Jumping into January

January is the first month of the year in the Gregorian and Julian calendars and has a length of 31 days.

January and February did not exist in the earlier Roman calendar, both months being added by Numa Pompilius (the legendary second king of Rome, coming after Romulus) around 700 BCE/BC. Pompilius wanted to make the calendar equal to the standard lunar year of 365 days. (Note. The Julian calendar,  introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE/BC replaced/refined the Roman calendar.)

In the northern hemisphere January is the second month of winter and is generally the coldest of all the months. In the southern hemisphere, January is the second month of summer and the seasonal equivalent of July in the northern hemisphere.

The Roman name for the month was Januarius, named after the two-faced  god, Janus, who had two faces and was able to look backwards at the old year and forwards into the new one.

Head of Janus, Vatican Museum, Rome. Author: Loudon dodd, Creative Commons

Janus also kept the gate of Heaven, so he became known the god of doors and gates. This is generally stretched to include beginnings, transitions, time, passages, and endings – all of which are fitting for a god of the first month of the year.

The Anglo Saxon name for January was Wulf monath. It was given that name because wolves often came into the villages in search of food in January, the heart of winter. Not surprisingly, the first full moon of the year is named after howling wolves and as such is known as Wulf Moon.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

In other cultures this first full moon of the year was known as Ice Moon, Snow Moon, Old Moon and the Moon after Yule.

In 2018 the full moon will be on the night between 1 and 2 January and is another supermoon to look out for. There is also another full moon in January (also a supermoon), near to the end. As the second full moon of the month, with no given name, it is known as a Blue Moon. In 2018 this will be on January 31. In some areas it will look red due to the total lunar eclipse it causes – thus making it a blood moon. So we will have a Blue, Supermoon, Blood Moon to look forward to.

Enough about the moon. Let’s move on…

The birthstone for January is the garnet, a word that comes comes from the 14th century Middle English word gernet – which means meaning dark red.

A small sample of garnet. Author: Teravolt (talk). Creative Commons

The zodiac signs for January are Capricorn until January 19th and Aquarius from the 20th onwards.

The birthflower for January are the Dianthus caryophyllus (carnation) and the Galanthus (snowdrop).

There are many customs and traditions connected to January around the world and many of them start with New Year’s Eve and resolutions. I wrote a post about New Year’s Eve last year (Ring in the New Year!). I have also  previously written posts about a couple of other January traditions. One was about Wassailing and Twelfth Night on January 5-6 and the other about Burn’s Night on January 25th. So on this occasion, I’ll leave those three alone. But here are a few more:

  1. The start of January does not seem to have been at all favoured in the past. In medieval times, good fortune for the coming year depended upon events on January 1st. To find out if they would have good luck, or not, farmers would put a flat cake on one of the horns of a cow. The farmer and his workers would sing and dance around the cow until the cake was thrown off. If it fell in front of the cow, it signified good luck. If it fell behind the cow, they would have bad luck during the coming year. To the earlier Saxons, January 2nd was the unluckiest day of the year and anyone born on that day could expect an unpleasant death.
  2. January 7th, the day after the feast of the Epiphany (and Twelfth Night), was known by different names by men and women of the past. To women, the day was Distaff Day or sometimes, Roc Day. The distaff, or rock, was used in spinning and was the medieval symbol of women’s work. In many European cultural traditions, women resumed their household work after the twelve days of Christmas – and in Catholic countries today, Distaff Day is still one of the unofficial holidays. To men who lived and worked in the countryside, January 7 was known as Plough Day – the day they would return to work in the fields.
  3. January 13th was the day of St Hilary’s Feast (St Hilary lived AD 310 – c. 367):

    The ordination of Saint Hilary of Poitiers in the 14th century, Author: Richard de Montbaston et coolaborateurs. Public Domain

This day became known as the coldest day of the year due to particularly cold events of the past starting on, or around, that date. One of the most severe winters known began around January 13 1205. In Britain, the River Thames froze over and ale and wine turned to solid ice and needed to be sold by weight! This big freeze lasted until March 22nd. Farmers in England were unable to till the ground and sow their crops. Consequently, food prices soared that year.

