From time immemorial, seasons, or more precisely, darkness and light, have determined the days on which humankind placed its festivities, regardless of cultures and religions. In fact, nature has always prevailed, bestowing unity upon diversity. And it most certainly dictated the moments when festivities were held.
Humankind has always celebrated the longest night and the longest day. In ancient Greece, comedies and satires were associated with the winter solstice: Kômos, or Cômos, and Satyrs. And in the Rome of antiquity, Saturnaliæ occurred on the day of the longest night. On that day, the universe was upside down. Therefore, in certain cultures, the master was suddenly slave. In more ancient cultures, an old king was replaced and, at times, sacrificed, so a new king could be enthroned. The old king was the pharmakos or scapegoat.
Judaism placed Hanukkah very close to the longest night as did Christianity. In fact, Christianity celebrated the twelve days Christmas. In the Western Church, Christmas, the birth of Christ, has been celebrated on December 25th, but in the Eastern Church, January 6th, Epiphany, is the day on which the birth of Christ has been celebrated.
Julius Cesar (the Julian Calendar) situated the winter solstice on December 25th, but in time, Christmas was celebrated several days before December 25th. See Winter solstice. Consequently, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII (the Gregorian Calendar) brought the winter solstice back to December 22nd and, as per the directives of Council of Nicea of 325, in the Western Church, Christmas has since been celebrated on December 25th.
- The Summer Solstice (June 20/21, for the northern hemisphere; December 21/22, for the Southern Hemisphere)
As for the longest day, for Christians, it is la Saint-Jean, St John’s Day, and various other feasts.
- The Vernal Equinox (March 20/21, for the Northern Hemisphere; September 22/23, in the Southern Hemisphere)
The day on which darkness and light are of more or less equal length (equi =equal), Judaism celebrates Passover and Christians, Easter. Easter is the day of the resurrection of Christ. Consequently, the night before Easter Sunday, a mass is celebrated during which the Church is momentarily in complete darkness and gradually lit a candle at a time. In earlier times, a lamb was sacrificed: the sacrificial lamb.
When Julius Caesar established his calendar in 45 BC, he fixed the Spring equinox on March 25th, but the Council of Nicea of 325 corrected that date. In Western cultures, we use the Gregorian calendar (Gregory XIII, 1582) which is based on the determinations of the Council of Nicea.
- The Autumnal Equinox (September 22/23; March 20/21)
As for the Autumnal equinox, it is the Judaic Rosh Hashanah. In Christianity, the day is marked by la Saint-Michel, on September 29th or the now nearly-forgotten Michaelmas. In the Roman Catholic Church, Michael is one of three archangels, the other two are Gabriel (March 24th) and Raphael (October 24th). But Christianity also has its archangel of death, or Esdras, the “avenging angel,” or archangel of death, named Azrael in Hebrew culture.
In Islamic culture, the four archangels are Gabriel, Michael, Raphael and Azrael. There are slight variations in the spelling of Azrael, variations that are consistent with national languages. The Greek Orthodox Church honours the archangels on November 8th.
The solstices and the equinoxes do not occur on a fixed and permanent day. However, nations have situated official feasts on fixed dates.
For the moment, my purpose is
- first to provide a background, vague as it may be, for liturgical and secular Books of Hours. Liturgical Books of Hours are, among other texts, the Breviary and the Liber Usualis. Moreover Benedictine monks and other monks observe the Canonical Hours during which psalms are recited. Secular Books of Hours, such as Les Très Riches Heures de Jean de France, duc de Berry, are exquisitely-decorated books, books with enluminures or illuminations. As we have seen, Bestiaries are also richly-decorated manuscripts, a pleasure to the eye.
- Second, it seemed important to write about humanity’s universal observance of feasts that are embedded in the seasons, or in the degree of darkness and light. Nature is the template.
In short, seasons and feasts correspond to natural phenomena, i. e. the degree of darkness and light. All cultures have let the cycles of nature dictate the dates of their feasts and, as trivial as it may seem Calendars are a cultural monument. They resemble Books of Hours and are, generally, illustrated or “illuminated.”
In other words, as humankind progressed through milennia, it amassed traditions we must never forget. They shape our lives and inhabit the imagination of all human beings, climbing every mountain and crossing every border.
For information on ancient practices perpetuated through religious rituals, tales, and literature in general, one’s best source is Sir James George Frazer’s (1 January 1854, Glasgow – 7 May 1941, Cambridge) The Golden Bough, A Study in Magic and Religion, published between 1890 and 1915. The Golden Bough is a Project Gutenberg‘s publication.
© Micheline Walker
15 Novembre 2011