Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Season of Rituals and Traditions

Here we are in the midst of the Holiday Season.  Decorations have been put up in Macy’s since before Halloween.  We visited the Christmas Department in Jenners (Scotland’s Herrods) in Edinburgh on October 11.  
Magazines are brim full of new recipes to try for your Christmas feast.  Stores have taken down the pre-Christmas sale signs in order to be ready for the after-Christmas sale signs.

The news recently announced a new phenomenon: Pre-Christmas returns.  We, too, are getting into the spirit of the season--Anne has the house decorated inside, I’ve put up our small display of porch and patio lights, the Holiday tunes have been playing since we got back from Scotland in the middle of October (I do start playing my Holiday CDs early).  In all this decorating and frenzied buying or ordering (even in a weak economy) many of the original meanings of the seasonal celebrations get overlooked or have been forgotten altogether.  In this Holiday entry I plan to share some of the most ancient meanings, rituals, and traditions of our holiday celebrations.

Our most ancient celebrations center around the Winter Solstice, that time when because of the Earth’s tilt on its axis, our hemisphere receives the least direct light from the sun.  [Even though the sun is actually closer to the Earth at this time of year. Go figure.]  
(My photo of the 1979 solar eclipse in Oregon, published in Sky and Telescope Magazine.)

Solstice comes from the Latin sol stetit or literally “sun stands still” referring to the slow movement of the sun in the sky.  This year the solstice moment occurs on December 22 at 5:30 a.m. GMT.  That means that daylight in our hemisphere is the shortest and the sun has the lowest arc in the sky.  For us the Winter Solstice means that the sun is directly overhead at noon on the Tropic of Cancer (Sao Paulo, Brazil, southern Madagascar, and Brisbane, Australia), but it is only half way to the zenith at noon here in Oregon.  
One of the earliest recorded celebrations of the Winter Solstice, as reported in 4000 Years of Christmas, was by the  Mesopotamians who held a twelve day festival to help God Murduk tame the monsters of chaos for one more year.  The similarity to other Twelve Days of Christmas traditions should not be missed. Even older, but not confirmed, Neolithic tribes, the first farmers, ten-thousand years ago celebrated the solstice in order to overcome fear that the failing sunlight would not return.  In Ireland, in about 4000 BCE, the acre across tomb called New Grange in the Boyne Valley was built.
The original Irish Gaelic name meant “cave of the sun.”  For about a week before and a week after the Winter Solstice the light from the rising sun passes through a narrow slot in the tomb entrance and illuminates special spiral carvings on the wall eighty feet deep in the cairn.  
On Mainland (the main island), Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland, is a similar chambered cairn called Maeshowe.  It too is aligned so that the rising solstice sun shines into the tomb and lights up the main chamber.  
During this time of year many cities will have concerts or performances dedicated to the Return of the Light.  The Christmas Revels is a play performed each year in twelve cities which tells the Return of the Light story as seen in as diverse cultures as British, Celtic, Scandinavian, French, and American (more information at  
      Several of our traditions of Christmas are rooted in very ancient rituals.  For instance, the tradition of the Christmas feast can be traced back to the ancient Chinese celebration Dong Zhi, the Arrival of Winter.  The Chinese celebrated the solstice with a day of feasting on the finest pork, chicken, beef, and mutton [Can mutton really be good?], but I don’t know if that came with egg rolls or not.  
(It's not a Christmas Feast, but this seafood feast was one order of the regular seafood platter at a hotel pub in Gairloch, Scotland.  No, I didn't eat the whole thing, but all the diners applauded when it was brought to my table.)

       In Russia one Winter Solstice ritual involved a young girl, two candles, and two mirrors.  The girl was placed in a dark room with only the two candles for light.  She was to seek the seventh reflection in the mirrors so that she could then see what the coming year would hold for the village.  Medieval Britain held a winter festival called “Apple Wassailing.”  It started with a blessing of the apple trees with song, dance, and decorations, and ended with the drinking of wassail, a combination of hot wine, spices and fruit shared out of a large bowl.  
Also in Medieval Britain was the Wiccan (witch) ritual of “Sunreturn,” which begins at Yule (the longest day) and ends when the sun return is noticeable on about the twelfth day.
The traditions we will celebrate this Christmas often can be traced back to ancient beginnings.  The Yule Log, such as we view on Oregon PBS broadcast from Timberline Lodge on Christmas Eve, is actually of Scandinavian origin.  From the Norse jol, Winter Solstice Festival, the log was supposed to burn from sundown to sunup on the longest night.  Today we use candles for the same purpose.  
Decorating with evergreens, especially holly, goes back to ancient beliefs that view evergreens as symbols of rebirth and life.  Holly was particularly treasured around doors, windows, and hearths because the prickliness was thought to ward off or snag evil spirits before they could enter the house.  
The ultimate evergreen ritual is the Christmas tree which adorns most homes and almost all our commercial establishments.  The oldest reference if from the Wiccan Sunreturn where they would decorated evergreen trees with edible goodies (apples, nuts, grain, roots, berries) for the wild creatures of the forest.  The earliest mention of indoor trees comes from the parlors of Strausbourgh, Germany in 1605. German tradition from the 17th century used candles on the trees glued with wax or pinned at the ends of branches.  Later they used candle holders with clips (introduced in 1890) and lanterns. Britain’s first tree was brought to Balmoral Castle in 1840 by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria.  
(Balmoral Castle, Scotland.)

