The Colours of the Church Year

I’m in the last days of editing A Gift for the Magus and Really Busy, thanks to having friends to hand who will say things like, ‘Are you sure about that altar frontal?’ Next thing you’re googling altar frontals — and finding they are available to buy on Ebay.

I am not finding what I’m looking for, but in the process I’ve come across this lovely site on the colour symbolism of the liturgical year which I thought I’d share. After all, who knows what you’re looking for today!

Midsummer scrivenings

Let’s clear something up straight away. Today is the summer solstice, the longest day when the sun stands still awhile in a reflective pause. On Friday it is St John’s Day, which is the Christian festival most closely associated with solstice. Either today, or Friday, or anywhere in between or all of it is called ‘midsummer’, depending on your culture.

It is a mirror image of winter solstice (21st to 25th December being ‘midwinter’) and shares many of its attributes: the sense of hanging fire, pausing, holding the breath before the great cycle continues, the sense of nothing happening.

In the garden, the spring flowers have gone and the early summer poppies and buttercups are dying. Suddenly this week some yellow things appeared in my ‘nectar bed’ on the allotment, challenging those gurus who say that nothing in nature clashes. Put a marigold, a nasturtium with a face painted in Brahmin colours, an evening primrose and a buttery escholzia (spelling?) in a bed of blowsy scarlet poppies and sweet williams the colour of Indian restaurants and ‘clash’ is too sweet a word for the eye-popping effect.

Mullein on our neighbour's allotment

Sweet Williams

The yellow and the orange are the season’s markers, everywhere the yellow mullein like gothic spires attracting the bees.

Solstice was a major festival in the old days when every settlement had its stone circle the way every parish has its church. It was a day when people came together to mark time: the rest of the year they were probably a bit woolly as to whether it was Woden’s day or Thor’s day (or Celtic equivalents) except a village elder probably had the duty of keeping track. But when the sun rose or set at midsummer or midwinter, aligning with your stone clock, then for that moment you all came together, drawing disparate lives back into unity, and paused with the sun to take stock, either literally counting the cattle or metaphorically working out where your life stands.

Serpents and circles at Avebury by William Stukeley

After the horrors of last week, I’ve abandoned my Lippi book. Pamela Tudor Craig did send a postcard saying that the new version was wonderful. I read it once and didn’t think about it again. Isn’t it always like that? Praise evaporates while criticism sticks like tar. We almost prefer the criticism – the old black dog is a familar companion we’re quite fond of. But I got hauled out of it by Steven Pressfield’s new book, ‘Do the Work’ (highly recommended), and turned to my next project. ‘Don’t set yourself a start date,’ he advised, just as I was thinking, ‘Hmmm, I’ll read all summer and start at the equinox.’ ‘Start now,’ he said. So I did.

I am growing old. My powers are in decline. I don’t have the wherewithal to write another dense and complex trilogy – I simply can’t remember things well enough. My note taking these days is like that of the Sibyl of Cumaea, who wrote her wisdom down on tissue-thin leaves. Whenever anyone came to consult her and opened the door to her cave, the leaves whirled up into the air and came down in no order at all. My brain is the Cumaean cave when anyone says, ‘Got a minute?’, or when the phone rings. After any interruption, I can’t get the leaves to make sense again.

The Cumaean Sibyl, by the way, was an old crone, not the sexy young thing depicted by Renaissance painters. My mother’s name was Sybil. She came to me in a dream last night, aged about 75 and looking quite recovered from her death at 93. I do believe our ancestors get younger in the afterlife, and come to a rest around their prime (my father always appears in his 40s or 50s).

In the face of my own impending crone-hood, my plan is to write a book set in my locality, more or less, to cut down on travel. No more trips to Italy, then (sob). I also plan to write for young adults, aiming at simplicity and pace, hoping to surrender complexity for depth. I am not going my old route of writing first and structuring later. This time I’m structuring first, and I’m on day two of a trial of Scrivener.

Anyone else using this programme? It takes a lot of learning but so far I have hope that it will provide what I need: an external brain not susceptible to sudden gusts of wind, a programme which will keep all notes in one place, all web-snatches, post-its, midnight thoughts, character pages, plot ideas; then, having worked scene by scene to fill out my bare-bones structure, Scrivener will finally run it all together as a novel. Whoooooo! (Why do I doubt this is going to work?)

