Have any of you noticed that tomatoes are becoming tasteless? It’s the same story with most vegetables, isn’t it? The size and texture are fine – the result of genetic engineering – but the flavour is sadly lacking. I have a theory – one not supported by fact. – that the French should be held accountable for this phenomenon. And, funnily enough, I believe that it’s directly linked to the way in which we celebrate the advent of the New Year.
Back in more enlightened times the annual cycle observed by ancient civilisations began, not as it does now, at the height of summer – or the depths of winter – but in the spring, and was timed to coincide with the vernal equinox, the moment when the sun passes across the equator and moves into the northern hemisphere, (which occurs on – or around – the 21st March.)
It was a natural choice of date as it coincided with the sowing of crops. A time when farming folk helped boost the fertility of the soil with a little bit of sympathetic magic and a whole lot of rogering among the root crops. A practice intended to encourage turnips, radishes and raw muesli to emulate the efforts of the farmer and his missus and grow big and strong.
The ancient Romans refined this system, (the measurement of passing time, that is, not the sympathetic magic bit) and left us a legacy that we still observe in the naming of the months. The first month of the New year they named in honour of the god Mars, a deity who was originally linked with the fertility of the soil and who, only later, became associated with war.
Beginning, then, in March, the Roman calendar consisted of just ten months. (The logical outcome of only having ten fingers.); April (from the Latin word meaning “to open”); May (after Maia, the goddess of increase); June (after Juno, the queen of heaven); (July – the birth month of Julius Caesar – and August -after his predecessor, Augustus, were later amendments, replacing two minor deities whose names I forget); and then, in typically prosaic fashion, the ancient Romans just numbered the months; September (7th); October (8th); November (9th) and December (10th). Following which they had an uncounted gap in winter between the years.
It was not until 713 BC that Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, added the missing two months. The first he named January (after Janus, the god of the beginning of things and a two-faced git who looked towards both the past and the future.). The second added month was one of atonement and named after the Latin word ‘februare’, “to cleanse”.
To mark the beginning of a New cycle of life it was customary among many ancient civilisations to suspend the unwritten rule that it was cruel to laugh at other people’s expense. The New year was ushered in with practical jokes and tomfoolery. The emerging Christian church thought that this was bad form, particularly as it often coincided with Passion week or Good Friday itself and so the New Year was always celebrated on April 1st., a date that didn’t interfere with the Christian Festivals and yet was still sufficiently close to the vernal equinox.
As the Church gained a greater hold over the daily affairs of the population the old order changed. Primitive practices and superstitions were outlawed under threat of excommunication. Where possible the Church imposed its own festivals in place of the ancient pagan ones that still survived. Maintaining the Faith was all important and was assisted by combining science with theology.
In 1582 the French caved in completely to the dictates of the Church by adopting the reformed Gregorian calendar introduced by Pope Gregory XIII and moved the celebration of the New Year back to January 1st.
The British, being of stouter stock, held out against change until 1752 when they, too, followed the French lead and swapped the older Julian Calendar – first introduced by Julius Caesar – for the ‘newer’ Gregorian type.
Now I’ve no evidence for thinking this, but it seems to me that the British reluctance to adopt a new calendar was nothing to do with their deep rooted dislike of all things French, or necessarily a desire to preserve the ancient ways of ensuring a bumper crop of runner beans. The delay was, to my way of thinking, caused by an initial question of physical comfort.
Let’s face it. It’s a better proposition to sow your wild oats and go humping in a haycock in April than it is to risk frost bite on important appendages by giving the milk-maid a good seeing to in a paddock in the middle of winter.
We could, of course, continue to blame the French for the poor quality of modern vegetables, but, as Australians, I think that the power to rectify the situation is within our grasp. Our culture has been transplanted from the northern hemisphere where the water goes down the plug hole the wrong way. Our seasons are almost in tune with the ancient way of things. An accident of geography that presents us with the opportunity to give future generations of Australian school kids a tomato sandwich that their mums’ can be proud of.
Let’s resolve, then, to make 2020 the year in which we reject a calendar that’s been foisted upon us by the French; a year in which we resurrect the traditional – and proven – methods of crop production by getting right down to it and frolicking in the furrows.
Who knows? There might not be much real magic left in the world anymore; and precious little of it to be found by mucking around in the mud, but I’m prepared to do my bit and give it a go if it means a better tasting ‘love-apple’. Even if I do have to wait until April Fool’s day.
The above piece was a toast that I was required to give on a memorable New Years Eve many, many years ago. 🙂