Is it even possible? To forget that we know the world spins, that there is an orbit around the sun, the certainty that for a few hours our side of the world faces away from the sun, and there is another side that feels it’s warmth.
What about if we forget for a moment that we are not just tiny specs of dust in a vast universe, but that we are it’s centre and the limitless stars in the night sky above are all looking down on us.
If we can, just for a moment, then we start to put ourselves in the minds of our ancestors, around fifteen hundred years ago. They may have been butchers or bakers, or maybe even candle stick makers, but for the most part our long forgotten relatives would have been farmers. Without access to iPhones (yes, there was a time!) the internet, newspapers or even books. There may have been scrolls but these were pretty useless as they couldn’t read. Art could tell a tale, but nothing like a good storyteller sat around an open fire.
And this is where I want you to picture yourself. We will travel back in time. Become a dark ages avatar. From now on references to they will become we. Today, as you read this, will become the future. Forget what you what know, the science you have been taught, put your phone away and forget fact-check. The fire is roaring, we have fed and drunk well, and it’s story time.
It’s cold. You have seen enough Game of Thrones to be able to picture what you are wearing. Winter is here.
We are, of course, pagans. From the Roman paganus, meaning rural or related to the countryside. In the future it will come to mean that we are non Christian. It will be many years until missionaries are sent to convince us there is just one God. We believe in many gods – representing things that are important to us. No, not social media, or streaming services. But fire, water, nature and love.
My booming voice echoes out in the darkness. I welcome you all in the traditional manner.
It’s a phrase that has stuck the test of time, although they (in the year 2022) will use more modern day parlance. Hael will have been derived into health. Waes, slightly more complicated, but drop the e, to was, and think of the verb to be.
“YOU BE HEALTH?”. Better… “ARE YOU WELL?”
You all know how to respond.
“DRINK HAEL”. We drink to our health. We are Anglo Saxons, and we cheer, and shout, and raise our glasses. Full of artisan craft cider, or rather, just cider. There is no industrialised made from concentrate competition to differentiate against.
The Roman Empire is on the verge of collapse and the legions of the North have been called back. They have however left us the orchards, and under their tutelage cider making has improved immeasurably over the last few centuries.
The first Roman soldiers coming across the channel in that first century AD were more than slightly dismayed by our native crab. Small, hard and sour. Compared to the array of large sweet fruits growing in Italy at the time. So it didn’t take them long to bring over some grafts.
The Romans had also made improvements in how do successfully crush apples – releasing its juicylishousness.
And here in the cold and the dark, with the crackle of the fire, we are celebrating. For the last few months we have been watching the sun get lower and lower in the sky. Have we upset the gods? Will the sun sink behind the forests never to rise again? Will we be enveloped in an eternal darkness.
In the future , they will know, that the earth is a 23.5 degree slant off the perpendicular and as the earth orbits parts of the world are tilted away from the sun. Equally 6months later the same parts will be tilted towards the sun. Winter and summer.
But it’s around 500AD, and we havent got a clue.
The seasons hold a great importance over our lives. Spring is for planting and new birth, things coming to life. Summer is about growing, things responding to the warmth and light, the autumn for harvest. And just as important as the others – the winter. A time to rest and reset. Fruit trees needing a dormancy, deciduous dropping their leaves, perennials dying back.
When you work with the land you become connected to it, you see it respond to the seasons and you become harmonised. You work hard in the summer, and into the autumn. But then as the nights draw in, you can ease off. There are winter tasks, of course. But not many hours to work in before sitting in front of the fire.
I wonder whether in the future they will talk about the weather like we do now.
We have harvested our winter veggies, and culled some of our farm animals. We won’t have the resource to keep them all through the winter, so we have to keep the strongest and best. And our fermentations are nearly complete.
Sounds like a party.
Yule. 12 days of celebration from the winter solstice to New Year’s Day. It’s dark and it’s cold so don’t feel bad about having a little time off. And this day, around the 25th, is the biggest of them all. It’s a few days after the winter solstice. And for the first time it is possible to perceive that today was slightly longer than yesterday. The gods are happy. Summer will come again.
In the future they will understand that on the 22/23/24th December the sun rises on exactly the same latitude. They will use the word declination to accurately describe the location of our sun in the sky. But on the 25th it has started its journey higher into the sky.
But we are rural folk, and all we know is that the sun is essential to our lives. And here in the darkest time, we have surrounded ourselves with light. There are candles, and lanterns and of course the fire. And there is holly and ivy, and mistletoe that we have collected from in and around the orchards. These are still green reminding us that even in the dark and cold life continues, and the better times of spring will not be far away.
Mistletoe in particular is held sacred. Becoming visible when the trees have lost their leaves, the glowing white berries show themselves. And there are birds in the trees feeding. Many of the birds we see over the summer have gone. So these birds feel special. I share what I was told by my grandfather – the great storyteller before me. The white berries are tears of the gods and the symbolise peace and love. Fighting in the presence of mistletoe is strictly forbidden. Orchards are a place of tranquility, friendship and wonder.
And after 12 days of feasting and partying, we will need a good walk. What better than a late afternoon constitutional through the orchard. A field that held barley, or rows of vines having none of the allure.
The trees have a mystique in the winter. We are thankful for their beauty and their bounty. We start to sing.
“Here we come a wandering among the trees so bare”
“Here we are to give thanks for its brilliant fare”
“Love and joy come to you”
As we look round at our orchard companions we take stock. Our lives are hard – but they are simple. Our needs are few. A good fire. Food and water (and cider), some friends and family. And that is all we need to make our lives feel good. And sometimes we get to sing out loud in a magical place.
Welcome back to the modern day. How was your journey?