Dark Dorset Online Scrapbook is an archive of current and past events relating to local history, folklore and mysteries that can be discovered in the English county of Dorset.

Search the Dark Dorset Scrapbook Archive

Monday, 21 December 2015

Winter Solstice: The Dark Days of Winter

Today is the Winter Solstice also known as St. Thomas' Day .

The ‘Winter Solstice’ occurs on either the 21st or 22nd December and observes the lowest point of the sun in the sky at midday as well as the most southerly sunrise and sunset in the year. The Romans called it ‘Sol Invictus’, meaning, ‘the Undefeated Sun’.

Symbolically, it is the rebirth of the sun, and the chief gods in many religions are born at this time. The birthdays of the Babylonian ‘Queen of Heaven’ and ‘Osiris’, ‘Dionysus’, ‘Adonis’, ‘Mithras’,‘Balder’ and ‘Jesus’ are celebrated on 25th December, the old date of the Winter Solstice. All are associated with concepts of rebirth and eternal life.

The Solstice was played a huge part in the Roman midwinter holiday, Saturnalia (17th December). Riotous merry-making took place at home, and the halls of houses were decked with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees. Lamps were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. Schools were closed, the army rested, and no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewellery, and incense. Temples were decorated with evergreens symbolizing life's continuity, and processions of people with masked or blackened faces and fantastic hats and costumes danced through the streets.

The custom of mummers visiting their neighbours in costume, which is still alive in Dorset and the rest of Britain, is descended from these masked processions.

Roman masters feasted with slaves, who were given the freedom to do and say what they liked (the medieval custom of all the inhabitants of the manor, including servants and lords alike, sitting down together for a great Christmas feast, came from this tradition). A Mock King was appointed to take charge of the revels (the Lord of Misrule of medieval Christmas festivities had his origin here).

In northern tradition, the Winter Solstice is the feast of ‘Yule’, which means, ‘yoke of the year’, and is the midwinter festival associated with fertility and continuing life. Starting at the solstice Yule continues until ‘Twelfth Night’, 5th January, when the Christmas decorations are removed.

As it is also St. Thomas' Day weather lore states that if there is frost on this day, a bad winter is predicted.

St Thomas divine, Brewing, baking, and killing of fat swine.

Below, Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days December 21st 1864, details the traditions of St. Thomas' Day day.
St. Thomas Day
The festival of St. Thomas was instituted in the twelfth century, and, as an old author alleges, was assigned an early place in the ecclesiastical calendar from this apostle having been vouchsafed the most indisputable evidence of the resurrection. In pictorial art, St. Thomas is represented holding a builder's square, and in accordance with the following legend, he is regarded as the patron saint of architects and builders. When St. Thomas was at Caesarea, our Lord appeared unto him, and said: 'The king of the Indies, Gondoforus, hath sent his provost, Abanes, to seek for workmen well versed in the science of architecture, who shall build for him a palace finer than that of the emperor at Rome. Behold now, I will send thee to him.' And St. Thomas went, and Gondoforus commanded him to build a magnificent palace, and gave him much gold and silver for the purpose. The king went to a distant country, and was absent for two years; and St. Thomas, meanwhile, instead of building a palace, distributed all the treasures intrusted to him among the poor and sick; and when the king returned he was full of wrath, and commanded that St. Thomas should be seized and cast into prison, while he meditated for him a horrible death. Meantime, the brother of the king died, and the king resolved to erect for him a magnificent tomb; but the dead man, after that he had been dead four days, suddenly rose, sat upright, and said to the king:
'The man whom thou wouldst torture is a servant of God; behold, I have been in Paradise, and the angels chewed unto me a wondrous palace of gold, silver, and precious stones; and they said: This is the palace that Thomas the architect has built for thy brother King Gondoforus.'
And when the king heard those words, he ran to the prison, and delivered the apostle, and then St. Thomas said to him: 'Knowest thou not that they who would possess heavenly things have little care for the goods of this world! There are in heaven rich palaces without number, which were prepared from the beginning of the world for those who purchase the possession thereof through faith and charity. Thy riches, 0 king, may prepare thy way to such a place, but they cannot follow thee thither.' Like many other of the old saintly legends, this was never meant or assumed to be a matter-of-fact relation, but simply a parable or religious fiction, invented for the instruction of the people, and rendered the more impressive and striking by an exalted apostle being made the hero of the tale.
It is said that after the dispersion of the apostles, St. Thomas preached the gospel to the Medes, Persians, Bactrians, Ethiopians, and Indians, among the latter of whom he suffered martyrdom at Melapoor, and was buried in a church, which he had caused to be erected in that city. Marco Polo, who travelled in the thirteenth century, says: ' In that province of Malabar, is the body of the glorious martyr St. Thomas, the apostle, who there suffered martyrdom. It rests in a small city, not frequented by many merchants, because unsuited for the purposes of commerce; but, from devotional motives, a vast number both of Christians and Saracens resort thither. The Christians who perform this pilgrim-age collect earth, which is of a red colour, from the spot where he was slain, and reverentially carry it away with them, often employing it afterwards in miracles, and giving it with water to the sick, by which many disorders are cured. A variety of miracles are daily performed at the tomb of St. Thomas, through the interposition of the blessed apostle.'

