Seasons change

 

My family has four seasonal wreaths for our front door. On Memorial Day weekend, I put up the summer wreath—red, white, and blue, with a patriotic theme. On Labor Day weekend, I put up the autumn wreath—red, orange, and yellow leaves on branches. On or about the First Sunday in Advent, I put up the winter/Christmas wreath—evergreen branches, holly berries, and fake snow. On the second of March I put up the spring wreath—stalks of green grass, pink flowers, and butterflies.

Why the second of March? Because in the song “Camelot” (in the musical of the same name), King Arthur sings to Guinevere about the wonders of his kingdom. Among those wonders is that the weather obeys the royal command. “The winter is forbidden ‘til December and exits March the second on the dot. By orders summer lingers through September in Camelot.”

I have always been drawn to the Arthurian traditions. Whether it’s the Lerner and Lowe musical, or the T.H. White novel on which the musical is based, or Howard Pyle’s children’s stories, or the poems of Tennyson, or the late medieval rendering of Marlowe, or the earliest stories of King Arthur and his knights… it’s all  good. I have Camelot and Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail in my movie collection, and I recently went to the theater to see The Kid Who Would Be King.

I also enjoy historical research into the roots of the Arthurian stories. There may have been a battlefield commander, a Latinized Celt, named Arthur (or something similar) who fought the invading Saxons after Rome withdrew its legions from Britain. He may have built a round hut in which he met with his forces. The French romances of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot came much later. Traces of pre-Celtic religion and legend may have contributed to the stories in their earliest versions. But every generation, it seems, has added its own contribution to the story of King Arthur and his knights of the round table.

I’m sure that Lerner and Lowe chose the date of March 2 in an arbitrary way, because the date fits the song and not because it means anything more. But the date fits nicely as a near-midpoint between the First Sunday in Advent and Memorial Day weekend. Therefore, in the Salvageable house—as in Camelot—March 2 is officially the first day of spring. J.

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The true beginning of spring

The beginning and end of the seasons are matters for some dispute. Makers of almanacs and calendars  proclaim changes of season on the equinoxes and the solstices. The spring equinox this year will take place at 11:55 a.m. Central Daylight-Saving Time. At that moment, the earth will tilt in such a way that the sunlight will strike directly upon the equator. As a result, on that day all parts of the earth will experience twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of nighttime—hence the term “equinox.”

Yet in the United States the social calendar does not reflect the calendar of equinoxes and solstices. Summer traditionally begins on Memorial Day weekend and traditionally ends on Labor Day weekend. A holiday season begins when stores start displaying their Christmas decorations and advertising their Christmas sales—recently, this has happened around the end of October. The same holiday season ends with the celebration of the New Year, and then comes a dark and dismal season punctuated by a series of minor holidays including Dr. King’s birthday, Super Bowl Sunday, St. Valentine’s Day, and Presidents’ Day.

But when does winter end and spring begin? One theory holds that winter ends if the groundhog emerges from his burrow on February 2nd and does not see his shadow. If he sees his shadow, he returns to his burrow and we have six more weeks of winter (putting the start of spring shortly before the equinox). Still other people make the celebration of Easter the beginning of spring, putting the start of the season anywhere between March 22 and April 25.

For three reasons, I place the start of spring at the beginning of March. First, this division nicely breaks the year into two halves. From March to August we write the full names of months, using three to six letters. From Sept. to Feb. we abbreviate the names of the months, using three or four letters. In my opinion, that distinguishes the times of the year as well as any other measurement.

Moreover, this plan provides nearly three full months of spring before the summer social calendar kicks in on Memorial Day weekend. Following this pattern, summer ends on Labor Day weekend, and the start of winter can be placed around the beginning of December.

But the best way to identify the beginning of spring is to consult the lyrics of Lerner and Lowe’s classic Broadway musical Camelot. In this idealized world, as young King Arthur assures his future bride Guinevere, even the weather is subject to royal decree. Among the commands that the weather must follow are these stipulations: “The winter is forbidden ‘til December, and exits March the Second on the dot.” Following this command of the king, the Salvageable household invariably acknowledges the beginning of spring on the second day of March.

Blessings to you on all your spring activities. J.

Candlemas

Most people, whether believers or unbelievers, are familiar with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Far fewer are aware of the minor festivals of the Christian calendar, such as Candlemas, which is observed every year on the second day of February.

