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Banners in the Mist:
a quarterly newsletter
delving deep into the past

Hi! I'm Joyce Holt, writer of historical fantasy.

Eventually I'll use this venue to offer sneak peaks of my forthcoming novels. For now, while my career is in the limbo-land of waiting to hear back from agents, I'll devote this quarterly newsletter to glimpses into the past, not necessarily related to my body of work.

World News

Dateline January 1,   Anno Domini 1000

reprinted January 1, 2016     - - -     Volume 3 Number 1

Saint-Maurice (later, in the 15th century)

Solstice and Sleds
Midwinter Alpine Festival

EUROPE: Saint-Maurice d'Agaune, Kingdom of Arles (Switzerland)--

Since yesterday's Saint Silvester Day fell on a Sunday, most of the celebrations were postponed to today. Church bells tolled at midnight to signal the passing of the old year, according to the ancient Roman calendar.

Also at midnight a pig was set loose in town. All through the wee hours, laughing townsfolk tried to lure the pig within reach or drive it toward a friend. Tagging the Silvester pig is sure to bring good luck!

This morning as children and youths gathered in the village square with their toboggans and horn sleds, they merrily shouted the traditional insult "Silvester!" at the sluggard who comes last of all.

Everyone piled sleds with firewood for the bonfires to be lit high in the Alps outside town in celebration of the turning of the year.

As they began heading up the mountainside for the bonfire and sled races, one enterprising youth harnessed his big shaggy mastiff to his sled to ease the toil of the trek.


  Joining the festivities were three different parties of travelers sheltering at the abbey of Saint-Maurice. Two groups intended to travel east and over Simplon Pass to northern Italy once the weather clears. The other means to take the shorter, more dangerous southern route over Poeninus Pass*.
[* fifty years later to gain the name Great Saint Bernard Pass]

This afternoon, the travelers added their cheers -- in German, French, and Italian -- to the clamor welcoming the front-runners in the sled races. Hugo de Consonay won the junior class. Haymo de Broc took the men's, and the elderly brothers Thorinchus and Boso de Moldone tied for master class.

One Italian visitor asked if our sled runners are lined with horn to make them so swift. It had to be explained that the name "horn sled" refers to the shape of the runners, curling up at the front like a ram's horn. It is the meticulous sanding and waxing of the wooden runners that make them skid smooth as an otter across the crust.


In 2015, the Abbey of Saint-Maurice d’Agaune celebrated its 1500th anniversary!
It is the oldest abbey in the West to have been in constant use.

Dear Messieurs et Madames:

We gave our ten-year-old daughter a pink silk ribbon for Saint Silvester Day, which led to questions about silk and the Silk Road and the fabulous countries of the east. We had answers for all but the last.

Do the Chinese celebrate Saint Silvester's Day and the New Year as we do?

Mme Hildegard de Capella
Saint-Maurice, Kingdom of Arles

Dear Madame de Capella:

We referred your intriguing question to a monk from your very own monastery who had already submitted a travel article for this edition. (see page 2) See below for his response to your daughter's question.

World News Editorial Staff

My dear Mademoiselle de Capella:

I'm sorry to say the Chinese have never heard of Saint Silvester.

However, they do celebrate the New Year -- but not at the same time we do here in the West, nor in the same manner.

In China they eat fish instead of roast goose at the New Year. They eat noodles and rice balls instead of raisin bread. They eat oranges instead of pears.


The Chinese don't celebrate with mountaintop bonfires, but they do set off little explosive packets of gunpowder called whip-cannons. I am enclosing a tale about these firecrackers and how the tradition began. I hope you enjoy it.

Have a happy new year, old Roman style!

Brother Giroldus
Saint-Maurice d'Agaune, Kingdom of Arles

Legend of the New Year

On the coast of China in ancient times, the end of winter brought a night of dread. On the eve of Guo Nian ("passing year"), a horned monster would climb out of the sea. It had the body of a bull and the head of a lion, and it came to devour cattle and crops and any child foolish enough to be wandering out-of-doors.

This was the Nian.

"nian" means "year"

Folk who lived near the sea would flee to the mountains on New Year's eve, for no one could survive a battle with the Nian.

One New Year's eve, at the seaside village of Taohua (Peach Blossom), as everyone was closing and barring their homes and gathering their cows and sheep for the trek to the mountains, a beggar trudged into town. No one had time for him.

