Men in Skirts

Estes Park Long's Peak Scottish/Irish Highland...

Estes Park Long’s Peak Scottish/Irish Highland Festival – Drum02 (Photo credit: elgreg)

This weekend brings the Long’s Peak Scottish/Irish Highland Festival to Estes Park.  There will be caber-tossing.  There will be bagpipes skirling.  There will be plaid all over the darned place.  (It’s a good thing we don’t have chameleons at this altitude.  They’d be going nuts.  And, yes, I do know they don’t in reality attempt to match a background, although I no longer know, if I ever did, what it is they actually do regarding changing color.)  There will be parades and tattoos (in this Celtic/Gaelic giddy context, a tattoo, while also being “ink”, is an evening presentation of pipe bands as the sunset advances).  But mostly, there will be men in skirts.

Caber toss - the real rules

Caber toss – the real rules (Photo credit: Travlr)

Slight but definite digression:  I would very much like to know, as a woman, why in a world where, except for George Clooney, men are supposed to be judged on higher qualities than looks (yeah, right), so often men will have shapely legs, long, thick eyelashes, and (when they have hair) gorgeous, unfrizzy locks that simply fall into place.  It really doesn’t seem fair.

Okay, back to the skirts.  First, of course, it’s not a “skirt”, it’s a kilt.  (Distinction without a difference.)  Kilts are not always plaid, by the way.  There are several men who live in Estes Park whom I’ve seen in the grocery store wearing khaki kilts for reasons that I have never had the courage to ask about.  But on this weekend of all weekends in the high, crisp, almost fall air, with the aspen beginning to turn golden and the elk moving into their full rut, all the kilts are plaid and there are a lot of kilts and a lot of plaids, and they’re all on (or mostly so) the men.  In the beginning of the wearing of kilts (as opposed to belted plaids, which we’ll get to a bit later), women were not supposed to wear an actual kilt, for reasons of both modesty (they’re knee-length, not floor-length) and because women are not supposed to wear men’s clothes.  Now, of course, because it’s one of the world’s cutest outfits, women wear kilts to these festivals quite a bit.  Especially the girls who are reeling.  No, I don’t mean after a few too many Scotches, but the performance of the dance known as the reel.  By the way, a Scot is a person, if you are a Scot, you are Scottish.  Scotch is the drink.  Technically, it is called Scotch whisky and is distilled only in Scotland (sure).  Whiskey (note the spelling difference) whether Irish, bourbon, rye, Canadian, or whatnot, is what is distilled in other parts of the world.  Another digression, sorry.

MacDonald Tartans [8]

MacDonald Tartans [8] (Photo credit: † Jimmy MacDonald †)

Returning from a refreshing sip of Scotch (which in Scotland is often called “a wee drappie”), let’s talk about the kilts themselves.  Those that are plaid are varied, many, and while most of them are beautiful, there are some that are downright garish (bright orange, teal, kelly green, brown and a thread of red, anybody?).  In every country that uses woven cloth there is such a thing as plaid.  It is a way of weaving a design using stripes on both the warp and the weft of the fabric (see picture to the left).

A quote from the Wikipedia entry will help us figure out what distinguishes a “tartan” from simply plaid.

“Tartan, however, is a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours.  Tartan is particularly associated with Scotland. Scottish kilts almost always have tartan patterns. Tartan is one of the patterns known as plaid in North America, but in Scotland, a plaid is a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder, or a blanket.

“Tartan is made with alternating bands of colored (pre-dyed) threads woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other. The weft is woven in a simple twill, two over – two under the warp, advancing one thread each pass. This forms visible diagonal lines where different colours cross, which give the appearance of new colours blended from the original ones. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett.

“The Dress Act of 1746 attempted to bring the warrior clans under government control by banning the tartan and other aspects of Gaelic culture. When the law was repealed in 1782, it was no longer ordinary Highland dress, but was adopted instead as the symbolic national dress of Scotland.

“Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the highland tartans were associated with regions or districts, rather than by any specific clan. This was because tartan designs were produced by local weavers for local tastes and would tend to make use of the natural dyes available in that area. The patterns were simply different regional checked-cloth patterns, where of the tartans most to one’s liking – in the same way as people nowadays choose what colours and patterns they prefer in their clothing. Thus, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that specific tartans became associated with Scottish clans or Scottish families, or simply institutions who are (or wish to be seen as) associated in some way with a Scottish heritage.”