As Christians in the Roman Empire chose to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus (that is to say, his birthday) at the same time that Romans and Celts and Germans were celebrating various Yuletide observances, so Christians also chose to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus at the same time that Celts were observing a holiday they called Imbolc. This holiday falls halfway between the winter solstice near the end of December and the spring equinox near the end of March. In Ireland, some of the old customs of Imbolc have been blended into St. Brigid’s Day on February 1, but for most other European Christians and their descendants around the world, Candlemas has received the attention formerly given to Imbolc.

The second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke describes the birth and childhood of Jesus. The familiar account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, including the announcement by the angel to shepherds and their visit, comes from Luke. Luke also wrote that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day from his birth and was presented to God on the fortieth day from his birth. Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 puts the anniversary of his circumcision on January 1 and his presentation on February 2.

What is the significance of the presentation of Jesus? Once again, as at his circumcision, Jesus was fulfilling the Law for the benefit of all his people. The Law of God, given through Moses, required every firstborn son to be offered to God and purchased from God with a sacrifice. This presentation and purchase of the firstborn son reminded God’s people of the tenth plague upon Egypt, when God’s angel killed the firstborn son of every family in Egypt except for those who obeyed God, marking their houses with the blood of a lamb. The details of the plague, the Passover, and the remembrance are filled with images of Jesus and his sacrifice—the death of a firstborn son picturing the death on the cross of God’s only-begotten Son, the substitution of a lamb for some sons (and the use of the lamb’s blood to identify those who were protected) showing Jesus as the Lamb of God taking the place of sinners, and the purchase of the firstborn son in following generations showing the price Jesus paid on the cross to cover the debt of sinners. Because Jesus, on the fortieth day from his birth, was already obeying the commands of God, Christians are credited with his righteousness. We are free to approach the throne of God and even to call him our Father. Jesus took our place in this sinful world so we can take his place in God’s Kingdom.

Bonfires were lit in Europe on Imbolc night as part of the celebration of the holiday. Christian churches chose to replace the bonfires with many candles, filling the church with light to remember Jesus, the Light of the world. From that custom comes the name, Candlemas. I first encountered that name in the stories of King Arthur, for he and his knights would gather on Candlemas, as they did on Christmas and Easter, to celebrate and to await the beginning of new adventures. The king would not allow his court to eat the feast until some odd event had taken place, sending at least one knight off on a mission to rescue some victim or defeat some enemy.

Before the establishment of the National Weather Service or the invention of Doppler Radar, European Christians often trusted traditions about the holidays to make long-term forecasts of the coming weather. St. Swithin’s Day (July 15) in the British Isles was thought to set the pattern for the next forty days—either it would remain dry for forty days or it would rain for forty days, depending upon whether or not it rained that day. In Hungary the weather on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) predicted the kind of winter that was coming: “If St. Martin arrives on a white horse, it will be a mild winter—if he arrives on a brown horse, it will be a cold and snowy winter.” In other words, snow on November 11 promised a mild winter. So also, the weather on Candlemas was thought to predict the next forty days of weather: a clear and sunny Candlemas meant winter was only half over, but a cloud-filled sky on Candlemas morning meant that winter was over and spring was about to begin.

In Germany bears often took a break from hibernation around the beginning of February to check out conditions and get a bite to eat. The weather tradition for Candlemas became associated with the emergence of the bear and the question of whether or not it cast a shadow. German settlers in North America adapted the tradition to local wildlife, and thus began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Ironically, more Americans are aware of Groundhog Day than of Candlemas. The fame of Groundhog Day increased in 1993 with the release of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie has little connection to Christian beliefs. It is more suited to explaining the idea of samsara, found in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Samsara is the cycle of lifetimes in which one’s atman (roughly analogous to spirit or soul, but not exactly the same thing) keeps returning to this world until it has learned all it needs to know and is fully enlightened.

On Groundhog Day I check for shadows as I bring in the morning paper. This year, I will also remember to light a candle or two and celebrate the feast of Candlemas. J.

Arthur, King of Britain

The legends of King Arthur have extended through the history of the English language. Each generation, it seems, owns Arthur and his story; each generation, it appears, rewrites the story to suit its own challenges and values.

More than likely, Arthur did exist. If so, he was a Celtic warlord at the time that the Romans were withdrawing their troops from Britain. Arthur probably was trained by the Romans in military matters and in Roman law. Quite likely Arthur was Christian. His fame rested, at first, on his leadership of the Celts against the German tribes of Saxons and Angles who were crossing from mainland Europe to replace the Roman rule in Britain. Arthur seems to have won several victories before dying in battle; his legend was remembered, not only by the Celts who withdrew from southeastern Britain, but also among the German tribes who established the country called England.

