Dec 212017
 

Today is the December solstice, which, astronomically speaking, is not a day but a moment, and can fall anywhere from December 20th to December 22nd. This year it happens to occur very late on the 21st here in Cambodia, and rather earlier in Europe and the Americas, so we’re good to go. Without going into excruciating detail (nor being entirely accurate), the solstice occurs when the sun appears to stand still, from the Latin sol (“sun”) and sistere (“to stand still”), in its apparent movement north to the tropic of cancer once per year, and south to the tropic of capricorn 6 months later. Changing directions is the matter of a mere moment, but historically cultures have celebrated the entire day when the change occurs, because the moment is not really detectable as such. It can be calculated, but you can’t see it happening. If it’s cloudy that day, you can’t actually see it at all, and even if you can see the sun, its apparent change of direction can take a day or two to be obvious. Assigning a day is convenient for everyone.

The solstice is called the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere because they are diametrically opposite.  This is the shortest day in the year in the north, and the longest day in the year in the south.  Consequently, I don’t generally like to be ethnocentric about solstices, but this year I will make an exception and focus on the wintry side of things because we are in Christmastide, and Christmas makes more sense as a winter festival than as a summer one, even though I’ve celebrated them in both summer and winter.  Winter suits me better for Christmas. Likewise spring suits Easter much better than autumn.

Marking the solstice probably goes back to Neolithic times; certainly it was an important time in northern latitudes where crops were sown, and animals tended. Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland attest to this fact, as do Inca, Aztec, and Mayan sites. It is naïve in the extreme to think that “primitive” peoples were afraid every winter that the sun was dying and would never return unless certain magical rituals were performed. People are not that stupid. Did they also think the sun died every night? Of course not. Experience tells you it will rise again the next day. Likewise, “primitive” people knew about the cycle of the seasons. They built Stonehenge, and like monuments, not so much to worship the sun (although that may have been a component), but to predict its course year to year so that they could plan their annual activities accordingly.

The primary axes of both of ancient monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the winter solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the winter solstice sunset (Stonehenge). It is significant that at Stonehenge the Great Trilithon was oriented outwards from the middle of the monument, that is, its smooth flat face was turned towards the midwinter Sun. The winter solstice was immensely important because the people were economically dependent on monitoring the progress of the seasons. Starvation was common during the first months of the winter, January to April (northern hemisphere) or July to October (southern hemisphere), also known as “the famine months”. In temperate climates, the midwinter festival was the last feast celebration, before deep winter began. Most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter, so it was almost the only time of year when a plentiful supply of fresh meat was available. The bulk of wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking at this time.

Iranian people celebrate the night of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice as, “Yalda night”, which is known to be the “longest and darkest night of the year”. On this night all the family gather together, usually at the house of the oldest, and celebrate it by eating, drinking and reading poems (esp. Hafez). Nuts, pomegranates and watermelons are especially served during this festival.

The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a midwinter (winter solstice) holiday called Yule (also called Jul, Julblot, jólablót, midvinterblot, julofferfest) and also called the season or one of the winter months by the same name. Scandinavians still use a cognate of “Jul” for this time of year. In English, the word “Yule” is often used in combination with the season “yuletide” a usage first recorded in the 9th century. The Norse god associated with Jul was Jólner, which is one of Odin’s many names. The concept of Yule occurs in a tribute poem to Harold Hårfager from about 900, where “drinking Jul” is referred to. Julblot is the most important feast. At the “julblotet”, sacrifices were given to the gods to earn blessing on the forthcoming germinating crops.

Sol Invictus (“The Unconquered Sun”) was originally a Syrian god who was later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under emperor Aurelian. He too was worshipped and feasted around the Midwinter solstice. What we have to be careful of is believing that Christmas evolved out of traditions such as Sol Invictus celebrations and the like.  It did not, even though in some cultures some Midwinter customs, such as decorating with holly and mistletoe, were transferred over. Christmas is a Christian tradition – end of story. The activities associated with Christmas in different cultures may have been picked up from Midwinter celebrations in general. That’s only natural. Is eating a big festive meal somehow a pagan tradition, or is it just something we all do on significant holidays?

