May 8th Helston Furry Dance

At the end of the May Day/Beltane Festival Helston in Cornwall holds its Furry (or Floral) Dance. It is normally on the 8th May, but it changes date if the 8th is a Sunday or a Monday (Helston’s market day) but it isn’t so the Floral Dance was held this year on Wednesday 8th 5th May.

Padstow holds, perhaps, the most famous May Day festival on May 1st. Padstow feels more of a ‘pagan’ festival, while Helston is a more sedate, gentlemanly, dance. Padstow is more fuelled by a belly full of ale, while Helston by a Pims No 1, or a Gin and Tonic?

Do, have a look at both youtube videos and watch the Padstow one until at least you see the ‘obby ‘orse and the teaser dancing.

Children born between the two days, May 1st and May 8th are considered to have been ‘born with the skill of man and beast and power over both.’

Roodmas, the True Cross and the Coronation May 3rd

Rood screen in St. Helen’s church, Ranworth, Norfolk by Maria CC BY-SA 3.0

Roodmas is celebrated on May 3rd and September 14th, although the Church of England aligned itself with the Catholic Church’s main celebration on September 14th.

Rood is another word for the Cross. Parish Churches used to have a Rood Screen separating the holy Choir from the more secular Nave. This screen was topped with a statue of the Crucified Jesus nailed to a Rood.

The two dates of Roodmas reflects that it commemorates two events:

The Discovery of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem in 326 by Queen Helena, wife of Constantius Chlorus and mother of Constantine the Great. In Jerusalem, Queen Helena found the Cross with the nails, and the crown of thorns. She authenticated the Cross by placing it in contact with a deathly sick woman who was revived by the touch of Cross. She had most of the Cross sent back to the care of her son, Constantine the Great.

The part of the Holy Cross that was left behind in Jerusalem was taken by Persians but recovered by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 628 in a peace treaty.

Over the years, the Cross was shivered into ever smaller pieces as Emperors, Kings, Queens, Dukes, Counts, Popes, Bishops, Abbots, and Abbesses swapped relics with each other. The fragments were cased in beautiful reliquaries and had enormous power for those of faith and those who could be helped by healing by faith.

The Duke of Buckingham had a piece in his collection, which he kept at York House in the early 17th Century. How he got it, I don’t know, but I think he must have acquired it from the aftermath of the destruction of the Reformation. John Tradescant, who looked after the Duke’s collection (before Buckingham was murdered), had a wonderful collection of curiosities which he kept in the UK’s first Museum in Lambeth. Tradescant’s Ark, as his museum was called, also had a piece of the True Cross. Again, I suspect (without any evidence) that he got it from Buckingham. Did he acquire it after the murder? Or shiver off a timber fragment hoping no one would notice?

The Chapel that Shakespeare’s Father controlled as Bailiff of Stratford on Avon, was dedicated to the Legend of the True Cross, to find out more click here:

cutting from the Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation
Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation

Last year, I was just finishing this piece when I came across this astonishing story in the Shropshire News!

It seems two pieces of the True Cross were given to Charles III by the Pope! They have been put into a cross called the Welsh Cross which took part in the Coronation Procession, and then the King is giving the Cross (I assume with the pieces of the Holy Cross) to the Church in Wales. Let the Shropshire News tell the story:

Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation
Part 2 Shropshire News article on the True Cross and the Coronation

This is quite extraordinarily medieval, and fits in with the news that we were encouraged to take an oath of allegiance to the new King.

I, (Insert full name), do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Charles, his heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/royals/swearing-allegiance-king-charles-its-29861318

It is a clear reminder that we are subjects not citizens and news, as a nation, we still set store by superstitions.

First Written on May 3rd 2023, revised May 3rd 2024

This Stinking Idol & the End of May Day May 2nd

An Imagined Scene at the Maypole at St Andrew Undershaft
An Imagined Scene at the Maypole at St Andrew Undershaft

Philip Stubbes, in his Anatomy of Abuses of 1583, fired a broadside at the tradition of dancing around the Maypole when he wrote a vitriolic attack on pagan practices. He said they had ‘as Superintendent and Lord ouer their pastimes and sportes: namely, Sathan Prince of Hell’ as they erected ‘this stinking Idoll’. Stubbes suggested that of the maids that went out to the woods on May Eve less than one-third returned ‘undefiled’.

