Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Letters


5: 2006 - Time


Tuesday found me at a thanksgiving assembly, in a school in Newton – a city on the Eastern edge of Boston.  Like other New England Schools, with the exception of the soccer fields, this is an enclosed school – heated, protected, light and airy – well built and appointed.  Built to withstand the coming blizzards and the occasional misdirected hurricane. 



Thanksgiving is an old New England celebration.  It was only embraced in New York about seventy years ago and, more recently, in the rest of the country.  Avowedly non-commercial (no gifts are given on Thanksgiving), instead, it is a time for reflection about personal fortune.  Perhaps even more so if one is a turkey.

For men and turkeys alike, Thanksgiving is made for sermons, and after the last elections, some blame laying. 


The Spencer New Leader carries the writings of one William Gillmeister, an agricultural economist and devoted family man.  Gillmeister makes me chuckle – but that is probably the last thing on his agenda.  This week, he reminds his readers that they should all give thanks for the god-given blessing of the right to vote.  Berating the failure of the conservative republicans at the recent elections, he recounts the story of Belshazzar of Assyria who, according to Gillmeister, lost his life and kingdom, because he failed to govern properly.  Gillmeister went on to exhort the Republicans to return to their true philosophical base and re-embrace the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  By life, he means the pro-life pro-marriage platform which he contrasts with  homosexual lifestyle “that leads to death from disease and despair”.  Liberty he explains as liberty from legislative lawlessness and the tyranny of judges who have erroneously defined marriage.  The pursuit of happiness, of course, allows people to pursue economic prosperity – something that would return by dropping the minimum wage, removing building controls and rolling back income tax to 5%.

On the school stage, a different simple sermon is being spoken.  Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on ones blessings and, without regret, to feast with family. 

Nearby, decorating the elegant New England homes, corn husks are tied to pillars, or dressed in effigy and staked in front yards.  Some date the use of corn husks to the feast day of Saint Stephen, in Scandinavia and England associated with the Yuletide celebrations.  But Saint Stephen was simply a cipher for the pagan god Freyr, a local concession to common practice church law was unable to suppress or replace.  In the 13th Century, Sturluson wrote: “Freyr (Ing) is the most renowned of the Æsi, he rules over the rain and the shining of the sun, and therewithal the fruit of the earth; and it is good to call on him for fruitful seasons and peace. He governs also the prosperity of men.”  While not worshipped since the 11th century, we still name girls Ingrid in his favor, New England homes celebrate the bountiful harvest with corn husks and we all eat a Christmas ham at Christmas.  Poor Freyr (“no maid he makes to weep”) is destined to die at Ragnorok.  He will be killed by the same sword of the gods of the slain, which he bargained away in order to marry his beloved.

Serving the school and the New England homes at Newton, near the green hockey field, is a busy shopping centre, bisected by a train line.  People tramp over the train tracks as though they were walking over any other road.  Beneath the superficial and depressing sameness of the fast food donut franchises, emerges a different picture – in the alleys are a confusion of different restaurants.  Some, the Indian and Thai, are recognizable to an Australian eye.  But others date from a different time.  Here there is the Café Saint Petersburg and a variety of other Russian and Armenian restaurants.  Reminds me of a sign on an old building in Salem – an old building on the wharf run by the Council to assist Russian émigrés.  In the local bread shop, you can buy a Borodinsky – a heavy black bread – coriander malt dark rye, from a shop assistance who speaks with a strong Russian accent.  Here is the legacy of the great Diaspora from the Russian Ukraine and the Ottoman Middle East 150 years ago. 

At the school assembly, the stage is crowded with children of every race.  Beating out a couple of songs with an African theme.

But even as thanksgiving is being prepared, the decorations for holiday season are being prepared – with Christmas and Hanukah in the offing.  The occasional car can be spotted with a tree on top, and in the background the present corn husks celebrating the harvest – and almost gone now, the last of the decorations from Halloween and the elections.

I am beginning to think that this place simply moves from one celebration to another.  Certainly the cultures from which such celebrations might derive are legion.  The old catholic church calendar was replete with feast days to remember the heroes of the church.  But the church’s attempt to replace the older pagan celebrations based on the passage of the seasons did not survive the fall of Constantinople and the industrial revolution.  We continue to use basic divisions of time that date from before the Christian era – some so old we cannot identify their origins with certainty.

