I’ve written previously about strange and interesting seasonal traditions, but here’s one I don’t think I’ve ever covered before….
A Twitter discussion last week about the wonder of proper British puddings (seriously, they really are the best in the world when done right) reminded me that today is Stir-Up Sunday. In this age of ready meals and 24 hour supermarkets, that may not mean much to you, but for many families it has long been the traditional start of the preparations for the Christmas season.
Stir-Up Sunday falls on the last Sunday before the start of Advent (as calculated by the Anglican church), and although it began life as a tradition loosely associated with religion and the impact of the church calendar on the everyday lives of ordinary people, it soon developed to have both religious and secular aspects – much as Christmas itself does in our modern world. Despite this tradition only really stretching back a couple of hundred years in its best-known form, the name ‘Stir-Up Sunday’ itself is derived from a prayer that dates back to the 16th century Book Of Common Prayer. Still said in a modern form every year on the last Sunday before Advent, the original version reads:
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
That’s all very well, but what exactly does Stir-Up Sunday involve in reality? It’s the day on which households would traditionally gather to make the Christmas pudding for the year, having been reminded by the prayer said in church that morning – with each member of the family taking it in turns to ‘stir up’ the mixture and make a private, secret wish. In some traditions, there is a distinctly religious element to this, as it is believed that the pudding mixture must be made with twelve or thirteen ingredients (to represent Jesus and his disciples) and stirred from East to West (right to left, or anti-clockwise) to honour the Three Wise Men of the Nativity.
There are some who said that the world would end today. Why some folk believed this is pretty definitely defined (see below), although nobody seems to be able to agree on just how these end-times were supposed to pan out. Suggestions range from a planetary collision or a run-in with a black hole to some sort of reversal of the earth’s polar axis – or even a zombie apocalypse (I’ll be in the pub if that ever happens…).
These eschatological theories had been circulating online for quite a while, and I was curious as to exactly what they were all about and where they had come from. Predictions giving a precise date for the end of the world are not uncommon even now (anyone remember Harold Camping‘s insistence that the apocalypse was due in 2011?) – and, in fact, there is a long list of such predictions going back almost a millennium.
So what is it that made the 2012 phenomenon different and so widespread? The existence of the internet has certainly helped disseminate these theories far and wide, but as with so many other things what has been said online is not always strictly accurate, and these end-times theories are no different in that respect.
What can be said for certain is that, ultimately, it all comes down to the intriguingly-named Mesoamerican long-count calendar (see here for an explanation of how this type of calendar works), which was widely used in Central America prior to the violent arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century.
It’s Halloween again. The one night of the year when the spooky and gruesome is all around us – and the undead walk….
Here at Another Kind Of Mind, I do worry about you, my lovely readers, at this time of the year; a season when the nights are creeping in and the cold wind rattles spookily through the keyhole in the dark – and especially what with all those zombies and vampires who’ll be out on the streets tonight, just waiting to eat your brains or drink your blood when you least expect it. So, just in case you should encounter one of the undead on your travels this Halloween, I put together this handy historical guide to making sure they’re really dead… Or are they?
Modern medicine has all sorts of highly technical and complex methods of checking whether or not an individual has sadly breathed their last (and even then they don’t always get it right). Determining whether someone is dead or not isn’t always as simple as you might think.
After Jack O’Lanterns, second sight, Soul Cakes and sea monsters in Part 1 of the Another Kind Of Mind Halloween Special, Part 2 looks at the myriad weird ways to predict your love life at Halloween…
In a recent post, I looked at the ancient but often rather gruesome and spooky practice of the Crow Augury, but there are many other, slightly less dramatic but equally powerful, methods of divination which are more intimately and very personally connected to the celebrations at this time of year.
In fact, a lot of the varied types of divination associated with Halloween (as, interestingly, with those connected to Christmas) are more to do with a slightly more positive subject matter: the age-old topic of love and the finding of it, mostly for young women – although some of these fortune-telling methods are said to work for young single men too.
As with every other major festival or holiday in the calender, there are countless customs, legends and superstitions associated with Halloween. Although the festival has links to Christianity, some of the superstitions surrounding it are (as is often the case) far older than that, dating back to the pre-Christian fire festival of Samhain, which marked the beginning of the Celtic new year.
Some of these are still practiced in one form or another today, others are more unusual or have fallen out of common usage. This Halloween, we’re going on a spooky journey through some of these seasonal traditions and superstitions, starting with one you will probably be very familiar with…
Pumpkins and Jack O’Lanterns:
There are several possible explanations for the tradition of carving pumpkins (or, traditionally, turnips) and placing candles inside them at Halloween. There appears to have been an ancient custom of using brightly lit lanterns to ward off the evil spirits which lurked abroad in the darkening days of late Autumn – modern Jack O’Lanterns may well be a reflection of this superstition.