The Maypole was stored at St Andrew Cornhill, which became known as St Andrew Undershaft. In 1517, it was attacked during the ‘Evil May Day riot’, which the Recorder of the time, Thomas More, helped quell. (300 were arrested and one hanged). The shaft was returned to its place under the eves of the houses in Shaft Alley, but apparently banned from being raised.

But in 1549, the curate of nearby St Katharine Cree Church made an inflammatory speech which led to a Puritan mob cutting the shaft into pieces and burning it. I always imagine the Curate’s sermons to be along the same lines as Phillip Stubbes attack on the Maypole:

But their chiefest iewel they bring from thence is the Maie-poale,
which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: They haue
twentie, or fourtie yoake of Oxen, euery Oxe hauing a sweete
Nosegaie of flowers tyed on the tip of his homes, and these Oxen
drawe home this Maie-poale (this stinking ldoll rather) which is
couered all ouer with Flowers and Hearbes, bound round about
with strings from the top to the bottome, and sometimes painted
with variable collours, with two or three hundred men, women and
children following it, with great deuotion. And thus being reared

vp, with handkerchiefes and flagges streaming on the top, they
strawe the ground round about, bind green boughes about it, set
vp Summer Haules, Bowers, and Arbours hard by it. And then fa!
they to banquet and feast, to leape and daunce about it, as the

a Heathen people did, at the dedication of their ldolles, whereof this
is a perfect patteme, or rather the thing it selfe. I haue heard it
crediblie reported (and that viua voce) by men of great grauity,
credite, and reputation, that of fourtie, threescore, or a hundred Maides,
going to the wood ouemight, there haue scarcely the third part of them returned home againe vndefiled.

Phillip Stubbes from ”A Critical Edition Of Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie Of Abuses‘ By Margaret Jane Kidnie.

The unraised pole seems to have survived until the beginning of the Civil War, (1644) when it was destroyed. But at the Restoration of Charles II a new and huge Maypole was joyously erected 134 ft high (41 metres) in the Strand. This was danced around till 1713 when it was replaced and the original sold to Isaac Newton who used it to support the biggest telescope in Europe which was erected in Wanstead by a friend.

And that, my friends, is how you get from Superstition to Science in one easy story.

Old Print of Isaac Newton
Old Print of Isaac Newton

Postscript. I have always said that the sermon that led to the destruction of the Shaft in 1549 was made at St Paul but cannot remember where I read this. The suggestion that the Maypole in Cornhill was not used after 1517 seems strange because why then would it rouse a crowd to riot in 1549? Of the sources I have at hand, the London Encyclopedia mentions the riot of 1517 in its entry on St Andrew Undershaft but doesn’t elaborate more. ‘Layers of London‘ says ‘It was last raised in 1517 when ensuing riots led to the celebration being banned.’ which is definitive sounding. But is it? I wonder if it was banned for a year or two, then allowed again, and finally stopped in 1549?

First written in 2023 and revised on May 2nd 2024.

May Day May 1st

Bringing the Maypole, Bedfordshire. Image from ‘Romantic Britain’

Maypoles were often stored during the year. A few days before May Day they were repainted, and bedecked with May Garlands – mostly made from Hawthorn. The Maypole used in London in 1660 was 134 feet high. Tall straight trees were used, sometimes of Larch, and they might be spliced together to get the requisite height. John Stow says that each parish in London had their own Maypole, or combined with a neighbouring Parish. The main Maypole was on the top of Cornhill, in Leadenhall Street, and it was stored under the eves of St Andrew’s Church which became known as St Andrew’s Undershaft as a result.

Padstow holds, perhaps, the most famous May Day festival on May 1st. Padstow feels very ‘pagan’ or do I mean it is fuelled by an enormous amount of drink?

Here is a video, watch until you see the ‘obby ‘orse and the teaser dancing.

The celebrations begin on May Eve because the Celtic calendar starts the day at Dusk. This seems strange to us even though we perversely ‘start’ our day at Midnight just after everyone has gone to bed! The other choice, and maybe the most logical is, Dawn, but Dawn and Dusk are difficult to fix. Midnight was chosen by Julius Caesar when he created the Julian Calendar. Midnight has the virtue of being a fixed metric, being half way between Dawn and Dusk.

Celebrations centred around the Bonfire, and for the Celts was sacred to the fire God Belinus, and May Day was called Beltane. Bonfires continued to be a part of the celebration into the 16th Century, and in places until the 20th Century. According to folklore tradition, the bonfire should be made of nine types of wood, collected by nine teams of married men (or first born men). They must not carry any metal with them and the fire has to be lit by rubbing oak sticks together or a wooden awl twisted in a wooden log. The people have to run sunwise around the fire, and oatcakes are distributed, with one being marked with a black spot. The one who collects it has to jump through the fire three times. Bonfires would have been on the top of hills, or in the streets in London.

