The wisdom of Whitby’s Hild

Saint Hild of Whitby, from a windo in St Hilda's Ashford.
Saint Hild of Whitby, from a windo in St Hilda's Ashford.

Written by Heather Elvidge

Yes, six weeks to go. And right now, Santa is on his way from the North Pole. Naturally, he’s travelling by sea – the reindeer will fly in later.

Mr Claus will arrive in Scarborough harbour this very Saturday. After a warm welcome from a happy crowd, he’ll settle into his grotto in Boyes Store. So, no more excuses - it’s time to get serious about Christmas and stop wishing the elves would sort it all for us.

While it’s not too soon to buy presents or cards, it does seem a wee bit early for Christmas music. Yet for some communities around Sheffield the carolling season begins this weekend, when pubs in Woodseats, Oughtibridge and Worrall will be packed for the season’s first “sings”.

These places have kept the tradition of village, or folk, carols. Some of the songs are local compositions handed down through 200 years; others simply weren’t included when the church settled on a repertoire of carols in the 19th century. Denied the chance to sing their old favourites in church, people took them to their local instead.

Local saint

On November 17 in the year 680, a remarkable woman passed away at Whitby. Learned men had valued her wisdom; kings and commoners had asked her advice; and even without being ordained – impossible for a woman – she had authority and influence in the Anglo-Saxon church. Her name was Hild.

In 657, Hild founded the abbey at Whitby as a double monastery for men and women. Under her rule it became famous for learning and trained five bishops, including John (later St John) of Beverley. She also encouraged the cowherd, Caedmon, to compose religious poems in his native Anglo-Saxon, at a time when such things were always in Latin.

It was because of Hild’s reputation that her abbey was chosen to host the famous Synod of Whitby in 664, which finally settled the dating of Easter.

After Hild’s death her community carried on until 867. Following a visit by the Danes, nothing remained of Hild’s abbey - the famous ruins seen now are Norman. But fifteen ancient churches were dedicated to her.

Falling stars

In the past, planets, meteors and comets were all known as stars. As these heavenly bodies could influence human destiny for good or ill, it was necessary to be careful.

Pointing at stars was disrespectful, and so was trying to count them. Nobody wanted to see a comet - that was a portent of some national disaster. A falling star was equally unwelcome, because this foretold a personal calamity.

Nowadays we call them shooting stars, and think it lucky to see one. We might even make a wish, even though we know that what we are seeing is a tiny meteor burning up in the earth’s atmosphere.

Every November our planet passes through debris left by the comet Temple-Tuttle, and this produces a stream of meteors, the Leonids. Odd ones can be seen throughout the month, with the peak occurring during the night of November 17. Although it won’t be spectacular – expect around ten an hour at most – it’s worth venturing out if the night is fine. Wrap up warm, look towards the northeast, and be ready to make that wish.