Ancient feasts and festivals still living on

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.

 

Plough Sunday
Plough Sunday

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.

 

Rogation days

 

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.

 

Mamertus
Mamertus

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.

 

Harvest festivals

 

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.

 

Eostre's hare
Eostre’s hare

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.

 

 

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Poppies: Lest we forget

It’s amazing just how much symbolism can be attached to plants without most us even being particularly aware of it.

 

Take the poppy, for instance. The first thing that springs to mind for many of us, particularly around Remembrance Day on 11 November, is the little paper flower sold by The Royal British Legion on street corners. The charity’s aim in selling it is to raise money to look after serving and ex-servicemen and women plus dependents in need of financial and other support – an activity that it’s been involved in since 1921.

 

But while the poppy may be a motif that we all know, it wasn’t actually the UK that first appropriated it as an emblem of remembrance/the fallen, hope/rebirth, war/death (delete as applicable). It was in fact one Moina Michael, a US-based professor at the University of Georgia who began making and selling a silk version of the flowers after war had ended in 1918 to raise money for wounded armed forces’ veterans.

 

She had read and been moved by the now famous First World War poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ written by Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, after it was printed anonymously in the UK’s Punch magazine and reprinted around the world. Although up for debate, it is most commonly held that McCrae wrote the work on losing a friend in Ypres in Belgium while tending to the sick, after seeing a carpet of beautiful corn poppies growing in the churned mud of combat-scarred fields.

Poppy field
Poppy field

As apt coincidence would have it, blood red poppies were one of the few plants resilient enough to grow in the otherwise barren battlefields, representing in the process nature’s endless cycle of birth, life, death and renewal. And so these simple but poignant flowers came to represent the ultimate sacrifice made by those who perished in what US President Woodrow Wilson had idealistically named the “war to end all wars” – as well as the seemingly endless conflicts that have, unfortunately, followed since.

 

Funnily enough though, despite being such a poignant emblem for many Brits, the now iconic red poppy that was assigned its meaning by a Canadian and marketed by an American, was actually first brought to our shores via a Frenchwoman, Anna Guerin. She had worked with Moina Michael in the US and persuaded Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, founder and president of the British Legion, to adopt the flower as the organisation’s symbol – which on recognising its fundraising potential, he duly did.

 

But that is not to say the poppy hasn’t been without its critics. While for some the flower is all about family memories and the sacrifice of venerated ancestors, for others it is a symbol of death and support for war, of British nationalism, of oppression, abuse and atonement still to be made.

 

So it isn’t to everyone’s taste – despite the pressure to conform and wear one, particularly among those in the public eye. This scenario has led to widespread claims of “poppy fascism”, something you’d have thought was the last thing our late warriors would have wanted.

 

Political symbol?

 

So given the mixed feelings about the emblem, which like everything else these days seems to split the country, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the poppy, which has been classed as a political symbol by international football association FIFA, has been banned for use on the pitch.

 

The matter so incensed the English and Scottish football associations though that they chose to defy the ruling. Sending their teams out wearing black armbands embellished with the forbidden image on Armistice (Remembrance or Poppy) Day anyway, they vowed to contest the likely fine.

 

But it’s a testament to just how important these everyday symbols unconsciously are to all of us that, even in today’s prosaic age, wearing an apparently harmless flower can still cause so much angst. Interestingly though, the symbolic meaning of poppies has changed little throughout the ages. Often associated with ephemeral pleasures, sleep and oblivion, they have also been emblematic of new life and bloodshed since Ancient Egypt.

 

One of the most popular garden plants of the time along with cornflowers and mandrakes, in a culture that held to the Hermetic tenet “As above, so below” (because everything is interconnected, what you do as an individual will affect the heavenly spheres too and vice versa), they were also used in funereal tributes to the dead who, after a suitable rest, would be resurrected in the next life.

Demeter
Demeter

But the poppy was no less symbolic in Ancient Greece. At that time, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and harvest, had her beautiful daughter Persephone stolen by Hades, the god of the dead and the underworld, while out gathering flowers. Demeter, who was grief-stricken, searched for her daughter in vain, but as her unhappiness mounted, the crops began to suffer.

 

So to ease her pain and help lull her to sleep, poppies started growing at her feet. In fact, the Greek name for the flower to this day is still ‘nepenthes’, which means ‘potent destroyer of grief’.

 

While Demeter slept, Zeus, god of the sky and king of the gods living on Mount Olympus, visited Hades and persuaded him to allow Persephone to return to earth from the underworld for two thirds of the year. During that time, she would live with her mother, who would make the fields fertile again. But on going back to the underworld at the end of summer, the earth would grow cold and barren again reflecting Demeter’s winter grief.

 

So in this way, poppies came to be associated with regeneration, activity after sleep and the renewal of life, while their abundant seed heads represented fertility and the gift of life. Which is all very apt really – whether you celebrate Poppy Day or not.