Sir John Mandeville in his travels, describes the same country as 'a great kingdom containing many fair cities and towns. In that kingdom lies the body of St. Thomas the apostle in flesh and bone, in a fair tomb, in the city of Calamy; for there he was martyred and buried. But men of Assyria carried his body into Mesopotamia, into the city of Edessa; and afterwards he was brought thither again. And the arm and the hand that he put to our Lord's side, when he appeared to him after his resurrection, is yet lying in a vessel without the tomb. By that hand they there make all their judgments. For, when there is any dissension between two parties, and each of them maintains his own cause, both parties write their causes on two bills, and put them in the hand of St. Thomas; and, anon, the hand casts away the bill of the wrong cause, and holds still the bill with the right cause, and therefore men come from far countries to have judgments of doubtful causes.'
The accompanying engraving, from an illumination in an ancient manuscript of Mandeville's travels, preserved in the Bibliothèque Imperiale of Paris, represents the judgment of St. Thomas. And if the story be considered incredible, the writer can only quote Mandeville's own lines addressed to unbelievers thus:
'If scanty be my laud and praise,
And witless folk should call me liar,
For that my hook contains strange lays,
I will not storm nor burst with ire.
Let him who credits not my tales,
Travel as far as I have been,
Then, may he tell if truth prevails,
In what I say that I have seen.'
St. Thomas's Day falls on the winter solstice, the shortest day in the year, as expressed in the following couplet:
'St Thomas gray, St. Thomas gray,
The longest night and the shortest day.'
In some parts of the country the day is marked by a custom, among poor persons, of going a gooding, as it is termed—that is to say, making the round of the parish in calling at the houses of their richer neighbours, and begging a supply either of money or provisions to procure good things, or the means of enjoying themselves at the approaching festival of Christmas. From this circumstance St. Thomas's Day is in some places designated 'Doleing Day,' and in others 'Mumping [begging] Day.' In Warwickshire, the custom under notice used to be called going a corning, from the poor people carrying with them a bag in which they received a contribution of corn from the farmers.
By a correspondent of Notes and Queries, in 1857, we are informed that the custom of 'Gooding' exists in full force in Staffordshire, where not only the old women and widows, but representatives from every poor family in the parish, make their rounds in quest of alms. The clergyman is expected to give a shilling to each person, and at all houses a subsidy is looked for either in money or kind. In some parts of the same county a sum of money is collected from the wealthier inhabitants of the parish, and placed in the hands of the clergyman and churchwardens, who on the Sunday nearest to St. Thomas's Day, distribute it in the vestry under the name of ' St. Thomas's Dole.' We learn also from an-other communication of the writer just quoted, that at Harrington, in Worcestershire, it is customary for children on St. Thomas's Day to go round the village begging for apples, and singing

'Wassail, wassail, through the town,
If you've got any apples, throw them down;
Up with the stocking, and down with the shoe,
If you've got no apples, money will do;
The jug is white and the ale is brown,
This is the hest house in the town.'
In return for the alms bestowed during these 'gooding' peregrinations, it was customary for the recipients, in former times, to present to their benefactors a sprig of holly or mistletoe. A liberal dole was distributed at the 'great house,' or the mansion of the principal proprietor in the parish; and at the kitchens of all the squires and farmers' houses, tankards of spiced-ale were kept for the special refection of the red-cloaked old wives who made in procession these foraging excursions on St. Thomas's Day. It is said that the hospitality shewn on such occasions proved sometimes rather overpowering, and the recipients of this and other charitable benefactions found themselves occasionally wholly unable to find their way back to their own habitations, having been rendered, through the agency of John Barleycorn, as helpless as the ' Wee bit Wilkie' immortalised in Scottish song.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails