Winter Solstice

Today in the Northern Hemisphere is the Winter Solstice, aka Midwinter, aka the Shortest Day. If you’ve read any of my previous posts you will probably have noticed that science isn’t my strong point, so if you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of what that means you’ll need to look elsewhere, sorry! I did try researching this – that is to say, I took a look at Wikipedia – but the article lost me after a sentence or two. Briefly, the Solstice is ‘an astronomical phenomenon marking the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. It occurs when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun.’ Although the day has been given the name of the Solstice that alignment of the poles is actually at 10.23pm UK time. I don’t think there’s much to see though: unlike an eclipse, there is no obvious visible sign. So now you know – don’t say I don’t enlighten you! And I’m pretty sure that those poles to which reference is made have nothing to do with dancing – or maybe dancing is the order of the day? To be safe don’t quote me on that, just in case……

My interest in this day is its significance in a cultural and spiritual sense. Apparently this goes back as far as Neolithic times, when it was seen as the most propitious time for planting their crops and mating their animals – I wonder what those cave paintings were like? This time of year is important in many cultures, dating back long before it was appropriated by Christian faiths as ‘Christmas.’  The Wikipedia article also tells us that the pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a twelve-day “midwinter” (winter solstice) holiday called Yule, amongst many names. Many modern Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath and the Yule log are directly descended from ancient Yule customs. The underlying theme is how important this time of year is in the natural world, as a time representing rebirth and the beginning of more fruitful seasons.

While I was playing around on YouTube the other day looking for new Christmas songs to share with you, I came across one of their playlists which introduced me to modern day music – some of it pagan – celebrating this time of year. As you might imagine, much of this is what would be termed ‘folk music,’ though there were elements of jazz and heavy metal in there too. I knew nothing of this before, but my interest was piqued. I’ve dabbled a little further and have added some of these artists to my Apple Music library, as I rather enjoyed what I’ve heard so far. I thought this might be of interest to you, too, as I’d bet a fair amount that most readers will know no more about this than I do! So here are just a few examples. Firstly, from a guy based in Brighton, here in the UK, known as Damh The Bard:

There’s a warmth to his voice which I find appealing: his words give a very good explanation of what the pagan midwinter season is about, and draw the comparison with Christian beliefs. An interesting song.

This is far from just being a British thing, though. I also came across an Australian pagan band called Spiral Dance, who played gigs here with Damh The Bard in 2017: small world, eh? This is from their 2006 album The Quickening:

Again, there is a real warmth to the voice of the lead singer, Adrienne Pigott. This style of music is beginning to grow on me!

Moving across the pond to the US I came across this one from Denise Jordan Finley:

That is from an album called Solstice. According to her bio Denise is very much involved with the church, so I think it would be wrong to describe her as ‘pagan,’ but this illustrates well for me how inter-related these apparently different sets of beliefs actually are. And her voice is a thing of beauty, putting me in mind of Jacqui McShee, of Pentangle – in my eyes, that is high praise!

My final selection takes us slightly further north into Canada. The Wyrd Sisters are very much under the radar, selling albums direct from their website and at live shows, festivals etc. The song features on Leave A Little Light, the first of their six albums, all of which were issued independently and seem to be unavailable except via their website. Again, like Denise Finley, I’m not sure that they are fully into the pagan tradition, but the lyrics of this ‘carole’ very much are:

That’s my final selection for this dip into the hitherto unknown – to me, at any rate.  I recognise that this has been a superficial introduction to some music which is representative of customs going back thousands of years, but I wanted to give you a taste of what I had found, and to encourage you to think about the meaning of Yule. As I have said, I have only just got going with this style of music, and have no doubt that someone more versed in it would ridicule my lack of knowledge. But it interests me, and has broadened my musical horizon, and that for me is no bad thing. I hope you have enjoyed this too, and that you also will follow it further: I suspect that we have much to learn. And if you have more than my limited knowledge do please comment and share it.

See you again on Christmas Day, for my final collection of seasonal songs.

#SaturdaySongs No.8 – Ring Out, Solstice Bells

Continuing my theme of songs related to this month, today’s #SaturdaySong is this one:

Unlike the other songs in this series, there isn’t a personal story attached to this one. I’m including it because it has always been a favourite of mine at this time of year. It was released in 1976 and was an unashamed attempt by Ian Anderson, the leader of Jethro Tull, to make a catchy, commercial song that would generate airplay and sales in the pre-Christmas period. To an extent he succeeded, as it reached the dizzy heights of no.28 in the UK charts, and I don’t think it charted anywhere else to any great degree either. But it has become one of the pop standards for Christmas and features on many a compilation album. It is actually about the winter solstice rather than Christmas itself, but that’s still good enough for me to include it!

This was actually Jethro Tull’s third Christmas record – they had previously released both A Christmas Song and Another Christmas Song (I kid you not!). Neither of those bothered the chart statisticians, though both are still available on the Jethro Tull Christmas Album, along with Solstice Bells and many others – I commend it to you, it’s a lovely record. The band is still going strong in its latest incarnation, and there is a live recording also available of a Christmas concert they performed in 2008 at St Brides Church in London. Sadly, I didn’t see that, but I did see them in 2010 and they were a delight: a huge back catalogue to draw from, and the wry wit of Anderson in between the music. But as the gig was in summer there were no Christmas songs on the set list.

This song is among many without which my Christmas wouldn’t seem complete, and I really should get round to compiling a proper playlist at some point! The nearest I’ve got to this is on YouTube, where you’ll find my playlist of #ChristmasSongADay for your perusal and delectation. I started this last year, and shared a song a day (just like it says on the tin!) from 1-25 December. I’m doing it again this year, both on Twitter and for those of you who have made the excellent choice of being my friend on Facebook. Links are to the right. And as it’s the season of goodwill and I’m feeling especially generous, I’m going to leave you with a video that was made especially for a BBC TV programme to promote the song. I think it fits rather well.

I hope you have enjoyed this brief stroll through my Christmas Past. See you again next week – it’s a cracker, I promise!