Tonight is the Winter Solstice. I’ve always enjoyed marking the solstices and equinoxes even if just in a small way. It’s not really a religious thing. It has more to do with my interest in historical tradition than anything else. Marking the seasons, the passage of time, and taking stock of changes is important. People have been doing this since time immemorial, and I enjoy being a part of that continuity, even if just for a fleeting moment.
On the last autumn equinox, my younger daughter and I went outside and watched the sun come up. Then, somewhat spontaneously, I decided I wanted to mark the direction of the sunrise. She found this more than a little funny as we hurried about, trying to line up two wooden stakes on different ends of the yard like a couple of cracked surveyors. She asked me why we were doing this. A good question. I told her how, historically, people used to mark the seasons out of necessity. They made great calendars out of wood or stone so that they would know when to plant and when to harvest. Then I told her that one day I intend to build my own Stonehenge. I was joking…mostly.
There is something a bit magical about the Winter Solstice in particular. The shortest day of the year. And a long, dark night. Something that, many centuries ago, was a fearful thing. According to Medieval folklore, it was a matter of annual trepidation as to whether or not the sun would actually choose to reverse its pattern. Would the days continue to grow shorter, the sunrise creeping ever lower towards the south until the world was plunged in darkness? Or would the sun finally stand still (hence “solstice,” Latin for still sun) and then reverse its course, causing the days to grow longer? If you delve into some of the old Celtic traditions, you find that people once believed that ghosts and other creatures took advantage of the longest night to walk the earth. And so they developed solstice rituals to celebrate light and joy to chase away evil spirits and to help convince the sun to turn back.
Solstice traditions have many tangled threads. And I enjoy following some of these threads through history. Take the Green Man, for example…
Traditions about this fellow abound, and he weaves his way in and out of history in many forms…Robin Hood, the Green Knight, the Holly King, Puck, and John Barleycorn to name a few. Some of the traditions conflict. But it seems generally clear that early pagans saw him as the essence of life and rebirth. He was all things green, alive and vital. And each year, as with most things green, he dies. In fact, according to some traditions, he has to die so that spring can return (and so you get the poem, “John Barleycorn Must Die,” which alludes to the Green Man tradition but is mostly about guys who want beer).
Some traditions place the Green Man’s annual death on the Winter Solstice. This was not a sad thing, but something to be celebrated. Because the gradual lengthening of days after the solstice was a sure sign that he was coming back.
The manner in which the early Christian church incorporated pagan holidays and traditions is well known. The Green Man survived this transition and became one of those curious symbols adopted by the Medieval church. Stone carvers in early chapels and cathedrals incorporated the Green Man in their artwork. Some have speculated that these artisans, having recently been converted from paganism, did this on the sly, keeping their old gods secretly present in the face of a new religion. But the predominance of Green Men across Europe would suggest that he was incorporated with the Church’s tacit consent. Indeed, it was part of many clever compromises that the early Church made to ease the transition for converts to Christianity.
Probably the most familiar of these compromises is Christmas itself. The date of Christ’s birth is unknown. But the early Church fixed it very close to the Winter Solstice, thus incorporating pagan traditions and helping to ensure its widespread adoption.
And so, the Green Man made yet another transition…becoming part of the inspiration behind Father Christmas. Old Father Christmas began to appear in English literature as early as the 15th century. But Puritanism in England (and New England, for that matter) put a serious damper on Christmas, making it illegal in some places, until the 19th century. By that time, there was a widespread desire to revive the old Medieval celebration and bring back the merriment and joy that Calvinists had squashed. Father Christmas, bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Green Man and all the life and vitality he embodied, became the powerful champion of this movement.
Charles Dickens, another champion of Christmas at this time, described in 1843 the sight that Scrooge beheld upon opening his chamber door to meet the Ghost of Christmas Present,
It was his own room…But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove, from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there…In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see…It was clothed in one simple deep green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free: free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air.
None other than the Green Man, still embodying joy and vitality, but now in the name of Christmas, peace on Earth, and human kindness. It is, perhaps, a bit unfortunate that Americans transformed the strong Father Christmas, full of Green Man imagery, into a fat, old elf. We mainly have Clement Clark Moore and his 1823 A Visit from St. Nicholas to thank for that.
But the Green Man is still around, if you look carefully enough. And he can appear where you least expect him. Imagine my surprise when, after roughly ten years of looking at the ornate frame of a certain 18th century mirror in one of the historic houses where I work, I suddenly noticed the Green Man peering at me amidst gilded, twining acanthus leaves.
So, you better watch out…you better not pout. As of tonight, the Green Man is on his way back. Or, if you prefer, Santa Claus is coming to town!