It’s amazing how many remnants of ancient festivals and feasts still remain as part of the UK’s cultural life and mores – somewhat altered over the years perhaps, sometimes almost unrecognisably so, but there nonetheless.
As many of these events, particularly those of an agricultural bent, have their origins in the cycles of nature though, I guess it’s not entirely surprising that they’ve clung on, often by their fingertips. While most of us, sadly, have lost touch with the land, we’re hopefully not too far removed from her just yet to recognise her ancient ways and understand their significance, albeit superficially.
And as if to prove the point, the church at Thaxted, a picturesque little town not far from my home base of Saffron Walden in north Essex, held a traditional service dating back to medieval times a couple of Sundays ago to celebrate the start of the agricultural year. Called ‘Plough Sunday’, it’s always held on the Sunday after the Epiphany, otherwise known as the Twelfth Day of Christmas, on 6 January.
In medieval times, the festivities consisted of the whole village bringing its sole ploughshare into church for a clerical blessing. But by Victorian times, when the tradition was revived, many farmers owned their own ploughs and so a representative one was chosen to stand in for the rest. Modern day tractors, meanwhile, are generally seen to outside – for obvious reasons.
But although the implements may have changed, the ceremony itself is still about praying for a good growing season and successful harvest, and is often accompanied by other rural customs such as Morris dancing. After the blessing, the plough was traditionally hauled through the village by a procession of people led by a Fool and a ‘Betsy’ – a young boy dressed up as a woman – who collected money from anyone they met and stopped at as many pubs as possible along the route in order to commandeer a drink.
And ‘Betsy’, it seems, is linked to a cross-dressing tradition relating to Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night marked the end of a medieval winter festival that started on All Hallows Day (now Halloween) and finished at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was presided over by the Lord of Misrule, who made his first recorded appearance at the end of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain and who symbolised the world turning upside down.
Anyway, the following day was Plough Monday, the first day back at work for farming folk after the Christmas break. But Plough Sunday wasn’t the only agricultural church feast on the annual celebratory calendar.
Next on the list were Rogation days – the major one being held on 25 April and the minor ones on the Monday to Wednesday preceding Ascension Thursday. Rogation apparently comes from the Latin verb ‘rogare’, which means to ask – in this case farmers asking God to protect their crops.
Interestingly though, it is thought that the origins of the major rogation day go back as far as Roman times. It was then that the feast of Robigalia was held and a dog sacrificed to propitiate Robigus, a god whose job it was to protect the corn from nasty diseases.
The minor days, on the other hand, were introduced in AD 470 by Mamertus, bishop of Vienne in south-eastern France, before being officially adopted by the Catholic Church. First arriving on British shores in the 12th or 13th century, they were originally supposed to be days of quiet fasting and abstinence to prepare for the Ascension – although they later appeared to descend into raucous days of drunken revelry, much to the Church’s displeasure.
Farmers also took the opportunity to have their crops blessed once again, while another popular ceremony involved “beating the bounds”. Here parishioners indulged themselves in yet another procession, but this time around the boundaries of the parish.
Led by the priest, his church warden and the choirboys, they prayed for the parish to be protected over the coming year – a habit derived from the Roman festival apparently, which saw revellers walking to an out-of-town grove of trees to perform sacred rites.
Anyway, the next big feast of the agricultural church year is Lammas, the first traditional harvest festival of the year. Although of equally pagan bent, Lammas has much more of a Celtic flavour and took place on 1 August.
The word ‘Lammas’ itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘half-mas’ or ‘loaf-mass’ to represent the loaf of bread made from the new crop of wheat, which began to be harvested at that time. But the festival was originally known as Lughnasadh in Ireland at least after Lugh, the Sun King and god of Light. In England, he was also known as John Barleycorn, the harvest god and living spirit of the grain.
The idea was that as the corn was cut down, so was John Barleycorn. By sacrificing himself, the community would devour him in the form of bread and live on. But because his essence was in the seeds, he was reborn the following year as a new crop, the first and last sheaf of which were considered vital.
As a result, the first sheaf was always ceremonially cut at dawn and baked into the Harvest Bread, which was shared by the community in thanks. The last sheaf, which was treated with equal respect, was made into corn dollies and carried to the village.
Here they were given ribbons and clothes and transformed into corn maidens following a good harvest or old crones after a bad one. They would be kept above the hearth in people’s home to ensure a good crop the next year, when they were ploughed into the first furrow of the new spring season.
Apparently started by the Anglo-Saxons, the custom was based on the belief that the last sheaf held the spirit of the corn. So it was sacrificed, along with a hare (considered a creature of Eostre, the goddess of Spring and rebirth after whom Easter is named. Her symbol was a hare and she apparently turned into one at each full moon) that had been hiding in the crop somewhere. As time went on, the sacrificing stopped though and little hares were made out of straw instead, before morphing over time into the aforementioned corn dollies.
Anyway, last but not least is the second Harvest festival of the year (the third being Samhain on 31 October), which is held on the Sunday closest to the Harvest Moon – the full one that occurs around the time of the autumn equinox on 22 or 23 September. Also known as Michaelmas due to the cult of St Michael the Archangel (the one who fought against Lucifer and his evil band of angels), which took hold during the 5th century, it is associated with the start of autumn.
But because Michaelmas is the time that darker nights and cold days begin, its celebration was about invoking the Archangel’s protection over the months to come, darkness being associated with the growing strength of negative forces.
Sometimes also called “Goose Day”, it was traditional to eat a well-fattened bird fed on the stubble from the newly-harvested fields in order to protect against penury over the year ahead. Goose fairs were common too and, in fact, Nottingham still holds one each year in early October.
But in Protestant households at least, the custom of Michaelmas mostly came to an end when King Henry VIII split with the Catholic Church, and the feast duly morphed into Harvest Festival. Here people went to church to sing hymns and give thanks, taking baskets of fruit and veg from their farms and gardens, which were then given to the poor.
And so, as truly amazing as it may seem, many of these ancient customs have remained with us throughout the centuries, somewhat altered over the years maybe, but carried with us nonetheless.