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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Is Britain really a Christian country these days?

Although the UK still describes itself as a Christian country, it appears that a majority of its citizens these days simply aren’t.

 

According to a recent analysis of data collected over three decades via the British Social Attitudes survey, a huge 48.5% of people in England and Wales said they did not ascribe to any religion – nearly double the 25% who chose not to acknowledge any religious affiliation in the 2011 census.

 

On the other hand, people who identified themselves as Christian, which includes members of the Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches, made up only 43.8% of the nation, the study entitled “Contemporary Catholicism in England and Wales” found.

 

Wayside cross
Wayside cross

Stephen Bullivant, senior lecturer in theology and ethics at St Mary’s Catholic University in Twickenham, who analysed the data, attributed the shift to people who had been brought up in a religion no longer choosing to classify themselves in that way.

 

“What we’re seeing is an acceleration in the numbers of people not only not practising their faith on a regular basis, but not even ticking the box,” he told the Guardian newspaper. “The reason for that is the big question in the sociology of religion.”

 

As a lapsed Catholic who wouldn’t quite know how to describe herself if asked, I could certainly proffer an opinion on that, although I wouldn’t claim to be representing the Great British Public’s views in any general sense, of course.

 

Firstly, there’s the question of relevance in an increasingly secular society. At one time, priests and vicars automatically sat at the heart of the community as respected figures. But it seems to me that, as society has changed and drastically so since the 1950s – when incidentally established religion first started to go into decline – many of them failed to move with the times and think through what useful role they might play, simply expecting to retain their former status as a right.

 

Personally, I’m a big fan of liberation theology,  which is much bigger in South America than it is here, but is all about enabling social justice, human rights and helping to alleviate poverty. In my humble opinion, getting out there and helping the vulnerable and needy has to be more of a worthwhile goal than surrounding yourself with often elderly acolytes and pontificating from a church pulpit once a week.

 

Losing faith

 

But the goals don’t even have to be that lofty really – just focusing on pastoral care  and corporal and spiritual works of mercy for people across all faiths would be enough. At the very least, it would help, in many instances, to make spiritual leaders more visible to the (wider) communities they supposed to serve.

 

A second point relates to the fact that, as a society, we seem to have lost faith in the great institutions that ruled us in the past, preferring to go our own way and make up our own minds. As we’re all well aware, very few people trust politicians to do anything these days but create their own power bases and feather their own nests.

 

Trade union membership has also plummeted to just over six million from a peak of more than 13 million in 1979. And with lots of people you talk to, unless they happen to work in the public sector, it wouldn’t even occur to them to sign up. They just can’t see the point – or remember the seemingly endless industrial disputes of the 1970s with more than a little distaste.

 

Recent junior doctors' strike
Recent junior doctors’ strike

So it’s of little surprise, particularly when so many disillusion-engendering child abuse cases in both the Catholic and Anglican churches have come to light, that people are turning their backs on yet another traditional institution of behavioural control. The question is that, if these idols with feet of clay prove themselves less than worthy and close ranks to protect their own when public exposure threatens, why would anyone buy into their moral authority?

 

But there’s also a third consideration, which is linked to the last one. And that is, perhaps the time for gurus is over. While lots of people may be losing interest in established religion per se, that’s not to say they don’t have spiritual yearnings that they fulfil in multifarious different ways. And I’m not just talking about pursuing increasingly popular alternative paths such as paganism.

 

Instead I’m referring to everything from doing voluntary work in order to help others through to throwing yourself passionately into a worthwhile cause or tapping into your own creativity and painting a beautiful picture, for example. Spirituality means different things to different people and there are myriad ways to express it.

 

But ultimately, it’s about moving beyond the mundane and working with something bigger than yourself in order to help give your life meaning. And you don’t necessarily need a church to mediate that for you.

 

Special relics

 

Anyway, going back to Bullivant’s report for a minute to prove the point, it revealed that four out of 10 people raised as Anglican, the established or state church of England, have now abandoned their faith, with almost as many Catholics doing likewise. As a result, the segment of the population describing itself as Anglican has plummeted from 44.5% in 1983 to a mere 19% in 2014, with Catholics accounting for only 8.3%.

 

Although the study did not cover either Scotland or Northern Ireland, findings from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey published in April revealed similar trends, with 52% of the population failing to align themselves with any religious grouping. The figure compares with 40% when the study began in 1999.

 

So with all of this in mind, I must say it did strike me as a bit odd that the re-emergence in the UK of a bit of St Thomas Becket’s elbow from its former resting place in Hungary  would get so much national press coverage.

 

OK, it was the first time that the relic had been home for 845 years after the man it was formerly attached to was murdered by four burly knights in Canterbury Cathedral, where he was archbishop. He’d fallen out with his former good mate King Henry II and ended up being hacked to death in front of the high altar as they’d thought that’s what the sovereign wanted. “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” etc.

 

Place where Becket was murdered
Place where Becket was murdered

In the process though, they created a martyr whose shrine became a magnet for pilgrims from all over Europe – a situation that in turn became the inspiration for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of our first works of literature written in vernacular English rather than Norman French, at that time the language of the elites. So far, so good.

 

When Becket was reburied in 1220, however, bits from his remains in the shape of bone fragments, scraps of clothes and the like were nicked and disappeared across Europe, with his elbow shard somehow making its way to Esztergom in Hungary. And there the relic has remained ever since, reportedly becoming a symbol of Catholic resistance under communism.

 

But at the end of May, it came back home for a week and toured Westminster Cathedral and Abbey, Rochester Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral and other churches associated with the 12th century archbishop to great apparent excitement – despite the fact that venerating bits of saints bodies has never been a particularly British thing, as far as I’m aware, even among Catholics. Instead it seems a much more popular, if rather macabre, activity of Southern European countries such as Spain.

 

Still, each to their own – not least because even scientists, despite their secular logic, insist on keeping relics of their own gods too. A lock of Sir Isaac Newton’s hair on display in the entrance hall of the Royal Society in London. Albert Einstein’s blackboard, with his E=MC2 formula chalked on it, at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. It all just depends on how you look at things really.