Dividing the Year
Dividing the Year
As the days grow longer, the sun rises a little to the left of the place it rose the day before. Eventually, it rises at the same spot on the horizon for several days in a row. This is called the summer solstice. Then it rises a little to the right each day for about 180 days, and the days grow shorter. When the sun rises at the same point again a few times, and the days are at their shortest, this is called the winter solstice. Each complete cycle takes about 365 days, and this is defined as a YEAR, or ‘gear’ in old English.
The place where the sun rises mid-way between the two extremes is defined as EAST. On that day, called the equinox, there’s an equal amount of light and darkness. The place on the horizon directly opposite this special sun-rise is where the sun sets the same day. This is defined as WEST. At right-angles to a line between EAST and WEST are NORTH and SOUTH.
Moon-rises follow a more complicated pattern, but the moon changes its shape slightly each day until disappears completely. A ‘new moon’ appears every 29 days or so, and this period is called a month, or ‘monaþ’ in Old English. There are twelve moon-months to each sun-year, with a few days left over. Different civilizations have worked out different ways to make the months fit into a year – but it’s impossible! The pagan English system was based on 12 moon-months, with an extra month inserted every three years or so. The Roman system, which we still use today, started off the same way, but was constantly modified until no single month actually matched the phases of the moon.
By the middle to later Anglo-Saxon period, the division of the year into four seasons had become traditional, with13 weeks to each season*. Spring began at the start of February, summer at the beginning of May, autumn in August and winter at the beginning of November.
Anglo-Saxon people would have taken much more of an interest in the behaviour of the sun and moon than we do, because that was how they measured out the year**.
There were big festivals to mark the winter solstice, and probably the summer solstice, too. There were festivals to mark the start of each new season, and to mark the mid-points of spring and autumn, when the days had equal amounts of light and darkness. The actual day of each of these festivals may have been altered to the nearest full moon. One of the tasks of a Christian priest (and very probably his pagan predecessors) would have been to confirm the days of these festivals to the community.
The most important Christian festivals were made to fit in with these seasonal celebrations: Christmas at the winter solstice, Easter at the spring equinox. The name Easter itself is linked to the word ‘east’, and to this day, is celebrated on the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox.
* As with all aspects of reckoning time, this also doesn’t work quite perfectly!
** He would also have taken careful note of the yearly patterns of plant and animal life.