May celebrations have a similarity to Halloween, which was also a fire festival and both are uncanny times when sprites and spirits abound. Hawthorn was a favoured wood not only because of its beautiful may flower but also because it was said to be the wood the crown of thorns was made from. It had the power of resisting supernatural forces, so was used to protect doors, cribs, cow sheds and other places from witches. Witches, it was said, got their power to fly from potions made from chopped up infants. The best protection was Christening and the custom was that christening took place as early as possible and normally three days after birth. Shakespeare was baptised on 26th April 1564, so we celebrate his birthday on 23rd April. See my post for more on this subject.

Cribs would be bedecked with Hawthorn and protection might be augmented by a bible, rowan, and garlic. Babies born between May 1 and 8 were thought to be special children destined to have power over man and beast. Weddings were frowned upon in Lent and in May, so April became a popular choice for marriage.

After celebrations in the evening of April 30th, women would go out in the woods to collect May, other flowering plants, and to wash their faces in May Dew preferable from the leaves of Hawthorn, or beneath an oak tree, or from a new-made grave. The dew was said to improve their complexion and was also used for medical conditions such as gout and weak eyes. Thinking of one’s lover on May Day might bring marriage within the year.

May morning would commence with dancing around the Maypole, followed by feasting, and summer games.

Time to guard children against witches April 29th

From ‘The Wonderful Discoveries of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower’, London, 1618

As May Eve approached, which like Halloween, was considered a particularly uncanny time, people were warned to guard against witches stealing their babies:

He (the Devil) teacheth the witches to make ointments of the bowels and members of children, whereby they ride in the air and accomplish all their desires. So as, if they be any children unbaptized, or not guarded with the sign of the cross or orisons: then the witches may and do catch them from their mother’s side at night, or out of their cradles. …. and after burial steal them out of the graves, then seethe them in a cauldron until their flesh been made possible.

Reginald Scott ‘The Discovery of Witchcraft’ 1594 (from ‘The perpetual Almanack of Folklore’ by Charles Kightley)

Ways to keep witches away were various, but baptising your children early was the best method. As you will have seen in previous posts, children were normally baptised as soon as three days after birth in the early modern period.) Saying prayers (orisons), hanging garlic, bread, rowan-leaves, around the cradle were among many other methods that could be used in those days of a homicidal fear of witchcraft.

In archaeological surveys of timber framed buildings increasing numbers of reports of ‘witches’ marks have been discovered. They are now so ubiquitous that it seems most people felt the need to deploy them to secure their houses. It was believed that witches gained entry where there was in inlet of wind, so doors, windows, chimneys, and anywhere there was a draft. These were be marked by pentagons which represent the five wounds of Christ, as well as a variety of other marks ‘chequerboards, mesh patterns, peltas (a type of knotwork design) and circle’. This quotation is from https://theartssociety.org/arts-news-features/ancient-symbols-once-used-ward-away-witches which is an excellent read and gives more detail.

Also this article makes the case that they are not witch marks, or anti-witch protection marks but general marks to ward off evil. This is worth reading. The illustration below comes from it.

Robert Burns poem ‘Tam O’Shanter’ gives a graphic, fictional, account of a witches’ coven presided over by the Devil (auld Nick) himself which features ‘wee, unchristen’d bairns‘:

And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight!
Warlocks and witches in a dance;
Nae cotillion brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.—
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw’d the dead in their last dresses;
And by some devilish cantraip slight
Each in its cauld hand held a light.—
By which heroic Tam was able
To note upon the haly table,
A murderer’s banes in gibbet airns;
Twa span-lang, wee, unchristen’d bairns;
A thief, new-cutted frae a rape,
Wi’ his last gasp his gab did gape;
Five tomahawks, wi’ blude red-rusted;
Five scymitars, wi’ murder crusted;
A garter, which a babe had strangled;
A knife, a father’s throat had mangled,
Whom his ain son o’ life bereft,
The grey hairs yet stack to the heft;
Wi’ mair o’ horrible and awefu’,
Which even to name wad be unlawfu’.

