Walking in a Winter Wonderland – a walk down Glastonbury high street

In a normal year, the centre of Glastonbury would be bustling at this time of year, with shoppers visiting the many emporia of alternative retail culture in the town.  This year, it has been very different – because of social distancing rules, there has been no Frost Fayre, and far fewer visitors than usual for the Winter Solstice.  Nevertheless, the shopkeepers have done a wonderful job of decorating their windows, in defiantly bright contrast to a season which has seemed even darker than usual this year.  I would like to share with you a walk, in pictures, down the High Street to the Market Place and along Magdalene Street, after dark.  For me, the lit windows are like magic lanterns or stained glass, glowing with light and colour, with images and symbols which bring out different aspects of the seasonal festivals.

Let’s start on the High Street.  This is one of my favourite shops, with its Art Deco window panels and kaleidoscopic lanterns.  The big lump in the middle of the display is myrrh – one of the three gifts traditionally brought to the Christ child in the manger in Bethlehem, by the wise men who came from the east.  There is something of the souk about this shop, and the owner always keeps an incense burner alight outside the door, sending exotic fragrances out into the Somerset town.

Just across the road, I like the whimsy of a gift shop wrapped up like a present, picking up on the tradition of exchanging gifts which has been part of midwinter celebrations for millennia.  I don’t envy them fixing those lights up on the roof!  I know it’s a shop which sells lovely things, and it looks very inviting, but this evening I’m photographing, not shopping, so I keep walking.

This shop has been recently refurbished, and the gilding of the lettering catches the light (gold, frankincense, myrrh).  This shop sells mostly Indian items, and its window display is full of little lights, hinting at Diwali.  The top floor, which I must admit I have never noticed in daylight, has a rainbow of lanterns suspended from the ceiling.  I think they go very well with the municipal Christmas tree on the front of the shop.

The Green Man is a significant folkloric and pagan symbol, and at this season of evergreens he is everywhere in Glastonbury.  This is a particularly fine example, framed by greenery and bringing a touch of the wildwood to the high street.

More Green Men here too, who have been joined by Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god.  The interweaving of traditions and beliefs is a major feature of Glastonbury, and is reflected in the range of merchandise which shops offer to modern-day pilgrims and visitors.  It is said that over 70 religions and beliefs are represented in the town, making Glastonbury perhaps one of the most spiritually diverse places on earth.

But amid all the paraphernalia of spirituality, people’s physical needs are catered for too, and the baker’s shop has a cornucopia of seasonal goodies in the window.  The mince pies look delicious, and I don’t even like mince pies!  Let’s hope the Scandi-style elves in the display don’t eat them all…

Across the road, one of Glastonbury’s best-known shops covers all the bases for seasonal gift-buying – a witches’ calendar for 2021, a cushion showing moon phases, a Green Man apron, magic spell kits and oracle cards, and a book on the Winter Solstice.  There is a tree, with snow-filled baubles, and a wreath with greenery and berries, and also the Tree of Life.

The next window seems quite conventional, for Glastonbury – a Christmas tree and Santa Claus.  But if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s not exactly the Santa of popular culture – this chap is nearer to the old images of Father Christmas, looking rather as if he’s just come walking out of the forest with an armful of kindling for the Yule fire.

A couple of doors down, we have more trees and another Father Christmas – but again, he isn’t the scarlet-clad figure with the sleigh and the ho-ho-ho.  This one is dressed in brown, smiling benevolently amid frosty-white trees, lit with cool whites and blues and populated with cuddly woodland animals.  It looks like an illustration from a children’s book, and I’d love to read the whole story.

By way of contrast, the next window has nothing conventional about it at all – there may be a wreath of leaves, but they frame a seated figure of the Buddha, reflected to infinity in a circular mirror, and flanked by a pair of angles who look like they were crafted by Jacob Epstein.  Cascades of light and washes of colour create an ephemeral magic.

