Samhain, the old Irish Celtic festival of the beginning of winter (the remains of which we still celebrate in Halloween) is behind us and the past week here has proved the truth of it. Grey is the prevalent colour and rain has become the default weather condition. A storm blew through last night and swept away most of the remaining leaves from the trees, leaving stark bare branches silhouetted before scudding clouds and drifts and blankets of fallen foliage everywhere, turning into slippery mush on many of the wet roads. And punctually many of my friends and family and acquaintances have already succumbed to the first of the inevitable winter colds and infections.
Despite all the comforts of civilised 21st Century life, despite the fact that I am a city-dweller, despite the reality of my daily routine which leaves me almost completely independent of the weather conditions, I am continually reminded of how aware I am of the seasons and the weather, how much they, in a very visceral fashion, can affect me – and not just me but the whole human societal environment in which I live. In the case of November, this is actually something quite positive, for, the more the month progresses and the shorter and more unpleasant the days become, the more the glittering, tacky tinselly, warm and welcoming anticipation of Christmas and New Year grows in power.
This is all, of course, only the case for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, those south of the equator, in countries like
Australia and Argentina, South Africa and Paraguay, New Zealand and are now heading into early summer (the lucky bastards!). And for those who live closer to the equator, like my friends in Trinidad, the Chile Philippines or , the length of the days does not vary so much anyway and the seasons are quite different. But even in Indonesia , Diwali, the most important Hindu “New Year” festival is celebrated around the beginning of November – and I wonder, despite quite differing legends concerning their origins, whether there is not a long-forgotten common Indo-Aryan-European root for Samhain and Diwali. India
I digress, however. It remains an historical fact – determined in the end by global geography – that the greatest part of human history has unfolded in the Northern Hemisphere. While Africa (probably the savannah area around the Rift Valley) is the original cradle of modern humanity, its basic spread has been northwards since then, with the last areas of the Southern Hemisphere, South America and (above all) New Zealand settled only comparatively recently, after the end of the last Ice Age. (See map, sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Spreading_homo_sapiens.svg). Not only this, but for four fifths of modern humanity’s history (from 50,000 to 10,000 B.C.E) almost all our ancestors lived in the Northern Hemisphere during an ice-age. For much longer than the recorded history of all of civilization, our forebears struggled to wrestle a precarious existence from a harsh world in which the greatest threat was the icy cold of winter.
More than this, up to around two hundred years ago, the vast majority of humanity lived in direct dependence on what they could obtain from nature, either by killing, gathering, husbanding or cultivating it. In marked contrast to the life-style hundreds of millions of us (and practically all of those technologically empowered enough to read this blog) today follow, the overwhelming majority of humanity for practically its whole chronological history has needed a deep and immediate sense of weather and the seasons just in order to survive. While I am generally sceptical about imputing various human characteristics to nebulous notions like “racial memory,” I do not at all rule out the hypothesis that there are aspects of our feelings about the seasons which may sit very deep in our genes. It would provide, at least, some depth to our undoubted inclination to be very suspicious of winter and do everything possible to psychologically divide it up in a manner to help us get through it sanely.
My pre-Christian Gaelic ancestors had, at any rate, an intelligent, sophisticated and deeply season-based method of dividing up the year and organising their lives in accordance with it. There were eight major high festival days; the equinoxes and solstices (21st of March, September, June and December) and four high feasts half way between them respectively, marking the beginning of the four seasons. Spring begins on February 1, the feast of the goddess Bríd (Imbolc), Summer on May 1 (Beltane), Autumn on August 1 (Lughnasadh) and Winter, as already mentioned, on November 1 (Samhain).[i]
With November winter begins – and things get serious. What hasn’t been harvested up to now (with some small exceptions) will not survive the rain and cold (or the animals) in a useful condition for much longer. Nature is winding down its energy expenditure, most plants and many animals going into hibernation and those who can get out, like the migratory birds, heading off for warmer, more comfortable regions. The next six weeks are so are the last chance to batten down the hatches, get everything collected and tidied up to survive the really cold and hard weeks which come after mid-winter and the shortest day of the year on December 21.
In a world of globalised trade and commerce, where we can buy almost every kind of fresh fruit and vegetable all year round, it’s easy to forget that only a couple of generations ago, even the residents of the richest countries were largely dependant on what could seasonably be produced or locally stored. The capability of the human body to store surplus energy as fat has become a source of concern to most of us and a serious health-threat for many, far removed from its original evolutionary purpose of providing us with resources to help us survive through the lean winter months. In a society in which feeling cold evokes the easy response of turning the thermostat up a couple of degrees, we no longer remember how much effort was involved in just keeping the ambient temperature at a level which kept people from shivering – splitting wood and hauling coal, building fires and keeping them going, long woollen underwear and multiple layers of clothing, despite all of which chilblains were an ever-present menace. In all the wonderful historical stories we see on film and television one of the basic facts of life in the past is seldom shown, for most of the winter most people were cold most of the time; even the rich, since their castles and mansions were generally draughty, badly insulated and inefficiently heated, even with roaring fires. To simply keep warm enough to feel comfortable, people in the past had to consume more calories (all the more so because brutally hard physical work was the order of the day), which explains many of the accounts of the incredible amounts eaten (by those who could afford it). Historically, hypothermia was a constant – and deadly – threat.
So, when we shudder with unwillingness and resentment at having to expose our pampered selves briefly to the cold November rain, maybe there is a little more to it than just a reluctance to face discomfort. Somewhere in the background, lurking in our hindbrains, perhaps there is a certain genetic memory inherited from hundreds of generations of ancestors, huddled close together to preserve a common warmth around fragile fires, thankfully gnawing on fat for energy, looking out of poor shelters at the grey wet November weather and knowing that it is only a precursor of much worse to come. Life has indeed, for very many of us, become a lot better.
[i] This paragraph contains necessarily a large amount of simplification and there is much scholarly dispute about the details of everything I have stated here – one example being the relationship (if any) between various Celtic godesses known as Briganta/Bríd/Brigid and the Irish Saint Brigid. Many neo-Pagans today celebrate the Celtic feasts, the Wiccans seeing all eight of them as forming the Wheel of the Year.
The photo at the beginning of this post is reproduced from http://tetrapilotomie.blogspot.com/2010/11/friday-is-skyday.html , a blog well worth a visit.