I talked more about Tam O’Shanter and the Cutty Sark here and to read the whole poem see below. Please do have a look and when you read it read it quick and don’t worry about how to pronounce it or understand it, just enjoy the ride!

Written in 2023 revised April 2024

John Stow, London’s Historian 22nd April

St Andrew in London

On the corner of Leadenhall Street and St Mary Axe in the City of London is one of the very few medieval Churches that survived the Great Fire of London is 1666. It was sheltered by the firebreak that was the Leadenhall, a big market building made of stone.

The Church is the Maypole Church as it was here the Maypole or the shaft was stored under the eves of the Church when not in use. Hence, St Andrew’s sobriquet of ‘Undershaft’. The MayDay riot in 1517 put an end to the dancing around the Maypole but the pole itself survived until 1547 when, in a Puritan riot, the ‘stynking idol’ was destroyed. (see my May Day blog post here for more more details of Mayday.)

This is where the great London historian John Stow is buried. His Survey of London is one of the best sources for Medieval and Tudor London. Every three years, there is a commemorative service and his quill is changed. This year it was yesterday, 22nd April. The Lord Mayor attends and it is organised by Stow’s Guild – the Merchant Taylors.

John Stow, author of the ‘Survey of London‘ first published in 1598. Available at the wonderful Project Gutenberg: ‘https://www.gutenberg.org/files/42959/42959-h/42959-h.htm’

There is also a plaque to Hans Holbein, but no one knows for sure, where he is buried. He died in London in 1543, possibly of plague.

Agas Map 1561 showing St Andrews (right centre)

First Published on 30th November 2022, Revised 2023, and in April 2024

All Fools Day April 1st

April from the Kalendar of Shepherds

The first unambiguous British reference to April Fools Day is by diarist John Aubrey’s “Fooles holy day” in 1686, although he might have been referring to Germany. (‘We observe it on ye first of April… And so it is kept in Germany everywhere.)” For more details read hoaxes.org

But there is a possible earlier reference in Chaucer in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale which I find quite compelling but most Chaucer scholars don’t. This is the text:

When that the monthe in which the world bigan
That highte March, whan God first maked man,
Was complet, and passed were also
Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two

So, if you have been keeping up with me, you will know that the first lines are referring to March 25th, (when the world began) when God made Adam and Eve, and when the Church started the New Year and the year number moved one on. This was a major Church festival, usually followed by a week of holiness. The Roman New Year, January 1st, ended with a light-hearted festival called Saturnalia, and it is suggested that April 1st was, similarly, a day of release after the festival of the official Church ceremony of the New Year.

Chaucer’s last line says ‘Since March began thirty-two days have passed.’ A foolish person would not realise this is a reference to April 1st. Hence, this suggests a Fool’s Day already existed. Scholars tend to prefer to think that Chaucer was referring to May 2nd, counting the 32 days not from the beginning of March but from the end of March. I think they look at the second and third lines which read ‘That high March…. was complete’ and so add the 32 days to the end of March. Foolish in my opinion and not reading what Chaucer wrote.

I nearly always forget to honour April Fool’s Day (or April Fish Day as the French call it). But in Britain, we generally find that somewhere in our newspaper or TV station there is a April Fools Joke slipped in. The most remembered is the BBC piece showing film of Italian Farmers picking spaghetti from trees. Last year Harry and Megan proved irresistible and the Guardian reported that:

The Sun published a piece announcing the launch of Prince Harry and Meghan’s new video game “Megxit: Call of Duke-y” in which the royal couple try to reach California while dodging obstacles, including rival royals and the media, along the way.

This year this was the equivalent story (from the Guardian’s quiz on April Fool’s jokes:

Meghan Markle was criticised after it was revealed that when you put her lifestyle brand name – American Riviera Orchard – into the What3words location service, it points to a statue of Oliver Cromwell, who famously had a King Charles executed

Generally, in Britain, we play a prank and say ‘April Fool’ with great delight. But we are not allowed to continue beyond midday. The Scots used to call it ‘Hunting the Gowk’ and the main prank was to give someone a letter to deliver, and the person who opened the letter would read:

Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile” and send the fool onto another leg of his or her’s fool’s errand. In Ireland the letter would read ‘send the fool further’.

April comes from Latin and it was Aperilis from aperio from ‘to open’ as this is the month when the Earth opens. In Anglo-Saxon the Venerable Bede mentioned that they called the month Eostremonath. But there really is no other evidence for the Goddess Eostre from where we get our word ‘Easter’. In Gaelic it’s the Cuckoo’s month ‘Ceitein na h-oinsich’. In Welsh it is Ebrill which comes from the Latin.