Thank you, Wikipedia, as always.

There are hunting tartans and dress tartans, and “old” tartans, and “new” tartans.  Tartans for every purpose under heaven, I suppose.

And the kilt itself is made out of the tartan.  The front of the, darn it, skirt is flat, showing the entire pattern of the plaid, while the sides and back are pleated in such a way that half the design (normally one of the lighter stripes) is hidden by the inside of the pleat and shows only (and very attractively) when the person wearing it is walking or running.  The kilt is always in a worsted wool that will take a very sharp pleat, and the pleats are stitched down to the hipline.  It is also a wrap-around garment, with buttons in front to hold it together, and usually a decorative pin to keep the front panel from flying up at inopportune moments.  (Very old Scottish joke:  “What do you wear under your kilt?”  “A noble stretch of Scottish hide.”  This version is quoted from Frank Yerby (who was definitely not Scottish) in one of his very vivid historical novels.  I can’t remember which one.)  The best kilts, of course, are “bespoke”, which is a fine British term meaning custom-made, which in itself means fitted to the individual body that will be wearing it.

Scottish and British flags with Tam o' Shanter

Scottish and British flags with Tam o’ Shanter (Photo credit: The Laird of Oldham)

Whatever a gentleman wears on the inside of his kilt, outside of it is a “kit” (a military term meaning everything you’ve got on, basically, and almost never used regarding a woman’s clothing (which is called an outfit) unless referring to a military woman’s uniform), which is quite specific.  Starting from the top down, the kit will always include a hat of some kind, usually military, sometimes a tam o’shanter (which is Scottish for a knitted beret with a pompom on top), sometimes a “bearskin” (thankfully, today, mostly made of polyester), which is a very high hat that looks like bearskin and which will have a striped ribbon in the tartan colors festooned on it somewhere.  Faces are normally clean-shaven.  The upper part of the kit consists of a solid-color short and tightly fitted jacket in a color that blends (or sometimes doesn’t) with the tartan and is usually based on the jacket styles of British aristocracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  For evening wear, the jacket is often black velvet.

During the day, however, the jacket will usually have a tight, upright collar and the underlying shirt or t-shirt will not be seen.  Over this is a plaid.  This might seem redundant, but it is the term normally used for the plaid sash going over the left shoulder (if the wearer is right-handed) and under the right arm.  Mostly, this plaid will match the plaid of the kilt, but sometimes, for reasons that I’m sure are deeply symbolic and not just color-blindness, the plaid sash does not match the kilt.

In front of the kilt at the, ahem, proper level, the gentleman will wear his sporran.  This has been stylized by this time to a point of having very little utility at all, but originally simply was the pouch of leather or fur a man would wear to put things in (kilts don’t have pockets).  Sporrans are normally made of white horsehair with usually two or three long hanks of dark horsehair in metal holders (from the horse’s tail and let’s hope no horses were harmed in the gathering of same, although they were probably considerably annoyed) as “decoration” (all in the eye of the beholder, after all).  The sporran still is a pouch that can hold things, of course, because kilts don’t have pockets.

Below the kilt (no, not underneath it, we’ve already explained that), the gentleman will wear, during the day, boots or walking shoes with usually white spats (I don’t know what else to call them) over them that have yet another band of plaid at the top.  For evening wear, the gentleman will wear mens dancing slippers which have strings that are wound around the lower leg over white stockings.  Whether daywear or evening, no Scotsman (or Irishman) would forget the proper accessory, which is a dirk that is scabbarded inside the stocking/spat on the right leg (if the gentleman is right-handed).  A proper highlander is always armed and dangerous.  The picture below of a Scotsman (presumably) in evening dress kilts shows the dirk tucked into his stocking.

English: Kilt and Sporran worn as formal eveni...

English: Kilt and Sporran worn as formal evening wear (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Somehow, the men who wear this kit manage to look killer:  masculine, almost ferocious, and not a bit “girly”.  Which is probably why women look so darned cute in kilts–that same sense that what makes a man look more manly makes a pretty girl look even more female.

