Archive for December 27th, 2010

More than 2,000 people gathered in the snow of Stonehenge to celebrate the winter solstice.

Druids, lead by Arthur Pendragon (centre), take part in the winter solstice at Stonehenge in Wiltshire

Druids, lead by Arthur Pendragon (centre), take part in the winter solstice at Stonehenge in Wiltshire

Despite the actual sunrise, – which took place at 08.09am – being obscured by mist, Peter Carson of English Heritage said: “Stonehenge looked spectacular in the snow and it was a great way for people to start their festive season.”

The Pagan community came out in force to celebrate the annual festival, along with many whom were merely curious to experience the event.

As well as the traditional Druid and Pagan ceremonies, a snowball fight erupted as people enjoyed the cold weather.

“The popularity of the winter solstice has grown over the years as more is known about Stonehenge and the winter solstice and the whole celebration has grown in popularity, ” Mr Carson said.

Lance Corporal Paul Thomas, a serving soldier of 15 years who fought in Iraq, was “knighted” with a sword by a Druid calling himself King Arthur Pendragon.
The word solstice comes from the Latin phrase for “sun stands still”. During the winter solstice the sun is closer to the horizon than at any other time in the year, meaning shorter days and longer nights. The day after the winter solstice marks the beginning of lengthening days, leading up to the summer solstice in June.

The Sun’s passage through the sky appears to stop, with it seeming to rise and set in the same two places for several days. Then the arc begins growing longer and higher in the sky, reaching its peak at the summer solstice.

The solstices happen twice a year because the Earth is tilted by 23.5 degrees as it orbits the sun. Since ancient times people have marked the winter and summer solstices.

The stones at Stonehenge are aligned with the sunlight on both the summer and winter solstices. These times told prehistoric farmers that harvest was coming or that the shortest day of winter had passed.

Recent excavations of animal bones at the site suggest that huge midwinter feasts were held at Stonehenge, with cattle moved there to be slaughtered for the solstice celebrations.
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The main Christmas customs were those that were common throughout

Morris Dancers

Morris Dancers

the country and which came from a time when farm labourers worked most days of the year, and often on Christmas Day morning. Mummers plays were a favourite and would normally be performed in the evenings in the big houses and farmhouses of the area. The performers would be rewarded with food and drink and, sometimes, with money. Most villages had a group of men who were the mummers and both words and actions of the play and costumes and props would be handed down from one generation to the next. Places from which mummers’ plays are remembered include, Stourton, Cricklade, Limpley Stoke, Amesbury, Maiden Bradley, Horningsham, Wootton Rivers, Woodford, Quidhampton, Stockton and Winterslow. Around Swindon in the 1830s, when it was still a small market town, they are recorded as going from door to door and, more especially, from pub to pub.

Carol singers were often groups of boys, or sometimes the church choir, who would visit the big houses of the neighbourhood collecting money. As with carol singers until the 1970s, these always gave good value by singing the full carol. At the larger houses they might sing two or three. There were some local carols, most of which have been lost, and some of these were original while others were adaptations of well known carols. At Berwick St. James it was the custom to wake up householders on Christmas morn by singing carols, which were learned by one generation from the preceding one.

An earlier tradition was wassail. Originally a fertility rite with live animals this later degenerated into processing around the streets, singing and collecting money in the wassail bowl. This happened at Cricklade where a live ox was once involved; by the 19yth century this had become a withey frame covered with a cured ox hide. In a few parts of the county, such as Everleigh, the parson organised a Christmas Ale for his parishioners, where instead of money being raised for the church the participants were provided with bread, cheese and beer. These seem to have died out in the early 17th century.

(Source: http://www.wiltshire.gov.uk/community/getfaq.php?id=194 and http://www.wiltshirefolkarts.org.uk/wfmummers.htm, A Wiltshire Christmas, by John Chandler. Alan Sutton, The Folklore of Wiltshire, by Ralph Whitlock. Batsford)

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