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

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.

shutterstock_739285
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!

The Yule Log

shutterstock_739285

Yule is the name of the old Winter Solstice festivals in Scandinavia and parts of Northern Europe and dates back to pre-medieval times. Originally, an entire tree would be brought into the house with great ceremony. The log was believed to have magic properties which ensured good luck during the coming year to those who helped to pull it over the rough ground.

Chambers_Yule_Log
Illustration of people collecting a Yule Log from the Chambers Book of Days. 1832. Wikimedia Commons

In earliest times the log would be burned on a fire pit in the centre of the room. Later on, once chimneys became common and the hearth stood against a wall, the largest end of the log would be placed in the hearth whilst the rest stuck out into the room. It would be lit with the remains from the previous year’s log and would continue to burn throughout the twelve days of Christmas.

shutterstock_54148

The custom of the Yule Log spread all over Europe, and in each country different woods would be burned. In England, oak was common; in Scotland, it was birch. In France they chose cherry and often sprinkled the wood with wine to give a pleasant smell as it burned.

Today the custom is generally only remembered as a log-shaped chocolate cake (usually a Swiss roll) which is eaten around Christmas.

shutterstock_228205918In Viking times the celebrations were accompanied by various rites to the different gods as well as the usual feasting and drinking. Here is one very short section from my first book, Shadow of the Raven, which briefly describes some of the activities the people enjoyed. Ulf is the main character and Jorund is a young boy who has recently undergone a great trauma.


shutterstock_123315433December came and with it the celebrations of the Yule. Ulf helped Rico to loop thick ropes round a huge oak log and drag it across the frozen earth into the hall, where the women and children decorated it with sprigs of fir and holly. Throughout the festivities it smouldered in the hearth, helping to bring light and cheer to the darkest time of year. A wild boar was sacrificed to Frey, the god of fertility, to ensure a good growing season in the coming year, with warm days and gentle rain. A goat was slaughtered, and people dressed in goatskins and sang in honour of Thor, who rode the skies in his chariot pulled by two goats. The roasted meats were eaten during the celebratory feasts, and unlimited supplies of ale and mead kept everyone in festive mood.

And Jorund smiled for the first time since October.

490px-Thor_in_his_chariot
Thor in his chariot pulled by two goats

It sounds as though a fun time was had by all . . .

Merry Christmas to everyone!

Christmas Tree

shutterstock_238557670

Long before the advent of Christianity, people celebrated the winter solstice (December 21-22 in the northern hemisphere) with festivals. These were intended to brighten up the darkest time of year and prevent people from sinking into deep depression. They would bring lots of greenery indoors – branches of evergreens in particular, including spruce, fir and pine and, of course, holly and ivy. The evergreen tree was seen as a symbol of life in the midst of winter, many people believing that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness.

In some ancient civilisations, the sun was revered as a god. To the ancient Egyptians, for example, Ra was the Sun God. In the cold winter months the god would become weak and sick, and the solstice, the shortest day of the year, represented the turning point.  After that time the days would gradually lengthen and the god would start to grow well again.

Many traditions we have today came from ancient civilisations which were later converted to Christianity. Such traditions include gift-giving from the Roman Saturnalia, and burning the Yule log and enjoying a variety of foods from Norse and Germanic feasts.  Scandinavians today still call Christmas, Jul.

To many people, Christmas would not be the same without the resinous smell of pine or fir trees inside their homes.  Although lots of people opt for artificial trees nowadays -whether for environmental reasons, the mess of dropped needles, or the cost of buying anther tree every year – the sale of ‘real’ trees is still booming. But where did this tradition come from?

There are several stories about the earliest use of whole fir trees at Christmas. One story tells us that, in the early 8th Century, Saint Boniface travelled from Britain across Germany to convert the pagans to Christianity. Coming across a group of pagans about to sacrifice a young man beneath Odin’s sacred oak, he valiantly rescued the young man and cut down the tree.  Some legends have it that in place of the oak, a single fir tree grew. Other legends tell us that Boniface himself planted the fir. Whichever version is true, it seems that that the following year the converted Germans decorated the young fir (irrespective of the miniscule size that a year-old fir would be!)

170px-Bonifatius_Donareiche
Boniface cutting down the oak – Wikimedia Commons

One of the earliest references to whole trees actually being brought indoors comes from  Germany in the 16th Century. One story holds that the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, was the first to add lighted candles in an attempt to replicate the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst the evergreens.

220px-Queen_Charlotte_by_studio_of_Allan_Ramsay
Queen Charlotte Wikimedia Commons

Although Prince Albert , the German husband of Queen Victoria, is generally given credit for introducing the Christmas tree into English homes, it was actually Queen Charlotte,  the German wife of George III, who set up the first Christmas tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in 840.

In Victorian times, trees were decorated with sweets and cakes hung with ribbon, and candles as a reminder of the stars in the sky on the night of Christ’s birth. Today, candles have been replaced by coloured lights, and cakes by a variety of ornaments and baubles.

Trafalgar_Square_Christmas_tree9
Giant Norway Spruce in Trafalgar Square

The most famous tree in Britain stands in Trafalgar Square – a giant Norway Spruce , which is a yearly gift from Norway. It is sent to the British people in thanks for the help given to King Haakon VII, who was exiled to Britain after the German occupation of Norway during WW2.

In the US, trees were not accepted until a little later, despite the many German settlers in Pennsylvania.  As late as 1840, Christmas trees were still seen as a pagan symbol by most Americans, and many  of the New England Puritans tried to stamp out what they called the ‘pagan mockery of the observance’.  It was not until the influx of German and Irish immigrants that this puritan legacy was abandoned. In the US today, perhaps the most famous tree stand in the Rockefeller Center in New York.

640px-Xmastreenewyork06

fe37000000000000
The first tree being erected in the Rockefeller Center in 1931. Wikimedia Commons

This custom dates back to the Depression Era days, and the tallest tree was in 1948, a Norway Spruce standing 100 foot tall. It came from Killingworth in Conneticut.

In our house we always have a real tree – and always a Norway Spruce. The smell is just amazing. We always buy from a regular ‘Christmas Tree Farm’, so I don’t feel at all guilty about damaging the environment. There is an ongoing system whereby all cut trees are replaced by newly planted ones. We go to the large estate at Doddington Hall, about five miles away. Doddington is a small, stately hall with an enormous estate on which the trees are grown (as well as wonderful fields of strawberries for ‘pick your own’ in June and July). They have different species on offer, including Norway Spruce and Nordman Fir – which has stiffer needles than the spruce, so it doesn’t drop as readily, but which doesn’t have the right smell for me.

033
Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire, UK
014
Nordman Fir
023
Sign at Doddington Hall with the old church behind

Our tree goes in the conservatory which is off our lounge so we just have the connecting doors open over Christmas. The floor in there is wooden, so the needles are easier to sweep up, and the outside door means it goes out that way when it’s dropping needles like crazy after Christmas. We have a seven-footer this year. On the top is a fairy (or it could be an angel – it’s hard to tell!). It was made years ago at school by our youngest son when he was six, and the tree wouldn’t be the same without it.

016