On 21/22 December, as those of us in the Northern Hemisphere face the longest night of the year, it is time to do as people on our cold little island have done for millennia: celebrate the start of our annual journey back from the darkness into the light.
This year, I’ve been writing the sequel to my novel On Time, working title ‘On Time for Eco.’ The protagonist is a time-travelling eco-activist teenager who spends his gap year at the beginning of the pre-Christian sixth century, alongside some semi-mythical characters you may have heard of before. As such, I’ve spent the last few months contemplating deep connections between ourselves, our ancestors and our descendants, and it’s this that I’ve chosen to focus upon in my solstice reflection this year.
Would Christmas by any other name be as merry?
Although we usually think of Christmas as a purely Christian concept, in fact the familiar round of Christian festivals were grafted upon far more ancient celebrations that marked the seasons of the year, long before Christianity came to Britain. Their over-arching purpose was to highlight the bounty of the Earth, and its crucial role in generating and sustaining life.
Britain’s pre-Christian festival calendar was as follows:
Ostara in March, to celebrate the spring equinox (the two days every year with equal periods of light and dark), which marked the pre-Christian new year. This is approximately where Easter, a festival which celebrates resurrection is now sited, depending on the phases of the moon. And if you ever wondered why eggs at Easter, well this is why: they are a hangover from the pre-Christian festival that celebrated the annual resurrection of life.
Beltane comes next on May Day, which celebrates the fruitfulness of high spring and the imminent arrival of summer. May Day was never linked to a Christian festival, and the pre-Christian traditions are still followed today, such as dancing around a Maypole decorated with spring flowers and crowning young May queens with flower crowns.
Litha is the midsummer festival which celebrates high summer, the longest day of the year, and the fertility of the earth, with plants in full bloom and the bounty for the coming year moving towards the point of harvest.
Lughnasa in August marks the beginning of the harvest season, followed by Mabon on the Autumn Equinox, which came into the Christian calendar as Harvest Festival.
Samhain at the end of October marks the end of the harvest season and the arrival of the darker months. We still celebrate this as Halloween, the day of the dead, as plant life begins to die back, with the winter months drawing in. In the Christian calendar, this equates to All Saints Day on 1 November and All Souls Day on 2 November. Samhain was also traditionally the time to slaughter cattle, as grazing opportunities become scarcer in the winter. Fresh meat would then become more readily available, with some put aside alongside fruits and vegetables to smoke, pickle and preserve for the mid-winter period.
Yule is the mid-winter festival. It is celebrated on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. In a subsistence agricultural society, there is little to do in the cold, dark mid-winter months, which is one of the key reasons a major festival was placed there. Merry making, lighting fires and feasting on the last of the fresh meat, fresh fruit and vegetables also gives people something to look forward to, lifting the mood during the darkest days of the year. Seasonal Affective Disorder, although not named as such until very recently, was well known amongst our ancestors. Partying, heat and light have therefore always been a big part of the mid-winter festival.
Imbolc is the festival celebrated at the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox. It marks the coming of the lighter days of early spring. It became Candlemas in the Christian calendar – the celebration of Jesus as the light of the world.
Festivals of light in darker months are common in religions across the world, for example Diwali and Hanukkah, as are harvest festivals such as Sukkot and Onam.
The festival phenomenon: narrative embellished by story
My academic research centres around the very human pursuit of taking a basic narrative – for example, the changing seasons around the year – then embellishing it with storytelling that adds myth and frequently magic. This is why we find change-of-season festivals associated with a rich variety of stories in nearly every human culture in the world.
When a new cultural element is adopted, such as the conversion to Christianity in seventh-century Britain, it is common that the underlying narrative of the festivals around the year remains the same (for example, the coming of spring, midsummer, harvest, mid-winter) but new stories are overlaid upon the older ones, sometimes eclipsing the old ways, but frequently leaving some content behind.
For example, as Yule became Christmas, Yule logs and evergreen house decorations remained, and as Ostara became Easter, eggs remained as part of the celebrations. The Easter Bunny would also appear to be rather more closely associated with the pre-Christian celebration of new life in the natural environment.
Even Santa himself is a wonderful example of a cultural fusion, morphing from the pre-Christian Green Man to the Christian St Nicholas (Santa Claus in Dutch, which was adopted into American English). In Britain, he was once more commonly called ‘Father Christmas’, also firmly cementing his relationship to the Christian church in which priests are called ‘father’.
This was the point at which his green suit began to slowly morph into ecclesiastical red, but it is still possible to find pictures of Santa or Father Christmas dressed in green up to the middle of the 20th century. The pre-Christian green was only conclusively overridden in popular culture by the advertising might of the Coca-Cola corporation, which dressed their Christmas Santa Claus in a Coca-Cola label red suit.
The pre-Christian ‘Green Man’ was a mythical being who nurtured evergreen plants, which he magically kept alive throughout the winter months until it was time for him to extend his fertile magic across nature as a whole. Decorating your house with his evergreens in mid-winter therefore sent a plea to him to bestow his blessings upon you come the spring, so all your non-evergreen plants would bloom back to life to grow food again.
And so, the changing stories that changing cultures attach and reattach to underlying narratives meant that over the years, the Green Man, whose good graces brought the harvest bounty, gradually became Santa/Father Christmas. In a society estranged from natural farming cycles whilst heavily rooted in conspicuous consumption, he brings a different sort of bounty: whatever the most highly sought-after gadgets and trinkets are at any particular time, as stipulated by advertisers. He does partly belong to Coca-Cola now, after all.
