Tour, experience and education specialist, Wild Dog Outdoors, is accompanying its launch of gift vouchers with some gifts of knowledge relating to the rich history of the Northumbrian and Cumbrian landscape and the festive traditions of our ancestors.
The Haydon Bridge based, Northumbrian tour operator, which recently scooped a North East Tourism award, offers immersive experiences, which connect its clients to the landscape, using interpretative mechanisms such as costume, shields, weapons and even Roman helmets. The tours are about taking a leap back into the past, to understand the present.
Its tour of Cumbria’s stone circles offers highly relevant and topical knowledge at this time of year, with the circles having been used as sites at which the mysterious winter solstice was celebrated.
Whilst every stone circle is different, most observed the rising or setting of astronomical objects such as the sun, moon and certain stars and planets and it is easy to assess how the stones aligned with the sun, using a compass to assess where north lies from the centre of the circle.
The winter solstice was a key moment at these sites, marking the point at which the sun was furthest away from the Northern hemisphere, with this event occurring on December 21 – the shortest day.
The Yule festival was a pre-Christian Celtic fire festival, that celebrated the ending of the darkest days in the calendar. Whilst we associate Christmas with Christianity, its roots are to be found in this pre-Christian celebration of the winter solstice. It was only in 325 AD, at the Council of Nicea, that the Roman Emperor, Constantine, decreed that Christianity would be the official religion of the Roman Empire, to try to deter the cult of sun worship, that the pre-Christian Yule festival and the Roman celebration of Saturnalia came together, to create a more diverse celebration.
“The winter solstice is something that was celebrated in almost every culture,’ say Wild Dog Outdoors’ Joe Jackson. “Ancient people believed that the sun was dying as it sank lower into the sky in winter and were relieved when the sun began to rise again.
“In Bronze Age Britain, a shaman would observe the sun rises over the course of the week following the solstice, to check whether the sun had started to move back northwards in the sky. After a week of confirmation of the sun’s movements, another celebration would be held. This is actually the origin of our new year celebrations. In fact, the start of the new year had to be calculated by the rebirth of the sun for at least 5000 years.”
Christmas was celebrated by the Celts long before the invention of Santa! The Christmas Eve tradition of leaving out sherry and mince pies for the genial gent actually stems from the gifts of milk and honey biscuits that Celtic families would put out on Samhain (Halloween) and the night of the winter solstice. These were the nights on which the spirits of their dead ancestors were allowed to visit them.
Additionally, decorating the home at these times was a way to ward off evil spirits and the plants deemed to have this power were mistletoe, holly, ivy and yew.
In Roman times, the three-faced God, Janus, had a festival held at the time of the winter solstice and the rebirth of the sun. His three faces looked towards the past, present and future and our first month of the year is named after him.
Kevin Robson of Wild Dog Outdoors says: “We always try to add topicality to our tours and so, at this time of year, will talk about not just the landscape in general, but also how it connects to us in a particular month, or moment in time. Winter tours are always very interesting to stage, as people generally don’t understand the origins of Christmas and the New Year and how sites within our landscape, such as the Cumbrian stone circles and Northumberland’s Roman sites, can communicate so much, if we observe, assess and listen to what they are telling us.
“Our tours encompass so much storytelling, but the stories we tell are all true and not fairytales.”
Those wishing to learn more incredible facts by exploring the landscape with Wild Dog Outdoors, can do so all year round, with tours tailored to what is seasonally interesting and feasible, according to weather conditions.
Wild Dog Outdoors new gift vouchers can also be gifted to those who would love to know more about our present-day landscape and what it tells us about the past. Vouchers and more information is available at www.wilddogoutdoors.co.uk