The image from the medieval Kalendar of Shepherds shows all the beautiful flowers blooming and a female sitting on the grass embroidering, and the star signs of Aries (a Fire sign, brave, independent and impulsive) and Taurus (an Earth Sign: stubborn, down to earth, sensual with good taste).

First published March 25th 4004 BC and republished on April 1st 2024

Stone of Destiny on display in Perth March 30th

Old Photograph of the Stone of Destiny beneath the Coronation Chair.
Old Photograph of the Stone of Destiny beneath the Coronation Chair.

The Stone of Destiny is, today, on display again at the reopening of the redeveloped Perth Museum, in Scotland. This is near to its ‘original’ home at the Palace of Scone.

The Museums Association reports that it is a ‘£27m development project ….funded by £10m UK government investment from the £700m Tay Cities Deal and by Perth & Kinross Council, the museum is a transformation of Perth’s former city hall by architects Mecanoo.’

As well as the Stone of Destiny, the Museum has Bonnie Prince Charlie’s sword and a rare Jacobite wine glass, which are on public display for the first time. This is the first time the sword has been in Scotland since it was made in Perth in 1739. https://perthmuseum.co.uk/the-stone-of-destiny/

Webpage of the Perth Museum show a photo of the Stone of Destiny
Webpage of the Perth Museum show a photo of the Stone of Destiny

Before Perth, the Stone was in London under the Coronation Chair for the Coronation of King Charles III (6 May 2023) . Before that, it was on display at Edinburgh Castle after being sent back to Scotland by Blair’s Labour Government as a symbol of the devolution of power from Westminster to the restored Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh in November 1996. Before that, it was under the Coronation Chair from the time Edward I stole it (1296) from Scone as part of his attempted subjection of Scotland in the late 13th Century. So, virtual every English and British King has been crowned upon the Stone of Scone.

However, the Stone had a brief holiday in Scotland in 1950/51 after four Scottish students removed it from Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1950. After thee months, it turned up at the high altar of Arbroath Abbey. It was briefly in a Prison Cell, then returned to Westminster for the Coronation of Elizabeth II.

I’m guessing the-would-be liberators of the Stone, thought Arbroath was suitable, as the Declaration of Arbroath is the supreme declaration of Scottish Independence from England. Following the Battle of Bannockburn, and Robert Bruce’s leadership, the Scots wrote to the Pope of their commitment to Scotland as an independent nation. They said:

“As long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself”

The Pope agreed and Scotland remained independent until voluntarily joining England in the United Kingdom in 1714.

Poor photograph of a press cutting on display at the Palace of Scone (Photo by me!)
Poor photograph of a press cutting on display at the Palace of Scone (Photo by me!)

Before Edward 1 stole the Stone, it was at Scone Palace, upon which the Kings of Scotland were crowned, including Macbeth (August 14, 1040).

Moot or Boot Hill where Scottish Kings were crowned. Palace of Scone Photo Kevin Flude)
Moot or Boot Hill where Scottish Kings were crowned. Palace of Scone Photo Kevin Flude)

Those who attended the coronation traditionally shook their feet of all the earth they had brought from their homelands, and this over the centuries grew into Boot Hill, aka Moot Hill. So the mound represents the sacred land of Scotland. 42 Kings were crowned upon its soil on its Stone.

Before Scone, it was, possibly, in Argyllshire where the Gaelic Kings were crowned, Their most famous King was Kenneth MacAlpine and he united the Scots, Gaelic people originally from Ireland, the Picts, and the British into a new Kingdom which was called Alba, which became Scotland.

MacAlpine was the first king to be crowned on the Stone at Scone in 841 or so. He made Scone the capital of his new Kingdom because it was a famous Monastery associated with the Culdees who followed St Columba to Scotland. MacAlpine brought sacred relics from Iona to sanctify the new capital. And Scottish Kings were by tradition crowned at Scone and buried on the holy Island of Iona.

Before that, legend has it that the Scots bought the Stone from Ireland when they began to settle in Western Scotland (c500AD). The Scots, it is said, got the Stone from the Holy Land where Jacob lay his head on it and had a dream of Angels ascending and descending a ladder to Heaven. Jacob used the stone as a memorial, which was called Jacob’s Pillow (c1652 years BC).

