Spring Cleaning

I’ve decided to have a spring clean of my social media presence. I run four different blogs about four different aspects of my life and I am now feeling that I’d like to draw the threads closer together. This is probably a good time to apologise – if you’re an avid follower of all things Graham H Miller, then you’ll be seeing this message several times!

I’ve decided to make http://grahamhmiller.com my main hub across the web. It’s the only WordPress site I’ve got a custom URL for and it also makes the most sense. I’d like to be able to import all my blogs to here, but I don’t think I can. This is quite reasonable as I’ve got different follower lists and there no reason, for example, why my Penguin’s Knee followers would want to know about Minecraft.

So, for the minute, until I can figure out something more elegant, I’ll put links to everything over here on one page: http://grahamhmiller.com/otherblogs. So, whichever blog you read this post on, you can head over there to see what else I do. It’s probably worth pointing out that I write both fiction and non fiction, and grahamhmiller.com is my main blog for all things about writing.

What do you, my followers, want me to do? Keep it all separate or try to merge it? Likewise, if you know more about WordPress than me and feel like being helpful, please do get in touch!

Thank you!

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Imbolc

Today is the traditional date for Imbolc or Imbolg or even Candlemas. It is seen as the beginning of Spring although more accurately it is the first of the three spring festivals (continuing with Vernal and Beltane). In reality, in the UK, February usually has the harshest winter weather which makes it hard to see this as the beginning of spring.

But there are some signs of hope. One of the things that is often said is that it’s the time when sheep start lactating ready for when their lambs are born. Actual sheep husbandry though, indicates that around the Vernal Equinox is a much more likely time for sheep to be born. (Which is also interesting as lambs are associated with the Vernal, but as a meal, which makes no sense as they’ve just been born.) I’ve christened this festival, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, “The Festival of the Fat Sheep”. In a prehistoric farm, this would be the time when the food would be running low and those sheep that were pregnant would be really showing. So you would go through your flock looking for the fat sheep, and separate them out so they can get the best feed and have the best chance of getting healthy lambs.

So this festival does have elements of the hope of spring, even if the weather is not good. This is also echoed in other symbols, like candles and lights. This is the traditional festival for consecrating and/or making all your candles for the year ahead. We are starting a new tradition this year of burning all our fancy candles at Imbolc.

Finally, another thought. As I stated in this article, https://thebusypagan.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/its-halloween-or-is-it/ there is an alternative, astrological logic for working out the dates of the cross-quarter days. If you apply this here, then Imbolc falls on Sunday the 5th, which isn’t as far off as other festivals.

Thank you for reading and please use the comments box to let me know what you do to celebrate this festival.

Winter Solstice

I have absolutely no idea what happened this year. It’s the 27th of December and I haven’t posted anywhere about Winter Solstice and what it means. In part it is because it has become the pre-eminent festival in our culture, closely followed by Halloween. So the whole period from the middle of November to now become one big rush. In my defence, I have two children in school and a younger one in pre-school, so we had three Christmas fairs, two concerts (one that went on for two nights), three parties and at least one trip to a panto. So I seem to have survived the season by just getting from one day to the next. I am aware that this is inescapable because we have children. We have tried really hard to walk a middle path with them and they are aware that I’m Pagan and LSW is Jewish, which makes them Jewish. But they are also aware that they live in a Christian country and their schools will be Christian so they go to church for Harvest festivals and have nativities at Christmas.

Without denying them any of the joy of Christmas, we have been on a gradual path to drag the main, present opening and big meal celebration back towards the solstice and away from the 25th. (In parallel with this we do also celebrate Chanukah.)

On a spiritual side, I did manage to get to Stonehenge for the sunset at Winter Solstice. In my opinion this is one of the main alignments for which it was built. Unfortunately it was cloudy so there wasn’t a sunset as such, but it was more than just a photo opportunity – there was a lovely atmosphere. We then had our main Solstice meal on the 24th as my LSW’s work meant that she couldn’t get time off to have it on the proper solstice. Next year we have a plan that will involve the proper date for Stonehenge and a lovely Solstice celebration over the weekend. This means that we’ll celebrate on the Saturday, three days before the 25th actually comes around. Now the main focus for us on the 25th is a new Dr Who special and an Indian takeaway!