Santa Claus is Pagan too:
Solstice and Christmas, past and present
When early Christian missionary St Augustine of Canterbury arrived in Britain at the beginning of the seventh century AD to preach his faith to the population, he initially wrote to Pope Gregory in despair: “I cannot work with these people, they are savages; they worship trees and streams.” Gregory, clearly a stern boss, wrote back unsympathetically: “try harder,” suggesting that Augustine should more creatively present Christianity in terms that the local population would better understand.
In modern sociological terms, he was urging his missionary to learn more about his intended converts’ current spiritual myths in order to tell them more accessible stories. Which, history indicates, he eventually managed to accomplish. But echoes from the earlier culture remained.
Even as late as the mid-1960s, an era when the Hollywood movie and, to a slightly lesser extent, American television, had very successfully embedded Santa Claus into British culture, Selfridges in London was still buying into a mixed Christmas narrative. Every year in their store, my granny treated me to a visit to Father Christmas, always assisted by ‘Mr Holly’ – a version of the Green Man.
Such fusions, like evergreen decorations at Christmas and eggs at Easter are examples of the way that human beings most naturally respond to narrative and story; stories can be liberally mixed and matched into an underlying narrative however we choose, as long as no one gets too precious about it. And it’s through this type of mixing and matching we come up with original concepts.
Wassailing is another good example of a past/present fusion activity that has survived for millennia. ‘Wassail’ translates to ‘was hale’ – I salute you. Its origin is believed to lie in pre-Christian times when apple farmers would gather in their orchards at the mid-winter solstice, shouting wassails whilst pouring cider onto their trees in an effort to ward off evil spirits. The belief was that by wassailing – saying hello to – their dormant trees in the winter, they would stir them enough to ensure their awakening in the spring, to give birth to another healthy crop.
As Christianity impacted upon the old traditions, wassailing gradually gave rise to a new tradition: groups of young people going from house to house, singing a ‘wassailing song’ that requests food and drink. The tradition lives on in carol singing from house to house, collecting money for charity.
“We are not daily beggers (sic), who beg from door to door,
We are your neighbours’ children, who you have seen before…”
The narrative of ‘feed your saplings so they grow strong’ clearly lies beneath this practice, although the story moved on from plants to children.
The imperative of the story
The complex relationship between narrative and story, and the role of the shifting story smoothing the path of inevitable cultural change is why, as a retired teacher, I frequently write critical articles about the Govian concept of learning as a simple process of memorising ‘hard facts’ and the current government’s concept of “the best that has been thought and said”.
Human cultures inevitably change. People move from place to place; new technology from the Spinning Jenny to artificial intelligence inevitably changes everyday life. If children are not introduced to underpinning narratives explained within culturally relevant, flexible stories, that they can play with, retell and embellish, we are not preparing them to live within an ever-changing, essentially unpredictable physical and social environment.
Developing innovative techniques to harness information technology more effectively for positive change and dealing with, or even hopefully reversing, global warming are going to be formidable challenges for ‘Generation Alpha’, born since the current government came to power in 2010.
If they grow up with an erroneous belief that anything worth learning can be rote memorised, and that adults can categorically instruct them about which ideas and concepts are ‘the best’, this does not set them up to critically analyse what they are being told by media, or by politicians, or to have the initiative or confidence to develop new, creative ideas to deal with new problems. Such regimes then, whether intentionally or not, operate as a boot stamping on the face of innovative thought; the light that shines in the cracks between narrative and story.
A lesson from Dickens
Traditionally, human beings have more time for stories in the dark winter months, and what better story to tell on a dark night, around a fire, than a ghost story. One of the traditional narratives associated with Halloween is that as the light fades, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead becomes thinner. This is the narrative within which Charles Dickens rooted his most famous tale of all; that of the callous miser Ebeneezer Scrooge and the intervention of the spirit world to bring about his redemption.
Over the century and a half since it was first written, this story has become a narrative in itself, giving rise to many other stories about people undergoing positive transformation due to the supernatural magic of Christmas. A Wonderful Life is an obvious example, but my imagination was recently triggered by Sky’s Christmas Carole principally because the ghosts of Christmas past are Morecambe and Wise. Because of course, like many British people over 50, that is an integral element of my own childhood Christmas story. The narrative endures, but the story moves on.
And, I would further argue, the narrative of human redemption through externally triggered reflection is eternal. I’d certainly vote for Amanda Spielman and other senior Ofsted personnel to be the subjects of visitation by three ghosts to vividly illustrate the deep human misery that they cause. And I’m sure people in other occupations, cultures and eras could tell a story of other ‘Scrooge’ figures whom they would like to place within this role.
Looking forward, looking back
So, we have arrived at the winter solstice yet again, to witness the moment of nature’s gradual return to the light. The fact that an associated winter festival can be so effectively tracked into this seasonal narrative seems to me to be a comforting illustration of the continuity between generations across millennia, despite inevitable changes in culture and technology, giving rise to new stories, as time passes by.
I’ve had a wonderful time over this year studying the stories our ancestors attached to the natural narrative of the Earth’s abundance, and consequently contemplating the stories that are told about it in our current era.
I’ve also been looking forward, imagining future winter solstices my grandchildren and their children will see, to the dawn of the 22nd century and beyond; wondering what new stories they will tell. Whatever these will be, they will still be rooted in the timeless narrative that binds human beings together across generations and cultures, firmly rooted in the seasons of the Earth.
So, for yet another year, happy winter solstice everyone, however you plan to celebrate. Because from this evening, for yet another year – here comes the sun.