Some of the men, of course, add the ultimate accessory–the bagpipe.  This is an acquired enjoyment, like caviar.  If you like pipes, you like them.  If you don’t, they sound like somebody torturing cats.  I like the sound, but I know very little about the types of bagpipes.  It is a kind of portable organ, using air passing through reeds in the pipes (sticking up out of the bag) to make the noise (ahem, music).  Most of the pipes are called “drones”, meaning they make the same noise, no matter what the bagpipe player is doing, and are tuned (or not, they don’t sound tuned) prior to the performance in some way which I will probably never need to know that badly.  The player then plays the bagpipe by moving air into the bag and out through the pipes.  The player has a pipe (some bagpipes use the player’s breath to fill the bag and to play the tunes, some do not and use a pumping motion by the arm to fill the bag) that has a tendency to look a little like an oboe, with holes and stops and whatnot for the player to manipulate to make a tune that comes out of one of the pipes, one that is obviously not one of the “drones”.  And this is not only more than I really want to know about a bagpipe, it’s undoubtedly more than any of you want to know about them.

Piping Band

Piping Band (Photo credit: Eglos)

But in mountain air, at a parade or a tattoo, they sound fine, although I’m sure they confuse the heck out of the wildlife.  (Bagpipes are also capable of being very loud, and their sound pierces through other sounds quite well.)

And so the Scots and the Irish come together in Estes Park to parade and compete in strange games requiring a lot of strength and toughness and play bagpipes, the playing of which (and the listening to which) also take a lot of strength and toughness, and they celebrate the Celtic and Gaelic heritage of the areas of the British Isles known as Scotland (that portion of the main island above Hadrian’s Wall, built by a Roman emporer (well, not with his own hands) in the early part of the Common Era) and Ireland, a separate island to the west which has always had its troubles (some of them quite violent) with being any kind of a part of the British Empire.  These areas were settled by Celtic tribes that moved to the Isles from various parts of the European mainland during any time from about 3,000 B.C.E. to 1,500 B.C.E.  And it is known to archaeologists that the Celts had weaving and sheep and often wove their woolens into plaid patterns (although bright orange, teal, kelly green were probably not among the dyestuffs they had available to them).  It is also known that they divided their people into tribes, clans, septs and families (from the top of the organizational pyramid down).  It is also known that they had cattle and horses, often worked as miners, probably had figured out the distillation process to raise alcohol content in mead or beer a long, long time ago, had gorgeous, intricate, well-crafted art, a complex religion and set of myths, and a sophisticated culture.  So, when we today celebrate a Scottish/Irish Heritage Festival, even if in a mountain valley thousands of miles away from their original homeland, then it’s a long, deep heritage with all the crafts, games and costumes based on a very long-standing history.

Except, of course, that some of it is just not true.  The stuff that we think of as BEING the heritage, mostly the kilt and the entire look of the costume, which is what it is, is an invention of the nineteenth century.  As stated above, tartans were distinguished regionally, not by clan, until the nineteenth century.  Plus, until then, nobody wore a kilt.  They (or at least the men) word a “plaid”.  Again, refer to the above quote from Wikipedia and I show a picture at the end of this blog of a man wearing a belted plaid.

Let me elaborate.

Cover of "Rob Roy"

Cover of Rob Roy

There is a wonderful movie,  “Rob Roy”, from some time in the nineties, starring Liam Neeson as the grand old rascal and Jessica Lange as his feisty, red-headed wife.  It shows Neeson, who is a fine broth of a boy indeed (his own ethnicity is Irish), very tall, standing on a highland meadow wearing his belted plaid.  I could not find a picture of this, which is a shame.  He has his legs wrapped in fleece for warmth, a rough linen shirt which was under- and outer-wear, both, and a long length of cloth sloppily pleated to make a skirt with a belt to hold it in place and with one end of the cloth thrown over a shoulder.  Nothing could be more male, and yet the actual draping of the cloth is almost identical to that of the Indian garment that make their women so lovely, the sari.  It’s shown as a plaid design, but the colors are dark and muddy and obviously the whole thing is undoubtedly filthy, since Rob uses it as garment, as bedclothes, and towel.  Magnificent.  Rob Roy, a historical character, lived in the eighteenth century, when British nobility was very much in the process of taking over (usually by squatting on a land grant that the King was probably not technically entitled to bestow, rather like land grants in the New World also taking place at that time) Scotland, highlands and low.  The Scots being dispossessed were not any happier about it than the Native Americans in the New World and they fought back, pretty briskly too.  They also stole their “overlords'” cattle, sheep, women, anything not nailed down.