The traditional Christmas tree came to the United States through German immigrants in the 1830s and 40s--in fact, the first tree in Virginia was set up in 1842.  The first advertisements for a Christmas tree and decorations appeared in 1843.  By 1880 the New York Tribune estimated there were 200,000 Christmas trees in New York City alone.  Twenty years later one-in-five families in the US had a tree.   Early decorated trees lighted with candles were responsible for many fires and much holiday tragedy. The first string of electric Christmas lights made up of 80 hand-blown globes was made in 1882 for an Edison Co. VP.  In 1895 President Grover Cleveland had electric lights on the White House tree.  The modern era was upon us.
It’s little recognized that Christmas trees were responsible for one of America’s great fortunes.  F.W. Woolworth bought some glass ornaments from an importer in 1889 and they sold out in two days.  In 1890 he went to Germany and ordered 1500 gross of glass ornaments, almost corning the market.
An old English tradition of giving small gifts or “gimcracks” (defined by The Modern American Christmas as “flimsy geegaws, tawdry and gaudy ephemeral, soon relegated to the limbo of the attic or ash heap; and characterized as low priced, poor quality, and of no useful purpose like the 12th set of cufflinks from Aunt Mary”) was changed in 1840 when a company started producing cards which could be exchanged instead of gimcracks. 
The idea caught on and one study in 1911 showed that more cards were sent than the small gifts.  After an aggressive campaign by the Greeting Card Association in America from 1917 to 1927 sales of Christmas cards increased five fold--from $10 million to $55 million.  Sales of Christmas cards actually increased during the Depression years.
        The newest wrinkle in Christmas cards has been the proliferation over the past twenty years of the Holiday Letter (which people either love or hate) and now the Holiday email (which the greeting card companies definitely hate).  In self-defense I make no mention of the Holiday Blog Entry--Opps, I mentioned it.
       This year as you sing of Santa Coming to Town Jingling Bells all the way in a Sleigh Ride strung with Silver Bells in a Winter Wonderland, remember the ancient beginnings of our Holiday Season celebrations, the rituals that came before ours, and the traditions we continue to celebrate.  On Thursday, December 22, the Winter Solstice, burn your Yule Log or light your candles to help bring back the Light.
Happy Holidays and Best Wishes for a Great New Year from Bob and Anne Jones

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Dying Fascination, Part 3

In the two previous entries to A Dying Fascination I outlined some of the art found in graveyards mostly in Scotland (although some from England)--the interplay of light and vegetation upon the stones and carvings symbolizing mortality and immortality.  One final category of the carvers’ art includes the symbols we find on grave stones relating to trades or occupations.  Many stones have carved items that we would recognize as “tools of the trade.”  Because tradesmen took pride in their work, an attribute not often seen in today’s job market, it is natural for them to want symbols of their trade to have a prominent place on their monuments.  Once you understand what to look for, the images of trade are almost as common in the kirkyards as the images relating to mortality and immortality.  We’ve found symbols of several different trades:
The hammer may relate to either a Wright (woodworker) or a Cooper, but the other tools in this example in the Muthill Old Church identifies it as definitely relating to woodworking.
The Weaver or Waulkmiller’s symbols are very noticeable (the loom), such as this one in the graveyard of the Meigle Parish Church, Perthshire.
Shears and irons are the tools of the Tailor (also Meigle).  
Peels and scuffle, a long-handled tool with a cloth on the end to clean out the oven and the wheat bale, help to identify a Baker’s grave at the Church of the Holy Rude in Stirling.
Many stones identify the interred as a Farmer as in these examples from Muthill and St Madeos.

The Mason is easily identified by the compass and square, the recognizable symbol of the Freemasons, on this grave slab at St Peter’s Kirk near Duffus.
Merchants are often represented by items such as pen and book, compass, particular items that were their trade, and most commonly by a ‘4’ sign (sometimes in the reverse position). These examples are from Church of the Holy Rude in Stirling and Muthill Old Church.

Military (soldiers and sailors) are identified by special carvings, such as the carving of a ship for a sailor (Dull Church)
or the regalia of the soldier, as detailed in this carving in the St Andrews Cathedral cemetery. 
Though the carving may not be very artistic, the War Memorials often seen in villages or, in the case of Nethy Bridge on its golf course (Abernethy GC), are the ultimate symbol of departed’s occupation. 