I made a realisation over the holidays – in many ways it doesn’t matter what the origin of some traditions is or how old they are. The fact that they have been absorbed by our culture means that they must have some sort of validity. So many of us celebrate some form of Christmas that it’s an accelerated evolution for ideas. The ones that chime with our Jungian subconscious naturally survive from one year to the next. So, for all that our modern Christmas is mostly 200 years old, I still believe it has some validity. I am aware that the Solstice is an ancient festival celebrating the return of the Sun, the fact that from now on days are getting longer. Judging by the number and quality of prehistoric monuments that survive with Winter Solstice alignments, it could have been one of the key points in a prehistoric year.

I appear to have argued myself round in a complete circle. Maybe five thousand years ago, the Neolithic primary carer complained about the enormous journeys needed, the pigs to be slaughter, ritual gifts to be prepared – all in the name of Winter Solstice. Maybe, for as long as we’ve lived in these northern latitudes with their short nights and fierce winters, we’ve needed a huge party and a feast at this time of year. An excuse to make merry and more importantly to catch up with our friends and family. Nothing more or less complicated than saying “I’m glad you’ve survived another year” to our loved ones. To me that feels like something that just hasn’t changed over the millennia!

A time for everything

I’ve been thinking about winter and days getting shorter. I suffer (quite mildly) from Seasonal Affective Disorder – in my case it means having a shot of st John’s Wort in my coffee every morning during the autumn and winter to keep the blues at bay. But it did make me start to wonder. One of my core beliefs is that in physical terms we stopped evolving about 50,000 years ago when we were all hunter-gatherers. Usually I try to apply this thinking to my diet and exercise (paeleo eating) but I’m now wondering if it also applies to seasons.

Mankind seems to be determined to master and overcome the natural world both externally and within ourselves. One of the ways that this is done is by the use of electric light. Ever since man first tamed fire, we have used it to light our homes and extend our days. Now we have electric light that is so ubiquitous no-one really thinks about it any more. Especially in northern climes it means that the effect of long summer days and short winter ones is smoothed out. More than any of this though it’s a cultural effect, that we should always be striving, trying to better ourselves. The idea that we should maybe sleep more and do less over the winter and do more over the summer seems to be completely alien. But maybe we should see this idea of having a rest in positive terms. See it not as a weakness but a strength, a time to recuperate and rebuild our energy.

So maybe we should pay more attention to what the sun is doing. Maybe it would be better to consciously try to wind down over the winter and (almost) hibernate. One part of me says that it’s giving in to seasonal depression, whereas the other half (which is winning) says that it’s the other way round. Seasonal depression could be a reaction to trying to do more over the winter. My body pushing back against the 24/7 culture – or rather the 365 day culture – and demanding a rest.

What do you think?

The Lunar Year 2012

Every year I try to produce a year planner with varying degrees of success. This year has to count as the most last-minute ever! For those who haven’t seen it before, the Mighty Oak Books Lunar Year is a planner unlike any other. Rather than arrange the year by traditional months, instead the whole year is split into moons. Each columns starts with a new moon, all the full moons line up across the middle and the last three days of each moon (moon dark) line up across the bottom rows of the chart. The change of calendar months is marked by changing colours, and each month is marked at the top of the column, on the new moon.

We’ve used one this year for organising the family, and on occasion even I find it confusing! But it does have a great advantage that you can either plot events that have happened in the past and see how they correspond to the moon phases, or book things in advance and ensure they are on auspicious days. This is especially useful if you are doing magical work that relies on the moon, but I have seen them used in offices as well.

This year I’m including a host of astrological information so you can tell at a glance which sign the moon is in on new, quarter and full days. Also all the solstices and equinoxes are marked along with the dates to change the clocks. Because we have a new moon close to midnight this year, I took the decision to make this calendar true for GMT in winter and Bristish Summer Time in summer. If I hadn’t done this then that new moon would have moved to the next day and changed the number of cells.