Arthur is remembered as a Christian king. Many of the adventures of his knights took place when Arthur’s court met to observe Christian holidays (such as Christmas, Candlemas, Easter, and Pentecost). Some of the adventures, though, seem to be retellings of myths and legends from the pre-Christian religions of Britain. The presence of monstrous giants, fierce dragons, and the magician Merlin (sometimes identified as “son of the devil”) bears witness to Celtic beliefs. Queen Guinevere is kidnapped by enemies of the kingdom and must be rescued by Arthur. As the Norsemen (or Vikings) raided English and Celtic settlements, memories of King Arthur and his successes multiplied. Other local heroes became identified with Arthur’s court, and dreams of the Round Table encouraged people during this time of turmoil.

In the middle of the eleventh century, two kingdoms that had arisen from Viking settlements sought to claim England. The English army defeated the Danes, only to lose to the Normans, who came from Normandy, land previously granted to them by the king of France. The new rulers of England introduced a culture that was part Viking and part French, but which was able to incorporate the story of Arthur into its vision of England. A little less than a century after the victory of the Normans, Geoffrey of Monmouth included accounts of King Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain. Already Arthur was said to be the son of King Uther Pendragon and Ygerna, then wife to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwell. Uther dies when Arthur is fifteen, and Arthur is made king. During the following years Arthur consolidates his kingdom, first on the island of Britain, next extending to Ireland and Iceland, then to Norway, and eventually to Rome itself. Arthur defeats the Roman Emperor Lucius Hiberius, but before he returns to England his throne is seized by Mordred, a kinsman of Arthur who had been placed in control of the English government during Arthur’s absence. A bloody battle ensues in which Mordred is killed and Arthur is mortally wounded. He is taken to the island Avalon, according to Geoffrey, in the year 542, and the kingdom passes into other hands.

Around the same time that Geoffrey was writing his military history of Arthur, in France Chretien de Troyes was blending the romances of chivalry into the accounts of Arthur’s rule. Chretien is the first to mention the name Camelot; he is the first to tell of Lancelot’s affair with Queen Guinevere and the first to describe the quest for the Holy Grail. Stories of the Fisher King, somehow related to Joseph of Arimathea, were told earlier, but they were not linked to King Arthur until Chretien wrote his work. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, as the Italian Renaissance was already well under way, Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, probably the most famous compilation of the stories related to King Arthur and the knights of Camelot.

England’s importance grew tremendously during the rule of the Tudors, the Stuarts, and the Hanovers (as well as the time of the Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell). An empire was established, and an industrial revolution began in England that changed the entire world. By the nineteenth century, readers of the English-speaking world favored a return to the romantic stories of earlier times. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, a series of poems about Arthur and his knights. Howard Pyle wrote children’s books to tell the story of Arthur and Camelot. (Pyle’s version is the first that I read as a child. Pyle is also known for his accounts of Robin Hood and for his stories about pirates, both strong influences on literature and storytelling to the present.) Well before Monty Python produced a comic film version of the story of King Arthur, Mark Twain explored the comic possibilities of Camelot in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s Arthur and Merlin are not the noble heroes of Malory and Tennyson. They are bumbling, superstitious, and easily awed by the scientific and technological knowledge of the time-traveling American.

The twentieth century is known for two World Wars, and in that time of gloom the legend of Arthur was rewritten again. T. H. White wrote The Once and Future King, highlighting the tragedy and foolishness of war. His book was the basis for Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot, which was an award-winning Broadway musical, later made into a movie. In fact, Arthur has been portrayed in more than a hundred movies since 1909, including a Disney cartoon and a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Perhaps the best movie version of Arthur’s story is Excalibur (1981) starring Nigel Terry and Nicol Williamson, and directed by John Boorman.

In the past fifty years, many fantasy writers have labored to rewrite the story of King Arthur. Some have sought to place him in the proper time, at the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Others have tried to recreate the late Middle Ages’ romance and chivalry of Malory’s tale. Still others have tried to expand upon the magic of Merlin, Morgan, and the Lady of the Lake, putting Arthur and his companions in a world far removed from the contemporary world of science and technology.

In most versions of the story, Arthur does not die, but when he is badly wounded he is taken by barge to the mystical island called Avalon. There he continues to heal, but he will return to support his kingdom at its time of greatest need. Thanks to Geoffrey, Malory, Tennyson, White, and others, Arthur and his legend has frequently returned, supporting England and the entire world in those times when we need a legend to sustain us. J.