“Tis the year’s midnight …

. . . and it is the day’s,

Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks . . .”

My father, a huge lover of all poetry and the metaphysicals in particular, used to intone John Donne’s magnificent “Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day” around this time of year, and his sonorous rendition always comes back to me on the night of the winter solstice.  It’s not a cheerful poem of course, definitely not awash with yuletide jolliness, being, as it is, a meditation on love and death, but it is completely seasonal in its powerful images, drawn from the natural world, and fitting for this darkest moment of the year.

“The world’s whole sap is sunk . . . whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk . . .”

I used to be very puzzled as to why Donne thought that the feast of St Lucy, which falls on December 13th, was the shortest day of the year but was too lazy to find out. It was only when a very dear friend named her first baby Lucie and we started organising birthday parties for her that I delved into the ramifications of the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

Julius Caesar was the first to have a go at devising a standard calendar which would avoid the mess of the existing Roman lunar model, requiring a group of people getting together from time to time to decide when days should be added or removed in order to keep it in sync with the equinoxes and solstices.

After consultation with an Alexandrian astronomer he came up with a neat solution of 365 days per year and an extra day every four years to regulate it with the earth’s rotation. He named the calendar after himself (as you do). March was the first month and leap day was February 24th, which would have been great, except that for the first 12 years leap days were added every three years by mistake and in any case there were too many leap years: (we now have one every four years except for years evenly divisible by 100, which are not leap years unless evenly divisible by 400 and except for 2000, which should not have been a leap year but which was because …… don’t even try to keep up, I’m certainly not!)

Things had got pretty out of hand by the 16th century, particularly over the calculation of the date of Easter, which is function of the spring equinox. If nothing was done, Easter would eventually be celebrated at midsummer and that would never do. So in 1582 Pope Gregory issued a bull entitled “iter Gravissimus” (as you do), declaring the situation so serious that the maths had to be corrected, ten days shaved off the current year and a new calendar imposed, which he named after himself (as you would).

This did not go down particularly well in all parts of the Western world. The Catholic states fell in line within a couple of years but Protestant countries took much longer (who does the Pope think he is!) – Britain and the US only switched in 1752, by which time they had to drop 11 days. The whole process took 300 years and for example when Greece changed its civil calendar in 1923 they had to ‘lose’ 13 days.

Which brings us back to St Lucy and Donne, who composed the Nocturnal in 1627 and was therefore spot on in his calculations.

An early Christian martyr from Syracuse in Sicily, Lucy’s story is the usual one of a virtuous young girl who dedicated her virginity to Christ and was betrayed by a disappointed lover. Over the centuries various embellishments were added to the tale. In some her eyes were gouged out, in others she plucked them out herself in order to diminish her attractiveness, so she is frequently depicted holding the gruesome results in a dish.

St Lucy by Domenico di Pace Beccafumi

(If you should wonder why she has two sets of eyes in Beccafumi’s painting it is because when her body was being prepared for burial it was discovered that her eyes had miraculously been restored – so much easier for the artists!)

St Lucy is venerated not only in her native Sicily but also in wide areas of northern Italy and, perhaps surprisingly, in Lutheran Scandinavia. Less surprising when one considers that the origin of Lucy’s name is lux, and that the Christian story was undoubtedly grafted onto an earlier pagan celebration of the turning of the year towards the light.

In the beautiful midwinter tradition, a young girl dressed in white with the red sash of martyrdom and wearing a wreath of candles on her head, walks through the streets accompanied by other young girls, ‘star boys’ and ‘gingerbread boys’ in a nicely inclusive procession. There is glögg to keep out the cold and saffron buns to keep you going. I think these buns look very much like Lucy’s eyes, but it seems that they are supposed to resemble the devil’s cat curled up.

Another lovely tradition from Hungary and other central European countries, where incidentally the Saint’s day seems also to be slightly muddled up with the devil and witches on broomsticks, involves planting grains of wheat in a saucer. They have time to sprout by Christmas, when they are added to nativity scenes as a reminder of life springing from the darkness.

My contribution to cheering up the year’s midnight is bowls of hyacinth bulbs steadily sprouting in the cellar and lots of spicy scented candles. After the year we have had I think we are all feeling ‘let’s get on with 2021!’

Now I say that I am writing this on December 21st, which I say is the winter solstice, but I have observed that people are very keen to tell me that “the solstice actually falls on the 20th or the 22nd this year” in the same way that no one can ever seem to agree whether the moon is completely full on any particular clear night. And what about the day’s midnight? Ah that’s another story!

We may be under the illusion that we have time sorted out but, not only is that very far from the case but in addition a positive tsunami of potential chaos is heading towards Europe at the next vernal equinox and no, it has nothing to do with Brexit! More next time.

8 thoughts on ““Tis the year’s midnight …

  1. This is fascinating, Kate. So easy to take date and time as set in stone, but you show how far this is from the truth. I laughed out loud at the saffron buns – we need laughter just now. And I’m looking forward to learning about the verbal equinox.

  2. Beautifully written and fascinating, as ever. Thank you Kate.
    Welcome uplift as we turn the corner of winter – the one thing we can be certain of, like the incredibly-accurate predictions of conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter like the one that was obscured by cloud last night. Sure enough, even on the clear evening the night before before we needed binoculars to separate them low over the western horizon from our garden.
    In several ways this sheds light for me on why our fathers had so much in common at university.

  3. Again wonderful in may ways. Very interesting. You’ve done a lot of research and organising it for the post.

    It’s also the reason for our peculiar tax year, but I’ll leave you to order my muddled memory about that in the next episode.

    1. Yes, I decided to leave that one out in the interests of brevity … it’s mad enough as it is, especially for a non scientific mind like mine. Sweden had a February 30th in 1753 and there were riots in England as people demanded to be ‘given back their 11 days’

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