The note-paper was all too familiar.

‘Where did you find it?’ Such a mundane question, yet she could think of nothing appropriate to say.

‘That’s irrelevant!’ Quentin snapped, pacing the floor. ‘After twenty-three years of marriage, you owe me a plausible explanation. I was bound to realise soon enough.’

Amelia stared at the letter, grasping for explanations. She’d never kept secrets from Quentin before. ‘James made me promise not to tell you until –’

‘Until it was too late for me to stop him…!’

‘At twenty-one, James has every right to enlist in Kitchener’s army, Quentin. Our son knows what he’s doing.’ Unshed tears suddenly welled. ‘But I can’t bear the thought of him in Normandy. He could be killed, or wounded and–’

Quentin knelt to comfort her. ‘We’ll need to be extremely brave for just a few months, my love. They say this war will be over by Christmas…’

Word Count: 174

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If you’d like to read other stories, or add one yourself, click on the little blue frog:

A Note about WW1 and Lord Kitchener’s Recruitment Campaigns:

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Kitchener World War 1 Recruitment poster. Date:1914 Author: Arthur Leete (1882-1933). Public Domain.

When war broke out in August 1914, it became clear that the British Army needed far more men than the numbers already recruited in the regular army. The war minister at the time, Lord Kitchener, began a campaign to urge men aged between 19 and 30 to (voluntarily} join up. Three weeks later, the upper age limit was raised to 35. By mid-September, over 500,000 men had volunteered – and over a million by January 1915.

Many officials in both the military and the government initially believed that the war with Germany would be ‘over by Christmas’. But Lord Kitchener was unconvinced. Needless to say, as war dragged on, eventually to last four long years, concerns over the provision of manpower led to again altering the recruitment ages, this time for men between 18 and 50. During this time, many young men (250, 000 of them in Britain) found little difficulty in falsifying their age. There are stories of boys as young as 15 – a few even younger – joining up, until eventual conscription in March 1916 made it more difficult for them to do so.

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