traditions

Winter Solstice Celebrations #wintersolstice #winter

winter-solstice-celebrations

There’s something about a cold day in December, the sky growing dark, the fire lit, candles glowing, a glass of red wine and a good book. Christmas is approaching and it’s already the shortest day. I’ve always been fascinated at the old traditions and history of the seasons and festivals, particularly those destroyed by religion. And the Winter Solstice has something really magical about it.

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year – the day that has the shortest periods of daylight. It’s always been a cause for celebration because it means that we’ve reached a turning point – that the days will slowly get longer and we’re on our way to spring (even if it doesn’t feel like it). Our ancestors always knew how to throw a celebration and the winter solstice was a great excuse. There are some fascinating traditions associated with the point of midwinter and many of them have been stolen to become part of Christmas. It’s wonderful that some traditions have been revived and some new ones are beginning.

Burning the Clocks – Brighton, England

burning the clocks

A relatively new tradition, this began in 1993, but has its roots in the idea of lengthening days and shortening nights.

A procession of lanterns and costumes, all bearing a clock face, makes its way through the streets and down to the seafront. Here, the paper and willow lantern are burnt – the lantern makers make wishes, voice their hopes and fears, and pass them into the lanterns before they are placed into the fire.

Newgrange Gathering, Boyne Valley, Ireland

Winter-solstice-at-Newgra-008

Newgrange is a 5200-year-old passage tomb built by stone age farmers. Above the entrance is an opening, On mornings around the winter solstice, a beam of light penetrates the opening and travels up the passage, illuminating it and the chamber. As the sun rises, the whole chamber lights up dramatically.

Stonehenge Gathering, Wiltshire, England

stonehenge-view-of-stone-circle-looking-south-west-along-axis-web

Druids and pagans gather at Stonehenge for both the summer and winter solstices. At the summer solstice, the sun rises behind the Heel Stone. At winter solstice, the sun would have set between the narrow gap of the uprights of the tallest trilithon, which is no longer standing. The sun was so important to our ancestors, providing warmth, allowing crops to grow. They must have had such fear and respect for the earth, the sun, the moon and the power of nature, something we sadly lack.

Montol Festival, Cornwall, England

montol2

The Montol Festival in Penzance is a revival of many of the traditional Cornish Midwinter customs. There is Guise dancing, (from ‘disguise’ – dancers hide their identity so they can get up to mischief!) the Cornish candle dance, and performances of Guiser plays.

Midwinter, while sometimes viewed as dark and depressing, can be a really magical time. So much of our history and heritage is in the traditions that pre-date religion. While there’s a lot of noise around the fears that Christmas is being overly secularised, it’s worth bearing in mind that winter has long been a time of festivals and traditions since long before Christmas. So here’s wishing you a happy, healthy Winter Solstice – and let’s look forward to the lengthening days ahead.

happy solsice

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‘Stiff’ by Mary Roach #BookReview #ThrowbackThursday

Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme to share old favourites and recommendations, and I discovered it through Between the Lines.

stiff

Waterstones   Amazon.co.uk

What happens to your body after you have died? Fertilizer? Crash Test Dummy? Human Dumpling? Ballistics Practise?

Life after death is not as simple as it looks. Mary Roach’s Stiff lifts the lid off what happens to our bodies once we have died. Bold, original and with a delightful eye for detail, Roach tells us everything we wanted to know about this new frontier in medical science.

Interweaving present-day explorations with a history of past attempts to study what it means to be human Stiff is a deliciously dark investigations for readers of popular science as well as fans of the macabre

I have a bit of a fascination with death but I’m not a morbid person. I just feel that it’s a normal part of life (after all, it happens to everyone) that we tend to ignore, or hide away, or pretend doesn’t happen. We don’t want to know the details, the realities. And I think that this reluctance to recognise death and its processes, the rituals around it, have made us less connected to it, and, in turn, more fearful.  We’ve made death something secret, unknown. This book lifts the lid on death, detailing practically everything that could happen to you once you’re dead, including unusual after-life occupations such as being a crash test dummy, becoming part of an exhibition, helping surgeons learn their art, helping scientists understand decomposition or, if you go the more traditional route, what happens in a cremation or what happens once you’ve been buried.