Sometimes you can find very special Portrait Memorials recognizing a person’s trade.  Two such examples are the memorials to famous golfers Tom Morris (Young and Old) 

and the memorial of golfer and club-maker Allan Robertson, both found appropriately enough in the St Andrews Cathedral graveyard. 
By no means do these three blog entries exhaust the exploration of art to be found in Scottish and English church or kirk graveyards or cemeteries.  For example, there are some wonderfully carved examples of Heraldic Devices, such as this one example from the Orphir Round Church cemetery (Orkney). 
Next time you are traveling, whether in the UK, Europe or even in the States, take a look at the older cemeteries.  You might just find an interesting art exhibit.

One final image.  Fall in the graveyard (Mortlach Church).

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Dying Fascination, Part 2

Where do we go to find art?  In Scotland, the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh has a wonderful display of paintings and sculptures.  Anne and I find natural art on almost every golf course we visit--trees, flowers, the art of design.  Cemeteries, church or kirk graveyards, bone factories seem to be one of the least likely spots to go chasing art, but  there is much that is artistic in the graveyards, especially in Scotland.  I’ve already shown examples in the last entry of one artsy aspect of the graveyards: the patterns of stones and light. The next aspect to examine is the art on the stones themselves, the carvings.  The weathered stone carvings catch attention as we wander among the graves, but the meaning behind the symbols gives substance to the stone mason’s art.
The first category of carvings to explore are the Emblems of Mortality (Willsher, p. 38).  Here is where I’ll go back to my misconceptions about the skull and crossbones.  Instead of symbols referring to death by plague, the gruesome image simply says that this person is dead, as we all shall be.  It is one of the symbols of mortality; symbols which remind us that death is a natural part of life which will come to us all as it has with this soul.  Skull and crossbones is not the only image to remind us of our mortality, we’ve seen several others in the kirkyards of Scotland and England.  Here are some examples of the carvings categorized as emblems of mortality:
Grave Digger’s Tools, such as the spade and turf-cutter (Muthill Old Church and Tower graves, Perthshire);
the Deid Bell rung to give notice of funerals seen in these twin grave slabs at the ruined St Peter’s Kirk near Duffus, Morayshire; 
Winged Skulls are usually found on tombs from the 17th century, but this elaborate winged skull (University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, England) is obviously much later;
the Skeleton, the ultimate image of the death that comes to us all, like the one Anne sat next to in the Elgin Cathedral;
the Hourglass which indicates time is passing or, as seen in this grave slab in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney, has past; 
Weapons of Death, such as the dart or arrow (St Magnus Cathedral); 
and the Coffin as our final resting place (Elgin Cathedral, Elgin, Morayshire). This slab like many others displays multiple symbols of mortality; in this example, skull and crossbones, grave-digger tools, deid bell, hour glass, and the coffin. 
A second category of carvings on the stones refer to Emblems of Immortality (Willsher, p. 42).  These images seem to be less prevalent than mortality images, as if the living were more concerned with the inevitability of their own death rather than life forever after for the departed.  One image of immortality that is quite easy to find is the Winged Soul or Cherub, as opposed to the less common winged skull. The first example is from Muthill Old Church and the second more elaborate carving is from Balfron Village Church, Scotland.

The other symbol often found is the Scallop Shell, a common object carried by pilgrims, which could also just be pretty decoration.  At the Burford Parish Church, England, we found this unusual combination of mortality symbol (the skull) and the immortality symbol (the scallop shell).
It is more common to see the kind of scallop shell decoration we saw in the Dull Churchyard.
Other symbols of immortality that we’ve found include:
The Angus Dei, or figure of a lamb bearing a cross or flag which is said to represent the Passion of Christ, and the Phoenix, the mythical bird which rises out of its own ashes, which is a strong image of rebirth (both seen in the churchyard of the St Columba’s Episcopal Church in Crieff, Perthshire).

The Dove which is the symbol of the Holy Spirit was very popular in the 19th century.  It is unusual, though, to find a carving of a dove on a memorial (Kinfauns graveyard near Perth).
The Wheel-head or Celtic Cross representing the eternal circle of life is both the symbol of hope and very artistic. This nice example is in the graveyard at St Peter’s Church in Haysham, England, near Lancaster.  
The third category of carvings to discuss in this entry are carvings of symbolic scenes, especially Biblical scenes.  Betty Willsher in Understanding Scottish Graveyards (2006) mentions three specific scenes to look for--Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, and the Sower and the Reaper.  In all the graveyards we searched on this trip (and looking at photos from past trips) I could find only two Adam and Eve stones, one at the Church of the Holy Rude cemetery in Stirling and the other at St Madeos Church near Perth.  