We have reached the bottom of the high street, and turn left into the Market Place.  Here, there’s a clothes line of colourful stockings, strung above a vast selection of crystals.  A decorated Christmas tree sits beside geodes and ammonites, which are echoed in the signage above the shop window.

In the toy shop next door, the stunning wooden fairy tale castle which is a permanent fixture has been joined for the season by a couple of Nutcracker figures and a very cute reindeer in a winter wonderland that is all sparkle and ice.  The nod to continental Christmas customs is continued in the Nordic bunting across the window.

And so, finally, we come to Magdalene Street, and the last of the lit shops.  In a building which is one of only three in Glastonbury to survive from the 15th century, a handsome reindeer follows a trail of shining stars, with the inky-black winter sky above.

Whichever of the midwinter festivals you celebrate, may I send you – despite the particular challenges of this year – peace, love and happiness.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

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Midwinter festivals of light – why we need them more than ever this year

A couple of nights ago a lantern appeared in the window of a house round the corner, with banners wishing passers-by a ‘Happy Hanukkah.’  In my street, each evening sees more Christmas lights wrapped around shrubs or strung up in windows.  A few weeks ago, millions of people celebrated Diwali, the festival of light.  Very soon, we in the northern hemisphere will be rejoicing that the shortest day has come and that, with the Winter Solstice, the world is moving back towards the longer, lighter days.

Until recently, I wasn’t an enthusiast for festive lights – a pyrophobe since childhood, the risks of fire associated with strings of electric lights always put me off having them on the tree.  But these days, lights are safer and the bulbs cooler, and there are even battery-powered ones available which don’t require power cables snaking across the room to trip up the unwary, and my partner has always liked lights, so for the last few years I have joined in quite happily, if passively.  This year, though, has been different.

Not only have we used our ‘old’ lights but we have been out and bought three sets of new ones.  We have lights in the Christmas tree.  We have lights in the front window, and we make sure they are switched on as soon as dusk falls to cheer passers-by.  There are five metres of lights draped around the fireplace.  A glass vase has been filled with tiny LED lights.  There’s a candle in the festive wreath on the coffee table.  There’s a candle on the dinner table.   There is sparkly tinsel everywhere to reflect the lights.  The only reason that there are not more lights is that we have run out of sockets to plug them into!  This year, it feels particularly important to participate in lighting the dark evenings of the last weeks of the year.  Each evening, the switching on of the lights creates a glow of positivity and cosiness in our home, whatever is going on in the world outside.

I find it interesting that, over thousands of years, religions and cultures across the world have felt the need to develop customs and festivals associated with light in the darkest time of the year.  In Judaism, Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the story of how one day’s supply of blessed oil miraculously lasted for eight days, so that the menorah (branched candlestick) could be kept lit until new oil could be prepared.  Traditionally, a nine-branched menorah is lit during the festival (one light for each of the eight days of the miracle – the ninth branch holds the light from which the others are lit).  Across the world, Jewish households place the menorah in windows which face the street, and it is a time of feasting.

 Diwali is also known as the Festival of Light.  Its name derives from the Sanskrit deepavali, meaning ‘row of lights’ and is celebrated as a religious festival by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains.  It represents the triumph of light over darkness (and by extension the triumph of good over evil and knowledge over ignorance).  Homes, temples and businesses are decorated with lights inside and out, and the skies are lit by fireworks.  And there is, of course, feasting.

Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Christians call the Light of the World.  Although the date of his birth is unknown, celebrating it around the time of the pagan midwinter festival has been the custom in the northern hemisphere for many hundreds of years, and a wealth of imagery in art, carols and literature places the Nativity in snowy scenes, with the Star of Bethlehem clearly visible over the stable in a dark, frosty sky.  Candles figured largely, with real candles shown on the first Victorian Christmas trees when the custom was imported from Germany (allegedly introduced by Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert).  As you can imagine, the idea of lighted candles amongst the resinous branches of fir trees is the stuff of nightmares for me!  Christianity borrowed many of the midwinter customs of the peoples it converted, including – perhaps inevitably – feasting.