It sounds morbid, but it isn’t. Roach’s writing is funny, respectful, warm and informative. I don’t believe in a god, or a heaven or an afterlife – I’m very happy with this one, thank you very much. There’s nothing once you’re gone and it seems a terrible shame to me that bodies that could do so much good and help so much are literally allowed to go to waste. I’ve always made my feelings known to my family – researchers can have as much of me as they want. I don’t want a funeral or a grave that my children feel indebted to visit when I’m not even there and all they’re doing is making a crematorium owner very rich. How much better will it be if my no longer needed remains help find a cure for a disease, or help investigators to improve safety in transport. And what’s left I’d be happy to have made into compost (you can have this done you know!). Roach’s book details all of these options and more, with warmth and honesty.

For a book about death, it was weirdly uplifting, and life-affirming. All we have is the here and now, and death is a part of life. We are so uniformed; we make death into something horrific and other. But as Roach so clearly and entertainingly shows, it’s part of being human and it’s something we should know more about.

4.5 out of 5

The Traditions and History of the Summer Solstice #SummerSolstice #Stonehenge

Here’s a post from a few years ago – it’s a beautiful day today for the summer solstice.

‘As the sun spirals its longest dance, cleanse us.

As nature shows bounty and fertility bless us.

Let all things live with loving intent and to fulfil their truest destiny.’

Wiccan blessing for summer

solstice stonehenge

Were you up early this morning watching the sun rise? If you were, you were joining hundreds of other people marking this year’s summer solstice.

The summer solstice happens when the tilt of the Earth’s semi-axis is most inclined towards the sun. In fact, the word ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin ‘solstitium’ which translates as ‘sun stands still’. On this day there are the most hours of sunlight.

Humans have long been amazed by the power of the sun and light has a key role in many rituals, beliefs and superstitions. For Pagans in particular, this day has a particular significance. They believe that the Goddess (who they worship along with the horned God) took over the earth at the beginning of spring. The solstice marks the day when she is at her most powerful. Some Pagans believe the day marks the marriage of the Goddess and God – their union creating the abundance of the harvest.

Although they come together to celebrate life and growth at the time of the solstice, Pagans also recognise that the sun will now begin to decline, days will slowly get shorter, and we will edge slowly towards winter.

If you live in the UK, then you probably associate the summer solstice with Stonehenge. Many Pagans and, indeed, non-Pagans, gather at this ancient stone circle to watch the sun rise. The Heel Stone and the Slaughter Stone are set just outside the main circle, and these stones align with the rising sun.

solstice henge 2

Although Stonehenge is the focal point for many, Pagans will gather outdoors to take part in rituals and celebrations that date back for thousands of years. These traditions have largely been forgotten or are now overlooked, but it is worth remembering that, although many were wiped from the history books once Christianity took hold, these ancient rites and beliefs were here long before the relatively modern Christian tradition. Because of the passage of time, and also because of the banning of many traditions and beliefs under Christianity, there is not much documented evidence of traditional celebrations marking Litha, or Midsummer, of which the Solstice is a part. There is some information to be found however; some of it, ironically, in the writings of monks.

One tradition that is known about is that of setting large wheels on fire and then rolling them down a hill into water. This may have been used to signify the fact that although the sun is strongest in midsummer, it will then weaken. Water also reduces the heat of the sun; subordinating heat (the fire) to water signified the prevention of drought.

wheelburning

The setting of hilltop bonfires was also a midsummer’s tradition, again linking fire to the sun and honouring the space between the earth and the sun. This tradition was brought to the British Isles by Saxon invaders celebrating the power of the sun over darkness.

Pagans today see the solstice as a time for focusing on inner lightness and power. Whatever your beliefs, getting up early on the morning of the summer solstice and watching the sun rise is sure to fill you with awe. It’s a tradition we should probably all embrace.

Autumn – traditions and superstitions

autumnLast week I was soaking up the sun in Gran Canaria where it was at least 28 degrees every day. In our absence, autumn seems to have well and truly arrived. The heating’s on, I’ve dug out my slippers and the countdown to that day has begun.

Autumn is a beautiful season – and one that is full of old traditions and beliefs. This is a post from a couple of years ago celebrating some weird and wonderful autumn superstitions.

Even the most sceptical among us might qualm when it comes to walking under a ladder, or find ourselves saluting when we see a single magpie (that’s me!); superstitions that have been around for hundreds of years still seem to have a hold in these more rational times.

Many superstitions arose in a past where life was governed by the weather and the seasons, so it’s no surprise that there are plenty of customs and beliefs associated with autumn. People needed to find security in the unknown, to feel that they had a handle on what might happen. And autumn was a scary time. The harvest was crucial – would there be enough to keep everyone going over the winter months? And what would those winter months be like? Many superstitions were focused on what the winter would bring. And many have their roots in common sense (but certainly not all of them!).

fruits

For example, it was believed that if fruits were plentiful the coming winter would be mild. This makes sense; as the fruits would need warmth to ripen, meaning that the autumn was probably mild, so therefore the winter could possibly be mild too. This is possibly the reasoning behind another belief – that if ducks leave it until late autumn to fly south, then winter will arrive late.

onions

It’s worth knowing your onions too – a thin skin means a mild winter, but if the skin is thick winter will be cold.