No one but one old woman who gave him a rice ball. "Come with us to safety," she urged him, then told him about the dreaded Nian.

The beggar thanked her but said he would not flee. "Lady," he said, "if you let me stay one night in your house, I will get rid of Nian for you."

"No one can stand against that monster!" she cried, and tried her hardest to persuade him to come away. At last she relented and gave him permission to stay in her house.

In the middle of the night, the Nian stormed into the deserted village. The monster trampled gardens and tore open barns, hunting for any livestock left behind. But when the Nian came to the house where the beggar was staying, it halted in surprise.

      The beggar had pinned red paper to the door. Candle-lit lanterns hung from the eaves and from the trees in the yard.

The great beast backed off a step, shaking its head, growling at the glaring lights and brilliant color.

The red door swung open, and a string of small, red-wrapped paper parcels flew out to land at the Nian's feet. Before it could give them a sniff, they began to explode -- tiny bursts of light and noise, one after the other.

The Nian backed off another step, cringing, wrinkling its nose against the sulpherous smell of gunpowder.

Then the beggar leaped out the door, banging metal pots together in a deafening clamor.

The Nian whirled in panic and fled back to the sea, terrified by the lights and the noise and the blazing color red.

When the villagers returned, the beggar told them how he had fared all alone against the monster. From that day on, the folk of China spend New Year's eve staying up late with lights and noise, firecrackers and lanterns, and everywhere the bright, brilliant color red.

To The Ends
    of the Earth

One monk's adventures
    on the Silk Road

ASIA: Almatu, Zhetysu ("seven rivers"), Kazakhstan--

by guest contributor Brother Giroldus
      of the monastery of Saint-Maurice d'Agaune, Kingdom of Arles

A while back it was my great good fortune to travel with a group of my fellow Augustinian monks from Rome on a proselyting mission to the east. In Constantinople we joined a caravan of merchants that trekked with thousands of laden camels all the way to Almatu.

the Tien Shan Mountains in Kazakhstan

The ancient city of Almatu is situated just north of the Tien Shan mountains, a range that hooks up with the Himalayas far to the southwest.

As we crossed the Silk Road's highest point on the flanks of the Tien Shan Mountains, we sighted a rather frightening creature... large and menacing like the fabled tiger but with spots instead of stripes.

A snow leopard, our guide told us, calming our fears. This magnificent beast hunts wild sheep, goats, hares and yaks, and rarely bothers travelers.

Footsore and weary, we descended through forests of wild walnut and apple trees, arriving in this desert city, Almatu, at the turn of the year. I thought surely we had traveled to the end of the earth, but my companions just laughed. Not even halfway across Asia yet, they told me. I was glad to hear they were turning back, having traded all their goods to other merchants who might continue further east. Almatu was far enough from home to suit me!

Along the route, we had stayed at many caravanserai, inns where we could rest from our labors, bathe and do some trading. Here in Almatu we also needed warming! On the steppes below the Tien Shan mountains, the winter wind stings as frigid as any blast coming off the Matterhorn back home. The waterways were frozen over, solid enough for horseback ice-racing -- but the locals had never heard of such a competition.

The population in Almatu seem to be mostly fair-haired pale-eyed Buddhists. Other Buddhists had come from China, along with folk of a different faith, the Tao or Way. There were also a few dark-bearded, olive-skinned Muslims who had traveled from their city of Taraz to the west. This mixed population welcomed my brothers and me into their diverse community.

a Buddhist pose         the yin yang of the Tao         architecture of Islam

Indeed, when I mentioned that, according to my reckoning, the new year had just begun, the locals were most accommodating. The Chinese Buddhists offered to sell me candles and firecrackers. The local fair-haired Buddhists treated me to their traditional new year fare and offered to take me to a temple of Buddha so I could worship, as was their own new year custom.

      All this in spite of puzzled looks and hurried talk about the calendar. They all agreed I must be mistaken since the moon is in the wrong phase to mark a turning of the year.

The locals say the new year starts on a full moon, the last of which happened six days ago. The Chinese merchants cried, "No, no! The new year starts at the second new moon that comes after the winter solstice!" ... which would put their celebrations nearly forty days later than the good old Roman calendar.