But the whole tartan, kilt, sporran thing, that was a romantic vision of a world that never existed created by the English who were taking over the Scottish countryside in the nineteenth century and led by the English Queen Victoria and egged on by the romances written by Sir Walter Scott (who wrote about Rob Roy).  Yes, the whole kilt thing is that recent.  The Royal Family stated, I’m sure quite regally, that the Stewart (so spelled, although the Scots Royal family name was spelled Stuart when they became Kings of England) plaids could only be used by the Royal Family as their “clan” tartan.  So everybody else that had a noble title in Scotland and Ireland (usually not the natives, believe me) scrambled to catch up.  The romance continued with the creation of the kilt, jacket, sporran, bearskin and so forth, including the dirk (or at least its placement in a sock), most of which seemed to have been made up by Scott.

While Scottish warriors and natives wore the plaid, which looked rather like a short toga through the ages, most people wore something similar throughout Europe for much of its early history.   Women had more draperies, mostly, and they were longer, but men wore tunics, usually shorter than knee-length, with a wrapped robe very like the Scottish “plaid” over them.  Men who did not have to labor manually usually wore long robes, the natural outgrowth of the toga.  Catholic prelates and monks do so still, deliberately archaic. Trousers (or “trews” as they were called) are an outgrowth of the middle ages in Europe and mostly came about from two separate but similar issues:  For the laboring poor, short wrapped skirts lasted through time because (like Rob Roy’s plaid) they didn’t need to be fitted or sewn, which took time and money that didn’t exist and they could be used for a blanket or towel.  For knights at arms, however, the skirt, tunic, robe or whatnot was quite impractical because skirts and robes get in the way when you’re fighting from the back of a horse.  If your “skirt” was short enough to make fighting and riding a horse convenient, it would be too damned chilly for most of Europe, most of the time.

Later on, again because of the climate more than anything else, and because knitting is easier than sewing and requires less expertise and concentrated attention, stockings began to work their way up into becoming tights and the laboring poor began looking like we think of them in movies about the dark ages, with thick knitted trews and a tunic over that.

In any event, all the wonderful fancy that is the Scottish heritage, insofar as tartan plaids, kilts, sporrans and whatnot are concerned, is delightful, but it is a made-up heritage.  Those parts of the festival this weekend in Estes Park that truly have to do with the real, long-standing heritage of the Celts in Scotland and Ireland are the clans, the myths, the Gaelic language, the remembrance of a culture that was suppressed, sometimes ruthlessly, by the English (who were not Celtic, but basically a combination of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French), and probably the idea, at least, of the bagpipes.  The dances and songs and music, too, come from a time long, long ago, filtered through history.  It often happens when a people’s culture is suppressed by a conquering invader, the invader thinks that music and dance are frivolous and trivial and so the real culture, as well as the real justified anger, lingers on and is protected and remembered through the trivial song and the frivolous reel.

By the way, it may be completely apocryphal, probably is, but my favorite characterization of Scottish warriors brought in by the British to fight in various wars is “the ladies from hell.”

So, here we are, on an early fall weekend in Estes Park, Colorado, a place never formally lived in year around until Joel Estes homesteaded in 1865, and he couldn’t make it work, having a festival honoring the Celts.  Whether or not they wore plaid designs allocated only to their specific clans, whether or not they wore kilts or when they started to, whether or not the games and the books and the artwork and the things to buy and do and enjoy come from long, long, long ago, or the whim of Queen Victoria less than 200 years past, they are worth honoring, not just for lasting, as they have, but for being tough, continuing to work for and fight for their own versions of their homelands, and for having a very good and colorful time doing it.  So let’s all raise a glass of Scotch (or Irish whiskey, if that’s your preference) to men in skirts!


A belted plaid (rather than a kilt) as worn by...

A belted plaid (rather than a kilt) as worn by a reenactor of Scottish history. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



September (Photo credit: Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi)

Today is the second day of September.  Thus begins my favorite time of year.  To be more precise, thus begins my year.  From here on to the end of the calendar year are all the holidays and celebrations I truly love, from friends’ birthdays and anniversaries to my own birthday, which for me begins the holiday season, to Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, Christmas and finishing up with New Year‘s Eve.  Which last holiday is a kind of extra gift, a second chance at a new start on the year.