If you want to know when the worst of winter will be, then go and look for some caterpillars. If you find lots of caterpillars that are dark brown in the middle but yellow at each end, then the middle of winter will be cold. However, if there are lots of them, of any colour, then the whole winter will be cold.

caterpillar

Not sure what sort of winter this one signifies!

You could always slaughter a hog. Apparently if you do this and can identify its spleen, then if the spleen lies towards its head, winter will be mild (as a vegetarian, I’ll think I’ll pass on that one).

By now you could be completely confused. But you might also be wondering about next summer already. Will it be good here at home or should I book somewhere in the sun? Wait a few weeks until the end of autumn, then dig up the garden. You’ll need to dig deep. If worms are found deep down in the earth, then next summer will be cold.

So what then if the winter is going to be bad? You could always ward off colds beforehand. If you catch a falling leaf in autumn, then you’ll be free of colds all year. And there’s an added bonus; every leaf you catch means a lucky month the following year.

autumn leaf

Of course one thing our ancestors were scared of was death – they understood it even less than we did. So superstitions and predictions offered some comfort and some idea of control over the future. A primrose growing in your yard in autumn was a signifier of death. And if a cherry tree bloomed in autumn, then that meant death not only for a person, but for the tree too. In the West of Scotland, a white rose blooming in autumn was another sign of an impending death; however, the blooming of a red rose meant an early marriage.

I, of course, believe in none of these. Though that won’t stop me trying to catch a leaf when I’m walking the dog later. I’ve felt like I’ve been coming down with a cold these last few days and you never know, a falling leaf might be just what I need.

 

A Witchcraft Tour of England

pendle witches

England has a long and varied history of witchcraft. As a tradition stretching back centuries, it is hardly surprising that there are a great variety of places that abound with legends, stories and histories about witchcraft, witches, persecution and execution. When researching the topic, I came across lots of interesting stories and made a long list of places that I’d love to visit. Some of them I have been lucky enough to visit although I would like to visit again one day. In fact, what I’d really like to do is go on a witchcraft tour of England – spending time in all these places. All offer something interesting and informative; some are fun and have more to do with legend, myth and fairy tale than the brutal truth of the horror of the witch hunts; other places I have found to be spots where poor, misunderstood and persecuted women (let’s not forget that the majority of the witch hunt victims were women) can be remembered and honoured in some small way. These are the places I’d love to visit and re-visit.

The North West

300px-Pendle_Hill_Lancs

No witchcraft tour would be complete without a visit to Pendle Hill in Lancashire and it’s a great place to start. Pendle was the location of the famous 1612 trial for witchcraft. The accused all lived in the area, and ten were hanged on Gallows Hill. Of course, rumours now abound that the hill is haunted – TV’s Most Haunted has filmed there. As a sceptic I don’t believe that these women haunt the hill – I like to think they are at peace, free from the horrible persecution they suffered and no longer afraid. But I must admit I’m not sure I’d like to spend the night on the hill!

The North East

witch pricking

Margaret Brown and thirteen other poor souls were hanged on the Town Moor in Newcastle in 1650. Margaret was a victim of ‘witch-pricking’ – it was claimed she had a devil’s mark on her body that, when pricked by a pin did not bleed. She protested her innocence right up to the last according to Ralph Gardener’s 1655 book ‘England’s Grievance’:

“These poor souls never confessed anything but pleaded innocence and one of them, by name Margaret Brown, beseeched God that some remarkable sign might be seen at the time of her execution.”

The Town Moor is a place I’d like to visit, to pause for a moment and think about poor Margaret and the other terrified accused – hoping against hope that something would end their terror.

Yorkshire

mother shipton

I have heard a lot of stories about Mother Shipton and the ‘Petrifying Well’ or ‘dropping well’ in Knaresborough. It used to be believed that the water was magic – turning objects to stone. Now of course we know that the calcifying is due to the high mineral content of the water – but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. And Mother Shipton herself is an interesting character – allegedly born in a cave near the dropping well, she has become a legendary figure of folklore, renowned for her prophecies. There is a whole park devoted to her now, with the dropping well, cave, a museum, castle ruins and gardens. You can even buy a petrified teddy bear in the gift shop!