I suppose that if even the Christians of Europe can't agree on the date the year should turn, I shouldn't wonder that other nations around the world differ so widely.

Home in the kingdom of Arles we still follow the ancient Roman calendar which starts on January 1. Most other Christian peoples start their year either on Christmas Day or on the Day of Annunciation, March 25. In Constantinople where we began our travels, they start the year on September 1. Some Celts in Ireland and Wales still celebrate the year's beginning on November 1. In Venice and Kiev they take March 1 to begin the year. New Year for the Jews usually falls in September. In Sweden, it's at the first full moon after the winter solstice.

When I asked the Muslims, they responded, "The month Muharram." Which month is that? I asked them, referring to my own calendar. They shrugged. "It's a religious observance and moves around with the passing of years. The start of our calendar isn't anchored by the passage of the sun as yours is. This year it happened ten days ago. Every thirty years we add eleven leap days."

When I shook my head, baffled, one Muslim grinned. "Yes, our calendar can be very confusing, and no use at all for farmers. My father told me that in Egypt, his homeland, the ancient agricultural calendar began with the season of inundation we call Akhet, when the Nile river rose into flood. Akhet's first month begins in what you would call August. Although they also had a lunar calendar, and that always tied into the rising of the star Sirius which put its start at September 20."

My head spinning with all the myriad ideas about beginning a year, I ordered drinks for everyone in the room and declared, "Happy New Year the old Roman way!"

a yurt in Kazakhstan

"AD" and Two "D" Dudes

In the Roman Empire, when you spoke of an event in the past, you would mention which emperor was ruling at the time. "In the fifth year of Nero..." for instance.

But emperors kept changing, so dating became confusing.

Record-keeping became simpler after the reign of Emperor Diocletian. Even after someone else took the throne, people kept referring to "Diocletian years" when speaking of past or future events.

Two hundred and forty years after Diocletian's death, a Christian monk by the name of Dionysius the Short proposed a change. After all, Diocletian was notorious for his persecution of Christians. Why should the Christian world memorialize his dark name in their history books and event planners?

Dionysius the Short came up with the idea of marking events in reference to the beginning of the Christian era. "Anno Domini" (Year of our Lord), AD for short, soon replaced the scheme of "Diocletian Years." This took place in what then became known as AD 525.

Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians prefer to date from the creation of the world: Anno Mundi, or AM.

Muslims use Anno Hegirae, AH, the year of the Hijra when Muhammed trekked from Mecca to Medina.

Sun Descending
Ancient symbol of the Solstice

AFRICA: Asyut, Abbasid Caliphate (Egypt)--

Today, the 20th day of Muharram, 390th Year of the Hijra, tragedy struck a village on the outskirts of Asyut. A flash flood plowed down from the highlands to the west of the Nile river valley, following a week of unseasonable rain.

The floodwaters destroyed several houses at the edge of the village Durunkah and devastated many wheat and barley fields on the flats bordering the Nile. It's midway through the agricultural year, now well into the Season of Emergence, and crops are thriving in the rich soil brought by the Nile during the Season of Inundation which ended three months ago.

However, those fields in the path of the flash flood will be a total loss.

Only twenty days into the religious new year, the area around Asyut has already received a year's worth of rain. The elderly among both the Muslim and Coptic communities say they have never seen such a spell of wet weather.

The monks at the monastery have taken in two displaced families while the others have sought shelter with relatives. Both communities are joining in searches downstream to hunt for lost livestock. Among the carcasses already recovered was found that of a wolf.

Priests and imams alike frown at the resurgence of tales about the ancient wolf-headed deity Wepwawet who once was said to preside over the winter solstice festivities in this area. (Not to be confused with black-skinned Anubis, the jackal-headed god, who presides over the summer solstice.)

Asyut's name in antiquity, after all, was Lycopolis: city of wolves.

Gray-skinned Wepwawet and his inspiration, the African Golden Wolf


Only days after the winter solstice, the flash floods uncovered the ruins of a small temple, with walls inscribed with hieroglyphs.
One local scholar makes this attempt to interpret the writings:

hieroglyph for the winter solstice

  The solar disk floats down from the sky.

Hands reach to receive the disk as it descends.

Notice the ankh –- the looped Egyptian cross -– a symbol for the giving of life.