But, questions about the Stone remain. Firstly, an angry Edward 1 failing to conquer the Scots makes a spiteful raid on Scone, but would the Monks meekly hand over the stone, or do they hide it and give him a fake?

Secondly, was the Stone brought to Scone from Western Scotland in the 9th Century?

These questions of doubt are based on the assumption that the Stone is made of the local Scone sandstone. If it were brought to Scone from somewhere else, it would be in a different type of stone, surely? So, either it was made in Scone, possibly for MacAlpine’s Coronation or the Monks fooled the English into taking a copy. So the English would then have been crowning their Monarchs on a forgery.

Ha! Silly English but then the Scots have spent £27m on the same forgery.

Historic Environment Scotland have recently undertaken a new analysis of the stone, which confirms: ‘the Stone as being indistinguishable from sandstones of the Scone Sandstone Formation, which outcrop in the area around Scone Palace, near Perth‘. It also found that different stone workers had worked on the stone in the past; that it bore traces of a plaster cast being made; that it had markings which have not yet been deciphered and had copper staining suggesting something copper or bronze was put on the top of it at some point in its history.

So it seems the Stone of Destiny was made in Scone.

 

The Beginning of the Universe as We Know It; Birthdays of Adam, Lilith, & Eve; Conception of Jesus, Start of the Year March 25th

Lilith is shown coming her hair and looking in a mirror
Study for Lady Lilith, by Rossetti. 1866, in red chalk. Now in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Wikipedia
Study for Lady Lilith, by Rossetti. 1866, in red chalk. Now in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Wikipedia)

March 25th is the Annunciation—the day that the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary she is pregnant. (to see some very fine paintings of this meeting, look at my other March 25th post here)

March 25th is also the anniversary of the birth of Adam and Eve (and presumably Lilith); the death of Jesus Christ; the anniversary of the Immolation of Isaac; the Parting of the Red Sea; the Fall of Lucifer; and, (until 1752 in the UK) the beginning of the Year.

Of course, it isn’t or to put it another way, no one can, or ever could, prove any of these dates except the last one. So what they speak to is the way the Church saw the world as logically structured by God. Christian thinking about the year, the world, the universe, creation, developed over many years and took influences from many cultures. It is also very complicated to work out the sequence, so I’m going to summarise from what I know (or at least what I think I know).

Christians chose Christmas Day as the Birthdate of Jesus probably because it was a prominent birthday already shared with several Gods, but particularly Mithras and Saturn. It was approximately at Solstice, the beginning of the Solar Year, and close to one of the main festivals of the Roman World, the Saturnalia. December 25th might have been chosen by the pagan religions because it is the time when the Sun begins to rise, to the naked eye, further north each day, lengthening the day, increasing light and the promise of warmer weather.

So, Jesus was born on/or around the Solstice, so he must have been conceived approx. 9 months earlier, which would be around the Spring Equinox. I have always thought that the 4 or 5 days difference between the Solstice, the Equinox and the Christian festivals was down to the fact that the Calendars were not well coordinated with the actual movements of the Sun (because the Sun does not circle the earth in 365 days, or in 365 and a quarter days, but 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes which makes Calendars hard to align with the Sun). But I have just realised the importance of something I discovered yesterday when preparing my two posts on March 25th. And since writing that sentence I have had another revelation. But be patient.

So, God sends his Son to save the human race. God is a logical being, so she would send the Son at an appropriate time. If the Child is born at or near the Solstice, which is an appropriate time for the Son of the Creator, then 9 months earlier, March 25th, is near the Equinox, which is the beginning of Spring. For many people, Spring is a new beginning, for example, the Anglo-Saxons saw Winter as the death of the year, and Spring as the young Year.

So to the Creation. God, having a free choice, would have created the world at the beginning of Spring. In fact, if you think about it, God creates everything necessary for life at the creation in 6 days, and it is going to immediately spring into new life, and the first season must, therefore, be Spring? Right? So March 25th.

This gives a nice symmetry with Jesus’s Life. Conceived on March 25th, born December 25th, and died 30-40 years later, according to the Church, on March 25th. (the only other famous person I know born and died on the same day is William Shakespeare).

Easter, when Jesus is martyred, isn’t March 25th I hear you saying. But remember, Easter is a lunar festival, so its date varies each year. Births and deaths, on the other hand, are fixed to the Solar Calendar and the Church chooses March 25th as the most appropriate day to pin the death of Jesus, on the anniversary of his conception and the anniversary of the creation of the Earth, and I am guessing that this is also the preferred date for the Day of Judgement.