Other examples of this story and other scenes will have to wait for future trips.  
There is one more category of grave stone carving to explore, but that will have to wait for the next entry.   

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Dying Fascination

Before we left on our latest Scotland adventure, September and October, I wrote that one of my preoccupations on the trip would be to visit bone factories (aka graveyards) in Scotland looking for interesting stone carving on gravestones.  Over the six week trip I dragged Anne tombstone hunting in Edinburgh, Peebles, Pitlochry, Muthill, Comrie, Stirling, Perth, Dufftown, Elgin, Duffus, Dunfermline, Amulree, Meigle, Kirkwall (Orkney), St Andrews, several others in Scotland and England, and Dull.  Yes, there is an actual village in Scotland named Dull, and the church there and pictish standing stone were anything but dull.  In our visits to the cemeteries and church or kirk graveyards I discovered much more than I thought I would.  With the help of three credible resources (Understanding Scottish Graveyards by Willsher, A Scottish Graveyard Miscellany by Brown, and How to Read a Church by Taylor) I’ll share some of my findings.
First, graveyards are fascinating on several levels.  Artistically cemeteries and graveyards can be a photographer’s wonderland of designs and patterns.  Without getting into the details of the stones and carvings, the patterns of shapes and light can let the imagination loose.  I like the lines and arrangements of stones as well the way stones fit into backgrounds.  Here are several examples of patterns we’ve found in graveyards in Scotland:

This interesting line of tombstones is in front of the Stratford-Upon-Avon Parish Church.

At Tullich Kirk near Ballater the stone crosses blend into the background stone building,

and at the parish church in Aboyne in Aberdeenshire the crosses dominate.
Several places we’ve found that toppled stones create striking images, such as these at Muthill,

and this toppled cross at Coull Kirk (Aberdeenshire),

and the leaning cross at Dull.

Another pattern that appears as you wander through the grave stones is the interplay of vegetation and the stones.  Over the years ivies and mosses, as well as larger plants, have grown over, around, and on top of the stone monuments.  At the Orphir Round Kirk on Mainland Orkney in the far north we saw these grave markers being swallowed by the bushes, 

while at Mortlach Church in Dufftown a tombstone seems to slice through a bush. 

At Dunphail Church on the way to Forres from Grantown-on-Spey the grave marker wears a quite bushy coiffure, 

and the coffin-shaped tomb at Wroxton, England, has a mop do which would make any Beatle proud. 
In the graves of the ruined St Peter’s Kirk near Duffus the moss is replacing the writing on one stone.
Another aspect of church graveyards I find interesting is the historical element beyond the graves themselves.  For instance, in the Peebles parish churchyard is an example of a Scottish Watchtower.  

A watchtower is a tall structure built so that curators could keep a watch over the fresh graves to thwart would-be grave robbers who liked to dig up freshly buried bodies to sell to doctors and universities for anatomical study.  Look into the history of Williams Burke and Hare, known as the West Port murderers, who found it lucrative to not only dig up recent graves, but to dispatch some of the living to provide fresh corpses.  To keep the newly departed safe in their graves some local cemeteries would use cast iron or iron and stone mortsafes to make it difficult to dig up a grave (Logierait near Pitlochry). 
Ancient history, as well, shows up in some kirkyards.  At Midmar Church in Aberdeenshire we saw a neolithic stone circle with the parish cemetery built around it.

On Fife at the Abernethy Church graveyard, next to one of the only two Irish-style round towers extant in Scotland, is a pictish carved stone monument dating back to about the 1100s.  

Now we come to the monuments and their carvings themselves.  I had seen the carvings on tombstones before and even photographed a few, but I really didn’t know what I was photographing.  For instance, I had read or been told (or just made it up and thought I’d read it or been told it) that a skull and crossbones (the pirate flag image) on a tombstone, like the one at Elgin Cathedral, indicated that the departed died of the plague.  

As horrible as the plague was, it sort of made sense.  Too bad it was completely wrong.  I’ll bring up the real meaning of the skull and crossbones later.  One of the first things I learned was about the style of crosses we were seeing.  The empty cross, one with no figure or decoration, symbolizes that an instrument of torture was defeated or that the victim’s soul has been released (Ripon Cathedral, England). 

The crucified Christ cross, of course, is a symbol of resurrection and hope.  Another sign of hope is the Easter cross, one garlanded with flowers (Logierait near Pitlochry).  

One of the most common crosses in Scottish graveyards is some form of Celtic cross or wheel-head cross (Dunphail Church and Fortingall).  

Here the circle is thought to represent the circle of eternity.  It also could simply be the result of the influence of the Celtic-revival period of mid to late-1800s.  Whatever the meaning, the Celtic-style crosses are some of the most beautiful in the churchyards.  
In the next entry, I’ll describe the decorations on the tombstones and their meanings.