Today, as far as I’m concerned, is the first day of summer. By some reckonings, that technically occurred last month, but, for me, as for many others, summer only really begins with the solstice, an event which is widely celebrated on June 21st throughout most of the northern hemisphere (conversely, the winter solstice is being celebrated in the southern hemisphere today).
But what exactly is the solstice? It’s actually a lot more complex than the familiar image of convoys of hippies and druids gathering at Stonehenge to watch the first light of dawn break through the stones of this ancient monument – although this is probably the most well-known (and – at times – controversial) incarnation of such ancient solstice celebrations here in Britain.
We’ll start with the science (and if I’ve got this wrong, let me know!).
Astronomically speaking, the summer solstice occurs when the sun reaches its maximum elevation in the sky and the day is at its longest. This happens because the rotation of the earth’s axis has tilted the northern hemisphere closest to the sun, and it will now begin to gradually shift back – resulting in the slow shortening of the amount of daylight in a 24 hour period as summer makes its slow and stately progression towards autumn and winter.
“If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it; that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die. —
That strain again; it had a dying fall:
O, it came oer my ear, like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing, and giving odour! Enough! No more.
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before”
- Duke Orsino, Twelfth Night: Act One, Scene One
Without doubt, those are some of the most famous opening lines in the history of English literature. You may recognise them from your school days; from studying Shakespeare in English classes. Twelfth Night is easily my favourite of all the Bard’s plays; it is fun, subversive and full of mistaken identities, game-playing with gender (and thus, to a modern eye, sexualities too), and out-and-out Shakespearean farce.
Far beyond the ‘boring Shakespeare’ many of us encountered at school, methinks…
Written sometime around the turn of the 16th century (dating Shakespeare’s plays is not an exact science), and probably first performed in 1602 at London’s Middle Temple Hall in the Inns of Court as part of that year’s Christmas festivities, the plot of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night vividly echoes the riotous reversals and noisy fun of the real life medieval Twelfth Night holiday celebrations – in fact, it was written to be (and often still is) performed as part of these Twelfth Night celebrations
So, who is he, this mysterious man in red? And why does he do what he does? At any other time of the year these days, a fat jolly bearded stranger (with several known aliases) landing on your roof and sliding down your chimney would result in a slap on the wrist from the Civil Aviation Authority, and a breaking and entering charge for the bearded one at the very least (if not an ASBO).
And, with cries of ‘animal cruelty’ ringing in his furry ears, poor Rudolph would probably be sent packing to a reindeer sanctuary somewhere in Scotland, and the sleigh would end up clamped and impounded by over-zealous traffic wardens. But before the nightmare of this horribly politically correct eventuality really does come to pass (and because I wouldn’t want any of you to wake up on Friday morning to an empty stocking), let’s find out exactly what’s going on here…
Santa Claus as we know him today is actually an amalgam of a number of different figures and archetypes, some real, some legendary. The first of these is probably the most important of all in the development of the Santa myth…
The 4th century saint
The first of the origins of the Santa legend can be found in a rather unexpected place. Not in the ancient nomadic tribes of Lapland or the North Pole, as we might expect, but in 4th century Turkey with the part-real/part-mythic St Nicholas. Like an increasing number of people during this early period in the development of the Christian church, Nicholas was a deeply religious man. In fact, the real Nicholas was a bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church. He was bishop of Myra, which is now in Turkey but was then part of Byzantine Anatolia, a position which meant he had a certain amount of power and influence.
Last Christmas, in order to take my mind off some personal issues, I decided to write an advent calendar on my old blog. This involved a blog post on a Christmassy subject every day from the 1st December all the way to the 24th. At the time, I don’t think I realised what a challenge this project would be, but I completed it and thoroughly enjoyed doing so. So I decided this year to resurrect some of the best of these Christmassy posts and share them on Another Kind Of Mind for those who won’t have seen the originals.
Today we’ll be looking at Christmas superstitions, but watch out for more to come on the Winter Solstice and the origins of the Santa Claus myth. In the mean time, I’d love to hear from you if you have any interesting or unusual seasonal superstitions in your family or community, or any Christmas stories to tell!
Midwinter has long been considered a mysterious and spooky time; the Christmas period particularly so. These beliefs probably go back to pre-Christian midwinter festivals and ideas of the death of the old year as well as connecting into the physically and psychologically protective qualities of lighting up the long, dark and cold winter nights – particularly during the period of the Winter Solstice (21st December) which was seen as a time of great spiritual vulnerability and risk in that the barriers between this world and that of the evil spirits would temporarily open. This makes it unsurprising that there are many (often ancient) superstitions associated with the rituals and traditions of Christmas; probably as many (if not more) than those associated with Halloween.
These superstitions began as rituals and charms, ways of protecting an individual and their families against the evil that was abroad in the dying weeks and days of the year. Midwinter festivals served the similar purpose of scaring away any evil spirits that might be lurking about in the darkness (as well as giving people something to look forward to at this cold and bleak time of year).