The goddess-sisters Isis and Nephthys sit either side of the ankh, waiting for the return of the sun.
"The life-giving sun descends from the sky-ocean into the hands of the siblings Isis and Nephthys." This panel, some believe, is a symbol of the winter solstice.

First Salmon Returns
New Year by the river

Nixyáawii ("place of many springs," pronounced: nikh-yaw-way),
Columbia River Basin
(northwestern United States)--

The sky has finally cleared over Nixyáawii. One blizzard after another has kept most Umatilla folk indoors for a full moon-cycle, hampering the new year festivities.

The folk of Nixyáawii celebrated Kimtee Inmewit (New Year) eleven days ago, in spite of the lack of astronomical observation to determine the winter solstice. Even though the date of the solstice was successfully determined by means of a knotted-string record of days, and there was plenty of meat stew and frybread, some of the feasting had to be delayed. For one thing, the expected guests had not arrived due to the storms. And the highlight of the celebration, the year's first salmon catch, had to wait for a break in the weather.

Today the men were at last able to venture to the river for the winter run of nusux, king chinook. Salmon was the first food created when the world was new, the mainstay of life in the river basin and the backbone of trade with tribes in other regions.

      After all these days penned inside the longhouse, listening to the chants and legends and traditions of Kimtee Inmewit, the children know the honored list by heart.
  • Nusux (salmon), of first importance.
  • Nukt (deer), second.
  • Sliiton (bitterroot), third.
The youngsters know well the cycle of life among the Umatilla:   Winter beside the great river Nch’i-Wŕna (Columbia river) while the first salmon run churns the waters. Spring for the second salmon run and for meeting other tribes at gathering places like Wy'am (Celilo Falls) and trading for goods from far away. Early summer in the foothills of the Blue mountains, digging for starchy tubers of bitterroot, camas and kowsh with which to make biscuits. Late summer, higher in the mountains, hunting deer and elk and gathering berries. Back to the river in the fall for the third salmon run.


left to right: Springbeauty corms, Biscuitroot roots, Burdock root (sliced) and Bitterroot roots

During tonight's feast honoring the first salmon of the year, the children will sing their lessons back to their elders. There will be drumming and dancing and dried huckleberries for a treat. Until then, they follow the path of youngsters everywhere on a sunny winter day. They turn their chore of fetching firewood into a rambunctious snowball fight!

CULINARY: Recipes from Nixyáawii

Bitterroot patties

Remove bark from bitterroot roots. Boil or pit-roast the roots until soft and spongy. (They will swell to about six times their size.)

Mash, then mix with bear fat and moss, forming patties. Let patties dry in the sun or beside the fire.


Slice venison as thin as you can. Sprinkle the slices with salt and let them sit a while.
  • If the weather is dry and cool, hang the meat strips in a breezy place for several days.
  • If the weather is damp or warm, dry the strips on racks over a low, smoky fire.
When the meat is dark brown and the texture of old, dry leather, take a handful and beat it on a rock until it's shredded into a pulp. Add well-rendered bear fat, dried berries, and a pinch of salt. Form into bars or balls and let sit until dry. Wrap in leaves, and store in a basket in a cool place.

        Small amounts of pemmican can keep you going a long time. Don't leave on your travels without it!

A Lament For The Lost
In the wake of the wave
SOUTH AMERICA: Cautín, southernmost Butalmapu (confederation), Chile--

Early this morning a great wave crashed onto the beach, smashing boats and houses, injuring several people and causing one fatality. The Nguluche people of the coast are shaken -- but glad the death count went no higher, remembering the huge tsunami that struck not long before We Tripantu, the first day of the new year.
Though that disaster happened months ago, memories are still raw. Only one funeral is planned for tomorrow, not a dozen like the time before.

Musicians are already practicing their dirge on the kultrun (drum) and trutruca (long bamboo-shafted horn).

            Meanwhile, the local Machi (shaman) is treating the injured. He has already set bones and splinted fractures. Three wisewomen assist, gathering medicinal plants for bandaging wounds, as well as canelo leaves to use tomorrow morning when the Machi will climb the steps of the sacred rehue to pray with his face to the rising sun.

Several households are already hauling their salvaged possessions to higher ground. The weather is likely to hold fair and mild while they rebuild.