East Anglia

DSCF1380

This area was the stomping ground of Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General.  There are a wealth of places to visit – though few traces of the man himself remain. I’ve visited Colchester Castle and stood in the cells where Hopkins interrogated his victims (a very spooky and uncomfortable experience). I’ve also eaten dinner in ‘The Mistley Thorn’, a lovely pub that stands on the site of the inn where Hopkins set up his witch finding business and where he is rumoured to have lived. The food is lovely. I did get a bit freaked out when leaving though as we decided to go for a walk in the dark – and I have to say it was incredibly chilling to think we were walking where Hopkins may have walked. My imagination did get the better of me, but that might have been the wine.

 

The South

coven of witches

Burley is a very pretty village in the New Forest known for its connection with the witch Sybil leek. Leek moved to the area in the 1950s and opened a shop – ‘A Coven of Witches’ – still open in the village. There are now other shops in the village selling various witch-related items and a tea shop called ‘The Black Cat’. I’ve been to Burley several times and it is a really beautiful place – and a bit of light relief too!

The South West

Museum of Witchcraft

Two places of note in the South West – the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall and Exeter in Devon.

I won’t say too much about the Witchcraft Museum other than saying again how utterly fabulous it is – quirky and weird, packed full of witchcraft related stuff, but you can read about my visit here.

Alice Molland plaque

I regret not stopping in Exeter on my way to Boscastle as I would have liked to have seen the plaque at Rougemont Castle commemorating the execution of the Bideford witches and Alice Molland – you can find out about Alice here.

I know I have missed out some wonderful places but there are so many that it is hard to choose. And I know I have also ignored Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – I am planning separate posts on the history of witchcraft in these countries.

Do you know of any interesting places connected to witchcraft in England?  I’d love to know about them (any excuse for a holiday – I mean research!).

 

I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out more about my editing services here. I am currently offering discounts to new clients – do get in touch to discuss how I can help you to make your book the best it can be.

Flowers, Friends, Food and Fun – 17th Century Wedding Customs

17th century weding band

Researching my novel ‘The Black Hours’ was often a very dark and depressing business, focusing as it did on real accounts of persecution, terror, torture and death. When I came to write the prequel ‘Blackwater’, I did find some light relief. There is a wedding in ‘Blackwater’ and so I spent a much more cheerful afternoon reading up on the wedding traditions and customs of the 17th century.

My main source for this research was a lovely booklet by Denise Taylor called ‘17th Century Wedding Customs’. This booklet, though small in size, is packed full of useful information and interesting facts that really helped me to envisage the wedding between Samuel and Elizabeth. And it was refreshing to research using something other than the internet – something that I know I overuse.

wedding customs

As we are now coming into the most popular times for weddings, I thought I would provide a small glimpse into the way weddings, particularly those of the lower classes, were enacted all those years ago, courtesy of Denise Taylor’s helpful booklet.

Before they even got to the wedding, lower class adolescents in the 17th Century had a lot more freedom than you might think. This had a lot to do with young people very often leaving home early to take up jobs in service. This independence at a young age provided plenty of opportunities to spend time alone with members of the opposite sex, often without any chaperone.

These sweethearts would give gifts to show their affection. A silver coin, broken in half with one half kept by each of the couple, was enough to signify an engagement. Oaths and prayers would often be said over these coins, giving them much significance and importance, and making these tokens valued not only as a signifier of love, but also as a talisman against evil spirits.

It was very rare that a new dress was bought specially for a wedding. Most brides would simply wear their best dress, usually the one they wore to church, possibly with some extra adornment. More important than the dress were the bride’s garters! These were generally blue in colour, and were regarded as trophies. For although they were worn by the bride, tied just above the knee, they formed the centre of a rather risqué tradition. Once it was bed time, rather than being left in privacy with her new husband to remove the garters, they were instead removed by the ‘bride-men’ (two bachelors who would have led the bride to church carrying branches of rosemary). The garters would then be fastened to the men’s hats.

Along with garters, gloves were also important. These would be given to the bride either by her groom, or by a failed suitor who would use the opportunity to show her that she had chosen he wrong man, by presenting her with the most extravagant gloves he could afford.

Flowers were as important then as they are now. Most country brides would dress their hair with wildflowers, myrtle or miniature sheaves of wheat. Myrtle would also be used in the bouquet along with orange blossom. When the bride left the church after the ceremony, wheat would be thrown on her head to bring fruitfulness – perhaps a pre-cursor to confetti.