There’s rather a long history of starting the year at harvest time.  Or when the buds burst in spring.  Our current (and arbitrary) date for the New Year comes about partially as a result of calendar slippage over many thousands of years.  Humans started counting days and seasons in order to know when best to plant, cultivate, harvest, hunt, butcher and so forth.  It’s all about food, after all.  But the methods that they used didn’t quite match up with the realities.  If you count by the phases of the moon (the Lunar Calendar), it takes a few days less for the moon to make a full 12 circuits of the Earth than it does for the Earth to move around the sun, so in just a few years, the lunar months are not matching up with the realities of the yearly cycle.  So, even though the Lunar Calendar is the easiest method, most farming cultures started to use solstice reckoning.  This was actually more important to farmers, because how could humans be absolutely certain that when the sun disappeared on the winter solstice that it would come back.  The measuring of the slight incremental increases in daylight after the winter solstice became one of the first and most important jobs for the priests of a culture, and their magic spells and potions, their auguries, in fact, much of their worth, as measured by the culture in which they lived and worked, was their guarantee that the sun would come back and when it would do so.  Of course, the sun always comes back (or at least it has so far), so it was a pretty safe bet.  While I’m sure the priestly caste provided reassurance and emotional and psychological help, they were always basically conning the populace.

Nevertheless, the actual time from one winter solstice to the next is slightly more (about a fourth of a day or six hours) than the 365 days it was counted to be.  So, once again, the calendar kept slipping and after quite a few years, one was planting, technically, in July (not so-called back then, I’m sure) or some such.  (I probably got the slippage backward.  This sort of thing is not quite my forte.  I would have not done really well as one of the priests who did the measurements.)  This was solved, or at least temporarily resolved, by various kings, popes, heads of state and church, who would declare that as of such and such a date, the decree would be that that date was, well, a different date, and things would march more or less in step for a while.  We have historical records of such happenings, such as when the Julian Calendar, which was getting to be about two weeks off, was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar (I think–as I’ve pointed out long before, this blog becomes a lot less fun when I lose my amateur standing by looking things up), which happened during George Washington’s (and a lot of other people’s) lifetime and even now historians are perplexed about the date on which he was born.  At some point during this giddy moving about of dates, some genius (obviously neither Julius Caesar or Pope Gregory) came up with the idea of a leap day and a leap year, which we still use to account for that pesky extra six hours the Earth requires to circuit the sun every year.

Gregorian calendar

Gregorian calendar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every four years, our calendar gives us an extra day (six hours times four equals 24, which takes care of it), except for (and this I really should look up) some years that end in a double zero which do not have leap days because that extra six hours every year is not exact and the math still doesn’t come out right if you have leap years every four years.  Or something like that.  Anybody who would like to know the real deal is invited to look it up on Wikipedia or Scientific American or whatnot.

In any event, I’m trying to determine why we have New Year’s Day on a seemingly arbitrary day.  After all, if a culture believes that the new year starts when the sun comes back, then why not the day after the Winter Solstice?  Of course, for one thing, those first days after the Winter Solstice have exceedingly small incremental gains in daylight, difficult for early astronomers, let alone the average farmer, to measure.  So, instead, the date of the new year would be the first date any fool could tell that the sun was spending more time above the horizon than on the date of the Winter Solstice.  Or, about a week later.  Since New Year’s Day is 10 days after the solstice on our modern calendar, the rest of the days probably can be accounted for by calendar slippage, discussed above.

Whew.  So now we can get back to why not just me, but a lot of people through history, have started the year not after the Winter Solstice, but either in the spring when planting takes place or, slightly less logically, in the fall when harvest takes place.  All, of course, without looking anything up.  (This may not work out, but let’s see how far we get.)  First, it makes a kind of deeply human sense to start the year when every other living thing is–the connection to the burgeoning of life on the Earth is palpable and heart-stirring.  The Earth shakes off her winter torpor, the snow starts to melt, the rains come again, the streams swell, and all the greenery makes a new appearance.  And before long, the world seems filled with babies, everything hatching or being born at an early enough time to give the new animal the longest possible chance to grow up, find food and get ready for the next winter.  One culture that we do know of who started their year in the spring (my favorite early culture) was that of the Celts, whose Beltane holiday celebrated the spring with bonfires, foolishness and fertility festivals.  It came about in May and later sort of settled into being May Day.  (This holiday, by the way, was and still is, I think, a favorite in the British Isles, but has lost a step or two because of its latter-day association with the Soviet Union.)  I suppose that in the British Isles, particularly as the ice sheets receded and people began to populate it once again, May was indeed the start of spring, as it is in high mountain areas such as my home in Estes Park.  Later on, as the Gulf Stream reached its present course, spring came much earlier in many areas in Britain.

