January is over and done. As a month it’s one I would prefer to skip, yet it holds happy memories of past winter’s fun skiing and sledging on the Caldbeck fells. Except this year there hasn’t been much snow, nor barely any ice to speak of. Neither has it rained much more than usual – in fact the garden thinks its spring and primary shades of primulas are brightening up the borders and snowdrops dip their heads on the lawn. What I need is sunshine and with the days getting gradually longer hope hangs in the air. And that’s what January sums up for me, hope. Winter is passing, nights are getting shorter and all around me nature is sloughing off the old and being gradually re-born.
I think it’s in my genes, embedded by past generations; a hunter-gatherer instinct which long ago lost purpose yet survives in essence. Living without electricity and all the mod cons it empowers winter must have been a rum time for the ancestors. Yet archaeologists seem to be finding more and more evidence that the passing of the winter solstice was not merely crucial to Neolithic people but more widely celebrated than mid-summer. Knowing when the old year is ended and a new one about to begin must have been fundamental to surviving. Families (perhaps whole tribes) gathered near important sites like Stonehenge, some travelling hundreds of miles, to join in the annual feast. Imagine coming into the bustle and smells, feeling the heat from fires burning high into the night, the air alive with smoke and cinders, children’s voices strung with excitement, dignitaries parading their rank and authority, priests or shaman (we’ll never know which) preaching power and magic….and there must have been music and singing and the telling of tales.
Recent digs at Durrington Walls near Stonehenge have yielded up striking evidence of this ancient festival in the form of thousands of pig bones. The animals were all less than a year old when killed, and (more potently) scientific examination shows they’d been purposely fattened in the months before being slaughtered. They’ve also found pottery remains at the site from as far away as Orkney and Ireland. One archaeologist suggests that over hundreds of years the feast celebrating the winter solstice became a kind of ‘national’ symposium, a coming together of people from all over the British Isles, and even beyond.
The writer Alistair Moffat refers to our ancestors as Sea Peoples and I like to think that sums up my identity, someone who loves to wander but who also loves the sanctity of home. Next week I’m beginning a new adventure as I travel to Sochi in Russia. In a way it’s a sort of pilgrimage because I’m going for a purpose but the gathering of people from all over the world is what I believe makes the Winter Olympics extraordinarily special.
And there will be feasting and music and a telling of tales.