Professor Nick Groom’s new book The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year is a celebration of the English seasons and the trove of strange folklore and often stranger fact they have accumulated over the centuries. In an exclusive post for The Dabbler, Nick looks at the English Christmas…
Hallowe’en, with its black plastic witch costumes and gruesome sweets, is over. Pumpkins can now be bought for a pittance. For my daughters and their friends (and for shops and supermarkets up and down the country) that means one thing: Christmas. But England once had a far richer tapestry of seasonal festivals, which patterned and punctuated the year. Who now delays gathering nuts until after Holy Cross Day? Who eats a goose at Michaelmas? Little remains of this calendar of saints days, weather lore, and local customs; instead, this harvest-home of traditions has been replaced by a dumbed-down agenda for the year based on a handful of annual retail events: Christmas, Easter, Hallowe’en, and Valentine’s Day (although commemoration of the maverick Gunpowder Treason Day has remained fairly immune to exploitation). But it is not too late to rediscover those lost festivals that once connected us organically to the year, from the first snows of winter to the last gleanings of apples and pears.
We are of course a profoundly more urban and a less rural population than ever before, increasingly cut off from the land and its produce, and so the shared heritage of the yearly cycle has accordingly become ever more remote from its agricultural origins. Instead, our experience of the year reflects contemporary society, which in its technological and agricultural sophistication will go to the ends of the earth to source or grow asparagus in the autumn, strawberries in the winter, and apples all the year round. Our awareness of the passing of the year is now prompted more by seasonal ‘limited edition’ flavours of gourmet potato crisps than by birdsong and wild flowers.
The consequence of this is an impending cultural catastrophe because our collective memory of the year is heading towards extinction: what was once a cornerstone of national identity, braiding together remembrance, history, and landscape, is increasingly derelict and forgotten. Only tattered remnants survive. What will have been lost to us when we no longer recognize, or even hear, the cuckoo call in the springtime, when we read the nature writing of Gilbert White and John Clare not for the shared pleasure of the shifting seasons but as an archaeological relic of a bygone era?
Reconnecting with our seasonal heritage is one of the best ways of reawakening what it is to be English. So let the Scots keep their Hallowe’en in its re-imported, American form – the sombre English festival for that time of the year is Hollantide, which has its own wealth of folklore. And by acknowledging Hollantide, a distinctive little piece of the cultural jigsaw is restored. How many students have wondered why Shakespeare’s Prince Hal remarks of Falstaff, ‘Farewell, the latter spring; farewell, All-hallown summer’? Shakespeare was not writing metaphorically, but from his direct experience of the seasons. We’ve just had an ‘All-hallown summer’: warm days during Hollantide at the beginning of November; a belated frolic.
So to Christmas: the biggest seasonal festival in England, one that has in fact become characteristic of England. Christmas affords an opportunity to identify and celebrate typical English values and culture. Giving provisions or doles to the poor and needy was customary on St Thomas’s Day (21 December) to ensure that everyone enjoyed a good holiday, and meals during these celebrations inverted social status in order to support the poor and needy. Presiding over this world turned upside down were boys elevated to the status of bishops, and the ‘Lord of Misrule’ [above] a carnivalesque figure bedecked with holly – ‘Sir Christmas’, or ‘Old Father Christmas’. Natural order was also overturned alongside social order: on Christmas Eve decorated boughs and greenery were brought into houses – holly, ivy, and mistletoe.
Christmas dinner was for many years the roast beef of old England; turkey was first imported in the sixteenth century and by the eighteenth was considered traditional; goose was for the poor, who dined on the birds left over from Michaelmas. Mince pies, made of spiced meat, were oblong and known as ‘coffins’ but eating them was lucky for the forthcoming year: ‘As many mince pies as you taste at Christmas, so many happy months will you have’. Christmas cake was usually reserved for Twelfth Night – a wise reminder to stretch celebrations into the cold, dark days of the New Year.
Old Christmas was therefore a time of questioning hierarchies and sharing with the lower social classes. In the nineteenth century, the tradition of decorated boughs was overtaken by Christmas trees, and the American ‘Santa Claus’ replaced Old Father Christmas. The first Christmas card was sent in the same year that Dickens’s novel A Christmas Carol was published, and the first Christmas crackers were developed by confectioners competing to make their bon-bons more appealing. But the Victorians also assiduously maintained donations, alms, and charity boxes, their enthusiasm for Christmas being inspired by guilt at the condition of the labouring classes. It was a reminder of poverty, a communal reparation for the years of Enclosure Acts, urbanization, and industrialization that had provided the grimy foundations for the workshop of the world.
Today, we would do well to add to our Christmas celebrations some of these traditional associations and customs. But reconnecting with the seasonal calendar doesn’t just have to mean reviving old traditions: every custom has had its beginning. I am fortunate to live in a village where we traditionally wassail orchards every January – at least we have done for the past two or three years since establishing a community cider press. So perhaps we should make Christmas in the twenty-first century an annual reminder of our disappearing seasonal environment: of holly, ivy, and mistletoe; of robins and wrens; and of trees. So, plant a tree on Christmas Day or simply feed our native birds before you enjoy the fruits of the season. Make it your own tradition.