I think making a chocolate Yule log is a merry thing to do today if you live in the northern hemisphere. I used to make one every year as part of my Christmas baking. I’ll confess that I usually cheated, but it was fun anyway. I would buy a chocolate Swiss roll and cut it and shape it so that it resembled a log with a branch coming off one side. Then I would slather it with a chocolate icing, mark the icing with a fork to resemble bark, let it dry a little, dust it with icing sugar for snow, and add a sprig of holly from the garden for decoration. It never lasted long in my house.

Jun 212016
 

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On this date in 1986 Deborah Blincoe and I were married. This would have been our 30th anniversary, therefore. Ever since she died (2007) I’ve marked the date in a small way, but this year seems like a good time to do something more. Before I talk about our wedding in particular let me say a little about weddings in general to set the context.

As an anthropologist I’ve lectured and written about marriage and the family a great deal. Weddings are classic rites of passage which have been studied intensively by anthropologists, but I’ve always argued that classic analysis misses the mark in an important way. I have tried to make the case that in LAW, strictly speaking, both the groom and the bride are changing their status, but in the classic Western wedding ceremony the ritual and symbols focus almost exclusively on the woman and her changes, and not the man. Broken down into simple components, the traditional Western wedding symbolizes the passage of a woman from one man’s sphere to another’s, and that was the economic and social reality for centuries – and still lingers in the ceremony even though realities have changed.

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The traditional Church of England wedding takes place in the bride’s home town. Her father walks her down the aisle to the waiting groom and “gives her away” to join the groom, then steps back. That ought to be enough to convince you, but there’s more. She wears white, the universal symbol of transition and purity; he does not. Upon marriage her last name changes from her father’s to her husband’s – his does not change. Furthermore she changes from Miss to Mrs. He’s Mr all along. At one time he did not usually wear a wedding ring either, but she did. In the traditional Anglican vows he promises to love and honor her, but she promises to love, honor AND obey him.  Get the point?

A lot has changed, of course, but remnants persist. Ms has generally replaced Miss/Mrs in many circles, both man and woman usually wear rings, and last names are more fluid. Some women retain their unmarried names (as my wife did), and some women hyphenate their unmarried names with their married names. In the latter case it’s still uneven. The man does not change his name at all, and the woman subordinates her unmarried name to her married name.We both retained our unmarried names, and hyphenated them for our son. But . . . my name is first and hers is last — Forrest-Blincoe. We liked the sound better than the other way around.

Whilst  we are on the subject, “maiden name” is a fraught term. The word “maiden” is an old synonym for “virgin” as it is also in the term “maiden aunt.” The assumption is that a woman is a virgin until she marries. I don’t use the term at all. I find it offensive. Likewise men don’t have maiden names, so there’s no veiled presumption that he is a virgin before marriage.

Despite changes, old parts persist. It’s still common to marry in the woman’s home town, she still wears white, and she is usually walked down the aisle by her father and “given away” with a physical gesture even if not a verbal one. The man’s symbolic role as recipient of the woman is still the same. There is no symmetric gesture of him being given away by his mother. He stands alone and receives his bride.

Whilst I’m on the subject let me have a little rant about vows. In the modern era couples often want to write their own vows. When I was an active pastor I discouraged this practice. Part of the point of ritual is for it to be familiar. The couple getting married may be the focus, but the whole community participates, and not just in a passive way. The whole community is witnessing the event, especially the vows. Vows are promises. That’s what the word means. They are not just cheery statements of affection. The bride and groom are making promises, and the community is there to hear them and afterwards to support them, and, if need be, enforce them. Of course, there is marriage law too, so that if the vows are a bit flaky, the law can step in. All the same, people want to hear the same vows that they made when they married, not some generic love poem. When they hear others repeating vows, they are reminded of their own. That’s proper ritual.

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Deborah and I broke most of the old rules as necessary and kept the ones we liked. Admittedly we agreed to her wearing rings (engagement and wedding) but not me, and I got comments on that after the ceremony. It was partly a matter of expense and partly the fact that I don’t like rings. On the few occasions when I have been given one, it has spent most of its life in a box. I have one now of great sentimental value that sits in a drawer. I never wear it.

The ceremony took place at a friends’ house in their garden near our house. We owned a house on the Neversink River in Cuddebackville, NY and had lived there for 3 years. So there was no business of going to the bride’s town for the service, or of not seeing the bride before the ceremony, etc. Nor did I have a bachelor party. I find them pretty tasteless affairs anyway. We decided on 21 June for the wedding by consulting an almanac. It seemed like an auspicious date because in that year (1986) the almanac listed 21 June as a Saturday, the solstice, and a full moon (called the Strawberry moon). What could be better?

