Today is Armistice Day and millions of people will be wearing red paper poppies and observing a silence at 11:00 to remember the soldiers who have died in recent wars. I’ts also Martinmass and if you had lived six or seven hundred years ago you would have been slaughtering the livestock that you couldn’t afford to keep through the winter and lighting big bonfires and your best candles as a defence against the darkness and the night. Martinmass was the last big feast before Advent, the month of plain potage diet that preceded Christmas.
I’ve just finished reading David Nicholl’s “One Day”. At the beginning of the last section he uses a wonderful quote from Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy:-
She philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year; …her own birthday; and every other day individualized by incidents in which she had taken some share. She suddenly thought one afternoon, when looking in the glass at her fairness, that there was yet another date, of greater importance to her than those; that of her own death, when all these charms would have disappeared; a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. When was it?
One of the most striking differences between our world and the mediaeval one is just how many feast days and saints days there were. Our mediaeval predecessors, recognized Tess’s dilemma and would, I think, have pondered their death days on All Hallow’s Eve. Mediaeval lives may have been brutal and short but they understood exactly how to celebrate; Michaelmas, Lady Day, MidSummer’s Eve, St Crispin’s Day, All Souls, Corpus Christi… the list was very long and covered a huge range of human emotions. I think they understood something that we have let slip. Anchoring our experiences to a specific feast, ceremony or ritual helps us to understand and make sense of our life.
As a child I minded very much about my birthday and I used to feel sick with the excitement and anticipation of Christmas counted down by the windows of my Advent Calendar. Recently I have discovered that I mind just as much about sad anniversaries as well. For the year after my Father’s death I didn’t know what the exact date of his death had been. At the time I was simply too miserable and confused to note it down. To begin with that didn’t seem to matter but as autumn came around again I got increasingly agitated by the idea that I might pass through the day without realising or marking it in anyway. That seemed very dreadful and I found that it was important to know the exact date so that I could have a focus and anchor for my grief. So last Friday while you were all burning Guys on top of bonfires I lit a candle and had a private feast of Turkish Delight in memory of my dear Dad and wondered if he too was watching the fireworks.