It’s printed in full colour on A2 and has space to write on each day. All this confusing loveliness could be yours for only £4. I’m struggling with web shops and my website at the moment, so I’ve created this page which has an automatic Paypal button on it.  Or you could just Paypal £4 to graham at mightoakbooks dot com and I’ll send one out to your address (as registered with Paypal – email me if not convenient).

I’m printing them on demand in batches of ten, so if I get more than nine takers, it’ll take about a week to get one out to you. I’ll send you an email to let you know.

 

Is it Halloween now?

On Halloween itself, I asked the rather odd question – when is Halloween. Now, on the 8th of November, we’re about as close as we can get to 15 degrees Scorpio so I thought it a good time to write this blog. Also a friend of mine (Hi Rich) started a comment thread on Facebook which I thought deserved to be brought into the blog.

He asked if you can look back and figure out when Halloween went from being a festival that moved with the zodiac to a fixed one? Given that the drift of the calendar due to precession of the equinoxes was known, surely this should be simple? Rather than relying on what I thought I knew, I had to go and do some research. It has very little to do with the precession of the equinoxes, so I was wrong on that count.

It’s much more to do with the Gregorian/Julian calendar. 2nd September 1752 was followed by 14th September 1752 in the UK. Pope Gregory decided this in 1582 but being a Protestant country, it took us a while to catch up! The reason this was necessary is that the Earth does not take 365 days to go around the Sun. It doesn’t even take 365.25 days, as you would expect from leap-years. The Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Ceasar in 45BC) is a whole 11 1/2 minutes out. Which over hundreds of years adds up.

The Gregorian calendar refines the leap year rule, so that if a year divides by 4 or 400, but not by 100 then it is a leap year. So 1800 and 1900 weren’t but 2000 was. So far, apparently, we are only 26 seconds out.

All this digression means that the calendar was shifted forwards about 12 days, so in effect if we were at 14 degrees Scorpio on the 30th of October, then we’d be at 15 degrees on the 11th of November. Which still isn’t quite right, as it’s only the eighth today. Checking wikipedia (I know!) reveals that All Saints Day was fixed on the 1st of November in the 12th century, which would have fixed the date of All Hallows Eve on the 31st. Going back to the 6,000 year ephemeris (thanks www.astro.com) reveals that in the 12th century, in the Julian calendar, the Sun was indeed around 15 degrees Scorpio at the end of October.

Two more final, interesting thoughts. In the UK other events also occur at the end of October/beginning of November. We have Guy Fawkes Night, a celebration of a failed plot to kill the King, involving bonfires and fireworks. In fact, it’s more usually now called Bonfire Night or Firework Night. And on the 11th is Remembrance Day. The first of these feels very old and pagan, with its bonfires and general celebration, while the other is a time to remember the dead in a very specific way. Both are in keeping with the spirit of the festival.

Finally, the whole moving calendar issue is not dead and buried as I read http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/3817096/Scientists-propose-leap-hour-to-fix-time-system.html this article recently. This is now even more relevant as GPS relies on extremely accurate clocks in the satellites and there may be limitations on how often they can be updated from Earth.

So from Popes and astrology through to GPS and atomic clocks, that’s my take on why Halloween might be nearer today than 8 days ago.

Come together

When I was researching and writing The Busy Pagan one question I wanted to answer was “Why have these festivals survived so well over the years?” If you accept astro-archaeology then there is evidence in stone circles and chambers that these dates have been observed for over 5,000 years. Both traditional and comparative archaeology suggest that life in prehistoric societies was quite fragmented. Members of a tribe wouldn’t always live in the village all the time. Groups would leave for days or weeks for a variety of reasons depending on the time of year. Fishing, gathering and hunting all involve living in temporary camps, as would moving sheep and other animals between summer and winter meadows.

