Winter Solstice and Christmasses Past, Present and Fictional
It occurred to me, as we approach Christmas that I’ve never written a Christmas story. I have come close with the final scene of ‘Fallen Splendour’ where we join the Christmas staff ball at Larkspur Hall in 1888, and I have also come close as James Collins, in my novel, ‘The Saddling.’ I say ‘close’, because, in Saddling, there is no Christmas because there is no Christian religion, not since the Blacklocks family took over the village in… I forget the year but before the witch trials of ‘The Witchling’ and sometime after the first return of ‘The Eastling’ in the 13th century.
Instead, Saddling, the village of the series, follows its own Lore based on nature and the turning of the seasons. The first in the series, ‘The Saddling’ opens on winter solstice night, 1292 when a great storm threatens the Romney Marshes with flooding. That is based on a real event, the great storm of 1287 where villages were washed away, and lives and livestock were lost.
As the winter solstice is only a couple of days away, I thought this was an appropriate time to talk about it and the Christmases of my youth on the Marsh, and now, here on the Greek island, Symi. Where, by the way, the approach of the solstice combining with an upcoming full moon, has resulted in our harbour already being slightly flooded.
The winter solstice, hiemal solstice or hibernal solstice, also known as midwinter, occurs when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. It happens twice yearly, once in each hemisphere. This year, it occurs at 10.02 UTC on Monday and marks the northern hemisphere’s shortest day, the first day of winter.
This year, according to The National Geographic, “… just head of Christmas, two of the solar system’s brightest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, [will] engage in a celestial dance that will bring them within planetary kissing distance in the evening sky.”
A bit flowery perhaps, but true. “The moment of closest approach arrives on 21st December—the winter solstice for those in the Northern Hemisphere and the start of summer for those in the Southern Hemisphere. The two planets will appear closer together than at any time in almost 400 years in an event known as a great conjunction.”
According to Astronomy.com, On 21st December, Jupiter and Saturn will appear closer in Earth’s night sky than they have since 1226 A.D. This event is being described as causing a ‘Christmas star’, which all seems nicely appropriate, and the date, 1226, gives me a very tenuous link back to ‘The Saddling.’
After the initial storm scene of ‘The Saddling’ which sets up the Lore that is to follow and the superstitions and rites of the village, the story cuts to 18th December 2012. It is 720 years after the great storm, and the central character, Tom Carey is struggling to keep his life together, obsessed with tracing his family tree in order to inherit a fortune from his last family member. By chapter eight, he has arrived in the village of Saddling and, as his car has broken down miles away, seeks a room at the inn, The Crow and Whiteback. It’s charmingly old-fashioned but shows no signs of Christmas, and when the landlady, Susan Vye appears through the floor from the cellar below, and he takes her by surprise, Tom comments, ‘Nice place, but not very Christmassy, Only four more shopping days to go.’ He laughed, she didn’t.
The story unfolds as Tom searches for clues to his family mystery, the storm clouds gather, he befriends two local lads who are preparing for their saddling, and he learns that the ceremony is to be held on the evening of the winter solstice. In our present world, this Monday.
The Saddling series plays on such natural events as this year’s ‘Christmas star’, the solstices and equinoxes, the natural birth, harvesting, dying and rebirth of the land, the relationships between man and nature, farming and festivals. Apart from finding it interesting to research, I used this natural flow of the earth as a background because I wanted to set the stories against the naturalness of change and difference. By which I mean, as Tom makes his way through book one, he comes to realise that like it or not, he is attracted to another man. As the series progresses, the villagers gradually come to accept that Tom and Barry’s ‘friendship’ is as natural as the changing seasons, the tide, the earth’s cycle, and that, underneath it all, is the message of the books.
Winters on Romney Marsh
I wasn’t aware of the solstice when I was growing up on the Marsh, but I was aware of Christmas. I didn’t have any particular interest in the fields and deeks (irrigation ditches/dykes that prevent the land from flooding) or the farming way of life, but I must have absorbed it. My best friend from nine to 12 years was the son of a farmer. I’d cycle over to his house about a mile away into the wide, flat landscape of the fields to play in the hay barn, make rafts on the wider deeks, help his dad deliver lambs at lambing (though more likely get in the way), and sit down to huge suppers of ‘lookers pie’ prepared by his classic farmer’s-wife mum.
