10 November 2010

Happy Holidays

All Saints Day, if you are a Roman Catholic, or All Hallows Day for some others occurred November 1st. Halloween (or Hallowe'en), also known as All Hallows' Even is the day before. Even though it is an ancient tradition it is still regarded as a holiday (holy day) in the parts of the world where it is celebrated. Like all of the other seasonal holidays it is full of symbolism; in the case of Halloween it is symbolic of the belief in an afterlife and the remembrance of those who have passed on to that new realm of existence.

All Hallows Day is significant in that it marks the mid-point of Autumn. There are three other mid-season "holidays," or quarter days , that also mark the middle of their respective seasons. For the Winter season it is Candlemass, observed on February 2. Like Hallowe'en, the ancient observation of Mid-Winter is one of darkness and the spirit world, but with the hope of rebirth and reincarnation attached to it. The next quarter day is May Day and is usually celebrated on May 1, at least in the Western World; it definitely is all about fertility and rebirth. The Germanic May Pole dance, carried out by young adults of course, pretty much says it all about the significance of May Day. I have been told that dancing around that pole is not the only partying that goes on. For Summer it is Lammas (at least in Scotland), observed on or around August 2. It is generally the time of first harvest and a time of plenty.

Then, of course there are the seasons themselves that are marked by significant positions of the Sun. The tropical year begins at the winter solstice, also known as Yule or Jul in ancient Germanic culture. The winter solstice marks the moment when the Sun's position in the sky is at its lowest point, as seen from the northern hemisphere. At winter solstice the Sun reaches 23½ degrees south latitude and is seen to be directly overhead at that point. That latitude has a name: The Tropic of Capricorn. The next season, naturally, is Spring, also known as the Vernal Equinox. At the Vernal Equinox and at its counter part six months later, the Autumnal Equinox, the Sun is directly over the Earth's equator.

There is no holiday directly associated with the Vernal Equinox, at least not in the Western World, but on the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical calendar it figures into the calculation for the date of the Easter celebration. In some cases, Easter does fall on the Vernal Equinox. The Summer Solstice marks the highest point in the sky for the Sun; it appears overhead for people living at 23½ degrees north latitude. That latitude has a name too: The Tropic of Cancer. Cancer in this sense refers to the constellation of Cancer the Crab, which is a summer constellation. That implies that Capricorn is a winter constellation, and it once was. However, because of the way Earth spins on its axis Capricorn now appears a few months before the Winter Solstice.

There are celebrations associated with the Summer Solstice in northern climes. Most notably, in places that have a Celtic heritage. There are bonfires, along with a lot of eating and drinking. Other northern cultures also recognize the start of summer, especially in Scandinavia with Walpurgisnacht. It is summer and it is party time -- but you have to keep those bonfires burning to keep the ghosts and spirits at bay. The Autumnal Equinox doesn't have much in the way of celebrations in most of the northern hemisphere -- unless, maybe you are a Druid.

And that brings us around to the start of the tropical year: The Winter Solstice. We all know what happens around that time of year. Lots of partying.

Okay. So what? For we descendants of northern Europeans, how about this: we modern cultures continue to follow traditions that are thousands of years old, but their original significance is lost on most of us. All of these seasonal observations date far back into time, beyond the Dark Ages in fact, to when there were no clocks to regulate the day. The position of the Sun in the sky and the phases of the Moon drove what was coming, what people should be doing, and what was going to happen next. People literally were in tune with nature; they knew from long observation that the Sun changed position in the sky, and, if they lived very far into the northern hemisphere, that there were warm times and cold times. They had to be constantly preparing for those cold times. When to plant, when to harvest, and when to prepare for the cold times was critical to survival. Those times are not that far in our past. The people who pioneered the western United States were constantly driven by the need to prepare for winter, even into the Twenty-First Century.

The phases of the Moon told the ancient people what was happening and what was going to happen next. The seasons were based on the Tropical Year, and each Full Moon had a name associated with its season.

Following the Winter Solstice, the Moon names are:

  • January -- Moon After Yule
  • February -- Wolf Moon
  • March -- Lenten Moon
  • April -- Egg (or Paschal) Moon
  • May -- Milk Moon
  • June -- Flower Moon
  • July -- Hay Moon
  • August -- Grain Moon
  • September -- Fruit Moon
  • October -- Harvest Moon
  • November -- Hunters Moon
  • December -- Moon Before Yule

Sometimes, however, nature played a little trick on those ancient people and threw an extra full Moon into the sequence. When that happened there would be four full Moons in a season rather than the usual three. That extra full Moon always occurred in May, August, November, or February and in the third week of those months (on the 20th, 21st, 22nd, or 23rd). Since that extra full Moon had to be dealt with, it was called the Blue Moon as a way to distinguish it from the traditional Moons.
The full Moon visible on November 2nd, 2009, is the Hunters Moon; the Moon Before Yule occurs December 2nd, and the Moon After Yule occurs on December 31st. That sets up the year 2010 to be a year of the Blue Moon, and it will occur on November 21st, 2010.
It doesn't happen often; just once in a Blue Moon.