Sandy’s Garden ... Befana, broomsticks and best wishes

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In the days when school pupils were expected to remember historical facts, the tale of the lost eleven days was relayed with relish by history teachers.

Certain that this would arouse some interest which would, in turn, stimulate the pupils’ memories. And they were right, in my case at least, for I still recall that, prior to 1753, the so-called Julian calendar was used in the United Kingdom … and throughout Europe … to calculate the date. The Julian calendar was based on the time taken for the earth to rotate around the sun, which was thought to be 365 days. Well, that’s nearly right … nearly, but not exactly, as eighteenth century astronomers were able to demonstrate. They proved that the earth actually took 365¼ days to complete one rotation around the sun, which meant that by 1753 the Julian calendar had slipped out of synch with the solar year by eleven days since its introduction. Accordingly, the British government decreed that this country would adopt the Gregorian calendar on and from the Julian calendar’s date of 3 September 1752, declaring that this day would be deemed to be 14 September in the Gregorian calendar. Many people thought that the government had stolen eleven days of their lives and took to the streets to protest with the demand, “Give us back our eleven days!” (Incidentally, astronomical science has since shown that the Gregorian calendar is also fractionally wrong and we shall need to ‘lose’ a leap year occasionally.)

Fast forward three months from 3 September 1753 and the twenty-fifth of December in the Julian calendar has become the fifth of January in the ‘new’ Gregorian calendar, the day before the Festival of Epiphany. And by a curious twist of fate, both of these dates are of significance to European children, as The Atlantic Monthly told its readers in January, 1860.

“The Eve of Epiphany, or Twelfth-Night, is to the children of Rome what Christmas Eve is to us. It is then that the Befana comes with her presents. This personage is neither merry nor male, like Santa Claus, nor beautiful and childlike, like Christ-kindchen, but is described as a very tall, dark woman, ugly, and rather terrible, who comes down the chimney, on the Eve of Epiphany, armed with a long stick and shaking a bell, to put playthings into the stockings of the good children, and bags of ashes into those of the bad. It is a night of fearful joy for all the little ones. … It is supposed to be a distorted image of the visit of the kings and wise men with their presents at the Nativity, as Santa Claus may be of the shepherds, and the Christ-kindchen of Christ himself. However this may be, it is curious to observe the different characters this superstition assumes among different nations and under different influences.”

Befana rides the night sky asatride a broomstick of ash wood and, in this season of goodwill, we might spare a thought for witches everywhere as they ponder the fate of their favourite tree, stricken as it is by ash dieback disease. However, contemporary beliefs demand that the last vestiges of Christmas have disappeared by Twelfth Night … Epiphany … the decorations all down, the tree removed, the coloured lights extinguished and the Yule log (also traditionally of ash wood) burned out. Mark you, it was only in Victorian times that it became ‘traditional’ to remove all signs of Christmas by Epiphany lest the tree-spirits that lived in the Christmas greenery became imprisoned in the house and thus were unable to restart natural growth in the field and garden. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, Christmas decorations were left in place until Candlemas … forty days after Christmas Day … on 2 February. Whatever, and however you strive to avoid the perils and pitfalls of the days after Christmas, I bid you a happy and prosperous New Year and trust that, if the Befana makes an appearance in your home, she is laden with gifts for you and yours. Happy New Year!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society