Christmas Countdown, Sunday #4

Christmas Countdown Sunday’s theme is Other Holidays. Today, we present a Pagan Celebration of the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge in the UK.

Sunday’s theme is “It’s not just Christmas,” and it’s appropriate to have this one the day after tomorrow is the winter solstice. In pagan cultures, this is called Yule, hence all those yuletide log things in your Christmas carols.

The idea of celebrations occurring around the solstices and equinoxes is something that has been baked into humanity since the beginning, especially after we went from being nomadic hunters to settlers with agriculture.

It became very important to predict when to plant, when to harvest, when to expect what kind of weather, and the only clocks we had were in the sky — the Sun and the Moon. That’s why we measure days by the Sun and months by the Moon — indeed, in many languages the words for “month” and “Moon” share the same root.

The two most important of the four equinox/solstice times are the one that comes tomorrow, the winter solstice, and the one that comes three months later, the vernal equinox, “vernal” meaning the same thing as spring.

The reason they became so significant is that the Winter solstice is right at the time when the period of daylight in the northern hemisphere is the shortest and the world is dominated by the night. Solstice refers to the idea of a standing or stopping and, indeed, if you look at the analemma of the Sun, you’ll see that the images clump together at the bottom (start of local winter) and the top (start of local summer.)

As for the vernal equinox, this is the day when sunlight and darkness are equal and periods of daylight start to get longer until they hit their maximum on the summer solstice in June.

I think you can see why agricultural societies would find these dates so important. By the start of winter, all of the crops should be in and everything should be stored up to survive the long, cold winter until planting could begin once the ground began to thaw in the spring.

So… they kept an eye out for the day with the least sunlight, then counted thirteen phases of the Moon. This is why so many cultures in the northern hemisphere have big and important holidays, both religious and secular, in late December and late March, and more minor celebrations in late June and late September.

And, to further subdivide it, there are important events in early February (Candlemas or Groundhog Day, anyone?), early May (Beltane/May Day) early August (Lamas Day), and early November (Halloween/All Saints Day).

That was the long way around of saying that it’s totally appropriate for this group of Pagans to be celebrating the solstice at Stonehenge, because the entire structure seems to have been one huge calendar and observatory, lined up so that the way the Sun hit different stones inside let the people know exactly what day it was.

And, ignoring the differences in liturgy and beliefs, isn’t this observation pretty similar to any other religious celebration? People gathered together in a sacred place to sing, connect with each other, and celebrate something beyond to unite them and bring hope.

In this case, these people are actually celebrating the Sun, the Moon, and Mother Earth, and those three things could not be more important to the continued existence of our species and, indeed, every living thing on this planet.

Talky Tuesday: Words you didn’t know had antonyms

Okay, you all probably already know that the antonym of antonym is synonym. But what about the antonyms for these?

Ambidextrous: Derived from the words for both (ambi-) and right (dexter, particularly when it refers to a hand), while this word literally means “both right handed,” what it really means is that someone uses either hand equally well.

But, as a further relic to the biases in our language, its antonym is actually ambisinister, and this comes from that  both prefix again, only this time combined with the word for left — and yes, you’re not hallucinating when you think that we also got the word “sinister” from it. Like, duh.

So someone who is ambidextrous can use both hands equally well. Someone who is ambisinister sucks at using either one.

Democracy: This comes from the Greek words for the people, demos, and power, or kratia. Literally, power of the people. And you can’t get more of an antonym from this than the word derived from “self” and “power,” which is autocracy.

In a democracy, everyone has a voice and a vote. In an autocracy, only one person does. And I can tell you right now which form of government I’d prefer. Hint: It’s the one that comes with a big “D.”

Paranoia: Another Greek one-two combo, this term comes from the words from “beyond” or “beside” (think “paranormal”) and the word for mind, “noos,” which is two syllables, by the way.

So the short version of this term is beyond or beside one’s mind, but we all probably know that the practical and medical definition is to be unreasonably afraid or untrusting of others or, in other words, to think that everybody else is out to get them.

This one has two antonyms, one older and from Latin, and the other newer and somewhat made up. The newer one is “pronoia,” and it basically flips the Greek prefix to create a term that means someone believes that everyone else is out to help them.

Probably just as mentally ill, but whatever.

The Latin-based antonym is the word “confidence,” which comes from the words for “with” (con) and “faith in” (fi for faith, and the whole dence bit to indicate a state of being in.)

Kleptomania: From Greek again, klepto for “thief”, and mania for “madness for.” So the opposite is, oddly enough, doromania, the first part of it derived from the Greek “doron,” meaning to give gifts.

So if you don’t have a weird compulsion to take stuff, you’d have a weird one to give stuff. And also note the weird similarity to the Greek word and the Latin word for the same, which is the one that came down to English: Donor. Hm…

Prolix: This is probably a word you won’t encounter too often outside of academia or pretentious book reviews, but what it means it for something to be way too wordy.

It comes from Latin, with the prefix “pro,” meaning to move outward, and the suffix derived from liquere, to be liquid. So the word pretty much indicates a spilling of way too much — figuratively liquid, literally, words.

Antonym, also Latin but, surprisingly, not perlix. Instead, it’s condensed. And since that’s a word in English, it probably requires no explanation, but it’s pretty clear that it generally involves taking a spread-out liquid and slamming it into a much smaller space.

Clockwise: This one is interesting, because it also has a synonym you probably don’t know: deasil. And guess where this one comes from ultimately? That’s right, our old friend dexter, meaning to the right. And when you walk clockwise, you start by turning right.

Now the obvious antonym for clockwise is either counter-clockwise or anti-clockwise, depending on whether you’re in the U.S. or UK, but in keeping with the ultimately pagan term deasil (which got to English from Latin via Gaelic, actually), then the term we need to use is widdershins.

This one probably comes from old German, with the literal meaning “against the way,” or, in other words, to go the opposite direction from something else, generally the Sun.

Which makes sense because, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere and facing north, the Sun does pass overhead going clockwise. If you walk toward the east, you’re the one going all widdershins.

Oh well…

%d bloggers like this: