Showing posts with label holidays. Show all posts
Showing posts with label holidays. Show all posts

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A Short History of Valentine's Day

The origins of Saint Valentine's Day lie shrouded in obscurity. Saint Valentine himself, a third century Roman martyr, seems to have nothing to do with the romantic traditions that became associated with his feast.

Dr. Douce, in his Illustrations of Shakespeare, cited in The Book of Days, writes:

It was the practice in ancient Rome, during a great part of the month of February, to celebrate the Lupercalia, which were feasts in honour of Pan and Juno. whence the latter deity was named Februata, Februalis, and Februlla. On this occasion, amidst a variety of ceremonies, the names of young women were put into a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed. The pastors of the early Christian church, who, by every possible means, endeavoured to eradicate the vestiges of pagan superstitions, and chiefly by some commutations of their forms, substituted, in the present instance, the names of particular saints instead of those of the women: and as the festival of the Lupercalia had commenced about the middle of February, they appear to have chosen St. Valentine's Day for celebrating the new feast, because it occurred nearly at the same time.

The first mention of Valentine's Day traditions in England originate from the 14th century writers Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower who both allude to the folk belief that birds choose their mates on the feast of Saint Valentine, their patron.

In Britain, the mating flights of crows, rooks, and ravens can generally be observed by February 14. Here in Lancashire, I notice more and more birdsong each day as February advances and the birds repair their nests, preparing for a new cycle of birth and life.

Around 1440, John Lydgate's poem in honour of Queen Katherine, widow of Henry V, is the first to mention romantic traditions among humans associated with this date:

To look and search Cupid's calendar,
And choose their choice, the great affection.

People of both sexes sent tokens of admiration. You could either send a token to the romantic interest of your choice, or draw lots as to who would receive your Valentine. In 1470s Norfolk, the Paston family seems to have perferred drawing lots rather than sending tokens to a chosen person.

Actual Valentines could be quite costly. In 1523, Sir Henry Willoughby, gentleman of Warwickshire, paid 2S, 3d for his. Unfortunately no description of this costly item remains for us today.

After the Reformation, the feast of Saint Valentine was abolished, and yet the amorous traditions flourished.

By 1641, the system of casting lots for Valentines was so well known in Edinburgh that a wag waggishly proposed their new Lord Chancellor be chosen by the same method.

A Dutch visitor to London in 1663 observed:

it is customary, alike for married and unmarried people, that the first person one meets in the morning, that is, if one if a man, the first woman or girl, becomes one's Valentine. He asks her name which he takes down and carries on a long strip of paper in his hat band, and in the same way the woman or girl wears his name on her bodice; but it is the practice that they meet on the evening before and choose each other for their Valentine, and, come Easter, they send each other gloves, silk stockings, or sometimes a miniature portrait, which the ladies wear to foster the friendship.

In his diaries of the same decade, Samuel Pepys reveals how he would call by a colleague's house early in the day in order to make the man's daughter his Valentine. Pepys would also arrange for a young man to call to pay the same homage to Mrs. Pepys and bring her presents, which Pepys then paid for. One year when Pepys was short of cash, alas, no young man with presents appeared and Mrs. Pepys was quite irate. Eventually they settled on a yearly ritual, whereby Pepys's cousin paid a visit to honour Mrs. Pepys and bring her presents which Pepys knew she desired.


The Book of Days

Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

Sunday, 16 October 2011

All Hallows Eve in Old Lancashire

Come Halloween, the popular imagination turns to witches. Especially in Pendle Witch Country, the rugged Pennine landscape surrounding Pendle Hill, once home to twelve individuals arrested for witchcraft in 1612. The most notorious was Elizabeth Southerns, alias Old Demdike, cunning woman of long-standing repute and the heroine of my novel Daughters of the Witching Hill.

How did these historical cunning folk celebrate All Hallows Eve?

All Hallows has its roots in the ancient feast of Samhain, which marked the end of the pastoral year and was considered particularly numinous, a time when the faery folk and the spirits of the dead roved abroad. Many of these beliefs were preserved in the Christian feast of All Hallows, which had developed into a spectacular affair by the late Middle Ages, with church bells ringing all night to comfort the souls thought to be in purgatory. Did this custom have its origin in much older rites of ancestor veneration? This threshold feast opening the season of cold and darkness allowed people to confront their deepest fears—that of death and what lay beyond. And their deepest longings—reunion with their cherished departed.

