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.
Happy Solstice to you all!
(For more on the Winter Solstice see here)
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.
Now that the election is finally over and the dust is settling on the chaos, here’s something more interesting you can do if you’re in London over the weekend. The Kew Bridge Eco-Village is holding a two day Spring Festival this weekend – so come on down on Saturday or Sunday (or even both days!) between 12pm and 7pm to meet the villagers and get involved in some fun activities!
Saturday is for the kids, so if you have little ones, bring them down – they’ll love getting messy potting out plants and having their faces painted by some of the best artists in the village, and they can also get involved in music, mask making, puppetry, story telling and more. Parents can enjoy a nice cuppa and a bit of peace and quiet!
Sunday is more for the grown ups. There will be fascinating workshops on all sorts of interesting topics, great music (bring an instrument!), an open mic session, poetry, a warming open fire and a communal meal. Bring yourself, your friends, and some food to share with everyone!
This is a weekend of activities for everyone, and all are welcome. Come down for the Eco-Village experience, if you haven’t already – and if you have, come back and say hello!
The Eco-Village is right opposite Kew Bridge mainline railway station (trains to and from Waterloo); look for the banners across the road as you come out of the station, which you can see in the photo above, and if you’re coming by bus, the 237 from Shepherd’s Bush, the 267 from Hammersmith and the 65 between Kingston and Ealing stop right outside. The nearest tube station is Gunnersbury, on the District Line, which is a 5-10 minute walk down the road.
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.