So almost all planting is now done in the garden and allotment. By the end of this week, the brassicas and leeks will be in, and winter crops sown. I read recently that local festivals coincide with the dragon force (fertility) in those particular areas. Our village festival is going on right now. I also read, on Facebook of all places, that broad beans grow from the seed of dismembered Osiris, hence the ‘agricultural embarrassment’ of their shape. I remembered all this as I picked our supper yesterday afternoon, crawling round the phallic beans thinking of Osiris and dragons.

All these things will be forgotten if we don’t keep memory alive. That’s what makes the job of the historical novelist a service to all mankind. That’s what I’m thinking, anyway, as I eat a bowl of cherries.

Happy summer everyone.

Here be Dragons

This is a highly symbolic week inviting Christians to reflect on the personal significance of riding on a donkey, sharing food, being scourged at the pillar, whipped and derided and finally crucified. Today, Saturday, is a limbo day, a pause in the story while everyone mourns Jesus before tomorrow and the resurrection, the springing back to life of the man, the story, the year.

Albrecht Durer, Paumgartner altarpiece

So I was surprised to hear from a friend who is a vicar that St George’s Day, traditionally 23rd April, has been ‘displaced’ by Holy Saturday. Displaced? To where? Or when? ‘But it’s still Shakespeare’s birthday,’ he tells me cheerfully. And by my reckoning it’s still St George’s Day.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get into the flag of England stuff, and the pubs filled with those to whom being English means being white, thick and violent. I want to get at the archetypal George – and his Dragon.

The historical saint was a Roman soldier of the 3rd century AD during the time of Diocletian. When the emperor issued an edict ordering the arrest of every Christian in the Roman army, he tried to save his favourite, George, by persuading him to pay lip service to the pagan gods, but George refused. He was lacerated by the wheel of swords and revived three times before being decapitated. This early Christian martyr was a great inspiration to other Christians living under the Romans.

But there are no dragons in his story. Our St George came to us from the Near East, carried west by returning Crusaders, and is more symbolic than real, tied up with Templar Knights, chivalry, the Order of the Garter.

As the story goes, in a village a dragon built its nest near a spring and the villagers, needing to distract it to be able to draw water, gave it a sheep every day. When they ran out of sheep, they offered it a maiden. Enter the knight on his horse.

Arnold Bocklin, Roger and Angelica

The archetype of dragon-slayer is ancient, surviving in the myth of Perseus, and in the figure of the Archangel Michael. The story of Ruggiero and Angelica in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso retells the Perseus myth.

According to G K Chesterton, ‘Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell them that dragons may be killed.’

There is an enduring debate as to whether we should include ‘dark stuff’ in the literature we give children, such as Grimm’s Tales. I’m of the opinion that we should, otherwise children grow up not knowing dragons may be killed, and get completely overawed when they meet one.

Steven Pressfield has a new book out this week called Do the Work. It’s a follow-up to his War of Art. As before, he’s dragon-bashing. Steve calls the dragon ‘Resistance’. It has curled itself round our creative spring and snarls and snaps its jaws when we wish to draw water. ‘Call yourself a writer? How presumptuous! What’s the point of writing anyway? You’ll never be published (again). It’s just self-indulgence. Get yourself a proper job. Dragon massage, for instance. Or cosmetic de-scaling. Pamper me, for I am your dragon!’

Over the past year or so I keep getting ideas for ‘the book after next’. Now that I’m finishing A Gift for the Magus (regular readers will know that I usually take longer finishing a book than it took to write it), the ideas keep coming. These are my sheep and each one has been devoured by the dragon. But recently I got another, and, coinciding as it did with the publication of Steve’s book, it could well turn out to be the maiden. I want this one to live. With Steve’s book by my side, I’m busy at least dodging the dragon. I have yet to rise up and pierce it through the throat.

(Perleeeeze – no ‘be kind to your dragon’ sentiments, no sieges by the Dragon Liberation people – dragon-slayers need dragons, and it’s only a story.)