After the Reformation, these old Catholic rites were outlawed, resulting in one of the longest struggles waged by Protestant reformers against any of the traditional ecclesiastical rituals. Lay people stubbornly continued to hold vigils for their dead—a rite that could be performed without a priest and in cover of darkness. Until the early 19th century in the Lancashire parish of Whalley, some families still gathered at midnight upon All Hallows Eve. One person held a large bunch of burning straw on a pitchfork while the others knelt in a circle and prayed for their beloved dead until the flames burned out.

Long after the Reformation, people persisted in giving round oatcakes, called Soul-Mass Cakes to soulers, the poor who went door to door singing Souling Songs as they begged for alms on the Feast of All Souls, November 2. Each cake eaten represented a soul released from purgatory, a mystical communion with the dead.

In Glossographia, published in 1674, Thomas Blount writes:

All Souls Day, November 2d: the custom of Soul Mass cakes, which are a kind of oat cakes, that some of the richer sorts in Lancashire and Herefordshire (among the Papists there) use still to give the poor upon this day; and they, in retribution of their charity, hold themselves obliged to say this old couplet:

God have your soul,
Bones and all.

Other All Hallows folk rituals invoked the power of fire to purify and ward. In the Fylde district of Lancashire, farmers circled their fields with burning straw on the point of a fork to protect the coming crop from noxious weeds.

Fire was used to protect people from perceived evil spirits active on this night. At Longridge Fell in Lancashire, very close to Pendle Hill, the custom of ‘lating’ or hindering witches endured until the early 19th century. On All Hallows Eve, people walked up hillsides between 11 pm and midnight. Each person carried a lighted candle and if the flame went out, it was taken as a sign that an attack by a witch was impending and that the appropriate charms must be employed to protect oneself.

What do these old traditions mean to us today?

All Hallows is not just a date on the calendar, but the entire tide, or season, in which we celebrate ancestral memory and commemorate our dead. This is also the season of storytelling, of re-membering the past. The veil between the seen and unseen grows thin and we may dream true.

Wishing a blessed All Hallows Tide to all!

Source: Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain


Soul Cake Recipes

Souling Songs

Excerpt from Daughters of the Witching Hill

At Hallowtide, Liza insisted on walking up Blacko Hill, as we’d always done, for our midnight vigil on the Eve of All Saints. Under cover of darkness we crept forth with me carrying the lantern to light our way and John following with a pitchfork crowned in a great bundle of straw.

Once we reached the hilltop, after a furtive look round to make sure no one else was about, John lit the straw with the lantern flame so that the straw atop the pitchfork blazed like a torch. With him to hold the fork upright and keep an eye out for intruders, Liza and I knelt to pray for our dead. In the old days, we’d held this vigil in the church, the whole parish praying together, the darkened chapel bright as day with the many candles glowing on the saints’ altars. Now we were left to do this in secret, stealing away like criminals in the night, as though it were something shameful to hail our deceased. I prayed for my mam and grand-dad, calling out to their souls till I felt them both step through the veil to bring me comfort.

In my heart of hearts, I did not believe my loved ones were in purgatory waiting, by and by, to be let into heaven. There was no air of suffering or torment about them, only the joy of reunion. My mam, young and pretty, worked in her herb garden. She hummed a lilting tune whilst her earth-stained fingers pointed out to me the plants I must use to ease Liza’s birth pangs. Grand-Dad whispered his old charms to bless me and Liza and John.

A long spell I knelt there, held in the embrace of my beloved dead, till the straw on the pitchfork burned itself out, falling in embers and ash to the ground. Our John helped my pregnant daughter to her feet, then we made our way home through the night that no longer seemed so dark.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Bringing Light to Dark Places

Warmest Midwinter Blessings to all my readers

It's all too easy to feel frazzled and stressed during this time of year when the ancient sacred significance of the season has been overshadowed by the commercialism of "Giftmas."

Midwinter is the darkest time of year, the time of the Winter Solstice, when the sun appears to stand still in the sky. Here, in the North of England, the darkness feels overwhelming. The sun does not rise until after 8:00 and sets by 3:30. By 5:00, it's pitch dark. Now imagine experiencing this before the era of electric lights and central heating.