[On the Marsh, a looker is a shepherd and lookers’ pie is shepherds’ pie made with chops not mince.]
I have never been very good at sleeping, and in my teens, I would sometimes walk out onto the marsh at night. It has an atmosphere of its own, with nothing to hear but the cry of an owl, the breeze in the hawthorn bushes and the occasional plop of a frog leaping into a dyke. I walked to a place called Hope*, just outside New Romney, one of the villages that were washed away in the great storm and now nothing more than a ruined church wall, just to enjoy the peace and the smell of damp coarse-grass and sheep treddles.
[That’s a Kentish word for sheep poo, a smell that, when you’ve grown up with it, is more comforting than you might think!]
Later in my teens, one of my best friends was also the son of a farmer, and I’d visit his house too. As is the way of the Marsh, he lived next door (half a mile) from his cousin, my earlier bestie, the families farmed together, but in this case, I visited to play on his dad’s snooker table, and play music as we were in a swing band by then. His dad, by the way, is now in his 90s and still actively farming his land.
And then there were the Christmases. These, for me, were traditional family affairs. We were expected to attend Midnight Mass at the parish church where I ‘sang’ in the choir and learnt to play the organ. As my two brothers and I got older, we went under the bribe of being able to open a present when we returned home. Older still, this tradition ended up with my dad being the only one who attended church, me staying at home to watch concerts on TV and wait for my older brothers to return from the pub when we opened presents, often not going to bed until well after three in the morning.
Another big part of my teen years was music, as you might have gathered from my Jackson books like ‘The Blake Inheritance‘ and ‘Home From Nowhere.’ I started playing the piano aged six or seven and carried on throughout primary, prep and secondary school to finally rise to the complicated heights of grade eight in my early 20s. I was inspired in music by teachers at both prep school (where the music teacher took me to play the organ in Hythe church when I was 11, and from when I was transfixed by the musical ‘machines’). At secondary school, our music teacher arranged for us to attend concerts in Canterbury Cathedral and elsewhere at his own expense, encouraged me to stage musical revues and write songs for the junior years. He also saw a friend and me through our A-Level, arranging for Dominic (the only other A-Level music student) to be in a masterclass with Julian Lloyd Webber which I attended, and had a great knack of staging the Christmas concerts at the parish churches of New Romney and Lydd. Being a piano player, I wasn’t needed for the orchestra, but was dragged in to play the percussion (not as easy as it sounds) and sometimes ‘sing’ in the choir. I put ‘sing’ like that because I mouthed along more than sounded notes.
From Past to Present
All of these random reminiscences have a bearing on what I write now. The loneliness of the Marshes at night, the earthy, natural way of life, lambing, harvests, hay bales, hawthorn-lined, narrow roads and the deeks, the wide, flat landscape of the drained marshland and its rich history, the memories of cold legs in damp-smelling churches, the vibration of the organ in the last bars of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, and the present-giving by the fire… The older you get, the more you reminisce, but in my case, the more I put such reminiscences into my books, although often, from a different character’s perspective.
And now, the past not only influences what I write, but what we do at Christmas. This year may be slightly different, but we will still be able to be with our ‘logical’ family, our two godsons on the island and their mum as we have been for the last 17 out of 18 Christmases. It will be a day of fun, feasting and falling about laughing against an underscore of Annie Lennox and carols from Kings, godson #1 on his piano and, if we can drag him screaming from his Xbox, godson #2 on his guitar (he hasn’t got it yet, and I hope it arrives in time).
But before all that, we have Monday and the Winter Solstice, and it strikes me that if you’ve not already read it, you could get hold of a copy of The Saddling today, 19th, and start reading it, following the story day by day on the exact dates the story is set. You will reach the climax on Monday night, and if you are lucky enough to have a thunderstorm that night, you’ll get the full dramatic effect.
Whether you do that or not, have a peaceful solstice and seasonal feast or holy day, and I will be back with you on 2nd January with my next rambling blog post.
The Saddling is available to download now on Kindle and is available in Kindle Unlimited, and in paperback.