Deborah’s family all came from Kentucky (where she was born) including her parents and grandmothers; her father was there but had no part in the ceremony. We organized the entire affair jointly. Our main idea was to avoid all the usual expensive trappings whilst maintaining a sense of dignity and formality for the ritual part. The whole wedding cost us under $200, including the justice of the peace’s fee. Admittedly my sister contributed the cake and baked goods, and our friends bought the champagne. Everyone agreed it was one of the best weddings they had attended; better than many that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

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The home owners had constructed a white cloth screen backdrop with ribbons and bows for the focal point of the service. I wore a new grey suit and Deborah made a white outfit for herself. We used flowers from our garden – mock orange and roses.

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In the late morning both families gathered inside our friends’ house, and the other guests mingled in the garden where there was a table for the cake, which my sister had baked, and presents, at the back. When the JP came he situated himself by the screen, and a few minutes later Deborah and I came out of the house side by side into the garden, and through the guests standing around. Our neighbors’ dog led the way with a white ribbon around her neck. Deborah called her our flower girl. As soon as we got before the JP, she sat down and went to sleep. Meanwhile our witness party (the two home owners and Deborah’s sister) brought up the rear and then flanked us when we stood before the JP. The ceremony was standard, by-the-book stuff – short and sweet, but covered all the bases.

When we turned around after the ceremony we scanned all the faces. Everyone had come including, to our amazement, two friends from England whom we had invited as a joke more than anything else, just to indicate to them that we were thinking of them. They had kept it completely secret, but co-ordinated with some other friends of ours who picked them up at the airport, housed them, and brought them along. Amazing.

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We had champagne and cake (recipe at the end) and opened our presents with a certain degree of formality. My friend Royston Wood had offered to be photographer and took a stellar set of pictures, which proved to be exceptionally difficult to take because the Midsummer sun was bright that day and reflected fiercely off the white cloth backdrop. This was in the days of chemical film and light meters. After cake, Royston and I sang together the traditional English folk song, the Wedding Song from the Copper family, with him singing bass and me tenor (also playing the concertina). He had been bass singer with the legendary 1960s group, the Young Tradition. He was to die several years later in a tragic car accident.

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After some toasts and general well wishing, we all went back to our house for a garden party. We had a big garden with tons of space. Much to our surprise, our guests had all brought changes of clothes and some games, including a softball set. We all changed into casual wear from our smart clothes and had one big blowout. Deborah and I laid out a big buffet of salads, cold cuts, and what not, and my sister had brought a boat load of cakes and goodies, including chocolate squares with a delectable chocolate cream topping that were so yummy that our English friends’ young daughter literally bathed in one all over her arms and face and went up to her father and spread out her thoroughly daubed arms and said – “Look daddy.” To which he replied, “That’s lovely dear. Go and show your mummy.” Smart lad; he knew what mummy’s reaction would be. Marriage at work.

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The house and garden were packed with people eating and drinking, and generally having a good time. My sister’s son was in his element playing softball, and he had no idea that all my friends were setting it up so that eventually he could win the game with a grand slam which he thought was the highlight of the wedding. At sundown the family helped us clean up after the guests had left, and then went off to hotels to leave us alone. Next day we packed the car and headed off for our honeymoon at Niagara Falls.

For years afterwards people who had come to the wedding commented on how much fun they had had. Here’s the cake recipe that my sister sent me recently. I’ve edited it a little, but it’s basically how she sent it to me.

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Orange Wedding Cake

Ingredients

Cake

2 cups flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder,
1 ½ cups sugar
6 eggs, separated
½ cup vegetable oil
6 fl oz orange juice

Filling

1 cup sugar
1 cup orange juice
10 egg yolks
¼ lb unsalted butter
1 orange rind, grated

Buttercream

2 lb unsalted butter at room temp.
1 ⅓ cups sugar
2 tspn vanilla extract
2 cups heavy cream

Instructions

For the cake

Put the oil, egg yolks and orange juice into a bowl and mix thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Add the dry ingredients by sifting them over the bowl a third at a time and mixing gently with a wooden spoon until they are thoroughly combined.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff but not dry, and fold them into the batter gently a third at a time

Bake in a 12 inch pan with grease proof paper lining the bottom at 350°F  for about 30 minutes. The top should bounce back and toothpick inserted should come out clean

For the filling

In a non reactive pot put the sugar, orange juice, and egg yolks. Mix and then bring slowly to near the boil over medium heat, stirring gently all the time. When it coats the back of a spoon, it is ready. DO NOT BOIL. Add the grated rind of an orange. Take off the heat

Add unsalted butter and stir to melt

Transfer to a bowl and put plastic wrap on the surface. Refrigerate until cold

Whip 2 cups of cream until it is stiff and fold gently in to the orange curd a little at a time.