It is also the Birthday of Adam, and his first wife Lilith (or so some say), and Eve. More about Lilith below. I thought this date was just one of the parallels that the Church liked, Jesus and Adam born on the same day but, I have just worked out why Adam is born on March 25th, and why these dates are not the Equinox, March 20th but March 25th, which has been bugging me.

Let’s go back to the Beginning of Creation. According to the Anno Munda‘s arrangement of the Year, the world was created 5500 years plus 2023 years ago so 7523 Before the Present. And it was supposed to have ended in 600AD, 6000 years after the Creation. So, they got that wrong.

The Creation, as described in Genesis, has the following sequence of Seven Days. As the Creation began at the Equinox March 20th. I have added dates to the 6/7 day sequence of Creation:

  • Day 1: Light – March 20th
  • Day 2: Atmosphere / Firmament – March 21st
  • Day 3: Dry ground & plants – March 22nd
  • Day 4: Sun, moon & stars – March 23rd
  • Day 5: Birds & sea creatures – March 24th
  • Day 6: Land animals & humans – March 25th
  • Day 7: The Sabbath of rest – March 26th
  • For more information www.bibleinfo.com

So there you have it! Adam, Lilith, and Eve were created on Day 6 with the Land Animals – March 25th. Jesus conceived, also on this date, and so 9 months later is born on December 25th. It all makes sense, and aligns the Christian year fully with the Solar Year.

And that, dear Reader, is the very first time anyone has been able to explain to me why Christmas is not at the Solstice, and why the Annunciation was not at the Equinox. Maybe you all know this, but it is very exciting to work this out for myself. And believe me, I have done a lot of reading about calendars and not spotted an explanation.

So that was yesterday’s revelation. What about the revelation I had about 45 minutes ago? (now about 5 hours). When writing items like this, there are numerous things that are interconnected, and I begin writing them before realising I am interrupting the story I am trying to tell. This is often to the detriment of the story arc, or to understanding (although often, I think, adds to the joy of this blog – after all ChatGBT couldn’t write this stuff – could it?).

So I began to write about Dionysius Exiguus and his invention of the AD/BC system and about eras, cycles, and ages. (He replaced the Anno Mundo year with the AD/BC system in the 6th Century AD).

I was thinking about the beginning of the year. The Celts chose October 31st, Julius Caesar chose January 1st, other cultures have other dates, and the Spring Equinox is another choice sometimes made. The Church and Dionysius Exiguus choose March 25th, although secular society also recognised the claims of January 1st. Britain kept to March 25th until 1752 when we adopted the Gregorian Calendar. But people like Samuel Pepys celebrated New Year’s Eve on 31st December. So January 1st was the New Year, but the year number did not change until March 25th. So King Charles I thought his head was being cut off on January 30th 1648; while history books will tell you it was cut off on January 30th 1649. Same day, different reckonings.

December 31st/January 1st is essentially a Solstice New Year Festival. And I have, previously, used the difficulty of keeping calendars as to why these days has slipped out of alignment with the Solstice. But, today I realised that it is as likely that the reason is the Solar/Lunar nature of our time keeping. The year, and its festivals, is largely arranged around the Solar Cycle. But our weekly and monthly cycles are derived from the Moon. So, I think that January 1st (or the Kalends of January as the Romans would have called it) would originally have been the First New Moon after the Winter Solstice. Keeping the Moon months and the Sun years in sync is very, very difficult, and so Roman and Christian cultures gave up and fixed the moon months, completely abandoning any attempt to keep the months to the actual lunar cycle. This is our current system, in which only Easter remains a true to the moon festival, much to our perennial confusion.

Maybe you all know this, but I’ve learnt a lot in writing these two posts.

Lilith

The April 2023 Issue of ‘History Today’ has a short piece called ‘The Liberation of Lilith’ which suggests that the story of Lilith, a figure from Jewish Folklore, is first attested in a Medieval satirical text called ‘The Alphabet of Ben Sira’. The story goes that Lilith is created using the same clay as Adam. Adam then demands she lies below him during sex. She refuses, saying that they are both made from the same stuff and, therefore, equal. Adam refuses to accept this, and so Lilith leaves the Garden of Eden. So the story goes.