The division of our week into seven days reflects the number of heavenly bodies that traveled in an ecliptic path and which were visible to the ancients.  In the names of our days we still use the names of the old pagan gods – Monandaeg (moon’s day), Tyr’s day, Wodan’s day, Thor’s day, Frigg’s day, Saturn’s day, Dies Solics (sun’s day).  Tyr was the ancient Germanic god of war, older even than Wodan, and he is destined to die after killing the guardian of hell at Ragnorok.  Wodan is the allfather, husband of Frigg, father of Thor – but again at Ragnorok “then shall Frigg’s sweet friend fall”.

The persistence of these names and celebrations, long after state or religious sanction was given to them, and sometimes in the teeth of strong state or religious opposition, deserves reflection.  Is this just another limit of the power of law?  Would any attempt to change the names of the days or the months really work?  All children know of the futility of trying to legislate to stop the tide from coming in – and slowing the passage of the earth’s progress around the sun to a more convenient metric seems presently outside our capability. 

Changes in the calendar for similar aesthetic or religious purposes have been unsuccessful since the Romans renamed Quintilis as Iulius (July) in 44 BC to honor Julius Caesar and Sextilis as Augustus (August) in 8 BC to honour Augustus (Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus).  More recent attempts have failed – the most recent attempt, during the French revolution (a brave attempt to give each day its own special name) is now long forgotton.  The French attempt follows in the footsteps of the failure of Emperor Commodus’s attempt to rename all twelve months after his own adopted names (Amazonius, Invictus, Felix, Pius, Lucius, Aelius, Aurelius, Commodus, Augustus, Herculeus, Romanus, and Exsuperatorius).  Nero’s attempt to change Aprilis to Neroneus similarly failed to catch the common imagination.  To be fair, Charlemagne’s renamed months lasted in Germany until the 15th Century, possibly because of the immense utility to the germans of knowing when to do things (Brachmnoth (June) – plowing month, Wonnemanoth (May) – love making month).

Despite these setbacks, we have a record of successful reforms to improve the accuracy of each of the calendars in common use – the Western (Julian/Gregorian), Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic. 

The Julian reform introduced in 46BC by Julius Caesar on the advice of Sosigenes of Alexandria formalized a solar calendar with months at fixed lengths where one year had 365 days, 12 months and every 4th year was a leap year with 366 days. In practice, this reform established our recognisable calendar, with a leap year, aligned with the tropical year (at no mean cost, the Romans had to endure a 46BC with 445 days).  Late in his life, Augustus fiddled with the number of days in August (to make it equal in length to Julius’s July), establishing the legal pattern of days we still use for each month to this day. 

However, the Julian reform gradually moved out of synch with the earth’s rotation.  Every 134 years it gained an extra day by reference to the tropical year.  This inconvenient result was remedied on the basis of legal policy advice (deriving from the first official council of the Christian Churches in 325 AD, at Nicaea) which held it desirable that the vernal equinox occurs on 21 March each year.  In 1582, Pope Gregorius XIII declared that the day after 4 October 1582 should be 15 October 1582.  Furthermore the rule for leap years (which said that years divisible with 4 should be leap years) was changed so that years, at the end of the century, should be leap years only if they were divisible with 400 (e.g. 1600, 2000, 2400 etc.).  The Gregorian reform was belated picked up throughout the Western world (with the exception of the Orthodox Russian church).

A number of years ago, the Commonwealth of Australia accidentally repealed the old Calendar Act – the legislative device by which the Gregorian calendar was adopted into the British Empire.  At that time, law makers were blissfully unaware of the consequences of this error – and that the Australian Capital Territory had reverted for about 20 years - from 1984 until 2005 - back to the Julian system (by that stage about 13 days into the future of the Gregorian calendar).  When the error was discovered in 2005, it was remedied without remark and without the need for further metrification or nomenclature change.

The kids leave the auditorium at the school, and kiss their farewells.  For the next four and a half days they will enjoy a feast-holiday with family or friends.  Amidst bare trees, in spite of all the attempts to tame time, the cold has returned to this land, as it did before the pagan gods gave time its form.  Perhaps Ragnorok is still just a heart beat away.  Ice specks swirl in the air and, in the perma-shade, water drips freeze into solid stalagmites near the school.  Like the columns of the old temples, the ice freezes solid as the tolerance in the eyes of the children, the likewise strength and weakness of democracies.  

22 November 2006 (Gr, AD)
6 December 2006 (Ju, AD)
5 December 2006 (Au, AD)
5 Heilagmanoth 2006 (Ch, AD)
5 Exsuperatorius 2006 (Co, AD)


Peter
Spencer
Massachusetts


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