Orange blossom - a traditional wedding flower

Orange blossom – a traditional wedding flower

If the bride lived in the north, then she may also have cake broken over her head! This again was a fertility charm. It was also believed that the future could be seen in the broken pieces of bread and that those who gathered the pieces would have good luck.

Eating and drinking was very important. Cakes, meats and treats would all be specially prepared, with the whole community helping to provide a feast for the couple and their guests. The traditional tiered cake of today’s weddings may have featured, but in the earlier part of the century, the wedding ‘cake’ was likely to consist of small buns built into a huge pile and placed before the couple at the table. The couple would try and kiss over this mound of cakes – if they managed to reach each other they were guaranteed prosperity and plenty of children.

Going to bed on the wedding night was not a private, romantic affair. Instead, the couple were escorted to bed by the bridesmaids and groomsmen. Once the garters had been removed and distributed, the bridesmaids would undress the bride, making sure that any dress pins were removed and thrown away, lest they bring misfortune. The bride would then be surrounded by her female relations and friends, waiting in the ribbon be-decked bed for her groom. He would climb in with his bride and then all the guests would come into the bedchamber to wish the couple luck. The company would then return to their celebrations, finally leaving the newly-weds in peace!

Some of the traditions may seem rather odd, but many haven’t really changed that much through the years; the flowers, the friends, the food and the fun remain an integral part of wedding celebrations.

 

Do you have any unusual wedding traditions in your part of the world or particular to your family? I’d love to hear about them.

17th Century Wedding Customs by Denise Taylor is available on Amazon.co.uk here.

Find out more about ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Black Hours’ here.

I am a UK-based writer, editor and independent novelist. I love reading and I love to write. These are the two great passions of my life. Find out more about my editing services here. I am currently offering discounts to new clients – do get in touch to discuss how I can help you to make your book the best it can be. 

Summer Solstice

‘As the sun spirals its longest dance,
cleanse us.
As nature shows bounty and fertility
bless us.
Let all things live with loving intent
and to fulfil their truest destiny.’

Wiccan blessing for summer

solstice stonehenge

Were you up early this morning watching the sun rise? If you were, you were joining hundreds of other people marking this year’s summer solstice.

The summer solstice happens when the tilt of the Earth’s semi-axis is most inclined towards the sun. In fact, the word ‘solstice’ derives from the Latin ‘solstitium’ which translates as ‘sun stands still’. On this day there are the most hours of sunlight – let’s hope this year’s solstice also marks the advent of some actual summer weather!

Humans have long been amazed by the power of the sun and light has a key role in many rituals, beliefs and superstitions. For Pagans in particular, this day has a particular significance. They believe that the Goddess (who they worship along with the horned God) took over the earth at the beginning of spring. The solstice marks the day when she is at her most powerful. Some Pagans believe the day marks the marriage of the Goddess and God – their union creating the abundance of the harvest.

Although they come together to celebrate life and growth at the time of the solstice, Pagans also recognise that the sun will now begin to decline, days will slowly get shorter, and we will edge slowly towards winter.

If you live in the UK, then you probably associate the summer solstice with Stonehenge. Many Pagans and, indeed, non-Pagans, gather at this ancient stone circle to watch the sun rise. The Heel Stone and the Slaughter Stone are set just outside the main circle, and these stones align with the rising sun.

solstice henge 2

Although Stonehenge is the focal point for many, Pagans will gather outdoors to take part in rituals and celebrations that date back for thousands of years. These traditions have largely been forgotten or are now overlooked, but it is worth remembering that, although many were wiped from the history books once Christianity took hold, these ancient rites and beliefs were here long before the relatively modern Christian tradition. Because of the passage of time, and also because of the banning of many traditions and beliefs under Christianity, there is not much documented evidence of traditional celebrations marking Litha, or Midsummer, of which the Solstice is a part. There is some information to be found however; some of it, ironically, in the writings of monks.

One tradition that is known about is that of setting large wheels on fire and then rolling them down a hill into water. This may have been used to signify the fact that although the sun is strongest in midsummer, it will then weaken. Water also reduces the heat of the sun; subordinating heat (the fire) to water signified the prevention of drought.

wheelburning

The setting of hilltop bonfires was also a midsummer’s tradition, again linking fire to the sun and honouring the space between the earth and the sun. This tradition was brought to the British Isles by Saxon invaders celebrating the power of the sun over darkness.
Pagans today see the solstice as a time for focusing on inner lightness and power. Whether you are religious or not, Pagan, Wiccan, Christian or atheist, getting up early on the morning of the summer solstice and watching the sun rise is sure to fill you with awe. It is a tradition we should probably all embrace.