Friday, 27 June 2014

Winter Solace

Happy Matariki!  The mid-winter theme continues with some
history and masochism...

Rituals give comfort when the world around us starts to feel like a less benign place, and we are reminded of just how small and vulnerable our lives are on a more elemental scale.  Where we basked in sun just a month ago, now the air is turning cold and, particularly recently, raging gales drive stinging sheets of rain across the land with primal indifference to anything in its way.  Nature has turned from generously bestowing light and warmth to taking those same things away, sending us scurrying for cover like the small, shivering mammals we are.

In ancient times this meant more than putting on a layer of polypropylene and turning up the heat pump; the change to the darkest season could threaten survival. Cold, starvation, flood and a score of other dangers awaited as the sun fell ever lower in the grey, uncaring sky.
But ancient peoples, like other animals on Earth who already knew, became aware that there was a pattern to the seasons: a planetary life cycle.  Just as it began to seem that the world couldn’t become any darker and colder, the sun would begin to climb higher in the sky once again, and light and warmth gradually returned.
In preparation, some livestock were slaughtered so that precious feed didn’t need to be found for them over the frozen season to come, which provided a bounty of fresh meat. Alcoholic beverages had also been fermented over the preceding months and were now ready to be enjoyed.  The longest, coldest nights became a time of celebration, feasting, companionship and merriment, observed in practically every culture across the world with festivals and resurrection myths.

Many traditions we are most familiar with come to us from the Northern Hemisphere, where their midwinter takes place at the end of the year - and so whether we realise it or not, we gleefully celebrate their biggest mid-winter bash when the sun is highest and brightest in our own skies: Christmas.
The appropriation and absorption of the ancient European Pagan festivals into the tinsel-strewn Christian/commercial touchstone we look forward to, (as well as our New Year observances), is a long and complex story. In order to dodge a history lesson, I like to think it can all be distilled down to a common human desire to celebrate hope, peace and joy.

Instead, let’s look at our own hemisphere.
Matariki is the Maori New Year observance, marked by the rising of the beautiful star cluster sporting the same name (also called the Pleiades, or ‘seven sisters’) and the sighting of the next New moon. This takes place on June 28 this year.

Traditionally, depending on the visibility of Matariki, the coming season’s crop was thought to be determined: the brighter the stars, the warmer the season.  Originally, this was a time to remember ‘absent friends and family’, but was also a celebration –with harvesting and hunting completed, the food storehouses were replenished and Matariki became a time for music and feasting.
Enjoying something of a resurgence in recent years, Matariki is hopefully on its way to becoming our New Zealand thanksgiving.                

Personally, my own annual midwinter ritual has always been an exercise in unabashed masochism.  I live near a river which makes its way down from the snowy heights of the Tararua ranges, and at the end of each June I harass a small but brave band until they join me in a mid-winter swim.  This extremely quick dip usually takes place mid-morning, forced bravado shedding at the same rate as our many layers of clothing, before the charge is led over the frosty river stones and into the stingingly cold water.  Unfortunately extremely loud and ripe language always immediately follows our re-surfacing and rapid retreat for the shore, towels and sometimes a waiting nip of whisky. Beyond ‘the dare’ it’s difficult to answer the inevitable question: “Why would you do that?”  Rituals can be as self-apparent as they are inexplicable, but I also suspect I’m drawn to that moment when the water closes over my head, just before the pain and cardiac arrest set in, when my every nerve and fibre feels completely and utterly alive.

Perhaps this isn’t as mad as it sounds, for the Northern Hemisphere winter solstice has always been a time of re-affirming and celebrating life, and doing things which you hope will never appear on anyone’s Facebook page
So let’s follow their example this year, and look forward to our own approaching mid-winter not with gloom, but with friends, family, feasting - and comfort and joy.

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