It is my understanding that the Celts used a more or less Lunar Calendar with the year starting in spring, in May; however, they used the huge calendars, the henges (the most famous of which is Stonehenge) at least partially, or so say the scientists, to determine exactly that moment after the Winter Solstice that the sun starts coming back.   Therefore, as often happened in sophisticated societies (“sophistication” here does not mean Noel Coward ennui, but rather has an anthropological meaning combining several aspects of human culture), there would probably be more than one calendar running concurrently, one used by priests (in this case Druids), one used by farmers, and so forth.


stonehenge (Photo credit: nyaa_birdies_perch)

Two notes on the above paragraphs:  One, the Celts did NOT build the henges.  They were the huge project of tribes (some of which are called by us because of items found in their graves the Beaker People) that lived in the British Isles long before the Celts came and which the Celts drove out or intermarried among (a nice euphemistic way to talk about such things as bride capture, which term itself is a euphemism for rape) to take over the land.  Two, some of what I’ve read indicates that the Druids were, themselves, part of a slightly different culture than the Celts.  In other words, the Celts migrated to their various new homelands all over Europe, finishing up in Ireland, the farthest away from their legendary homeland, which was probably in the steppes just north of the Black Sea or in Turkey somewhere (big scientific hoo ha over this which has not been resolved) without having Druids per se, just the normal shamans and priests.  How or where the Druids came is unknown.  Well, at least I don’t know it.

Oh, and scientifically, I should be saying that what really happens at Winter Solstice (or its opposite, the Summer Solstice) is that the Earth reaches the apogee (or is it perigee?) of its tilt and begins to tilt back, thus bringing the northern hemisphere more directly under the sun’s rays.  But that’s not how it feels to humans living on the planet, even today.  We may know (through the efforts of scientists throughout history) that it is the Earth’s tilt that causes the seasons, but our perception tells us otherwise.

Those human beings who begin the year in the fall (including me, which is why I’m doing this essay to start with) are a little trickier to understand intuitively, because it does seem that fall, autumn, harvest, whatever you call it, is the end of something,  not the beginning.  Except for one not so tiny detail:  a great deal of what we call the rise of civilization happened as a result of better and/or more food, or as a way to create better and/or more food.  It was, as I said above, as it still is, all about food.  And in the northern hemisphere above the tropics and in most places where we got started in tribes or cities or clans, food is harvested (whether by reaping or butchering) in the fall.  This is not just for the obvious reason that the food is ready to be harvested then, although that’s part of it.  It’s also because winter, as a cold time, makes it possible to preserve food, whether animal or vegetable, to be consumed continuously until spring brings about new sources.  And it follows nature’s rhythms for much the same reason that animals and plants time their full ripeness for fall.

So it makes a beautiful kind of sense, at least to me, that we should start the year when our granaries and storerooms are full, when we have harvested all the good Earth has provided and put it away in usable form for the hard months ahead.  The celebrations of Harvest Home are as old as Beltane, as old as celebrations of the solstices.  It is one of the few times that laborers, that anybody other than the very rich (who can hunt year round and who basically take their share (all right, much more than their share, the world does not change that much) at any time), can actually eat their fill of fresh food.

One of the most important cultures (and religions) but by no means the only one that starts the New Year at harvest time is of course Judaism.  (Islam does too, starting their new year, I believe, immediately after Ramadan ends (or just as it begins).  Or at least so I think.)  I would suggest that you go to and ask her for the religious and historical reasons why the Jewish year begins in the fall.  Suffice for this blog, I’m just very glad they do since I do too and so I believe they’re making a judicious choice.  By the way, Judaism still uses a Lunar Calendar and begins its count of the years with, and this time I’m really guessing, the building of the Second Temple (Solomon’s, I believe) or with the destruction of that temple.