Image of a string of electric lights

Here in Glastonbury, there are probably as many people preparing to celebrate the Winter Solstice, or Yule, as there are those who celebrate the Christian Christmas.  Most of us will have a fusion of customs – lights will mark the ‘Light of all people’ who came into the world at Christmas, or the triumph of the sun as it defeats the darkness of the longest night.  We sing the carols “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly” and “The Holly and the Ivy” and decorate our homes with the same evergreen branches which have been a staple of midwinter celebrations for millennia, symbolising the continuity of life even in the dark depths of winter.  Normally, of course, there would be feasting – roast birds, Christmas pudding and mince pies all part of a rich heritage of midwinter jollification going back to before records began – but in this year of Covid-related restrictions there will probably be rather less feasting than usual.  Certainly the family and community feasting of Diwali and Hanukkah have already had to be more subdued this year.

But in a year that feels dark, sad and fearful for many, it feels like an act of defiance to light the candles and switch on the lights.  Our community celebrations may be muted, and our feasting limited to our own households, but we can still shine our lights into the darkness and say that we are still here, we are still celebrating, and that we know that light will overcome the darkness.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Samhain in Glastonbury – Halloween in a pandemic year

This weekend it’s Halloween – or the pagan festival of Samhain, depending on your preference.  Here in Glastonbury it’s mostly the latter, and under normal circumstances it’s marked in a big way.  For this small town, it’s not just about trick or treat, or carved pumpkins.  The Samhain procession is one of the main events of the year, with dragons (dramatic), drummers (noisy) and Border Morris dancers (downright scary).   Never mind the mass-produced fancy dress costumes of skeletons, ghosts and monsters – here it’s just as likely to be swathes of black and green velvet, horned headdresses, and real witches’ hats.  Yes, it’s fun, but it’s also at least in part about serious beliefs.

The old Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced something like ‘Sow-en’ – sow as in female pig, rather than sow as in seeds) was characterised by feasting – the beasts which would not make it through the winter were slaughtered, and the harvest was in, so this was a time of plenty.  The spectre of death loomed, though – this was both the end of summer and the beginning of winter, with the leaves dying and the prospect of cold, hungry months ahead.  Many of those who feasted at Samhain would not make it through to feast again at Beltane, on the other side of the wheel of the year.

With the arrival of Christianity, 1 November became the feast of All Saints – All Hallows – where all the holy who had died were commemorated.  Until the Reformation, people were encouraged to pray for the souls of the dead, and especially their dead ancestors.   In much of Europe, this remains the time when families visit the graves of their loved ones to leave flowers.  Church services are held to remember those who have died.  It’s not clear whether the Celtic festival had these connotations of communing with the dead too, but certainly modern pagans speak of this being a time when the veil between the material world and the world of the spirits is at its thinnest, and it is possible to move between the two.  This links to folklore around Halloween (All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before the festival) when this is the night for ghostly apparitions, when the dead, witches and other supernatural beings walk abroad.  And whilst many people, quite understandably, deplore the recent advent of ‘trick or treat’, with its element of threat and licence to misbehave, the history of going from house to house, often in costume, begging for food and playing pranks dates back at least a couple of hundred years in the British Isles.  In some areas it even has the name ‘Mischief Night’.  Carved pumpkin lanterns may be a recent import from across the Atlantic too, but in various parts of the country – and especially here in Somerset – turnips or mangel wurzels were hollowed out and made into lanterns, the carved faces said to represent the dead and intended to frighten.

Black and white image of a skeleton ornament and a Green Man carving.

