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Early artist's impression of a Stonehenge festive riteAn Introduction To Britain's Traditional Festival Year

In ancient Britain, the progress of the Sun, the Moon and even the stars was measured for calendar-keeping purposes using Megalithic ("big stones") sites, the most famous of which is Stonehenge. The megaliths showed alignments between various stones and both solar and lunar rising and setting points, in the manner of a sundial, but tracked over the year rather than a day. A traditional calendar was built on this basic structure of astronomical observation, dividing the old country year into four seasons, each with a festival at its start and end, and one at its mid-point.

Sites like Stonehenge could determine a simpler, more accurate and practical calendar than the one we use today, which is a Roman model, created by Julius Caesar and later Christian emperors, with months often named after themselves, of different lengths to try to compensate for its inherent imbalances. (British children traditionally memorise a 'mnemonic' verse to help them keep track of these irregularities: "Thirty days hath September, April, June and November. All the rest have thirty-one, excepting February alone, which has twenty-eight days clear, and twenty-nine in each leap year.") Using simple astronomical measurements to determine the annual solstices of Midwinter and Midsummer Day and the Spring and Autumn Equinox, the year can be divided into a traditional “country calendar” consisting of four 90-day solar seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter) plus a festival day between each.
It also can be used to solve the biggest problem in calendar creation, the reconciling of solar units (years) and lunar units (months, from 'moons'). It's thought that lunar calendars are older than solar, offering smaller and thus more important time-keeping units (of 28 days). The solar year can be tracked via a lunar calendar - provided a simple correction is made, of one day. That is, four 90-day solar quarters plus 4 'intercalary' festival days totals only 364 days. This roughly reconciles the solar calendar with the older lunar calendar in that 364 days is thirteen lunar months [13 x 28= 364], leaving a one-day discrepancy with the true solar year of 365.25 days. This is the background to the old legal term sometimes heard in fairy-tales, “a year and a day” to denote a complete 'luni-solar' calendar year of 365 days. The left-over '.25' is accommodated by making every fourth year a 'leap' year, adding (as the children's rhyme reminds us) an extra, 29th day in February, a device which prevents the calendar gradually going out of alignment with nature.
In the luni-solar calendar, the two solstices (literally “sun standing still” -- after which either days or nights take their turn to start to become shorter again), and the two equinoxes (“equal night,” i.e. when days and nights are of equal length) form the mid- or turning point of each season. The start and end of each seasonal quarter (known as cross-quarter days) were also marked with a traditional festival, often lasting a week or so in pre-Industrial times. The year thus had 8 calendric divisions, with each season commemorated at its start, middle, and end. Though reduced in scale, these 8 festivals are often still celebrated today, especially in the country districts where folk customs tend to survive best.

The start of Spring was traditionally celebrated the first week of February as this is halfway through the first 90-day seasonal period after the winter solstice. The Celtic festival of Imbolc or Oimelc, literally the time of the filling of udders with milk, i.e. the time when young animals are about to be born, was thus the time when there would soon be milk for people to drink at the end of a long hard winter. It was first Christianised as Purification Day (2 February), since the Roman month Februarius, from which February derives, refers to a religious rite involving self-punishment. But it was better known by the old English country name of Candlemas, as well as the Feast Of St Brigid and the Festival (3 February) of St Blaise (later mythologized as the mentor of King Arthur's Druid magician Merlin). With the romantic association of spring and love, Valentine's Day (14 February) may be another ancient survival, slightly displaced by its adoption into the Roman calendar.
The mid-point of Spring, on 21 March, is the Spring Equinox, meaning the time when days are as long as nights (equi-nox or "equal night"). Though often announced today by weather forecasters as the "first day of spring," there is today no surviving festival, it having been no doubt eclipsed by its proximity to the major, double Christian holiday (“holy day”) of Easter, which has retained its status as a week-long break.
Hare hatching from eggEaster officially falls on the Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. It is thus reckoned on a Christian, lunar, and solar basis, reconciling three different calendric elements. It is preceded and enhanced by Lent, from the Anglo-Saxon to “lengthen,” a period of 40 days fasting at winter's end to mark the lengthening of the day until it becomes longer than night. (The word “carnival” which today has come to mean a parade, may be from the Latin “Carne, vale” or “Meat, Farewell” - referring to the feast before or after which one abstains from meat for a while.) Easter is named after Eostre, the Saxon goddess of dawn. Easter was the start of the Christian year till 1752 when the Gregorian calendar was adopted. Eostre's pet animal was the hare (also sacred to the Celts) which like the rabbit was a symbol of fertility and at this time of year runs about madly fighting -- as in the expression “Mad as a March hare.” There were no rabbits in Britain at this time, only hares, but the Spring hare has now been commercialised as the Easter Bunny. The sign of Easter is the cross with four equal arms which is found on the Hot Cross Bun sold in the shops around Easter.
Spring ends in the first week of May with the old Celtic festival of Beltane Eve, now May Eve, marking the change to Summer.