That’s actually an interesting topic in itself that I will confine to a paragraph rather than the treatise it deserves: the way we count the years.  Currently, in this country and through most of what we fondly call, even if we are bragging, the first world, we count the years as B.C.E or A.C.E.  This means “before the common era” and “after the common era.”  When I was girl, it wasn’t quite so politically correct or religiously neutral.  It was B.C. or A.D., meaning “before Christ” (or the Latin version of that, which used the same initials) and “Anno Domini”, which means “year of our Lord”.  (I used to think it meant “after death” (not same initials), which would seem to leave out the 32 (36?) years of His life.)  Among the troubles this created was that it felt at the least puzzling and possibly at the most offensive to those in the world who weren’t Christian but were expected to count the years according to the birth of a (to them) probably mythical human.  But that’s not all, of course.  In the first place, according to the Bible itself, Jesus must have been born in the spring because the shepherds were out with their flocks and it was lambing time.  Apparently in that time and place, shepherds and flocks are not out in the pastures and hills in the middle of winter.  (Christmas was dated by early popes to coincide with the Roman Saturnalia (the Roman celebration of the returning of the sun and to give the plebs something to do other than riot) in order to camp on to the older holiday and turn it to their own purposes.  Perhaps wisely, the actual date of Christ’s birth not being listed or knowable to them, they made it in late December, at the time of the Solstice and gave the folk something to celebrate that wasn’t, well, Roman.)  In the second place, what with the calendar slippage we talk about above and various misreadings of the texts, it is exceedingly likely that Jesus was born either (and this I just can’t remember) about three or six years before the year that is considered for calendar purposes to be the year of his birth (or the same number of years after).  So, basically, Jesus was born before his birthdate or after it.  Oh well.  In any event, B.C.E. dates are counted backwards (thus, 3000 B.C.E. takes place before 2000 B.C.E.), which adds to the carefree, antic sense of confusion.  As I’ve made clear (or muddy), I’m not exactly sure what Day One is considered to be in the Jewish Calendar, except it has something to do with the temple in Jerusalem.  I believe in the Islamic world, the birthdate of Mohammed is Day One.  Chinese year counting has to do with the establishment of the First (I believe) Dynasty, which is a really long time ago.  Every culture has its own beginning date, of course, and they’re all different.

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the way, since we were talking about the Julian Calendar way up there at the top of this essay, I should point out that the Romans started their count with the date Julius Caesar became the consul of Rome.  I think.  Or it might have been his birthdate.  (Or even the mythical date that Rome was established by Romulus.  Whatever happened to Remus, by the way?) Also by the way, in an effort to help you win trivia contests, it is apparently not true that Julius Caesar was born via Caesarean Section (thus naming it), because while this method of birth did take place, it apparently always (or virtually so) killed the mother, and Caesar’s mother was very much alive until his adulthood at the very least.  Also, the word Caesar (from which we now derive Kaiser and Czar and other terms for kingship) was, first, pronounced with a hard “c”, so it didn’t sound like “seezar” but like “Kaiser”, second, simply one of his names and not a title until after Octavian changed his own name to the title/name “Augustus Caesar” many years later, and third, did not at any time in Caesar’s life denote his status.  Finally, he did not consider himself to be Emporer of Rome, but called himself (as did a couple of generations of his successors) First Consul of Rome.  Which is a distinction without a difference.

And this essay started out to be what I love about September and fall and the beginning of the year, so I’ll end just by saying that the ending of the hot weather, the starting of the turning of leaves and crispness of air and wonderful fall vegetables, fruits and so forth, are just the beginning.  Although I didn’t like school, I loved the getting ready for it.  The new clothes and shoes, the pencil box (look this up, you’ll be surprised, it was a Very Big Deal for little kids in my era), the new Chief Tablet (red cover with a black drawing of a Sioux Chief in war bonnet), notebooks, a school bag (not in my time a backpack, which only weird hikers knew about), plaid skirts and knee socks and saddle shoes, in short, all the accoutrements of being a grade schooler in public school in the fifties, I still remember them fondly and with nostalgia.  And I remember my mother’s wonderful fall meals, the stews and spare ribs and pork chops and potatoes, to mention nothing of her vegetable soup, her homemade bread, her chili, her apple and cherry and pumpkin pies.  Fall food is still my favorite–you get the last of the summer tomatoes and corn and all the new potatoes and beets and onions and carrots, plus the smells.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, as wonderful as being a very hungry grade schooler on a chilly day running home and slamming into the kitchen where everything smells of freshly baking bread and a vegetable/beef soup that has been simmering for hours.  This is something (minus the bread) that I do for myself when it gets to be chilly enough weather even now, using a Crock Pot and one of my mother’s recipes.  It is truly wonderful.  It is how I imagine those old cultures like the Celts celebrated their relief that, no matter what, their tribe had enough to eat for the cold, drear winter, and I would imagine they had stews and soups too that drew the men, women and children of the family home to sniff and revel and eat, to roll themselves into fur robes and watch the dying fire and tell stories of great deeds until they slept, bellies full, food stored, frightening animals and humans kept out by palisades, safe and warm and ready for the next adventure, the new year.