So that’s my Easter message: slay the dragon of negativity and let at least one idea live.

Happy St George’s Day. And, oh yes, happy birthday, Shakespeare.

The Cross-Quartered Year

I was delighted to discover via Facebook that my friend, the medievalist Karen Ralls, celebrated Candlemas yesterday evening by giving a dinner which featured Provencal navettes. She got the recipe from ‘Worldwide Gourmet’

To remember the special days of the year is to bring back a rhythm and pulse into our lives which is sadly lacking in modern times.

I’ll be writing about quarter days next month, but meanwhile feel I should mark this eighth point of the year. For some reason I love the number four, to the dismay of my fellow geometers who think I’m square. I like circles too, of course, but I like them best when inside (or outside) a square. There is something wonderfully stable about having four legs or four corners. I woke up the other morning feeling amazed that every single one of us has four grandparents who form the square in which our individual circle sits.

It comes as no surprise that the ancients saw not only space but time in fours. Four symbolises the earth. The reference to ‘the four corners of the earth’ is in the bible and, so far as I’m concerned, is a figurative, not literal, use of language, and always has been. But time, that is, the year, also divides very neatly into four with the solstices and equinoxes providing the axes. This is the Wheel of the Year.

The solstices and equinoxes represent the middle of each of the four seasons. The cross-quarter days represent the beginning.

According to folk tradition, if the weather is good on Candlemas, then winter isn’t over with us yet. I’m very pleased to report that it was not good yesterday but cold, wet and windy. Yippee!

Why is all this important to historical novelists? Well, before the Industrial Revolution, when folk were still wedded to the land, time was marked off this way and not with prosaic dates. Markets were held on these named days, rents paid, seeds sown, crops harvested. A character is much more likely to say, ‘It was the week before Candlemas,’ than, ‘It was the end of January.’ So if we learn to think the same way, it’s a big step towards authenticity.

I’ll draw out the Wheel of the Year and post it on Lady Day. For now let us light our candles to ward off the storms (poor Queensland!) and raise a glass to Candlemas, Imbolc, St Brigid and all the groundhogs of America and other hibernating animals who are beginning to stir, because it is the beginning of spring. Official.

Candlemas – the non-PC Festival of Light

Peasants warm their naughty bits at the hearth.

It is the midpoint of winter, half way between solstice and equinox, an eighth, then, of the quartered year.

The word februa in Latin refers to cleaning and purification, rites traditionally associated with spring. So get the feather dusters out! The Anglo Saxon name for the month was sol-monath, or cake month. Nice… Good old Anglo Saxons.

Candlemas (February 2nd) is the Christian version of the pagan Festival of Lights. In the Christian tradition it celebrates the visit of Jesus to the temple, and the ritual purification of Mary forty days after the birth of Jesus. Candles were blessed in the church, to give light to the year ahead.

Snowdrops are known as Candlemas bells. The snowdrop in purest white array first rears her head on Candlemas day.

We usually have an allotment society get-together before Christmas but this year it was forgotten, probably in the excitement of snow, so it’s happening this week. When it was first mooted, I suggested we hold it on Plough Sunday on January 9th. That seemed very appropriate, but the organiser was busy having Christmas that day. So then we alighted on February 3rd, and ever eager to find a theme, whether in writing or life, I said, somewhat excitedly, ‘Well, that’s the day after Candlemas!’ I’ve remembered Candlemas from last year – I think it cropped up as a good time to sow or plant some particular thing, only I missed it and was sorry (planting potatoes on Good Friday always works). So I said, ‘Let’s tie it in with Candlemas!’ Obviously, being so brief in my communication, I didn’t fully express the idea to the organiser, or convey to her the vision of tea lights in jam jars which I was enjoying, but I got an email a few hours later saying that, in her view, some people would be likely to take offence if we were to associate our ‘do’ with a Christian festival.

Now is this woman a Moselm or a Jew, a Buddhist, a Shintoist, even a Marxist? No. And I doubt if any of these faiths would object to a few candles in the deeps of winter. No, she is a biologist. Say no more…

[With thanks to Mandy Barrow’s Project Britain site, at Woodlands Junior School, Kent, for the Candlemas information].