Tag Archives: midwinter

Midwinter, Minoan Style

x-knossos-throne-room-3

Minoan civilization lasted for a solid thousand years. As you might expect, their religion changed over that long period. Like their trading partners the Egyptians, the Minoans added new layers over time, creating an extensive and complex religious system that spanned the agricultural cycle and the calendar year. One of the sacred festivals that came later in Minoan times is the Winter Solstice.

In the earliest times, the Minoans celebrated the New Year around the Autumn Equinox, the beginning of the agricultural cycle in the Mediterranean – the time of plowing the fields and planting the crops, which grow throughout the mild winters in that region and are harvested in the spring. But eventually the Winter Solstice became its own kind of secondary New Year celebration. Instead of celebrating the cycle of the green growing things, it celebrated the ending and beginning of the solar year, which was embodied by Dionysus as the solar year-king who was annually reborn at Midwinter.

Yes, I know, Dionysus was originally an ecstatic vine-god, the spirit of the grape and the wine as well as a psychopomp for his people. But as I mentioned, the Minoans added layer upon layer to their religious beliefs and practices over the centuries. So the vine-god who died each year at the grape harvest in the late summer wasn’t considered to conflict with his face as the solar year-king who was born each year at the Winter Solstice. These were just two different aspects of a complex god.

Let’s not forget the other half of the Midwinter story. For a baby to be born, there must be a mother. For the Minoans, this was their great mother goddess Rhea, who was the sacred spirit of the island of Crete itself – their Mother Earth who rose up out of Grandmother Ocean at the beginning of time. Rhea has both a sacred birthing tree (a fir or pine tree beneath which she gave birth, with a star appearing in the sky above it as the infant Dionysus entered the world – this is also Dionysus’ sacred tree) as well as a sacred cave where she gave birth and where she hid her infant to keep him safe. Her sister, the goat-goddess Amalthea, nursed him while the Kouretes (probably originally a Minoan priesthood of Dionysus) guarded the cave, danced for the baby, and drowned out the sound of his cries with the clashing of their spears on their shields.

The Minoans didn’t have TV or movies, and most people probably didn’t own any kind of reading material, so their experience of religion came from public rituals and Mystery plays at the big temple complexes as well as their own private devotions at their home shrines. A few lucky people would have been invited to the Knossos temple complex to witness the Winter Solstice ritual there each year. It turns out, that chair in the “Throne Room” isn’t a throne at all, but a sacred seat where a priestess sat, playing the part of the goddess in rituals at Midsummer and Midwinter. At Midwinter, that seat (which was originally painted red) became Rhea’s birthing chair. The Midwinter sunrise cast a natural, magical spotlight on it as the infant Dionysus was born. That must have been an amazing experience, to be allowed to witness that ritual.

So each year, when I celebrate the Winter Solstice, I view our family’s Christmas tree also as Rhea’s birthing tree. And I look forward to the rebirth of the year-king with the first glimmers of sunrise on Midwinter Morning.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

Light Returning

We’re a few days after the winter solstice now, and the days are getting longer. It’s not yet at any level I can perceive, but I know it’s happening. We move from the darkness towards the light. Outside the window, the snow lies thick, and the temperature barely gets above freezing, but the year has turned and the spring will eventually come.

The cycle of the seasons teaches us that change is the only constant. There are dark times and light times, all things pass, and all things come again. Mediaeval Europeans believed in the wheel of fate, the inevitable turn from good to bad, and back again. To me that seems a tad simplistic. Different people get radically different experiences. For some the balance towards wellness, or woe, is dramatic. But most of us can expect a bit of both.

In harder times, during dark nights of the soul it is difficult to keep believing that things will change. I hit one of those last week, with yet another thing going wrong, and wondering how I had dared to imagine that anything could ever go right for me. Despair begets despair. Equally, during the wild highs, only the most pessimistic will anticipate some plummet into gloom. But we can’t stay in wild states of ecstasy all the time – we’d go mad, or burn out. The comedown can feel like everything falling apart even when it isn’t. The seasons of our lives bring change just as surely as the cycle of the sun will.

There are few things that can be improved by pretending they aren’t happening. Fighting against the fact of a process is pointless, and it’s easy to spend a lot of time trying to resist the inevitable. With all due reference to death, taxes and aging. I can’t fight the winter – it’s happening out there, it won’t go away if I pretend it isn’t. Engaging with the realities equips me to cope better. I’ve yet to find something that isn’t true of. Engage with the reality, know that the reality will change, because everything does. Know that you will probably change with it, or because of it. These are not things to struggle with. Life is happier if you co-operate with your own existence a bit.

The light returns, a few extra minutes a day. It’s such a small difference that only the most attentive will spot it as a daily occurrence, but in a week or two it’ll be more apparent. Life changes from day to day in the same small increments, and with sudden bursts of drama. Nothing changes. Everything changes, and round we go again. I aspire at the very least to make new and interesting mistakes rather than tired, old ones. I aim to find myself in new places, caught out by things I’ve not seen before. It’s all too easy to get into cycles of the same things, but where would be the fun in that? At least let me learn enough from my mistakes not to repeat them.

Gardening with the Moon – Snowbound

Last time I was here I began with snow … and it’s here again now. We had a brief respite for a couple of days and then back came the snow. Yesterday, midwinter’s eve, saw the snow return, today we got some more. Hardly any folk on the road, which was good and a lovely pub lunch to celebrate Midwinter’s Day.

Well … back to gardening … there’s not a lot one can do in the snow so I’m back to planning again. We got the Stormy Hall biodynamic seed catalogue yesterday so there’s been some quality time by the woodburner with a pot (or 3) of tea and the questions …

  • What do we like eating?
  • What grew well this year?

