FOLKLORISTS BELIEVE THAT the first festivals arose because of the anxieties of early peoples who did not understand the forces of nature and wished to placate them. The people noted the times and seasons when food was plentiful or not and reacted accordingly. Harvest and thanksgiving festivals, for instance, are a relic from the times when agriculture was the primary livelihood for the majority. Festivals also provided an opportunity for the elders to pass on knowledge and the meaning of tribal lore to younger generations and give them the opportunity to let off steam in an acceptable yet controlled way. General agreement exists that the most ancient festivals and feasts were associated with planting and harvest times or with honouring the dead. These have come down to us in modern times as celebrations with some religious overtones. Harvest festivals are still carried out in many Christian churches and celebrate the fullness of the harvest. Among the most attractive are the harvest-home festivals in Britain where, in the autumn, parish churches are decorated with flowers, fruits and vegetables. Harvest suppers where a community join together to celebrate the bountiful harvest have their beginnings in the pagan beliefs of the three harvest sabbats (Lughnasadh, Mabon and Samhain) belonging to the Wheel of the Year.
The Meeting of Pagan and Christian
Ways of dealing with problems within the community, which used a blend of Christian and pagan rituals, was partly a product of the interaction between Christianity and paganism. Pagan belief demanded rituals that appeased their gods while Christian thought required that there was a focus on only one God. This meant that such rituals belonging to the Wheel of the Year had to be accommodated into a more acceptable framework. The local clergy therefore became agents of this assimilation process. The mixing of liturgical, medical and folklore medicine was a whole medley of ideas as to how nature functioned. The line between these ideas was very unclear – rite blended into medical practice or was mixed with apparently magical, and certainly ceremonial, pre-Christian practices. This coming together is evident in a charm ritual for blessing the land, the Aecerbot ritual, which was performed yearly and is still retained centuries later on Plough Monday (usually the first Monday after Epiphany – 6 January). Originally an Anglo-Saxon fertility ritual, it was gradually Christianized. In this agricultural – or field – remedy for witchcraft, four pieces of turf were taken from the four corners of the land, along with other agricultural products such as fruit, honey, herbs and milk as well as holy water. Certain words (such as ‘grow’ and ‘increase’) were said in Latin over these goods. The individual turfs were then anointed and blessed along with the fruits of the farmer’s labour, taken to church and placed carefully under the altar. The priest then said four masses over the altar. The turf was placed back in the ground before sunset, along with four crosses marked with the name of the Apostles. Similar words and prayers to those above were said, including a specially written prayer calling on God, the earth and heavens to help in bringing forth the power of the earth for a successful crop. The ritual was closed by the owner of the field turning around three times while reciting Christian prayers. There followed a similar ritual for blessing the plough using herbs and other sacred items. The strong similarities to the rites calling upon Mother Earth and the Sun God in pre-Christian rituals are quite marked. Historic customs are often perpetuated in seasonal festivals. One example is Homstrom (celebrated on the first Sunday in February), which is an old Swiss festival exulting in the end of winter with the burning of straw people as symbols of the end of Old Man Winter or the Old God. A similar sort of festival has recently been revived in Scotland round Lammas-tide. Following the success of the 1970s film The Wicker Man, which highlighted an ancient pagan festival, today this gathering has been given new meaning as an alternative music festival. The ceremonial burnings commemorate the sacrifices which our ancestors needed in order to feel that they had done what was necessary to achieve a plentiful harvest. A similar celebration takes place at Queensferry on the east coast of Scotland in August, when the Burryman parades through the town and finishes his day covered with burrs (sticky balls of seeds), possibly representing all the irritations which the townspeople wish to get rid of before the winter. If you want to celebrate in the same way you might like to make a corn dolly in the shape of a man. See below on how to make a corn dolly & how to use one of your own: