Turning Year: Conjuring up a sweetheart

Romantic dreams on the Eve of St Agnes.
Romantic dreams on the Eve of St Agnes.

On dark mornings it feels as though the sun’s forgotten to rise. And in a way it has, because in January a strange thing happens to time.

We expect dawn to be earlier now – after all, the shortest day was in December – and yet it isn’t. It’s all down to the tilt of the earth’s axis and our planet’s orbit around the sun, which is more oval than circle. Consequently the days can be more, or less, than 24 hours long.

We notice this particularly in December and January, when clock time creeps ahead by a small amount each day. By the time we’re halfway through February our clocks are around 14 minutes ahead of the sun.

There is a solution. We could reset our clocks every day, using a sundial. But it’s much easier to pretend that every day lasts exactly 24 hours.

Folklore says we should be grateful for January’s grim face: “In January if the sun appear, March and April will pay full dear. If January calends be summerly gay, ‘twill winter continue till calends of May.”

In spite of the danger of summerly gay days, the old lore allows two dates when it’s safe to welcome the sun. One is January 22, St Vincent’s Day, when one “transient beam” is enough to fulfil the rather wild promise of good weather throughout the year.

More significant is January 25, St Paul’s Day. A fine St Paul’s foretells good weather in the harvest months of summer. But if the 25th is wet or snowy, those months will suffer.

Lovelorn

Surprisingly perhaps, chilly January invites us to think of romance. The 25th is the feast day of St Dwynwen, the Welsh version of St Valentine; it’s also the night when Scots celebrate the romantic verse of their national poet, Robert Burns. But our forebears, especially young women, thought the evening of the 20th was more important. This is St Agnes’ Eve, a key time for love divination.

The aim was to identify a sweetheart-to-be by conjuring up his wraith. This wasn’t a ghost, but the spectral double of a living person. The simplest method was to go out at midnight and scatter hemp or barley seed around an old apple or oak tree, saying: “Barley, barley, I sow thee, that my true love I might see; take thy rake and follow me.”

A more complex ritual was the dumb cake ceremony. For this a real cake – with some very strange ingredients – was baked by a group of friends, working in total silence. Exact details vary across the country, but if all the steps were strictly carried out the wraiths of their future husbands should appear as they slept.

Trying to foretell the future remained popular from at least the 17th century to the end of the 19th, so the connection between St Agnes and love divination was well known. However, it received a huge boost in 1820 from the publication of John Keats’ dramatic poem, The Eve of St Agnes.

After discovering his beloved plans a divination ceremony, the hero makes sure that her dreams include him by hiding in her bedchamber. The poem ends with the couple’s elopement. Who says January has to be dull?