These characters live on the window sill in my study

Samhain in Glastonbury will be a rather tame affair this year – the rules preventing large groups gathering, intended to limit the spread of Covid 19, mean that no processions will take place.  The dark-clad Border Morris dancers will not leap, roar and whoop, whacking their sticks and running into the crowd.  The red and white dragons will not weave their way up the High Street, accompanied by drum beats as loud as fire-crackers.  The revellers, many of them robed, cloaked, masked or sporting headdresses with horns or greenery, will not process behind them, calling out to the spectators and encouraging them to join in.  The many visitors from all over the world who usually come to Glastonbury to celebrate Samhain will not be here, kept away by travel restrictions and quarantine regulations.

Death had become remote and sanitised in Western society, and the yearly round of festivals – Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day, Easter and so on – resolutely upbeat, with no acknowledgement of a corresponding darker side to life.  This year, the pandemic has meant that death has become part of public life again.  Perhaps this year, more than ever, we need to use this festival to come to terms with fear and death, and shake a defiant fist in the face of approaching winter and darkness.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

The Festivals of Midwinter: Solstice, Yule, Christmas

December is always a struggle.  I have found  this year worse than most, with relentless rain, gloomy skies, and the lights on by 2.00pm.  To be honest, here in the UK I find it increasingly difficult from late October, when the clocks go back and evening draws in when it’s still afternoon.  I count down until the shortest day, 21 December, the Winter Solstice, when the days start to lengthen again.

Apparently, it’s not just me.  This sense of the year dying around Samhain (the end of October) to be re-born with the lengthening days after the Solstice is a part of many pagan traditions.  Festivals at midwinter seem to have been a part of human life in the north of Europe for as long as anyone knows.  And of course there is Christmas!  Curious to understand more about the origins of how we celebrate, and which of those traditions are truly ancient, I have spent the last few days reading The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton, professor at Bristol University and an expert on folklore and paganism.

Professor Hutton’s research methods are very thorough, and he explores traditions and what we think we know about their origins, teasing out what the evidence really is, and establishing when traditions were actually first recorded (often much later than I expected).

Of course, some of this is more widely known and I’d come across it already.  For example, there is no biblical foundation for 25 December (or indeed any other date) for the birth of Jesus.  Professor Hutton identifies the first mention of that date in a calendar of Christian feasts in 354 CE, probably in Rome, and finds an intriguing quote from the Scriptor Syrus in the late 4th century, who refers to it being the ‘custom of the pagans’ to celebrate the birthday of the sun on 25 December.  This continued to cause confusion during the next couple of centuries at least, with church ‘fathers’ begging believers to remember that they should be worshipping Christ, not the sun, at these festivals!  In the 5th century, one Maximus of Turin wrote delightedly about the appropriation of a pagan festival of sun worship for Christian use.

And of course there’s Saturnalia, the Roman midwinter feast, held on 17 December and the days following.  It included, says Professor Hutton, a lot of the elements we still recognise:  gifts, candles as symbols of light, the closure of shops, schools and law courts for the duration of the festivities, and (a precursor to the medieval custom) the usual order turned upside down, with masters and mistresses waiting on their servants.  Kalendae – at the beginning of January, dedicated to the two-faced God, Janus, who looked both back at the old year and forwards into the new – saw more giving of gifts, this time figs, honey, pastries and coins.

Photo of a quarter of a wreath, in mono with a pop of red for the berries.  Image copyright Lisa Tulfer 2019

Evergreen wreath

Professor Hutton points out that the with the spread of Christianity in Mediterranean countries, Easter became the principal festival of the year – but in northern Europe, the colder, darker winters meant there was still a need for merrymaking at midwinter.  “The habits of a midwinter festivity had come by the dawn of history…to seem a natural one to the British,” he says.

The Christian calendar absorbed the idea of a season of festivities around midwinter, with the Nativity celebrated on 25 December, St Stephen (the first martyr) on the 26th, St John the Evangelist on the 27th, the Holy Innocents (the children massacred by King Herod in an attempt to eradicate the infant Jesus, mentioned in Matthew’s gospel) on the 28th, the Circumcision of Christ on 1 January, and Epiphany (originally the baptism of Christ, later eclipsed by the celebration of the visit of the wise men) on 6 January.

