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December 22nd 2011
By the time you read this it will be the Winter Solstice, which is the shortest day of the year. It is also the day when the sun reaches its most southerly point on the horizon.
The word “solstice” means “still sun”. It is called this because for three days, when the sun rises, it appears to be stuck on the horizon. After this it visibly moves again and the days start to get longer.
In ancient times this first sign of movement after the solstice was considered to represent the birth of a new sun and was located on the 25th of December. Mithras, the Persian sun god, was born on this day, as was Sol Invictus, “the invincible sun”.
Other gods said to have been born on the 25th December include Horus, Osiris, Krishna, Dionysus, Heracles, Tammuz, Adonis, Hermes, Bacchus and Prometheus. What all of these mythical beings have in common is that they are all sons of a god born to a human parent, often to a virgin, sometimes in a stable.
It is a very ancient theme indeed.
The Roman Saturnalia was celebrated around this time of year, as was the Nordic Yule. The Saturnalia involved a school holiday, the giving of gifts and a market. There was a banquet in which the social hierarchy was reversed: the slaves were served by the masters and special clothes were worn.
Yule also involved a great feast. The peasants attended the temple bringing with them gifts of food and ale. As long as the ale lasted the feast would continue, sometimes for several days and nights.
One of the Norse sagas refers to Yule as “a time of greatest mirth and joyance among men.”
None of this is to denigrate the Christian story. Indeed, to my mind it reinforces it. It shows why this time of year is so important.
The idea of the birth of a new King in the depths of Winter, one who will act as our saviour and redeemer, is a potent thought, resonant with hope. It is why we still celebrate the festival to this day.
January 5th 2012
In my last column I talked about the importance of the Winter Solstice. In this column I want to talk about one particular Winter Solstice, the one taking place this year.
For those of you who are not already aware of this, it represents the conclusion of the Mayan Calendar, which began on the 11th of August 3114 BC and is due to end on the 21st December 2012.
Some people say it is the end of the world.
The Maya were a stone age people who lived in Central America and Southern Mexico at the time of the Spanish invasion. They built huge temples of stone orientated to the yearly cycle and had a sophisticated writing and numerical system.
Their calendar was the most accurate that has ever been devised. Indeed, when the Spanish first encountered it, they realised that their own calendar was out of date, which forced the shift from the Medieval Julian Calendar to the Gregorian calendar we use today.
A number of prophecies are attached to the calendar and its end date. Specifically it is said to be the end of a “World Age”. Many people in the New Age community are preparing for this date. It is said by some to represent a moment of profound spiritual transformation for the human race.
There are certainly times when these apocalyptic predictions seem to be coming true. Right now it looks as if the Euro is about to fail, which would probably bring about the collapse of the banking system as we know it. We have the huge shifts in political alignments being brought about by the Arab Awakening, and the possibility of wars with Iran and Syria looming on the horizon.
Meanwhile there are people on the streets in most of the major cities in the world, riots in Athens and Moscow, and the inexorable rise of China as the new world power.
Something does indeed seem to be going on.
A happy new year to you. It looks like it is going to be an interesting one.
March 15th 2012
I’ve just come back from my holiday to discover that Britain is in the grip of a drought with a hosepipe ban due to be enforced in April.
What the British news doesn’t tell you, however, is that this is a world-wide phenomena.
Tenerife – which is where I went for my holiday – is also in the midst of the worst drought for 50 years, and many parts of the world are experiencing freak weather conditions.
Those of you who have been to Tenerife will know that the island is hot and dry in the South, where all the holiday resorts are located, but wet in the North, where most of the inhabitants actually live.
As you drive around the island you reach a point where the Southern weather gives way to the Northern weather, and the island is suddenly green. It goes from a desert to a scene from the Home Counties in the space of just a few miles.
Not now though. Now the North is just as dry as the South. Whole swathes of forest are dying and the usually lush ferns are withered and brown. The whole island, which is usually bright with flowers at this time of the year, is looking dried up and decayed.
There are also droughts in Texas and Oklahoma in the United States, and in East Africa, while in Australia a persistent drought lasting several years was followed by devastating floods.
Something is going seriously wrong with our weather systems.
“We are just trying to say to people who don’t realize it: the climate is going to change. People need to know,” says climate scientist Richard Somerville, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
And while there has been some debate on the issue, with a concerted effort by the oil industry in particular to cast doubt upon the evidence, the majority of climate scientists are clear that the main cause of these changing weather patterns is the impact of human activity on the environment.
In other words: we made this mess, it up to us to clean it up.
March 29th 2012
I’m an insomniac. I find it hard enough to get to sleep at the best of times.
The most important thing for an insomniac is having a regular routine. You go bed at the same time each night, and get up at the same time every morning. That way sleep becomes a ritual.
Sleep is not something you can make yourself do. It either comes to you as part of a routine, or it doesn’t. The act of trying to go to sleep triggers the very parts in the brain that are inclined to keep you awake.
Can anyone please tell me why we do this? Why do we dislocate ourselves from the natural rhythms of life according to the sun, and impose this sudden, catastrophic break in our daily routine?
You may say that it is only an hour. Not for me it isn’t. It is several hours for several weeks before I finally start to adjust. By the time my sleep patterns have settled down it is almost time to return to Greenwich Mean Time again.
What’s most puzzling is how this came about? How is it that some arbitrary rule, applied across the whole world, apparently without our consent, has become standard? We resign ourselves to the disorientating effects twice a year, without knowing what its purpose is.
Every year I ask people what it’s for, and no one seems to know. It has something to do with farmers, I’m told. That’s all anyone can tell me. It was introduced during the First World War. And I think, well the First World War was a long time ago, and the farmers can get up when they like, why do the rest of us have to suffer?
It is yet another arbitrary, meaningless imposition on our lives. It goes along with war, taxes and Britain’s Got Talent as something we just have to live with, apparently.
Personally I can do without any of it.
April 12th 2012
My brother lives in America. Once a year he and his family come to Whitstable to visit. Mum and Dad are now in their eighties and somewhat frail. Much as they love to see their son, the idea of sharing a house with two rowdy teenagers and a volatile toddler is a bit much for them to take.
Last year they found a compromise. They booked a caravan. This worked out brilliantly. My brother and his family had a great holiday, and Mum and Dad got to see as much of the family as they liked while, at the same time, having a bolt-hole to escape all the noise and chaos.
So that’s what we decided to do again this year. I drove Mum and Dad over to the Seaview Holiday Park in in order to book a caravan. Swalecliffe
And the park is great. It’s spacious, with a good clubhouse, right on the seafront between Whitstable and Herne Bay, with a decent swimming pool and a play area for the kids: the perfect place for a family holiday. I would have no trouble recommending it if it wasn’t for one strange anomaly.
It seems they don’t rent caravans out on all the days of the week. You can book from a Friday, from a Saturday, or from a Monday. But you can’t book from a Sunday, which is when my brother will be arriving.
Can anyone tell me why this might be? Is it like the Cinderella story? Will the caravans turn into pumpkins if you try to move into one past midnight on a Saturday?
According to the receptionist it is company policy, though she couldn’t actually explain why. So we tried to book from the Saturday instead, plus an extra night. But they couldn’t do this either. The week goes from Monday to Friday, and the weekend goes from Friday to Monday, but you can’t have anything in between.
How strange. Don’t these people want our money? They seem to be running their business in the interests of company policy rather than for the convenience of the customer.