Dark Days

Having read Some Kind of Fifty‘s post on the subject of how we get through the coming seasons, I got to thinking about how I deal with the short, dark, days of winter myself. I am sure I am affected by SAD, but there are some facets of autumn and winter I enjoy and I have a number of interests that help to pull me through those times until spring is truly here.

Obviously, we have autumn colours and frequently unexpectedly fine, sunny, and warm days to cheer us, but even when it’s cold and the weather less than hospitable, the days short and the nights long, I still like to get outside. With decent cold / wet weather clothing there is still a huge amount of pleasure to be had from walking in the autumn and winter. I love the many contrasts – a tree that is luxuriant and full of life in the summer sunshine may be stark, spectral, and spooky in the winter, maybe looming darkly through a thick mist. Photography seems, to my mind, more interesting in these times.

And that weather – rain! I love rain! I’m happy to be out in it, but love it especially when I’m indoors and listening to it pound on the roof. Clouds – thick and grey and looming low and moody. So atmospheric! Hopefully, too, we get some snow…

But it’s not all just going out walking. We tend to gather together indoors far more once the short days come around. Sitting around log fires in pubs, chatting, drinking beer, or at home with the log burner lit and a book and music, a time of thick soups and hot bread, casseroles, and hot drinks.

And, of course, we get those unexpected warm, clear, sunny days now and then.

Yule – the winter solstice, the midwinter point, has a great attraction for me. I think of Christmas in terms of Yule, especially as we don’t know exactly when Yule was celebrated. I suspect it was around the 25th December, since by that time carefully observing when the sun rose and set would have told the ancients that the days were indeed beginning to lengthen again. I have no Christian belief, but to celebrate that point where the days begin to draw out again makes perfect sense to me. So cut some winter greenery for decoration, get the fire going, and celebrate in whatever way seems most appropriate for you. In my case, music, books, and a few beers, naturally!

And then there will be spring, and by the end of March the days will already be longer again than the nights. I might even write a blog post on the subject.

Winter – 3

Winter would have brought a period of enforced leisure for our ancestors. Their days would have become shorter with the increasing hours of darkness, until in midwinter the daylight hours would make up only one third of the time.

All outdoor activities would effectively cease in the darkness, and even during the day the worsening weather would limit what could be achieved outdoors. But other than those tasks that could be carried out, what did they do in these times? how did they pass those long hours?

At times, no doubt, there would have been feasting and merry-making because they would have required some cheer and a sense of well-being to help them get through the winter. But they must also have been mindful of husbanding scarce food resources through those long barren months.

it may be that they played games. Although archaeology hasn’t furnished us with evidence of board games or dice or variations on these, it is still possible they would scratch, perhaps, some form of grid into the beaten soil of the floor and play games of skill or chance. It is not beyond possibility that some flat rocks with strange scorings and lines on them were used for that purpose.

With no TVs or books or computers, it might seem to us that time would have weighed heavily on their hands. But you are used to what you are used to, and they would have seen things differently. They may have looked forward to a period of relative inactivity; long hours of no talk, sitting or lying down, the mind slowing down until hours were passed in no thought. Did they then also pass unusually long hours in sleep? A kind of semi-hibernation as a way of conserving energy?

But long hours also, of talking. They must have talked: of daily life and plans and past disasters and glories, of gossip, and told stories both new and handed down from previous generations. These stories would have been incredibly powerful tools for the preservation of the tribe. With no written word, the spoken word becomes the only way knowledge is transmitted. And thus it has to be memorised, both for use and also to transmit in the future. As aids to memorising, powerful tools are repetition, rhyme and rhythm. We cannot know exactly how this was utilised, but it cannot have been long before poetry and song evolved.

It can be no coincidence, but in all the early societies we know of who had no written records, those of which we know about through records left by others – such as the Romans writing of the Britons – it is clear that poetry and song were important, and the bard a highly valued member of that society. Indeed, the writings left by Romans, who tended to denigrate anyone not Roman as barbarian and primitive, violent, and uncultured, still make it clear these ‘barbarian’ tribes valued poetry and song highly. Partly, this must have been for educational purposes, but they seem also to have been valued for themselves, for their beauty. It is taking things too far to suggest this proves the same would have applied in Neolithic times, but it is certainly possible. At some point, there would have been music. I imagine this developed out of ritual, perhaps through repetitive chanting and the beat of drums…

And so, I can imagine this at first being perhaps the preserve of the shaman, until becoming a specialised ‘post’ – that of the bard – and acquiring the value of entertainment, as well as instruction.