Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice
Photo: Mark Grant
Source: Wikimedia Commons
As I was growing up in a remote corner of North-East Essex there were two birthdays that were considered to mark important moments in a person’s life, the twenty-first and the sixty-fifth. The first marked the entry into adulthood and the second the exit out of the world of work. Both were celebrated as special occasions, the former with a lavish party and, in well off families, with a spectacular coming of age present, the later with a somewhat more sombre ceremony and traditional the presentation of a timepiece (quite why it is/was traditional to give people a timepiece when they retire I have absolutely no idea!) The celebration of such points in ones life are known as rites of passage because they mark the transition from one socio-cultural group to another – coming of age from the community of the children to that of the adults, retirement from the working community to the community of the retired. Humans find it necessary/comforting/important to mark these transitions in some significant way.
I was going on nineteen when the British government decided to reduce the age of majority from twenty-one to eighteen meaning that my transition into adulthood took place on some arbitrary date by act of parliament without any form of acknowledgement/ceremony or whatever. As the title of this post says, I was robbed! Two days ago I celebrated my sixty-fifth birthday or rather didn’t celebrate but I still turned sixty-five. The German government is in the process of incrementally raising the retirement age to sixty-seven so I would have been due to retire at sixty-five and six months. However that same government persuaded me to retire at the beginning of September, actually carried out retrospectively meaning once more I was robbed of my rite of passage. As, however, I am self employed in that work that I do, and continue to do, there would have been nobody to hand around the cucumber sandwiches and the plastic glasses of cheap bubbly or to hold a boring and embarrassing speech whilst presenting me with my timepiece anyway.
Being from a non-religious, middle class, English household, and not for example Jewish, I did not undergo a biological coming of age at a nominal puberty such as the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. That is unless you count the eleven plus exam and the transition from primary school to secondary school. Which, at my very elite and very posh, grammar school included the tradition of being dragged through a hedge backwards or having ones head stuck in a toilet bowl and flushed by members of the fifth form during the mid morning break on the first day of school, delights that I managed somehow to avoid. By the time I reached the fifth form the tradition had thankfully died out.
Human seem to have some sort of innate desire to mark time and to celebrate certain events on some sort of regular basis. On the secular side birthdays, wedding anniversaries, first meetings, for some final school exams and whatever. On the religious side, for all religions, a whole cartload of religious festivals of various types. As political communities independence days, armistice days and an assortment of other national holidays. These celebrations and the rites of passage discussed above have one thing in common they are almost all arbitrary, the one exception being anniversaries to which we will return to in a minute.
The only natural timekeepers that we have are the diurnal rotation of the earth, the phases of the moon and the apparent passage of the sun around the ecliptic, which give us respectively the day, the (lunar) month and the year. All other divisions of time are of our own devising and as such arbitrary. Calendars were invented to help us keep track of those days that we have chosen to mark out for special attention of some sort – a public holiday, a religious observance or whatever. They are crib sheets for rites and rituals, which as already remarked almost all take place on arbitrary days. Good examples of arbitrary ritual days are the rapidly approaching Christmas and New Years festivals, as I have pointed out for the latter in an earlier post, different cultures having different New Years celebrations on differing dates.
The only rituals that are in a sense not arbitrary are, because the solar year is periodic, anniversaries. These occur, with a little bit of fudging, once every three hundred and sixty-five days. The fudging is necessary because the solar year is, as should be well-known, a little bit longer than three hundred and sixty-five days. With the Gregorian calendar we have a tolerably good system of fudging, although other calendars, the Jewish and Islamic ones for example, do things differently.
Because the ecliptic is tilted at approximately twenty-three degrees with relation to the equator, known technically as the obliquity of the ecliptic, we have as a result the seasons and also four days in the solar year that are not arbitrary. These are the equinoxes and the solstices. The equinoxes are the days in spring, the vernal equinox around the twentieth of March, and autumn, the autumnal equinox around the twenty-second of September, when the sun appears to be over the equator and the day and night are equally long. The summer solstice (Northern hemisphere, winter for Southern hemisphere) takes place when the sun appears to be over the Tropic of Cancer (approximately 23° of latitude north of the equator), that is its Northern most point on its journey around the ecliptic, around the twenty-first of June, and marks the longest day and shortest night in the Northern hemisphere and vice versa in the Southern hemisphere. The winter solstice (Northern hemisphere, summer for Southern hemisphere) takes place when the sun appears to be over the Tropic of Capricorn (approximately 23° of latitude south of the equator), that is its Southern most point on its journey around the ecliptic, around the twenty-first of December, and marks the shortest day and longest night in the Northern hemisphere and vice versa in the Southern hemisphere.
Many of the folk customs that occur around these days are celebrations of these astronomical events, their origins often forgotten, as they are co-opted into other, oft religious, celebrations. This is certainly true for many of the Christmas customs, which have their origins in various winter solstice celebrations, now lost in the mists of history.
I celebrate neither Christmas nor New Years but am prepared to acknowledge the winter solstice as a fulcrum or turning point of the year, so I wish all of my readers all the best for their next three hundred and sixty-five and a bit days journey around the sun, it is of course we who orbit the sun and not the sun us, and may you enjoy in your own ways those arbitrary calendrical dates that you choose to celebrate.