For the buttercream

Using a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until they are almost white when. Add the vanilla extract. Continue beating  and slowly trickle in 2 cups of cream.  It will become very smooth and spreadable.

Assembly

Slice the cake horizontally into thirds. This takes experience. Best to use a long, serrated bread knife and put toothpicks into the side of the cake all round so you can use this to guide the knife.

Use the orange mousse for the filling by placing the bottom third of the cake on a plate, adding half the mousse on top, then spreading it evenly. Next place the middle layer of cake over the mousse, spread the other half of the mousse on it and spread it. Then add the top layer of cake.

Using a flat spatula ice the sides of the cake with buttercream. When the sides are finished put a healthy layer on top and smooth everything. If you are able, pipe stars all round the bottom of the cake where it meets the plate. Finish it off with either sliced oranges or a cluster of pretty flowers. We used pink roses.

Jun 202016
 

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The June solstice is the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the Winter Solstice  in the Southern Hemisphere. The date varies between June 20 and June 22, depending on the year, and which time zone you are in. The June Solstice this year (2016) in Universal Coordinated Time (UTC – formerly GMT) is on Monday, 20 June 2016 at 22:34 UTC, which is Monday, 20 June 2016, 23:34 BST in London, but on Tuesday, 21 June 2016 at 06:34 CST in Los Angeles. So when is it? The thing is that the exact time of the solstice is determined by the moment when the sun’s zenith is at its furthest point from the equator. On the June solstice, the sun reaches its northernmost point and the Earth’s North Pole tilts directly towards the sun, at about 23.4 degrees. It is also known as the northern solstice because it occurs when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer in the Northern Hemisphere.

This means that, strictly speaking, the solstice is not really a day, but a moment in time. The day on which that moment in time occurs, however, is generally referred to as the solstice, and significant events take place on that day. Ancient cultures went to great lengths to calculate when solstices were to happen, especially the winter solstice. With days getting colder and nights getting longer, it’s comforting to know that things are going to turn around, and Spring is on its way. It’s a ridiculous modern chronocentrism (http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/chronocentrism/ ) to believe that we are oh-so-smart and know better, but primitive peoples in the distant past thought that the sun was dying every winter and that they had to light big bonfires and perform superstitious magic to bring it back. Hogwash. People really aren’t that stupid. When the same thing happens year after year, you kinda get the idea. The numerous monuments all over the world, aligned to solstices, make it clear that ancient peoples knew what they were doing and were skilled observers.

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Calculating an extremely precise moment for solstices (and equinoxes) is a function of modern astrophysics. I suspect that I am like most people who don’t really care when the exact point is, as long as I know roughly. When I lived in Buenos Aires my apartment had a great view of the setting sun, and because the sunsets were amazing, and different, every day, I got in the habit of photographing the sun every evening as it set. When you’ve done this for a year (and I did it for three – because I’m just a tad driven), you notice how days and nights lengthen and shorten, and how the position of the sun on the horizon shifts over the course of the year.

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Naturally, around the solstices you are aware that the sun’s apparent movement along the horizon is changing direction. It’s not a blink-of-the-eye moment; it takes several days to notice. But it’s evident over time. It’s good if you have a specialist to tell you exactly when the change occurs, otherwise you end up saying “Oh, the sun is heading back in the other direction – damn, I missed the turning point !” It’s much better to be able to have a party right when the change is happening. Here’s a decent video explaining solstices and other stuff if you are interested. There’s a lot more here than just explaining the seasons https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82p-DYgGFjI

When it comes to dating my blog posts I have several challenges. When does the June solstice occur this year, for example? In Italy, where I am now, it is today (20 June), but in California it is tomorrow by their reckoning. Sorry Californians – I’m going with where I am now. I liken this to figuring out when my birthday is (and when other people’s birthdays are). I was born at 9 pm on 30 March in Argentina. Obviously I don’t celebrate at exactly 9 pm Buenos Aires time; that’s going a bit far, even for me. If I were to, though, I’d have to figure out when it is 9 pm in Buenos Aires according to my current time zone. I am not that nuts. I celebrate my birthday from midnight to midnight where I am (and I try to wish people a happy birthday when it is the day of their birthday where they are). With blog posting, things are not quite so simple.