4. January, in general, has become known as the coldest month of the year. One of the worst cold spells in Britain was between 1550 and 1750 – a period that became known as the Little Ice Age. Winters were so cold that the Thames froze over each year, often for three months at a time. During that time the Thames was wider and slower than it is now, and its flow was further obstructed by the medieval Old London Bridge. The Thames  froze over several times in the 16th century. In 1536, Henry VIII is said to have travelled from London to Greenwich by sleigh along the Thames, and in 1564, Elizabeth I took walks on the ice. But the first frost fair was recorded as being held on the Thames in London in 1608. Tents, side shows and food stalls were set up  and even ice bowling took place.

A page from ‘The Great Frost: cold doings in London’. Printed in London in 1608. Attributed to Thomas Dekker. Public Domain

The last frost fair was held in 1814, beginning on February 1st and lasting for four days. An elephant was led across the river below Black friar’s Bridge.

5. January 20th is the Eve of St Agnes. This was traditionally the night when girls and unmarried women would perform certain rituals before going to bed in order to dream of their future husbands. The rituals seem quite peculiar and laughable to us today, but such rituals were performed in all seriousness, and in the belief that they would work. One ritual involved transferring pins one at a time from a pincushion to a sleeve whilst reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Another involved walking backwards upstairs to bed and another was fasting all day. Yet another tradition was to eat a portion of dumb cake (a salty cake prepared with friends in silence) before going to bed. The Eve of St Agnes was also the subject of a poem by Keats.

St Agnes herself is the patron saint of girls, engaged couples, rape survivors, virgins and the Children of Mary. This is what Wikipedia tells us about her:

Saint Agnes of Rome was a member of the Roman nobility born in AD 291 and raised in an Early Catholic family. She suffered martyrdom at the age of twelve or thirteen during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian on 21 January AD 304. Agnes was a beautiful young girl of wealthy family and therefore had many suitors of high rank. Details of her story are unreliable, but legend holds that the young men, slighted by her resolute devotion to religious purity, submitted her name to the authorities as a follower of Christianity.  

Accounts of her execution are steeped in legend and cannot be proven true, but archaeological evidence indicates that a young girl of about thirteen years of age, a virgin named Agnes, was martyred in Rome and honoured for her sacrifice.

Saint Agnes, circa 1620. Artist: Domenichino. Oil on canvas. Now in The Royal Collection, Windsor Castle. Source: Web Gallery of Art. Public Domain

This post is long enough, so I won’t include famous anniversaries but here are just a few famous birthdays for the month:

  • January 3, 1892. J(ohn) R(onald) R(euel) Tolkien was an academic and writer, and a professor of English language and literature at Oxford University. He is now famously remembered as creator of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien, aged 24, in army uniform. Photo taken in 1916. Public Domain
  • January 13, 1926Michael Bond. A Newbury-born BBC cameraman, better known as the creator of Paddington Bear, a little bear bear found at Paddington Station in London, wearing a sou’wester, wellington boots and a duffle coat.
Paddington Bear at Paddington Station, 3rd May, 2007. Author: Stefan Oemisch. Creative Commons
  • January 15, 1929Martin Luther King, an American clergyman and leading civil-rights campaigner and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Martin Luther King Jr. speaking against the Vietnam War at St Paul’s Campus, University of Minnesota. 22 April, 1967. Author: Minnesota Historical Society Creative Commons
  • January 18, 1736James Watt. A Scottish engineer and inventor, whose improvements to Newcomen’s steam-engine helped to power the factories of his partner Mathew Boulton, and ultimately the industrial revolution.
James Watt by John Partridge, after Sir William Beechley. 31 December 1806. Author: Antonia Reeve. Public Domain

January 24, AD 76. The Roman emperor, Hadrian, who visited Britain c A.D. 121 and ordered the building of the 73 mile Hadrian’s Wall from the Solway Firth to the Tyne to keep out the Scots.

To finish with this is a photo of some early flowering snowdrops at the front of our house. They have been in bud for a few days now.