Summer properly starts with May Day, now sometimes confusingly referred to in Britain as the Spring Bank Holiday but once the Celtic festival of Beltane, “Beautiful Flame.” This was the time of the cattle drive to summer pasture (a practise known technically as transhumance). For luck, the cattle were led out through the smoke of protective bonfires. It would also be about time for final planting of late crops. There was a pageant led by the chosen local May Queen and her consort the Green Man, and couples would dance around the May-Pole and go off a-maying, collecting May garlands. The Church conducted marriages at this time and imposed its own festival of Whitsuntide, when people set off on pilgrimages, perhaps to mark the end of the May celebrations, which were sometimes lengthy.
The high point of Summer, around 21/22 June, Midsummer Day (now officially June 24) or the Summer Solstice, was a festive occasion whose traditional country revels are satirized in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Couples would stay out for this the shortest night, waiting up for the sunrise of the longest day.
Saxon harvesting sceneThis could also mark the start of harvest time, while Summer's end in the first week of August could mark the end of harvest. This was once the Celtic festival of Lugnasagh, of Lugh the god of Light, Christianised as Lammastide, which involved the baking and giving of small bread loaves made from the harvest grain. Locally, after the harvest was safely gathered, there was a celebration sometime in August, known as the Harvest Home, a party or dance. (One is portrayed in Hardy's 1874 novel Far From The Madding Crowd.) A few pagan “thanks­giving” country practices have survived here such as making a “corn dolly” from the last corn sheaf harvested as a tribute to the Corn Goddess. These can sometimes still be seen hanging on the walls in country inns, and more elaborate hand-crafted effigies made from cane or wicker are also sometimes sold in country crafts shops.

The old Harvest Home festival, akin to today's Thanksgiving The start of Autumn is properly the first week in August, marked by Lughnasah or Lammastide. However to align it with the modern school term, (when the children were no longer available to help fulltime on the farm), the August festival has been moved to the end of the month, as the August Bank Holiday weekend. It thus now marks the end of summer for families, just before the children return to school. The seasonal mid-point comes on 21-22 September, the Autumn Equinox, which was displaced a week (to the 29th) on the Church calendar as the day of prayer to St Michael the Archangel, standing in for the old sun god representing the power of light over dark. In the Celtic era, Autumn ended in the first week of November with the festival of Samhain [the "mh" is pronounced as "v"] which marked the end of Celtic year. This was the “Witches Sabbath” when the spirits of the dead were said to come out of their graves, and this ghoulish fright-night aspect is still part of modern Hallowe'en (from “Hallowed evening”) on 31 October, i.e. the eve of 1st November. (The Celts counted by nights and hence always celebrated the evening before the festival day.) It was Christianised as All Souls Day. Clocks are usually put back an hour at this time of year, marking the end of British Summer Time.

