Nicola here, wishing you a very happy solstice, summer or winter, depending upon which hemisphere you are in. This morning I was up at dawn taking Monty, our dog, for a walk along "the old straight track," The Ridgeway, an ancient path carved through the chalk downland. There was a sprinkling of snow on the ground and a very hard frost. Two hares were playing in the field and a fox was hunting them.
Along the track there is a Neolithic burial site called Wayland's Smithy. The site takes its name from Wayland, the Saxon God of metalworking, whom legend says still inhabits the mound and will shoe a horse for you if you leave it there with a penny for payment. I love old myths and legends and I have my own spooky tale of Wayland, for on one occasion when I was walking with Monty through the woods beside the track, I heard a horse's hooves keeping pace with me along the Ridgeway. Monty heard it too – when we stopped, it stopped, but when we went to look for it there was no one there!
As at Stonehenge and Avebury, Wayland's Smithy is aligned so that the sun rises between the sarsen stones on the summer and winter solstice. Standing there as the winter sunrise struck the stones I felt a shiver down my spine that was not entirely due to the sub-zero temperatures. At such times in such places it is easy to imagine the presence of people who stood on the same spot over thousands of years. The atmosphere is very strong.
Today, 21st December, the Winter Solstice in the UK, is the longest night and the shortest day. In pagan times it was celebrated with bonfires and rituals to frighten away evil spirits, traditions which were in time absorbed into the Christian festivities. Tonight we will be lighting our Yule candle and burning the Yule log – and perhaps be indulging in a Yule log of the edible variety too!
The seven days preceding and following the winter solstice are know as the Halcyon Days. This takes it's name from the kingfisher, the halcyon bird, which was supposed to lay its eggs on a floating nest at sea. During those 14 days the sea would be quiet and safe and eventually the phrase "halcyon days" came to mean a period of calm and happiness. It's not, perhaps, a description that always applies to the run up to Christmas these days!
The 21st December is also St Thomas's Day, the traditional date on which "the big house" would hand out alms to the poor and provide lavish feasting for tenants and villagers. This would be a more raucous affair than the grand Christmas dinners prepared for the lord and lady of the manor. At Ashdown House there was a trestle table set up in the barn, a bonfire in the coachyard, and the servants, villagers and tenants shared a meal of beef and spiced ale. The ale was so strong that there are records of some of the guests being too tipsy to find their way home afterwards and one gamekeeper fell into a snowdrift in a ditch and was found hours later, almost frozen to death!
What are your favourite pre-Christmas stories or traditions? Do you have a period of tranquillity preceding Christmas, your Halcyon Days? Or a spooky Christmas ghost story like my experience at Wayland's Smithy? Wishing you a very happy solstice, Yule and St Thomas's Day!