Let's stay one more day in Europe before heading back Stateside for tomorrow's penultimate beer and the calendar finale on Christmas Eve.
Today marks the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Officially the solstice occurs at 05.30 UTC, 12.30am Eastern time, 9.30pm on Wednesday Pacific time, so it seems only fitting to feature a beer with the word solstice in its name, and than gives us a chance to pay a second visit to Hoggleys. You remember Hoggleys. They're the brewery who who were dissuaded from brewing one of their Christmas seasonals only to have it featured in a beer blog as one of the ten best Christmas beers, in the opinion of the blogger of course. Incidentally, it looks like Jeff Evans has made a substitution because Yuletide is no longer included in the list.
Hoggleys Solstice Stout is one of their year-round brews today but it started life as a winter seasonal. It's a good choice for a midwinter beer when the weather's none too kind and the days are short. You'll notice I said 'midwinter' there, not 'beginning of winter'. I grew up calling the solstices Midsummer Day and Midwinter Day, although I now live in a place where they're considered the first day of summer and the first day of winter. The latter description I can understand because winter in southern central Texas doesn't usually begin until December, at least not winter as I know it. There are plenty of trees around here that have just begun to shed their leaves and we've only had one or two frosty mornings so far. It still feels quite autumnal to me. I know the weather here is unpredictable and I've experienced an ice storm in November, but we're talking about weather patterns here - climate - rather than the weather itself.
I have to say, though, that calling June 21st 'the beginning of summer' in Austin brings a wry smile to my lips because by the time the summer solstice comes around, our average daily highs have already touched 90°F (32.2°C) and we're well into the blistering Texas summer.
So if the summer solstice is midsummer, when does summer begin? That's a question that once again takes us back to pagan times, with a little Christianity thrown in for good measure. The solstices (longest/shortest days) and the equinoxes (days of equal length) are familiar to most of us, but what about the quarter days and cross-quarter days?
They both have their roots in pagan traditions, but the quarter days in particular have acquired a Christian flavour. They occur roughly three months apart and are Lady Day (March 25th), Midsummer Day (June 24th - not 21st, the longest day), Michaelmas (September 29th) and Christmas (December 25th). Michaelmas is named after St. Michael the Archangel whose feast day falls on September 29th. June 24th is the nativity of St. John the Baptist, Lady Day is the feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, and Christmas we all know about, but in between each of those are the cross-quarter days, some of which will be very well known to you even though you might not know it, and it's two of these which mark the beginning of summer and winter in most European countries.
Beltane falls halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice and is associated with May Day and all its attendant traditions such as dancing round the maypole and the May Queen. I've no idea what Marc Bolan meant when he suggested that you should "Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane" though.
Samhain happens halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, on November 1st. In other words, Samhain is All Hallows Day which makes the day before it All Hallows Eve - Halloween. Candlemas (beginning of February) and Lammas (beginning of August) are the other two cross-quarter days, marking the transition from winter to spring and summer to autumn.
I hope to try some Hoggleys beers one day. I doubt they'll ever make it to Texas (because I don't think they'll ever become big enough to think about exporting their brews, not in my lifetime anyway) so it looks like a trip to Northamptonshire is on the cards.