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Archive for December, 2009

Aztec sun stone showing the days and months of the year

Aztec sun stone showing the days and months of the year

This time of year – that bit between the Christmas and New Year celebrations – always reminds me of the nemontemi “empty days” of the Aztecs.

The Aztecs of ancient Mexico were very attached to their surprisingly accurate calendar, based on the solar year. It was made up of 18 months of 20 days, also split into five-day weeks.

But to round it up to the necessary 365 days it takes the Earth to make a full circuit of the sun, five “intercalendary” days were added at the end of the year, which would fall around February 8 to 12 in our calendar.

This was an ominous and unlucky time, marked by fasting and the complete absence of the usual rituals and ceremonies linked to the agricultural year.

These were useless days, days out of kilter with normal life, days of chaos, days of the year’s death.

The days between Christmas and New Year are also pretty useless days – all the familiar TV schedules have gone to pot – and I always have a slightly superstitious fear that the next year won’t arrive. This always passes around the middle of the day on our UK New Year’s Eve, when Australia has safely made the transition into the New Year, making our own midnight celebrations a mere formality, we hope.

Are there other similarities between the nemontemi days and the Christmas/New Year week? The Aztecs considered this a time to reflect and contemplate rather than to interact with others. They stayed near their homes, conflict of any kind was avoided and everyone talked in whispers.

Ah yes, like the lull between the family arguments we usually have at Christmas and New Year. But as for staying close to home? It strikes me an awful lot of unnecessary travel to get to the parents’ home takes place during the festive season these days.

During the Aztecs’ nemontemi days no fires burned and no cooking took place. Tortillas were prepared in advance and eaten only once in a day.

Um, maybe that’s a bit like eating up all the food we have overstocked with for Christmas, or on the other hand perhaps it’s more like making a resolution to diet in the New Year.

OK, so the analogy isn’t that good, but as I always take a break from work for that last week of the year, I for one do use it as a time for catching up with myself and I always feel relieved when the sun rises safely on January 1…

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Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera russelliana) in bloom

Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera russelliana) in bloom


It’s that time of year when garden centres – and even supermarkets – are piled high with Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera russelliana). But unlike the more familiar and disappointing poinsettias, these plants can last for many years, not just for a few weeks over the festive season.

The key to looking after cacti is to think about their natural habitat. It may come as a surprise to some people, but the plants we call “cacti” come in two very different types – the desert varieties, which are usually prickly and built for storing water, and the epiphytes, which are strappy and prickle-less and grow on trees in the jungle. All come from the New World.

Saguaro - Carnegiea gigantea in the Arizona Desert

Saguaro - Carnegiea gigantea in the Arizona Desert

Only recently have I realised this – in my youth I knew only (more…)

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Everyday British coins

Everyday British coins

new coins

Shiny new British coins

Every morning before I leave the house, as I sort the change for my bus fare, I make my own demonstration of Gresham’s law. Have you ever heard of it?
Sir Thomas Gresham (1519 – 1579), was an English financier during the time of the Tudors in England. His law says that bad money drives out good and it’s pretty obvious in a way.
Long ago our everyday coins were (more…)

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