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

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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Stonehenge

Plan of Stonehenge (Visitor Centre) 3

During our stay in Somerset two weeks ago we also visited  sites in neighbouring Dorset and Wiltshire. One of those sites was Stonehenge in Wiltshire, one of the most well known monuments in the world. We’ve passed by ‘the stones’ a few times as we’ve driven along the A303 and glimpsed them from a distance, but being close up to them is quite something else. The picture above is one from inside the Visitor Centre, showing Stonehenge as it is today.

Stonehenge is located in the county of Wiltshire, two miles west of the town of Amesbury and eight miles north of the city of Salisbury.

Approximate location of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK

The monument and its surroundings became a UNESCO world Heritage site in 1986. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, is owned by the Crown and managed by English Heritage. The surrounding land is owned by the National Trust. But Stonehenge isn’t the only ancient site in the area. This stone circle itself is part of a group of late Neolithic and Bronze Age sites, including the timber monuments of Durrington, the small henge at Amesbury and the timber circle at Woodhenge. There are also several hundred barrows (burial mounds) in the area. In addition, 25 miles north of Stonehenge is the Avebury complex – argued to be the most impressive of all remaining prehistoric earthworks in Europe.

The first thing we see as we pull into the car park is the new Visitor Centre, opened in December 2013.

Inside the building is a café, which was busy even on a Tuesday – and a school day at that. There is also a display area about the monument and the Salisbury Plain region in general, with information about the people who inhabited it during the period of Stonehenge’s construction. Artefacts included flint tools and animal bones (mostly cattle) and antler picks. There were also metal items from the later Bronze Age and a display about how the site has been used and interpreted by ‘tourists’ from the mid 18th century to the present day:

There is lots of illustrated information about the three main phases of construction of Stonehenge (as in the models below) as well as reconstructions and artists impressions of other nearby ancient sites.

The first model above (left) shows the first major construction on the site, 5000 years ago, during the late Neolithic/New Stone Age. It was a circular enclosure with a ring of fifty-six pits which probably held upright pillars. Whether the pillars were wood or stone isn’t certain but it is likely there were some wooden ones in the enclosure. The chalk and earth from the enclosing ditch was used to make a large inner and smaller outer bank.

Five hundred years after the enclosure was built (middle picture) enormous sarsen stones were raised in the shape of an inner horseshoe and a surrounding circle, with smaller bluestones between them. The stones were aligned on the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. The huge sarsens were brought from 20 miles away, in north Wiltshire and the bluestones from several sites in Wales – some 140 miles away! Construction and alteration stretched over a period of 800 years, into the Bronze Age, by which time Stonehenge had become the greatest temple in Britain.

Shortly after the stones were erected, an earthwork was built, creating the Avenue (model above far right) leading to the entrance and the bluestones were rearranged. And that is how this great monument stayed for the following 4000 years. But destruction and decay took their toll and the following model shows what Stonehenge looked like in 1740, when the first accurate plans were drawn:

A ruined temple - 4000 years of destruction and decay. Stonehenge around 1740. 2

Many stones would have fallen naturally, others removed from the site for building material by local people. Visitors carved their names on stones and chipped off pieces as souvenirs. In 1908 a stone of the sarsen circle fell, leading to the first restoration project when the tallest stone, leaning dangerously, was set upright. Work continued and between 1959 – 64, all the stones that had fallen since 1740 had been re-erected and many others set in concrete.

The stone circle itself is approximately a mile and a half from the Visitor Centre. We decided to walk, but for anyone who would prefer not to, regular buses run back and forth – leaving roughly every five minutes. The site gets a lot of visitors and the buses are nearly all full, even mid-week. It’s a pleasant walk, either straight along the lane or across the fields. There are also things to see along the way. Right outside the Visitor Centre is a model showing one way in which the sarsen stones (which have an average weight of 25 tons) could have been moved:

Moving the Stones
The stone is secured to a wooden sledge which would have been pulled along over rollers or on rails. The ropes were probably made from lime ‘blast’ – inner bark – spun and twisted to form strong cord

There is also a reconstruction of part of Durrington village as it might have looked at the time of Stonehenge’s construction:

After a walk across the fields we reached the stones. Access into the circle itself is only possible on certain days but we were happy to just walk around it. The route takes us anticlockwise, so my photos bring us to the main entrance last:

The reasons for WHY Stonehenge was built has been the most difficult one for archaeologists to answer, but it’s generally accepted that the monument was built as a temple: a place of ceremony, burial and celebration.

Stonehenge has an axis that runs north-east to south-west, and was chosen because it reflects events in the annual movements of the sun and moon. The entrance faces the rising sun on the day of the summer solstice. The Avenue is also aligned with the winter solstice sunset.

That Stonehenge served as a solar calendar and marked the changing seasons is a plausible hypothesis. People of that time were dependent on the weather for the success of their crops and animals. During the cold, dark winter days they would long for the sun to return with his light and warmth – and at the winter solstice, they celebrated the fact that the sun would be doing just that. The number of pig bones found on the site have been offered as evidence of mid-winter feasts here, to celebrate this turning point.

Stonehenge as a place of burial is supported by the hundreds of human bones found at the site which show signs of cremation before burial. And of course, it has often been thought that Stonehenge was a place of sacrifice, notably human. One fallen sarsen stone in the main entrance to the Stonehenge enclosure has become known as the ‘Slaughter Stone’. This is because of the shallow indentations that fill with rainwater which reacts with iron in the stone and turns a rusty red. The guide book attributes the given name to the ‘over active Victorian imagination’.

