Thursday, December 13, 2007

Lucy's Day

"It is the year's midnight, and it is the day's." John Donne's poem on grief and loss is set on St Lucy's Day, today, December 13.

But the year's midnight is December 21, the shortest day of the year, I thought in high school when we did the poem.

Years later, working for Parks Canada on 18th century Louisbourg, I had it sorted out for me. The French in Canada at that time used the modern Georgian calendar, but the British in North America still used the obsolete Julian calendar in preference to one associated with Gregory, who sponsored the calendar reforms as a Catholic Pope. So British dating was nearly two weeks out of whack with most of the world. Every time New England traders visited the port of Louisbourg, everyone had to do a little chrono-conversion (a bit like Americans venturing into the metricated rest of the world today). The Brits and their colonies, including fledgling Nova Scotia, made an abrupt and unsettling transition to the modern calendar in 1752, jumping forward thirteen days overnight.

When he wrote the poem about 1627, John Donne's December 13 would have been close to December 21 in the rest of the world's calendar. So it was his shortest day.

Yesterday, coming home in grim twilight in mid-afternoon, I knew what Donne was on about. In these latitudes, even with the right calendar, we're close enough to the shortest day already. Swedes and other Scandinavians have a festival of lights on this day. Lucy's one of those semi-legendary saints whose rite incarnates pagan customs; her name actually derives from "lux," light.
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