One of my favourite UnHerd articles of 2018 was Polly Mackenzie on the meaning of Advent. Though not a religious believer, she provided a better explanation of the purpose of the season – and its distortion by contemporary capitalism – than I’ve heard in a lifetime of church attendance:
“What an age we live in. Our culture has subverted and corrupted a festival – Advent – about patient waiting and anticipation. It’s turned it into one that involves indulging ourselves into a coma of mindless consumption the moment we lift our heads from the pillow.”
Advent used to be a time of fasting (and still is in Orthodox Christianity). However, we’ve turned it into an extended pre-Christmas Christmas blow-out – short on spiritual significance; long on shopping, eating and drinking.
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The result is that we’ve spoiled Christmas itself – by which I don’t just mean Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but what used to be celebrated as the Twelve Days of Christmas. Most of those have gone out the window – Boxing Day has slipped into an exhausted, alcoholic stupor; the less said about New Year’s Eve the better; and as for Twelfth Night and the Feast of the Epiphany, forget it (as indeed most of us have).
We do mark a new solemnity, however – the Expulsion of the Christmas Trees, in which desiccated firs compete with overflowing wheelie bins for pavement space. Other Christmas decorations, if not thrown away, are packed away – the halls comprehensively undecked in readiness for the secular counterweight to the secularised Advent – a season not of preparation, but of regret. Welcome to ‘Dry January’ or, as it is alternatively known in the gym trade, ‘Sweaty January’.
Goodness knows that our livers, waistbands and bank balances need the break – but, unfortunately, it comes at just the wrong time of year. Winter after Christmas is a different beast to Winter before it – an altogether more vicious one. If ever there were a time of the year not to bring the cheer of Christmas to a harsh and premature halt, it is this one. And yet we do so because the modern world is almost as detached from the natural cycle of seasons as it is from the Christian calendar.
We may think we’re familiar with the ‘traditional’ four seasons of Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn – and the shifts that mark the transition from one to the next – but, insulated within our bubbles of artificial light and warmth, we’re really not. In fact we can’t even agree among ourselves when each season starts.
I’d argue that four seasons aren’t enough to describe the key changes of the year. We could learn from the Sami (Lapplander) people of northern Scandinavia, who recognise eight seasons. These include several gradations in what we’d think of as (a very long) Winter, but which make all the difference to a nomadic, reindeer-herding culture (for instance, if the Sun never rose at all in the darkest part of our year, we’d also give it its own special season).
There was a time when the 12 months played a similar role – signifying more than a mere allotment of days, but a mini-season full of cultural (and agricultural) significance. For instance, the Anglo-Saxon calendar included months like Thrimilce-monath – ‘the month of three milkings’ (May) and Aerra Litha – ‘the month before midsummer’, a.k.a. First Summer (June).
The spread of the Roman calendar across Europe and, eventually, the world – has provided us with a shared system of dates, but a pretty useless guide to the shifting seasons (and all the more so across a wide range of latitudes and climates). Of the names of our months, only April (which may be derived from aperire – the Latin for ‘to open’) refers to a natural phenomenon.
One can almost forgive the French revolutionary authorities for imposing a republican calendar, in which an entirely new set of months referred to (supposedly) seasonal events. For instance, the three months of Spring were Germinal, Floréal and Prairial – referring to germination, flowers and meadows. However, the system was abandoned in 1805 – perhaps because it was so arbitrary. For instance, the Winter month of Pluviôse (late January and most of February) refers to rain, when, of course, it can rain throughout the year.
So, if the months can’t help us, what we need are more seasons. Like the Sami, I think we should recognise eight. And before naming them I ought to say that my geographical reference point is southern England.
So, let’s start at the beginning of the year i.e. not just Winter, but the dead-of-winter: cold all the time; no leaves on the trees; long nights only imperceptibly shortening. What little snow that global warming has left to us will most likely fall in the next few weeks and the frosts will be at their hardest. To distinguish it from Winter before Christmas, let’s call it Hoar Winter – or, if that’s a little indelicate to 21st-century ears, White Winter (hoar, as in hoar frost, being an Anglo-Saxon word for white).
Just when White Winter is grinding you down, comes the gentlest of transitions to the next season, which I’ll call First Spring. It is ushered in, stage-by-stage, by the appearance of flowers: snowdrops, then crocuses, then daffodils. The ground thaws, fields are ploughed, the days lengthen (noticeably) and the birds start singing again – albeit perched on bare branches.
As buds unfurl, Second Spring arrives with foliage of a colour so fresh that ‘green’ doesn’t do quite do it justice. Entire landscapes transform in the space of a week – perhaps the most dramatic of all the natural transitions: and surely one signifying a shift between seasons, not a mere event within one. Second Spring may also favour us with the first warm days of the year. Then again, it might not, this is England after all.
By the end of May, new leaf has become full leaf – and merely, not miraculously, green. Maximum light brings early morning wakefulness and sustained warmth. Though still officially ‘Spring’, we should call this time what it is – Midsummer.
When warmth gives way to heat, at least periodically, Midsummer becomes High Summer. It is the most divisive of seasons – a breathless slog for those trapped in their routines, but ‘another Eden’ for those at liberty.
It can’t last, of course, and by the end of August, the heat breaks. The unobservant remark that ‘Autumn is in the air’, but look at the trees, you fools! The leaves aren’t browning – they’ve turned the darkest of greens, almost black against the white-gold of ripened wheat fields. It is absurd to speak of Autumn or Summer when we have a perfectly good word for a season distinct from both: Harvest.
In fact, let’s do away with Autumn altogether. When the Earth has given up its harvest, the season that follows has another perfectly good and self-explanatory name: Fall. Like many Americanisms it was originally a Britishism – and should be again.
The year ends as night intrudes into the working day. Leaves blanket the ground; and the earth, if not frozen, sleeps. Instinctively, we light fires against the darkness – and, in an age of material plenty, feast when we should be fasting. I’m not entirely sure what to call this season – perhaps I’ll borrow Fore-Yule from the Anglo-Saxon calendar.
So, a cycle of eight seasons and four pairs of opposites: White Winter (cold) and High Summer (heat); First spring (sowing) and Harvest (reaping); Second Spring (life) and Fall (death); Midsummer (light) and Fore-Yule (dark).
Of course, I’m reinventing the wheel here – and my crude observations have been made and stated by many others before me with greater grace and acuity. And yet they are worth restating.
In a world of industrialised novelty, our reckoning of events is directed to the documentation of the new and away from an understanding of permanence and circularity. In matters both secular and sacred, natural and supernatural, we have lost touch with older conceptions of time – and it is time we reconnected.