Folk still shudder at the memory of the last tsunami during midwinter when the whole community faced disaster in the hardest time of cold and hunger.

No children were among the injured this morning, for they have not yet returned from their field trip high into the Andes to observe the stars at summer solstice.


Legend has it that far, far to the north, the seasons stand on their heads. There they wallow in winter while here the Nguluche folk relish the bounty of summer.

Some say that way to the north, the stars dance in different patterns.

Here we can rely upon Ngauponi (the Pleiades) to rise after nightfall this time of year.

At midwinter, Ngauponi rises right before the weak, fading sun. Twelve days before the winter solstice, to be precise.

Here in the southernmost corner of the Butalmapu, we need not worry about such uncertainties in far off lands. The first morning sighting of Ngauponi always heralds the rebirth of the sun -- "New Starting Sun" -- We Tripantu.

When the Sea Shrugs
    Washing up on distant shores

AUSTRALIA & SOUTH SEAS: Rarotonga (Cook Islands)--

        Not long before sunset yesterday fishermen spotted the masts of three great vakas (giant double-hulled canoes) while still a long way off.

The fishermen sped back to shore to bring word of the threat.

It turned out not to be a raid by strangers, as first feared, but a return of long-lost adventurers. The weary warriors beached their weather-beaten vakas to the shouts and cheers of their kin.

One of the explorers waved a bone, a leg-bone from some mammoth creature. "A bird!" he cried. "Tall as two men! We feasted on the monster for ten straight days!" He passed around shreds of dried meat.

Folk gawked at the incredible leg-bone. "What is it called?"

The adventurers shrugged. "We found no men on those shores to tell us any names. We gave it the name of moa."

The folk of Rarotonga feasted into the night, celebrating the return, listening in wonder to the tales of exploration. The adventurers told of a long shoreline, and mountains that ran up and up into the sky. So much land, and all free for the taking.

      Too bad it lay so far across the sea.

The people of the great south ocean always need more land. The islands, scattered so far apart, quickly grow overcrowded.

"It is not paradise," the adventurers warned. "Remember we set out with five vakas. We would have returned months ago but the sea rose in a gigantic wave and slammed our vessels, smashing two of them like flimsy rafts caught on reefs. We slaved long and hard to repair the other three so we could come home."

The island elders asked when the tsunami had occurred. Not at Te Tau Hou, the new year, was it?

The explorers replied that it was indeed. They had spotted Matariki (the Pleiades) rising just ahead of the sun, which heralds the turn of the year.

That left the folk of Rarotonga with something to think about. Had it been the same great wave, crossing the wide ocean? It had happened on the same day. If so, Tangaroa, god of the great waters, had heaved his watery cloak across all the vast swell of the southern sea.

Credit for illustration:
Steven Ward, Ph.D., Research Geophysicist,
      Institute of Geophysics and Planning Physics, University of California, Santa Cruz
* Ward, S 2015, 'Tsunami' , World Book Student, World Book, Chicago;

This account of a tsunami in the year AD 1000 is fictional... but based on reality.

In August 1868 a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of northern Chile set off a devastating tsunami that killed thousands of people along the South American coast, and traveled across the Pacific Ocean with enough strength to destroy villages on the shores of New Zealand.

Both Chile and New Zealand sit right upon the Ring of Fire, tectonically active zones that trigger volcanoes and earthquakes and tsunamis.

Legends of Matariki

Ranginui the sky father and Papatuanuku the earth mother were deeply in love and inseparable. They had seven children. Six of the children conspired to separate their parents, and erected pillars to keep them forever apart.

The seventh, Tawhirimatea (the god of the winds), failed to prevent this tragedy. In rage he tore out his eyes and flung them far into the heavens.

His eyes became stars, the seven stars of the Pleiades. The Maori named them Matariki which means "the eyes of god." (A different translation comes out as "little eyes.")


Another legend tells that Matariki is a mother surrounded by her six daughters, Tupu-a-nuku, Tupu-a-rangi, Waiti, Waita, Waipuna-a-rangi and Ururangi. Matariki and her daughters aid the sun, Te Ra, whose winter journey from the north has left him weakened.

When Matariki and her daughters first reappear, the Maori greet them with songs lamenting the loss of those who have died in the previous year. But the singers’ tears are joyful too, because the New Year has begun.

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