The basic way of experiencing time is not as a succession of fixed units (e.g. hours), but through three natural cycles: night and day, the moon's phases, and the year. The first is the most immediate, and the most charged with symbolic and emotional meanings; darkness is equated with the unknown, evil, and death, while light is equated with goodness, activity, the familiar world, life, and ultimately God. Nevertheless, in mythic thought darkness precedes light, and night precedes day, as can be seen both in Genesis 1 and in the Germanic and Celtic custom of counting nights rather than days. In modern time-keeping, as in Ancient Rome, a day begins immediately after midnight, not at dawn; in liturgical reckoning, a day begins at sunset (e.g. the Jewish Sabbath includes Friday evening, the first Mass of Easter Sunday is held on the Saturday night).
   Within the night/day cycle, special importance was given to *midnight and *midday, and to certain transitional moments or periods - the first *cockcrow, dawn, and sunrise. Night, especially the period around midnight, belongs to ghostly, devilish, and uncanny forces, which humans should not risk meeting; however, this taboo also makes it a time of power, suitable for *divinations and sinister magic, and those born at midnight were thought to have occult abilities (see *chime hours). Dawn (or cockcrow) drives away the evil spirits of night; sunrise is right for healing rituals such as passing a child through a split *ash or a bramble arch, and for various luck-bringing customs such as gathering *May dew. Sunset and twilight, though of course relevant to the routine of daily work, are not associated with customs or serious beliefs, though children were until recently threatened with various *bogeys if they stayed out late (see *poldies, *hytersprites).
   The *moon was mainly associated with agricultural and medicinal lore, since its waxing and waning was thought to affect plants, animals, and humans; there are customs linking luck to the new moon, and magic to the full moon.
   Theoretically, the natural annual cycle repeats the night/day cycle on a larger scale, with *midwinter and *midsummer corresponding to midnight and midday, and the equinoxes to sunrise and sunset. In practice, this pattern is lacking in English tradition: the equinoxes are ignored and midsummer has lost much of its significance, while the midwinter period of *Christmas and *New Year has become overwhelmingly important. However, its associations are now almost wholly cheerful and benign; eeriness has been transferred to *Halloween, leaving only a vague idea that telling ghost stories is a fitting amusement at Christmas.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.


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