This silent tide of year has been marked by sacred ritual from time out of mind. Modern Christmas has roots that reach back before the dawn of Christianity.

The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, the Festival of Saturn, with much merry-making, gift-giving, and "misrule," as the masters waited upon their slaves. People decorated their homes with greenery. Rich and poor alike joined in the feasting. In Northern Europe, Yuletide festivities marked the Solstice and the return of the light. In De temporum ratione, the Venerable Bede (673-735) wrote that the Pagan Anglo-Saxons began their year on December 25, on a feast they called Modranecht, or Mother's Night, marked by ceremonies that lasted the entire night. Mostly likely this feast was connected with the cult of the Matronae, the female ancestors.

Although there is no scriptural evidence to suggest that Jesus was born on 25 December, the early Church embraced this Solstice tide as fitting for the celebration of the birth of the Son of Light. Traditionally Christmas lasted for Twelve Nights, from December 25 to January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, once the old date of Christmas. During the medieval period, no villeins worked their lord's land during this time. In fact, their lord was obliged to provide a feast for them. As in the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia, medieval Britons enjoyed a reversal of the social order by crowning a Lord of Misrule, a common born man who lorded it over the gentry to guarantee hilarity for all.

This was a time of carol singing, games, and "guizing" - wild processions in animal masks that draw on the lore of the Wild Hunt that swept down from the sky across Northern and Middle Europe during the Twelve Nights. This kind of guizing still takes place every Christmas in the town of Kirschseeon near Munich, Germany. Mummers wear elaborately carved wooden masks and run through the woods in the Perchtenlauf, in eldritch celebration of the Rauhnaechte, the twelve nights of Yule, a time of much superstition, when it was believed that old Gods roared through the sky and the dead spirits walked the earth. The Perchtenlauf takes its name from Frau Percht, a figure that is closely associated with Frau Holle, who may have her roots in an old Goddess.

Traditionally the time for telling ghost stories was not Halloween, but the Twelve Nights, time out of time when all kinds of uncanny things could come to pass. Animals spoke in human speech. Water turned to wine. The future could be foretold. All spinning stopped and no wheel could turn. Time stood still. The world held its breath, awaiting the return of the light. In Glastonbury, the Holy Thorn Tree on Wearyall Hill bloomed on Christmas day.

This beautiful short film invites viewers to devote 12 minutes on each of the Twelve Nights to silent contemplation of the mysteries of this season. Anyone, of any spiritual tradition, can reclaim the numinous grace of this time out of time.

A dear friend of mine has reclaimed the beauty and power of Hanukkah. She read about how Hanukkah didn't really start with the Maccabees, how it was a much older holiday than that - and originally about bringing light to dark places. "So in every way I can," she says, "I use this season to bring light to dark places. Literally, figuratively, whatever. Sometimes it's just about watching the sun go down, turning on the light in the dining room, and saying out loud, 'Thank you for this miracle of light in my home after the sun has gone.'"

May all of us bring light into dark places.

Wishing you all a joyous Midwinter and a New Year filled with happiness and peace,


The newly released paperback edition of Daughters of the Witching Hill is now shipping! You can order it here.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Corpus Christi Carol

This haunting medieval carol seemed appropriate for today. There is definitely a mystery hidden in this song.

Corpus Christi Carol

Lulley, lully, lulley, lully,
The faucon hath born my mak away.

He bare hym up, he bare hym down,
He bare hym into an orchard brown.

In that orchard ther was an hall,
That was hanged with purpill and pall.

And in that hall ther was a bede,
Hit was hangid with gold so rede.

And yn that bede ther lythe a knyght,
His wowndes bledyng day and nyght.

By that bedes side ther kneleth a may,
And she wepeth both nyght and day.

And by that bedes side ther stondith a ston,
"Corpus Christi" wretyn theron.

faucon: falcon
mak: mate, love
bare: bore, carried
purpill: purple (the royal color)
pall: a funeral pall, a cloth spread over a coffin
bede: bed
rede: red
lythe: lieth, lies
wowndes: wounds
bledyng: bleeding
kneleth: kneeleth, kneels
may: maid, maiden
wepeth: weepeth, weeps
stondith: standeth, stands
ston: stone
Corpus Christi: body of Christ (Latin)
wretyn: written