Vegetable Soup

Vegetable Soup

(And I didn’t look up one thing, which is not something that in the ordinary course of events I should celebrate, I know.)

Have a wonderful fall, at whatever time of year yours takes place, and enjoy the Harvest Home.

Winter solstice
Winter solstice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


[NOTE:  I belong to a writing group designed for self-expression.  The moderator assigns fifteen-minute essays (stories, poems, whatnot) based on pictures, grab bags of images, words, concepts, almost anything.  Each member of the group writes for the regulated amount of time and then we read aloud.  Occasionally, on this blog, I will publish some of the essays I have written in that group in a new category.  This is one of them, slightly modified.]

A Thick Forest

A Thick Forest (Photo credit: Jon Person)

“A forest which has never felt an axe.”  A time before history began.  Imagine a land filled with the green of growing, with the rustle and creep of living.  A land with no horizon, only trees for up and water for across.  A place where you cannot hear your own footsteps.  There are many such on our beautiful planet, from tropical rain forests to jungles to temperate rain forests to hardwood forests to pine forests in all our mountains to perhaps the most beautiful of all, the redwood and sequoia groves on the west coast of the North American continent.  But, let’s face it, humans really don’t feel comfortable in forests.

We did not start in such a place, we human beings, but in a wider, less lush world.  When we first came upon forests, in Africa and later in Europe, Asia and America, we found them uncanny.  We have always preferred spaces where we can see what’s coming at us.  In all the tales, the forest is a most frightening place, where the very trees, more alive than those in pastoral settings, can capture you and you’ll never be seen again.  Look what happened to Hansel & Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood or what almost happened to Frodo‘s friends in Pangorn.  To our species, just getting started, a forest was not a refuge, but a trap.

Arthur Rackham, illustration to Hansel and Gretel

Arthur Rackham, Hansel & Gretel--Image via Wikipedia

But the forest can be sanctuary.  If it’s harder to see your enemies in a forest, it’s also harder for them to see you.  Snow White found safety in a forest.  And so did the Celts.  Long, long ago, the Celtic tribes moved with their cattle and their looms and combs and swirling artistic designs, their ability to mine and market tin and salt, west and north from the Great Steppes into and over the heavily forested Alps.  Once over that barrier, they found a forest so primeval it seemed black instead of green, a forest anchored by oaks growing for hundreds of years, a forest so solid with growth that the occasional light-filled glade must have felt like a special benison from the gods, a forest in which the flow and pool of water was so astonishing–and so necessary–that each spring and pool soon became inhabited by its own goddess.

The Celts built a beautiful and sometimes terrible culture in the forests of Europe and the British Isles, in those primeval wooded places.  They hacked at the fringes for firewood and charcoal and space for houses and fields, but they worshipped the true untouched forest, feeling at home, at peace and filled with grace within its sheltering branches.

English: Maximum Celtic expansion in Europe. B...

Furthest Expansion of the Celts--Image via Wikipedia

Their culture remained supreme in Europe until the Romans.  The Greeks traded with them and warded them off, finding their religion barbaric, although they discovered the Celts’ priests–the druids–wise and cruel and crafty.  Best to keep them on the other side of Parnassus, after all.  But the Roman legions cut down the sacred oaks, walled and roofed over the sacred pools, renamed the gods and goddesses and so tamed them, even Cernan of the forest and Brigidda of the waters, suppressed the druids and the human sacrifice which had kept those woods so dark over thousands of years, and rammed through their stone roads to open up the forests to trade.  The intricate culture of the Celts never recovered–and neither did the forests.

But it is that Europe, that England, I long to see, the wooded land before the Romans, the sacred groves and pools, the interesting, productive, artistic, cultured and deadly people who, almost unique among the world’s tribes, loved the forests.  There are some pockets of forest left, just as there are still Celts among us, but mostly the black forests covering huge square miles of land are gone in Europe and England, cut down to build ships and palisades and houses, to clear fields for crops, and to burn as fuel.

Apart from the Celts, we humans have always found forests frightening and prefer them once they have felt the axe.