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The Anglo-Saxon Year

By Canon James Mustard

One of the joys of living in Devon is that we are southerly enough that, even in the depth of winter, on a clear day, the sun can still be warm on one’s face. Indeed, I write with dazzling sunlight streaming through the window yet a crisp frost on the ground. Such warmth on a winter’s day offers consolation that, even in the bleak midwinter, there is warmth and life and light in the world, a hope of spring and summer even at this moment when we are at our furthest from the sun.

I am very grateful to the Cathedral’s virgers for their Christmas present to me: Winters in the World – A Journey Through the Anglo-Saxon Year by Eleanor Parker (Reaktion Books, 2022). It explores the old English approach to the seasons; how popular and ecclesiastical calendars coincided and shaped each other. The Anglo-Saxon year was made up of two seasons: Winter and Summer. Indeed, Anglo Saxons measured their age by the number of winters through which one had lived. The Venerable Bede records that that winter began on the full moon in October and Summer at Easter, again determined by the lunar cycle, after the period of “Lengthening” of days (from which we retain the season of Lent). Two seasons, moon shaped.

The Lunar influence upon the calendar is ancient, associated with fecundity and fertility, with floods and fallows. Where the sun appears to be associated with certainties, the position of the sun in the sky and its consequence upon circumstances for growth, light and heat, the moon appears to be associated with those more vulnerable aspects of life. Will the crops grow? What will the weather be? The solar circumstances may be right, but will we have food to eat and new mouths to feed?

It seems to me that the Anglo-Saxon calendar, melding these two heavenly cycles in a generous bi-seasonal pattern offers us the opportunity to focus upon growth and decay as essential partners. That life is always coming out of death, that life is always giving way to decay, that new life is always and everywhere breaking into the world even in the bleak midwinter. In church, the birth of Jesus at the darkest point of the year is a powerful sign of this, as will be the feast of Candlemas, marking Christ as the light of the whole world, at the end of January, the mid-point between mid-winter and vernal equinox. We look further to Easter, the start of Saxon summer and the riot of new growth and Resurrection life out of death.

A thousand years before the Anglo-Saxons, the Babylonians looked to the heavens and saw each of the known planets as a reflection of earthly cycles and the human condition. They saw Mars and associated its red appearance with war. They named the first day of the week Sun Day, the second Moon Day and the third Mars Day. “Tuesday” comes from the Anglo-Saxon Tew, Norse God of War. Just as warmth and cold, and uncertainty and fertility are all part of life and death, so, sadly, is war. We will be rejecting upon that through the month of February, as we host Mars in the Nave during the Lengthening of Days: War and Peace in the Season of Lent.