I find those two are the best way to begin planning for next season’s growing. They’re followed by …

  • Which beds can be easily covered to exclude butterflies laying their eggs on brassicas?
  • How much polytunnel/greenhouse space have we got?

Biodynamics, organic or just plain ordinary, these four questions are fairly fundamental.

I was sorting seeds back in the autumn and came to quite a lot of conclusions but those still need refining. My next job is to go back over seeds we still have left from this year, I’ll want to know the following …

  • which are likely to be viable still?
  • which varieties did we like?

So planning is about bringing lots of things together.

I plan biodynamically though, like this …

Roots Leaves Flowers Fruit
Potatoes Spinach Cauliflowers Tomatoes
Parsnips Cabbage Broccoli Cucumber
Swede Brussels sprouts Purple sprouting Peppers
Turnip Kale Green sprouting Runner beans
Onions Leeks Calendula French beans
Beetroot Lettuce Geraniums Broad beans
Carrots Rocket Sage flowers(salad) Peas
Florence fennel Parsley Lavender Courgette
Mizuna Aubergine

That’s a reasonable list for our veg patch. Now I have to sort it into classes.

Butterflies Polytunnel Quick crop Succession
Roots Onions 

Beetroot

Carrots

Leaves Cabbage 

Brussels sprouts

Lettuce 

 

Lettuce Spinnach 

Cabbage

Flowers Cauliflowers 

Broccoli

Purple sprouting

Green sprouting

Cauliflowers
Fruits Tomatoes 

Cucumber

Peppers

Courgette

Aubergine

Broad beans 

Peas

I find this sort of planning very useful. It helps me to decide which beds to put what veg in. I do use rotation but not exclusively or religiously as I find it more helpful to work as above, planting in the biodynamic groups and then within what needs which sort of conditions for optimum growth.

However you decide to do you planning do take advantage of the season and do some.

GWM – Working in the Garden

December is the time coming up to the solstice which is a time most folk celebrate. At last after each day getting darker and darker, the sun turns about and the days begin to get longer again in the temperate latitudes. Part of the celebrations usually include a feast … and that means vegetables as well as your meat (if you eat it), so we need to care for and harvest the veg we’re going to eat.

This year, in Britain, we have heavy snow and extreme cold, like minus 12, 15 or 20 in the countryside, even the towns are rarely rising above freezing during the day. This makes life very difficult for harvesting. Winter vegetables are often very good at “standing”, i.e. remaining in the ground until you want to eat them, but getting them out when the ground is frozen is a whole other matter. Things like leeks, which are stems or rather leaves which have changed their form quite a lot so they all bind together into the familiar shape we know, are mostly water, and water freezes. Tugging at a frozen leek in the frozen ground means you break off a green icicle more often than not.

Here, we don’t have too much of a problem because we have cultivated and pampered the soil with tons (literally) of organic matter over the past ten years. In consequence the ground doesn’t freeze so solid, or rather it takes longer and lower temperatures to make it do so, so we can dig our leeks still, and our beetroots, swedes, turnips, parsnips, the root veg that make such delicacies at midwinter feasts. You can’t actually do much about improving your soil in this kind of weather – although mulches will help to some extent, but you can think about how you’ll change things in the coming year.

And you can look after the veg you have.

Brussels sprouts are famous for this time of year. If you like them, then picking them correctly will help the plants do well. Start by picking the sprouts at the bottom first and working up the stem. And don’t forget to firm them in regularly, each time you pick firm in the roots with your heel. The plants must have their roots in good contact with the soil all the time, particularly in the freezing weather. If they are not then not only with the roots freeze but, if they survive that they won’t be able to get water and nutrients unless the roots touch the earth. The contact enables the transference of food and water.

The same goes for the winter cabbages and sproutings. Make sure they are securely “seated” in the ground.

As you firm you can also make sure you take out any weeds that have survived too. You do this when you pull leeks, swedes, turnips, beets – any root veg that you’re going to pull out of the ground. The pulling naturally disturbs the soil so the weeds will come too. Don’t leave them lying about but put them into the compost straight away.

In the bad weather the birds will need food too and won’t be able to get it easily as they can when it’s milder. Your crops are there, available, they will want to eat them.

I always share with the creatures who live on the land with me. It’s something we all need to re-learn to do. But I also want the veg to eat for myself, it’s part of my livelihood. Like planting a couple of spare cabbages for the butterflies to lay their eggs on, I always have some spare crops in winter for the birds. And I also feed them seeds and nuts and scraps, make fat balls and fatty crumbs from the last of the bread and the fat from my bacon and sausages. But I also want to eat those veg so I protect them from devastation from the hungry birds. Netting the cabbage family from the pigeons is a good idea. It’s simple enough to do, canes driven into the ground with old plastic bottles on their tops will hold up some simple netting. Tie the netting to the canes with the ties from freezer bags and such – recycling really works.

The polytunnel is another good place and may be enough to keep the frosts off the plants – it’s too cold for that here without heating which we don’t have so our stuff has to come into the scullery, where it doesn’t go below freezing – at least inside. Fleece is good too and can help to make a micro-climate for the plants.

If you got overwintering peas and beans in before the snows came I hope you also covered them with fleece or they won’t have made it. If you didn’t then don’t try until after the snows have gone and the soil warmed a bit.

A good mulching of manure and/or compost covered with black membrane, once you can see the soil again from under the snow, will help to warm the soil earlier than leaving it alone. You’ll be able to sow a month earlier than if you didn’t make the effort so plan for it now. Make sure you have the compost ready, and the manure, and the covering. And plan your sowings so you know which beds need to be got going first. It’s a great way to spend some of the time over the midwinter celebrations, doing some planning for the year to come.