Without wishing to cause offence, I find it somewhat astonishing that huge swathes of the population happily embark on an orgy of self –centred excess in honour of a child whose existence has little historical proof and birth date no foundation in fact while ignoring an event which is not only grounded in science, but occurs with reliable regularity each and every year.
I’m talking about the Winter Solstice which in the Northern hemisphere, occurs usually on the 21st December, although it may fall on the 20th or the 23rd. Some call it the shortest day or the longest night and it has been celebrated by all cultures way back through the mists of time. It’s extraordinary then, that most people know so little about it, so here goes!
The winter solstice occurs when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees. In other words, it is when the North Pole is tilted 23.5 degrees away from the sun. At this point, the stars in Orion’s belt line up with Sirius which is the brightest star in the Eastern sky and indicates the following day’s sunrise. For around three days the sun appears to stand still before starting its climb back to the heavens.
In view of this, it isn’t hard to see why the event held such importance for our agrarian ancestors whose very existence depended on knowing when they could expect the land to start warming in readiness for new planting.
It was also considered a very mystical, magical time when the boundaries of corporal existence blurred and the nebulous manifestations of the Other World revealed themselves to the mystics and seers who sought its guidance. This is the central theme of The Inbetween, which tells of Wild Eadric and his faery bride.
THE YULE LOG
Not surprisingly, there are a whole range of customs and traditions associated with the Winter Solstice, one being the Yule Log. In The Inbetween, Eadric’s mother, Arwyn, is awaiting its arrival. This would usually have been a huge oak dragged from the estate plantation and lit from a brand preserved from the previous year’s fire.
It was often dressed with salt, wine, oil, herbs and forest greenery and blessed with various prayers and incantations. Embers and splinters from the log were said to have magic powers, particularly against lightening and the evil eye. In The Inbetween, Arwyn uses the Yule Log for fire scrying, hoping to catch a glimpse of Eadric’s future.
The ancients have long known the power of herb lore and Arwyn, the Lady of Lynbury Hall, who is one of the central characters in The Inbetween is no exception. She has concocted a cocktail of herbs which she hopes will aid clairvoyance as she gazes into the flames of the Yule.
We are not told what has gone into her potion, but mushrooms have long been known for their mind altering effects. Mistletoe no doubt had a part to play as would wormwood, cowslip, poppy and eyebright to name but a few.
THE LORD OF MIS-RULE
The Romans celebrated the Winter Solstice on the 25th December, (sound familiar?). This was the end of the solstice stand- still period when the sun began its climb back up the heavens. Not unnaturally, the hot blooded Latins didn’t need much of an excuse to celebrate!
They called it Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun or as it is better known, Saturnalia. It was a time of riotous celebration with music, dancing, games and sports. The halls were decked with greenery, gifts exchanged of fruit, nuts, spices and jewels and for one night, servants and masters exchanged places. A mock king was appointed who later became known as the Lord Of Mis-Rule. In The Inbetween, Eadric appoints his horse master Lord Of Mis-Rule responsible for ensuring the solstice revelry keeps up the pace.
THE HOLLY KING & OAK KING
Before the advent of Christianity, religion was firmly rooted in the cyclical world of the agrarian calendar which in turn followed the great wheel of stars passing over head in the heavens. The Horned God was a manifestation of this belief and occurs in many guises through out the world. One popular form in Britain is that of the Holly King and the Oak King, twin brothers, but really one entity. Each of the brother’s rule for half of a year, fights for the favour of the Goddess, and dies. But the defeated twin is not truly dead, he simply withdraws for six months, to Caer Arianrhod, the Castle of the ever-turning Silver Wheel, which is also known as the Wheel of the Stars or the Aurora Borealis. This is the enchanted land of the Goddess Arianrhod who is the goddess of reincarnation.
The Oak King, who is the light twin, rules from midwinter to midsummer, bringing ever increasing light and warmth to the land. The darkling Holly King rules from Midsummer to Midwinter and brings the dark, rejuvenating sleep of death. In The Inbetween, these brothers or gods are known as The King Of Summer and The Winter King. The land the vanquished brother inhabits is the Summerland or the Land of Shadows.
THE CHRISTMAS/YULE CLASH!
Up to the third century, Christmas was celebrated on a range of dates between December and April with January, 6th the most popular. About 350 it finally settled on the 25th December which conveniently absorbed the pagan aspects of the Solstice, Yule and Saturnalia celebrations. By 1100 which is the time period for The Inbetween, Christmas was the major celebration of the year, but there were still large sections of the population, both high and low who remembered older gods.
This figurers prominently in The Inbetween and is explored through the characters of Arwyn, Lady of Lynbury Hall and the monk, Dormath, the Abbot’s rent collector.
THE INBETWEEN by Sue Kendrick
It was the time they call the Inbetween. When trees raise bare and withered arms to keening skies. When wild fowl move like grey shades over leaded waters. The time when the lord of the green has long gone to the summer land and he who they call the winter king rides out from the land of shadows with death on his helm and a sword of ice in his hand.
Arwyn has lived long and knows much and knows well the power of the Inbetween, but the future was ever a canvas painted by the past!
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