The Anglo Saxons didn’t use the word Christmas (‘Cristes Maessan’) until 1038 – before that it was simply ‘midwinter’.  It was obviously important though, as a 12-day break from work for servants was enshrined in law by Alfred the Great in 877 CE.  The word ‘Yule’ arrives with the invading Danes in the 11th century, although Professor Hutton says that the derivation of the word “has baffled linguists.”

However, he says, we know a fair bit about midwinter/Solstice/New Year revelries, because of the attacks of churchmen upon them – especially the various divination practices, to see what the new year would bring, some of which were still being recorded by 19th and 20th century folklorists.

Some practices which we may think of as ancient are, according to Professor Hutton’s researches, fairly recent (or in any event, there is no evidence for them, and they are not mentioned, before a relatively late date).  For example, the use of a wassail bowl was first recorded in the 1320s; mummers and other kinds of ‘disguising’ were a medieval phenomenon, and mistletoe does not put in an appearance until the 17th century, with the association with kissing being a whole century later still.  Yule logs were common from the 1600s to the late 1800s, and hobby horses were around from the late 15th century through the Tudor and Stuart periods, with other animal-head processions (including the Mari Lwyd in Wales) being mostly recorded in the 19th century.  Although folklorists believed they were of pagan (i.e. pre-Christian) origin, Professor Hutton can find no evidence for their earlier existence.

Colour photograph of Yuletide Green Man plaque surrounded by holly.  Image Copyright Lisa Tulfer 2019

Yuletide Green Man

So, what customs have persisted which actually, possibly, genuinely are ancient pagan customs, which have survived by being adopted and adapted by Christianity after the church very cannily decided to celebrate the Nativity at the time of the pagan midwinter festivals?

  • Evergreens. Greenery was used for festivals in pagan Europe, and its use was generally adopted by the Church, especially in England.  Holly and ivy were originally favourites, with bay, rosemary, yew and box (and, in the 17th century, mistletoe) being added in over the centuries.  Do remember, though, that most of these are poisonous, so keep them (and especially the berries) away from children and animals if you decorate your home with evergreens this midwinter.
  • Lights and candles. On the shortest day of the year (or thereabouts!) it’s traditional to have lights and candles to symbolise the lengthening days to come, light overcoming the darkness, the start of the ascent to summer.
  • Partying. The giving of feasts (especially by landowners/masters for their tenants/workers) has been a recurring theme for two millennia.  So, when you are at the office party, remember that this tradition goes back to Roman times!
  • Presents. The exchange of gifts has been a feature throughout much of the history of midwinter celebrations, although the exact timing (anywhere between 17 December and 6 January) has moved over time.
  • Misrule. In Tudor times, the Lord of Misrule would preside over often riotous jollification, where the usual norms of behaviour were cast aside, often with the assistance of masks to aid anonymity – even at the royal court had a Lord of Misrule.  The idea of turning the hierarchy of society upside down at midwinter has persisted since Roman times.  Its medieval incarnation as the Feast of Fools, where junior clergy and choristers took over (and subverted) the liturgy, persists in the practice of electing a ‘Boy Bishop’ in some English cathedrals.  And more generally in society there is a sense that anything goes at Christmas.

So, as the dark descends on the shortest day of the year, let us light candles and Christmas lights and affirm that the light will always triumph.  Let’s deck the hall with boughs of holly, toast each other with ‘Wassail!’, exchange gifts, and generally let our hair down.  Because in the ancient times when those customs originated, as now, in Professor Hutton’s words, “feasting and entertainment were in themselves fundamental responses to the tedium and melancholy which a northern winter could engender.”

 

This article is based on The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton, Oxford University Press 1996 (new edition 2001).