I’m a day late in marking the winter solstice but a blog about surviving the winter wouldn’t be complete without one. Yesterday was, as I’m sure you know, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, so in the great cycle of the seasons we are now over the hump of mid-winter and, day by slightly longer day, on our way towards spring. Psychologically this is quite important for those of us who can find winters challenging although I tend to find the optimism it engenders rather fleeting, for just as it is quite a long journey from the end of summer to this point, the time from now until spring can drag its heels and pass almost imperceptibly.
But it is a turning point and a marker for time’s steady passing and as such we should celebrate it. The Romans called the 21st of December Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. I like the stubborn optimism in this; no sooner had the sun sunk on the shortest day of the year than the Romans were proclaiming its re-ascendance. In the Roman calendar, the solstice coincided with the festival of Saturnalia, held in honour of the agricultural god Saturn. Saturnalia lasted five days and involved a number of government and social rules being suspended, gift-giving between friends and some pretty hard partying. My marking of the solstice was quite tame by comparison but I did spend an enjoyable evening in a friend’s very Christmassy front room by a log fire drinking Tuborg Julebryg, a delicious Danish Christmas beer. Compared to what the average Roman spending the winter in northern England two thousand years ago had on offer I suspect I did pretty well.
Another reported Saturnalia tradition was the decoration of homes and temples with evergreens. Happily I found myself out in the cemetery today collecting fir, ivy, holly and rowan to make a Christmas wreath for the front door. It turned out quite well and having so much green and red at hand was cheering; it felt natural that in such a wan month people focus on evergreens and make them symbols of longevity and continuity.
I resolved to make more evergreen decorations for inside the home in January and February; I can’t see any reason to restrict it to Christmas and the house always feels a bit bare once the Christmas tree has come down.