My supposition is that the regular cycle of festivals that can be easily established by observation and counting act as a “social glue” that binds the community together. Everyone meeting and sharing food and drink means that you can check on everyone in the tribe and also make connections with other tribes. Going further back, it’s even been suggested that homo sapiens had a concept of culture and society that Neanderthals didn’t.

More recently, we moved to South Wales to be nearer my wife’s family, so we decided to take these ancient ideas and see if they would work in the modern world. Given that we have three children, aged three, seven and ten, we settled on the idea of a Sunday lunch. This means that everyone can eat together – a vital part of the process, and after the meal, it’s Sunday afternoon so there’s no rushing home to get the children to bed. for the food, I took my cues from the recipes in my book, but with an important change. I’m aiming for one pot cooking, or at least a meal with rice or pasta, so it’s simple to cook. We tend to have up to ten adults and half-a-dozen children and I want to socialise and not co-ordinate a complex meal!

So far, it has worked really well. Every six weeks seems to be the right kind of period to keep people in touch without being too intrusive on schedules. It is very important to switch off the TV and computers and talk to people face-to-face over food and drink. I’m not one of these people who’s anti the modern world and all its new ways of communicating. If anything it makes it easier to organise and get people here for a traditional shared meal.

One thing that tells me we’ve got the balance right is that after the Halloween meal, when everyone had left, we felt as if it was Christmas evening. That quiet period when everyone has gone home, and you’ve had a really good time with excellent company and food. Which is entirely appropriate as Christmas is the best survivor having mutated from Winter Solstice.

So, that’s what we do here to celebrate. All our family and friends seem to be enjoying it and it seems to work as what I call paganism with a little p. Not in-your-face with candles and pentagrams, but quietly and gently taking the underlying principles and bringing them up to date. What do you do to celebrate the turning of the wheel and passing of the seasons?

It’s Halloween! Or is it?

Today is the 31st of October, recognised around the world as Halloween or All Hallows Eve or Samhain in pagan circles. But is the date right? The main solar quarter days, the equinoxes and solstices shift slightly by a day or two from one year to the next. But the cross-quarter days, Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Halloween are all fixed points in our calendar. The solstices and equinoxes are actually determined by the entry of the Sun into a particular sign of the zodiac (ever noticed that they’re all around the 20th-22nd which is when the Sun sign changes too). With this in mind, I got my ephemeris out to work out if there is a corresponding astrological component to the cross-quarters as well.

Based on this line of reasoning, it could be that Halloween should be celebrated when the Sun crosses the mid-point of Scorpio, or in astrological terms, when it is at 15 degrees. Which actually puts it on the 8th of November, or a week tomorrow. I think the reason for the drift is the precession of the equinoxes, and I also think this means that the dates got fixed a long time ago. I think this is mostly of academic interest as the energy of the year shifts gradually from one festival to the next. Nature never does anything in black and white if it can be done in shades of grey! So around this time of year, the veils are at their thinnest, spirits are abroad and it’s a good time to think of those we’ve lost over the past year.

As ever I’d welcome your thoughts on this!

First frost

When I woke up yesterday morning, there was a proper frost on the ground. There was a puddle that was absolutely solid when I took the children to school at around 8:40. But this did bring up a question that my children love to ask – when does Autumn (or indeed any other season start). Mainstream news like to point to one day, usually Autumnal Equinox and say that this is the “official beginning of Autumn” even if the weather on the ground isn’t really reflecting this. I think in part this is a hang-over from the legal system of dividing the year up into four to make contracts and the paying of rents easier to manager. This four-fold split is nearly aligned with the solstices and equinoxes, leading to the confusion.

I think I’ve finally found an answer that seems to satisfy both our shifting seasons and the demands of my children. I told them that Autumn starts when you can see most of the (deciduous) trees are showing a lot of turning leaves in colours of red, orange, yellow, brown etc. This encourages them to look around at their environment and make their own decisions. They’re also waiting for most of the trees to be mostly bare, at which point we’ll decide that Winter is upon us.

What would be your answer to this question? When do you think the seasons turn?

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