My server is set to UTC, so it changes from one day to the next at midnight UTC.  Here in Italy that is not a big problem because my local time (which is summer time) is only 2 hours ahead of UTC, so what I think the date and time are locally, is not so different from what my server thinks it is (not that my server does a lot of thinking).  When I was in Argentina and China it was a whole different story. What date my server thinks it is makes a difference to me because my posts are date stamped. If I want to say “today is . . . blah blah,” I have to synchronize with my server so that the date stamp is correct. That meant that when I was in Argentina I had to get the day’s post finished and up before 8 pm or it was stamped on the wrong date, and in Kunming, I could dither around until 7 am and still get a post up for the day before. I’ll be in real trouble if I ever move to Alaska. Fortunately that’s unlikely to happen in this lifetime.

I crossed the International Date Line by ship from west to east in 1965 on the way from Australia to England. That was a trifle surreal. You’re sitting down to dinner on Wednesday night, go to bed, and then next morning it’s Wednesday again. Time zones, the Date Line, Summer Time, etc. are all human artifacts that are important in the global age, but they can mess you up. I tend to be happiest when I can organize my life by the sun, and not by clocks. My body tells me what I need to know. I can’t remember the last time I woke to an alarm clock. If I have something urgent to do, such as catching a plane, I’ll set an alarm to be sure. But I always wake before it goes off. When light fades I go to bed, and when dawn breaks I am up.

Solstices are of marginal interest to me. They do mark the passage of the seasons, and that’s important, but I don’t do much to celebrate them. I get the feeling that a lot of “sun worshippers” at Stonehenge and the like, are ordinary folks trying to invest their humdrum mechanized, modern lives with some kind of meaning beyond clock watching and the daily grind.  More power to them. If you want an excuse for a party, go for it, but don’t expect me to be there. I answer to my own rhythms these days, and they don’t generally involve hanging out with other people.

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As it happens, Queen Victoria succeeded to the British crown on this date in 1837. William IV died at the age of 71 in the early hours of the morning. Victoria wrote in her diary, “I was awoke at 6 o’clock by Mamma, who told me the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen.” Official documents prepared on the first day of her reign described her as Alexandrina Victoria, but the first name was withdrawn at her own wish and not used again. She had just turned 18, which meant that a regency could be avoided, but was young and inexperienced in government and had to grow into the role. This she did over her 63 year reign, the longest in British history until Elizabeth II surpassed her in 2015.

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My mum always made apple Charlotte on Sundays to replace the usual apple crumble for the winter months. It’s a good treat for this time of year. If you make it with wild berries or a mix of berries and apples, which I usually do, it’s called Summer Pudding. Either will do for a celebration today. Here is Mrs Beeton first to combine solstice festivities with the Victorian:

A VERY SIMPLE APPLE CHARLOTTE.

  1. INGREDIENTS.—9 slices of bread and butter, about 6 good-sized apples, 1 tablespoonful of minced lemon-peel, 2 tablespoonfuls of juice, moist sugar to taste.

Mode.—Butter a pie-dish; place a layer of bread and butter, without the crust, at the bottom; then a layer of apples, pared, cored, and cut into thin slices; sprinkle over these a portion of the lemon-peel and juice, and sweeten with moist sugar. Place another layer of bread and butter, and then one of apples, proceeding in this manner until the dish is full; then cover it up with the peel of the apples, to preserve the top from browning or burning; bake in a brisk oven for rather more than 3/4 hour; turn the charlotte on a dish, sprinkle sifted sugar over, and serve.

Time.—3/4 hour. Average cost, 9d.

Sufficient for 5 or 6 persons.

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This is not quite the way my mum did it, nor I. I completely line a buttered pudding basin with bread, fill it with apple slices (or berries), top with a lid of bread, then bake in a 300°F oven for 45 minutes. I used to add sugar to the apples, but I don’t any more because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, and I try to minimize sugar intake. Use white sugar if you do.