The story of Lilith, Sarah Clegg suggests, is one of a series of similar stories found around Europe and Asia. And Clegg assumes that it is gradually modified to make Lilith a demon who will kill babies unless the names of three angels are spoken out loud. So, the story survives as a charm to keep babies safe, and perhaps to remind people of equality among the sexes. But this causes problems for, OK, let’s call them out, the Patriarchy. Lilith cannot be equal to Adam so she becomes a monster, not made from the same clay as Adam but from the scum and waste left over from Adam’s creation. I imagine the story then went on to propose that God creates Eve from Adam’s rib, and so she is created from Adam, and is, therefore nor equal, but subservient to him. Lilith is now a significant figure in feminist folklore circles.

I wrote about more about eras and ages in my post which you can see her: Greater Cycles and the Six or Seven Ages

Attached to the watercolour of Lilith by Rossetti (at the top of the page), was a label with a verse from Goethe‘s Faust as translated by Shelley. (Wikipedia)

“Beware of her fair hair, for she excells
All women in the magic of her locks,
And when she twines them round a young man’s neck
she will not ever set him free again.”

The model is Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti’s mistress. He painted another version a few years later, but the model in that is Alexa Wilding. His models are arguably more interesting than the man himself and include: Elizabeth Siddall, Jane Morris and Fanny Cornforth. Christina Rossetti, his poet sister, modelled for Rossetti’s painting, Ecce Ancilla Domini which you can see here.

I think I might have enough material to begin my own Cult.

For more on the Annunciation, look at my other March 25th post here.

Yew Sunday Palm Sunday March 24

Giotto. Entry into Jerusalem from the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova (sent to me by Lucia Granatella)

Yew Sunday (Domhnach an Iúir in Irish) is the medieval name for Palm Sunday – this is the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph on a donkey, with palm leaves being laid in front of him. It has always been very curious to me this so-short-lived triumph preceding such heavy and heart breaking tragedy. It is the Sunday before the Betrayal, which leads to the Crucifixion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Sunday. A busy week for the Church.

Palm Sunday can be celebrated by making crosses out of palms, or with processions bearing palm branches or eating special cakes (there is always room in any ritual for cakes). But in the North where do you get your Palms from? So, it was often substituted by Box, or Olive or Willow and particularly, in Britain and Ireland, by Yew. Yew is evergreen and is so long lived as to be a symbol of everlasting life (I wrote more about the Yew here).

Giotto Bondone was a Florentine painter of the 14th Century of whom Giorgio Vasari, in his essential guide to the artists of the Renaissance, ‘The Lives of the Artists‘ said of the 10 year old:

One day Cimabue, going on business from Florence to Vespignano, found Giotto, while his sheep were feeding, drawing a sheep from nature upon a smooth and solid rock with a pointed stone, having never learnt from any one but nature. Cimabue, marvelling at him, stopped and asked him if he would go and be with him. And the boy answered that if his father were content he would gladly go. Then Cimabue asked Bondone for him, and he gave him up to him, and was content that he should take him to Florence.

There in a little time, by the aid of nature and the teaching of Cimabue, the boy not only equalled his master, but freed himself from the rude manner of the Greeks, and brought back to life the true art of painting, introducing the drawing from nature of living persons, which had not been practised for two hundred years; or at least if some had tried it, they had not succeeded very happily.

Written in 1550.

If you look at the painting, you will see, even more than his contemporary Duccio, the faces of the people are rounded and, and at least somewhat, individual. The crowd scene, particularly, to the right, has some depth and the people further away seem to recede from the viewer, rather than, as they often do in Byzantine style paintings, either float or seem to stand on or support themselves on each other’s shoulders. The Gate into Jerusalem has been rendered by someone who has seen something that he believes has the key to realistic scenes. One day it will be rediscovered, and named single-point perspective. Yes, Giotto doesn’t know the secret but he is working to find out what the trick is. The people in the trees are also in the distance. These are the giant strides that Vasari is referring to in the quotation above. Realistic people, in spaces with depth. The donkey is quite sweet too! Cimabue was particularly good at painting Crucifix scenes.

The Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova is a World Heritage Site and Giotto and his team covered all the walls and ceiling with frescos, depicting the Life of Jesus, the Life of Mary, and the Last Judgement.

Giotto, The Last Judgement. Cappella degli Scrovegni, In Padova. Wikipedia

Here is a real Digital Heritage treat – a 360 Degree tour of the Chapel! Follow the link below. If it seems to be taking a long time to load there is an information button which, once pressed will allow the panorama to load immediately.

https://www.haltadefinizione.com/en/image-bank/giotto-di-bondone-scrovegni-chapel-360-view/