The start of Winter in the first week in November may be commemorated by Bonfire Night (5 November). In practical country terms this was once time to start slaughtering cattle for meat at the end of their period of pasturage. Bonfire Night with the “burning of the guy” officially represents the patriotic burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes to commemorate his failed Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605, but some scholars believe this is probably a conversion of a much older fire rite at Celtic Samhain, which may have involved human sacrifice, by burning.
An early Xmas card: Victoria, Albert and familyThe mid-point (21/22 December) of Midwinter's Day i.e. the Winter Solstice, is marked by the most famous of ancient festivals, Christmas (24/25 December). Officially it is a Christian festival, the “Christ Mass,” adopted by the Church from AD 600. However, all pre-Christian societies seem to have celebrated a midwinter feast at this time to help than get through the darkest days of the year when their gods of light were at their weakest. The Romans themselves celebrated a Saturnalia, a Feast of Saturn the Lord Of Time. This was also the festival of the Lord Of Misrule, when the normal social order was inverted. and slave-owners served a dinner and drinks to their servants, a custom still practised by the British Army. The other name of the old Roman festival, also celebrated in Britain during the Roman Era, spells out the real appeal of a midwinter feast: Dies Natalis Invicta Solis, the Birthday Of The Undefeated Sun, for after the Winter Solstice on 21/22 December, days begin to lengthen again.
Today, the “Christmas Holidays” are still celebrated today in Britain with a relic of Nature worship in the form of the Christmas Tree which is dressed with decorations and stands in living rooms, offices, shop windows and town centres. This particular Nordic-English custom, for a long time not practised in England, was kept alive for centuries in Protestant Germany after being introduced by St Boniface, the English apostle to the Germans, and later re-popularized in English society by Queen Victoria's German husband Prince Albert around 1840. The tree used is a fir, but the symbolism is that it is an evergreen: a coniferous tree which does not wither in the autumn. More ancient traditions -- Nordic, Celtic and even older - also survive in the burning of the Yule Log; in the holly (used for wreaths), which was the male symbol connected with the Green Man, the god of green growth and the ivy (the female symbol). Some of the ancient symbolism survives in Christmas Carols such as “The Holly And The Ivy.”
Holly sprigThe pre-Christmas “count-down” four-week period is known as Advent. Although the custom is no longer observed as much in Britain as elsewhere in Europe, evergreen Advent Wreaths sometimes appear in shop or house windows, and children are sometimes given Advent Calendars. A flowering sprig of the Glastonbury Thorn tree (supposedly a token of the founding of Britain's first Christian church in the 1st Century AD) is also sent to the Queen and placed on the Royal dinner table. The mistletoe sprig, traditionally placed over a doorway by a woman (the custom that you may kiss her when she stands under it is probably modern), was connected with Celtic fertility rites conducted at this time so that children would be born in Summer, as the time of plenty. Santa Claus, the children-oriented corruption of St Nicholas, alias Old Father Christmas, is a Christian take-over of an ancient magical pagan figure, a bringer of presents for the children in the midwinter feast of plenty. His sleigh and reindeer indicate he was of Scandinavian origin.
Boxing Day (26 December), was originally in the spirit of the Roman Saturnalia: presents were boxed up for the servants and the local poor. (This custom is no longer generally observed, the only distinctive ritual here today being a new trend - bargain hunting in the shops advertising Boxing Day Sales.)
Vignette showing MistletoeThe celebrations end with New Year's Eve. In Scotland, this is called Hogmanay (a word of unknown meaning; Og in Celtic means ancient, timeless). At Hogmanay is the strange custom of First Foot, where it is thought good luck for a dark man to enter at midnight bearing a simple gift -- which some argue commemorates the annual renewal of the peace treaty between the fair-haired Celtic settlers and the darker aboriginal people at Britain.
As already noted, the end of Winter and start of another Spring should be in the first week of February. However there were traditionally twelve days of Christmas holiday, mid-winter festivities coming to a close on Twelfth Night, on 6 January, designated by the Church as Epiphany. (Oddly, the Glastonbury Thorn tree already mentioned, which flowers every year around 25 December, is said also to flower again for Epiphany.)
The old and the young new year In 1752 in Britain the old Julian Calendar created by Julius Caesar was adjusted by skipping 11 days as its in-built inaccuracy meant it had been slowly slipping out of sync with the true luni-solar calendar. However country folk often still insisted on commemorating festivals every 365 days exactly, so that after 1752 there were also 'Old' versions of festivals being celebrated 11 days behind the rest of the country. On Old Twelfth Night, it was and is customary to go wassailing, singing and pouring cider on the apple trees to encourage a good crop next spring - an obvious pagan fertility rite which has survived from pre-Christian times.
In Scotland however it is eclipsed in scale by a festival which follows soon after, which may be without any calendric basis - though it comes at a much-needed time, the most depressing time of year for many. This officially celebrates the birthday on 25th January, of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns, who popularised the sentimental song without which no New Year's celebration would be complete, Auld Lang Syne. On Burns Night, now celebrated in England, Russia and America, as well as across Scotland, there is a feast of traditional dishes (the haggis being the centre-piece), accompanied by poem recitals, drinking, songs, and toasts. §

dinner table toast

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