Dancing Into December

Chill December brings the sleet,
Blazing fire, and Christmas treat.
~Sara Coleridge (1802–1852)

It’s hard to write about the month of December without having Christmassy thoughts, or hoping it will snow on Christmas Day. But, as I write this, Christmas is still three weeks away and already town centres are manic and car parks full as people ‘shop till they drop’. The insides of stores, restaurants and cafes have had decorations and Christmas trees up for a few weeks now: far to early, in my book – and I won’t begin to say what I think about the constant bomdardment of Christmas adverts on TV. Now, I’m no ‘BAH HUMBUG’ (I love Christmas!) but all this commercialism somewhat dampens the run-up to Christmas for me and I live with my memories of the simple Christmases we enjoyed in the 1950s and 60s.

So, moan over and on to a few facts about December…

I’ve written several posts in the past about different Christmas traditions, so here I’ll focus on some of the things connected to December that aren’t completely about Christmas – although I can’t help mentioning it at times. Even my calendar for this month is Christmassy… well, sort of.

December is the twelfth and last month of the year in the Julian and Gregorian calendars and one of seven months with 31 days. It is the first month of meteorological winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the first month of summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The name ‘December’ comes from the Latin word decem, which means ten, because December was originally the tenth month of the year when the Roman calendar began in March. December always starts on the same day of the week as September and always ends on the same day of the week as April.

The Anglo Saxon name December was Ærra Geola, or the month before Yule’, and was followed by Æftera Geola, or ‘after Yule‘ (i.e. January)Yule was Giuli, or Geola, the ancient name in the Germanic lunar calendar for the winter festival celebrated by the peoples of Northern Europe. Early references to it are in the form of the month names given above. Later, following the adoption of Christianity, yule came to refer to the twelve-days of Christmas holiday associated with the Feast of the Nativity.

The pagan celebration of Yule revolved around the Winter Solstice and is one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world. (I wrote a little about the festival of Saturnalia in Ancient Rome in the Winter Solstice post I’ve linked to above). The Winter Solstice falls on December 21st, is the shortest day of the year and was celebrated in Britain long before the arrival of Christianity. Many ancient people worshipped the sun and the Norse and Germanic peoples of Northern Europe saw the sun as a wheel (or houl) that changed the seasons. It is from the name for this wheel that the word yule is thought to have come.

To the Norse and Germanic peoples, Yule celebrations involved feasting and drinking and making sacrifices to the gods in return for their protection against the spirits of the dead who were believed to return to their families during the midwinter – the darkest time of year. Celebrations also involved the continuous burning of the Yule log. This ‘log’ was often an entire tree trunk, which was dragged into the home with great ceremony to be laid across the central hearth where its warmth and light would bring cheer throughout the days of the festival. The middle illustration below (dated 1832) suggests that the custom continued well into the 19th century in the UK, and probably even longer in rural areas.

The making of a chocolate Yule log – a chocolate-covered, rolled chocolate cake (swiss roll) – is probably the only reminder of Yuletide celebrations today, along with celebrations and bonfires of various pagan groups.

Many other cultures also have winter festivals that are celebrations of light. In the Jewish religion there is Hannukah (or Chanukah) celebrated in November and December.

Contemporary candelabrum in the style of a traditional Menorah. Iy has 8 candles to be lit during services. Author: 39james Creative Commons

This festival commemorates a time, 2,500 years ago when the Syrian king Antiochus, tried to make Jewish people worship Greek gods. A statue of Antiochus was erected in Jerusalem and the Jewish people were ordered to bow down before it. Worshipping idols is strictly forbidden in the Ten Commandments and a small group of Jews, called Maccabees, rebelled. After three years, Jerusalem was recaptured, but the Temple had been destroyed. After cleaning and repairing it the people rededicated it to God by lighting the lamp – the Menorah, the symbol of God’s presence. Today, Hannukah is celebrated by lighting one candle every day for eight days.

Diwali (or Deepavali) Festival of Lights is the most popular of the Hindu festivals from Southern Asia, but since it is celebrated over five days between October and November – and nothing to do with December – I won’t say much about it here. In the UK the main Diwali celebrations are in the city of Leicester. It’s a fun time and aptly call a Festival of Lights – fireworks and all.

