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 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.
Happy Solstice to you all!
(For more on the Winter Solstice see here)
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.
Despite being a non-believer, I feel quite strongly that not all people of faith are as evil or misguided as some on the left (and others) would perhaps have it. As with most people who have grown up in our modern multicultural society, I have friends and acquaintances of all faiths and none.
However, I have also had some rather unpleasant experiences with people of faith, especially with individuals who practice those particularly intolerant forms of Christianity. I have actually been told to my face by a ‘born again’ Christian that, because of my sexuality, I am an “abject sinner” who will end up “burning in hell” unless I am “saved” by accepting Jesus into my life.
Um, no. Not going to happen.
And, just the other day, I was sat in my local cafe drinking tea and listening to a woman sitting behind me as she loudly bragged about what a good Christian she was. She then started listing all the people she knew who had terminal illnesses and explained in graphic detail how said illnesses were entirely the fault of the people suffering from them because…. guess what? They hadn’t accepted Jesus into their lives.
“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.
Today is the shortest day of the year. As I write this, it is just gone three in the afternoon and there is already a hint of dusk about the sky. Within an hour or so, night will have fallen, and the Christmas celebrations will soon be one day nearer. But today is a celebration too – an ancient midwinter festival that has been celebrated in Britain for millennia, long before Christianity (or even the Romans) arrived on these isles. Today is also the Winter Solstice.
The word ‘solstice’ comes from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), which expresses the idea perfectly as the sun appears not to move on the horizon. In astronomical terms, the Solstice marks the shortest day – that is, when the sun is at its lowest arc in the sky because the tilt of the earth has moved our hemisphere furthest away from the warmth and power of the sun. This is the last day before the winter nights begin to shorten and the hours of daylight start to increase again.
To us modern folk, the reversal of the shortest day means little more than mild relief that we won’t have to get up in the dark of the morning for very much longer, but to our ancient ancestors it was far, far more important than that. Prior to everyone owning diaries and calendars which neatly divide the months and seasons by date, astronomical events, such as the movement of the sun across the sky and the phases of the moon at different times of the year guided the existence of our ancestors, controlling when they sowed their seeds or took their animals to be mated, for example. The sun, in particular, was very important to this process, which (partially) explains why the Solstice has long been celebrated as its return and rebirth.