From its inception in 1957 until 2012, “The Sky at Night” was the world’s longest running TV programme to be presented by the same person, namely Patrick Moore. A distinguished astronomer with a wild mop of white hair and an eye glass, he made astronomy fun. He was self-taught – “just an amateur” he always explained, as well as being an amateur pianist, chess player, cricketer and golfer. He flew in bomber command in World War Two and said he lost the love of his life to a bomb dropped on the ambulance she was driving. I always adored watching his programmes as a child because he had such a great sense of humour.
This last year has involved a lot of both looking down at my feet to put one foot in front of another and, first thing in the morning or last thing at night, looking up at the skies as I walk the dogs. Winter skies in particular have such clarity, the Bear or the Dipper arcing down towards the north whilst pointing to it the North Star suspended over the hills towards Oxford. Orion to the south of the Castle has never looked so clear, Mars resolutely marking the sky whilst Arcturus, one of my earlier lockdown stars, has entirely left my evening walks and is now below the horizon. I can only see the stars because it is so dark to match the deeper darkness we have had this year and, as I walk, looking back in time and hoping for the future, I am reminded of a few lines from Henry Vaughan:
“I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright.”
In fact, I also saw a shooting star, a moment which is so exciting although I rather need Sir Patrick Moore to tell me what they are exactly. Equally we have an apparent conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which may have showed the three kings, the Magi, the road to Bethlehem, portents to use wisely.
It is, I suppose, such good clear evenings which, today, allow Father Christmas (or Santa Claus) deftly to steer his way across the roof tops, calling the reindeer by name:
“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blixen!”
Without forgetting Rudolf of course.
Last Friday we shared our Christmas Virtual Cocktail Party with Santa Claus as our very special guest. I did check the chimney beforehand to make sure it was swept but then forgot and, later that evening, thought we should light a fire for a little warmth on a winter evening. Geordie thought that was very funny and illogical as Santa would definitely have got slightly toasted which would not have been a good idea. In the end we were sure the front door was a better option, not to mention a more encouraging place to leave carrots for the reindeer. Santa Claus duly arrived bearing Highclere Castle Gin just in time to make the cocktails.
Christmas brings together celebrations at the darkest time of the year. It is just past the Winter Solstice of December 21s and, although it was superimposed on a much older tradition, it was the Roman Emperor Aurelian who named it “dies Natalis Solis invicti” (the birth of the invincible sun) which eventually became our Christmas day of December 25th. Marked by celebration and ritual, it was a festival of light (and gin cocktails had they known) and therefore perfect for the Christian story.
However, it is also a time to find resolution as we travel through these winter days hoping for gifts from Santa Claus -Happy Christmas.