The zodiac signs for December are Sagittarius until December 21 and Capricorn from December 22 onwards:

December’s flower is the narcissus:

December’s birthstones are the turquoise  and zircon:

If cold December gave you birth—
The month of snow, and ice, and mirth—
Place on your hand a turquoise blue,
Success will bless whate’er you do.
~Author unknown, A Gem for Every Month, c.1883

And these are a few of the dozens of notable events that have occurred in December, historically:

December 1, 1918: Iceland was granted independence by the Danish parliament.

December 1, 1990: England was connected to mainland Europe for the first time since the Ice Age when engineers dug a railway tunnel under the English Channel and broke through the last rock layer.

Course of the Channel Tunnel. Author: Mortadelo2005. Creative Common

December 3, 1967: The first successful heart transplant was performed by Dr. Christiaan Barnard at Cape Town, South Africa, on Louis Washkansky, who lived for 18 days.

Dr Christiaan Barnard in 1960, Author Benito Prieto Coussent. Creative Commons

December 4,1872: Crew from the British brigantine Die Gratia boarded a deserted ship drifting mid Atlantic. The captain’s table was set for a meal aboard the US ship Marie (sometimes given as Mary) Celeste but the Captain, crew and passengers were all missing

The Brigantine, Amazon, entering Marseilles in November 1861. In 1868, she was renamed Marie Celeste. Author; Possibly Honore Pellegrin. Source: scanned from Slate Magazine, December 6 2011. Public Domain

December 9, 1993 : A five-day repair job in space on the $3 billion Hubble Space Telescope was finished by U.S. astronauts.

The Hubble Space telescope as seen from departing Space Shuttle Atlantis. flying STS-125 in 2009. Author Ruffinax. Public Domain

December 13, 1642 – New Zealand was discovered by Dutch navigator Abel Tasman of the Dutch East India Company.

December 25, 1818: Silent Night was performed for the first time at the Church of St. Nikolaus in Oberndorff, Austria.

Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. Photo : Gakuro, Dec 3 2005. Creative Commons

December 26, 1991: The end of the Soviet Union began.

Post Soviet States in alphabetical order. Wikimedia Commons

December 29, 1940:  During the Blitz, German aircraft dropped thousands of incendiary bombs on the centre of London, causing the worst fire damage since the great fire of 1666. St. Paul’s Cathedral survived but eight other Wren churches, plus the Guildhall and Old Bailey, were badly damaged.

There are a couple of December customs in the UK that deserve a mention. One is that of Christmas markets, which I’ve previously written two posts about here and here. Another is that of pantomime  (“panto’ as we call it) which I won’t say much about now as I intend to write a post about it soon to explain its origins and how it has evolved into what it is today. Many of the major cities and towns put on a yearly pantomime, which generally run from early December to early January.

Cover, Pantomime F. Warner & Co 1890. Source: Unknown. User: Wetman on en. wikipedia. Public Domain

For anyone who’s never heard of pantomime, this is the dictionary definition of the term:

A theatrical entertainment, mainly for children, which involves music, topical jokes, and slapstick comedy and is based on a fairy tale or nursery story, usually produced around Christmas.

At the New Theatre Royal in the city of Lincoln this year, the chosen fairy tale is Aladdin, which we’ve booked to see on the 14th December. I haven’t been to a panto for years, so I’m really looking forward to it.

I’ll finish with a short poem and a few photos taken at 7.30 this morning (Monday, December 4th) from my bedroom window. The field is classed as ‘Ridge and Furrow’ – a term described by Wiki as “an archaeological pattern of ridges and troughs created by a system of ploughing used in Europe during the Middle Ages” As such, the field can’t be built on. The ridge and furrow pattern can be seen very clearly in the last photo.

The sheep have only been there for a couple of weeks and will be gone again soon. They were put there to ‘clean up’ the field, or nibble away at the longish grass left by the bullocks there over the summer.

Anyway, it was a typical frosty, December morning. The sun was rising and the ‘supermoon’ still hadn’t set at 7.30 am.

And I leave the last word about December to Dr. Seuss:

How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?
~Dr. Seuss

*****

Refs:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/December https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/months/december.html
http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/holydays/wintersolstice.shtml
http://www.orkneyjar.com/tradition/yule/
http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/the_wheel_of_the_year/yule_-_winter_solstice.asp
ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-yule-2562997\
http://www.historyplace.com/specials/calendar/december.htm