Winter – 4

Mid-winter is the nadir of the year, and although winter does not ease its grip on the land for several months yet, at least the long, slow, lengthening of the days begins.

I have no idea how arbitrary the date of 25th December is for our celebration of Christmas day (Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 7th, due to the difference between the Julian (old) calendar and the Gregorian (new)), but it seems to equate well to the winter solstice on 21st December, in that by the 25th it would be apparent to observers that the days were just beginning to lengthen. Is that when our ancestors celebrated? Did they all collectively hold their breath until the priests could confirm the days were getting longer again? Or did they just work on the basis of ‘it’s the Solstice today. Let’s go for it!’? I’m inclined to think it would be more the latter, with the priests declaring ‘It’s today! Time for excessive eating, drinking and unbridled sex!’

Or perhaps a bit of chanting and a sacrifice or two. Who knows?

Would our Neolithic ancestors have kept a calendar in the sense of checking off every day the way we do? I suspect not. Tools such as aligned stones would have done the job for them, confirming it was now the shortest day or the longest one. I don’t suppose there would have been any need for more refined measurements – it would be obvious to them when fruit or nuts or grain were available to be gathered. Obvious when they would need to slaughter livestock. And for that reason, I think points in time such as the solstices would be marked purely by ritual and / or celebration.

We don’t really know how they marked it, of course. We know a lot about how the Victorian writers supposed it was marked – the sacrifices, the wild dances, the bacchanalia, (and it is curious how many of their illustrations seemed to include young maidens dancing wildly in flimsy shifts) – and there is more than enough written about variations on this theme by those who see themselves today as druids, as followers of the old religion. What this old religion is, though, is a somewhat hazy and fluid animal, dragging in everything and anything from ley lines and animist gods through to Morris dancing, via witchcraft, mind-enhancing drugs, depending on who you speak to. Again, we don’t know.

In many ways, it drops comfortably into the melange of New Age beliefs, essentially being whatever the believer wants it to be…although that is something most of us could also plead guilty to, no matter what religion, if any, we follow.

It may well have been marked differently in different parts of the country (I’m really just thinking of Britain, at the moment) – different rituals in the much milder climate of the south west than in the far harsher one of the north, for example. And over the millennia they probably will have changed, being influenced by both outside factors (contact with others who did things differently, perhaps the slow change of climate) and inner ones (changing ideas about gods, relationships to ancestors, size of population).

But when Christianity came along, it substituted its own story of hope and celebration for what was there before, which is why we have it then rather than around March, which is when the internal evidence of that particular Bible story would place it. As the followers of every new religion always do, they found it impossible to prevent an old festival taking place, so instead they usurped it for their own ends.

27 thoughts on “Winter – 4

  1. Yes I always wonder how our ancestors marked time, did they follow the sun’s position on the horizon if they didn’t have the convenience of a nearby henge, or was winter one long dark interlude – it’s hard to imagine just how very dark the long nights must have been.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Different methods for different times and different places, I suppose. I’m sure the principle of using the sun’s position to calculate both time of year and time of day would have been understood early in human evolution. What we cannot know is how much use they needed to make of the time of year calculations.

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  2. Interesting. I expect the majority of our ancestors had no interest in the date at all, just knew the seasons roughly and lived according to the weather. They probably just took each day as it came.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the concept of ‘the date’ would have been a meaningless one to them. ‘Time to start foraging nuts’ or ‘the elk should be here soon’ would probably be the sort of thing they thought.

      But Solstice would probably have been a very special time they looked forward to, one way or another, and I suppose some of them might have tried to calculate how far away it was, in some form or another. Maybe a lunar cycle or two.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Each tribe or village almost certainly would have had a ‘leaned’ person of sorts that they relied upon for solstice and ‘holy day’ guidance. The sun, moon and stars would have had a lot to answer for!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Sunday Supplement – 3 – Mick Canning

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