Another idea put forward is that the bluestones were transported all the way from Wales because people there told of their healing powers.

So all in all, theories as to the purpose of Stonehenge are still being bandied about. One source suggests that Stonehenge can (perhaps) be seen as the prehistoric equivalent of a great cathedral, such as nearby Salisbury – built  for worshipping, but also as a place where people could find healing and hope and important people could be buried.

WInter Solstice Celebrations Through Time

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 day and the sun at its highest point in the sky.

The December solstice happens at the same time everywhere on Earth. This year it is on Tuesday, December 22nd (today!) at 04:49 GMT/Universal time. At Stonehenge, in Wiltshire, UK, the sun rose this morning at 08:04. The time is different every year, and can be between December 20th and 23rd, although it’s rarely on the two extremes.  The last time it was on December 23rd was in 1903, which will not happen again until 2303.

Interpretations of the winter solstice have varied worldwide and across cultures, but many have involved the recognition of  the rebirth of sunlight after the darkest time of year. As such, it has been celebrated with holidays, gatherings, festivals and rituals around that time. Many of these celebrations have been observed since the earliest times.

The prehistoric monument of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, UK (constructed  from 3000-2000 BC) is aligned on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset . . . 

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the winter solstice. Author: Mark Grant. Creative Commons.
Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the winter solstice. Author: Mark Grant. Creative Commons.

. . . in comparison to the Newgrange prehistoric monument in County Meath, Ireland, which points to the winter solstice sunrise:

Newgrange prehistoric monument, County Meath, Ireland. Author: Shira. Creative Commons
Newgrange prehistoric monument, County Meath, Ireland. Author: Shira. Creative Commons

Then there is the Goseck circle in Germany, which is aligned to both sunset and sunrise:

Neolithic site of the Goseck circle. The yellow lines are the direction the Sun rises and sets at winter solstice. Author: de:Benutzer:Rainer Zenz, Public Domain
Neolithic site of the Goseck circle. The yellow lines are the direction the Sun rises and sets at winter solstice. Author: de:Benutzer:Rainer Zenz, Public Domain

It is believed that the winter solstice was more important to the people who constructed Stonehenge than the summer solstice. The winter solstice was a time when cattle were slaughtered, so they would not have to be fed throughout the winter, and most of the wine and beer was finally fermented by then, and could be enjoyed.

In ancient Rome, the winter solstice was celebrated with a festival called Saturnalia. This began on December 17th and lasted for seven days. Saturnalian banquets were held as far back as 217 BCE to honour Saturn, the father of the gods. It began with  a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in the Roman forum, followed by a public banquet, a private gift giving and continuous partying!

The carnival overturned Roman social norms, being more like a free-for-all, when all discipline and orderly behaviour was ignored; colourful clothes replaced the formal togas. Wars were interrupted or postponed, gambling was permitted and slaves were served by their masters. All grudges and quarrels were forgotten (but were they suddenly remembered again afterwards, I ask?).

Dice players on a wall in Pompeii. Author: WolfgangRieger. Public Domain
Dice players on a wall in Pompeii. Author: WolfgangRieger. Public Domain

At the gift giving (December 19th) it was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit – a symbol of fertility. Dolls were given, which were symbolic of human sacrifice, and so were candles – a reminder of the bonfires associated with pagan solstice celebrations. The whole festival would become a week-long orgy of debauchery and crime:

Saturnalia sculpture by Ernesto Biondi: a bronze copy n the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires. (Original in the National Gallery of Modern art in Rome). Uploaded by Roberto Fiadone. Creative Commons
Saturnalia sculpture by Ernesto Biondi: a bronze copy n the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires. (Original in the National Gallery of Modern art in Rome). Uploaded by Roberto Fiadone. Creative Commons

In the Norse lands of pre-Christian Scandinavia, the winter solstice was celebrated with the feast of Jul (or jól), from which we get the terms Yule and Yuletide. Yule is what later evolved into today’s Christmas, though the Danes still call it Jul. The Danish Vikings sacrificed and offered up goods and animals to the gods in order to conquer the darkness of winter. Then they drank a toast for the year and for peace. The toast was very important and a beaker of beer was offered to the gods. Then the people would toast and drink and thank each other and the gods for the past year and welcome in the new.

People would light fires to symbolise the heat and light of the returning sun and a Jul /Yule log was brought in and dropped in the hearth as a tribute the god Thor. The Yule log was often an entire tree, carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony and sometimes, the largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth, while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room.

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Image from Shutterstock

I wrote a short post about the Yule log last December, with a brief paragraph from Shadow of the Raven describing the Yule celebrations. It can be found here.

The log would be lit from the remains of the previous year’s log which had been stored away and, later on, in Christian times, was often fed into the fire through the Twelve Days of Christmas. The log was burned until nothing but ash remained, then the ashes were collected and either strewn on the fields as fertiliser every night until Twelfth Night or kept as a charm and or as medicine. A piece of the log was kept as both a token of good luck and as kindling for the following year’s log.

These are just three of the ways in which peoples of the past celebrated the winter solstice. There are many others from different times and cultures, but I can’t do them all. There’s only a couple of hours left of December 22nd, 2015, here in the UK, so the shortest day has almost been and gone . . .

All I can say is that it was incredibly short!