Make England Merry Again
Our feasts were stolen from us. It’s time we took them back
Today is Midsummer’s Eve. There was once a time when people up and down the country would spend the evening around bonfires, drinking ale and generally being merry in that way I like to imagine medieval people. The whole community would get together and mark the passage of the longest evenings of the year before the arrival of the hot summer.
Midsummer’s Eve, also known as St John’s Eve after John the Baptist, was formerly a huge day in the English calendar, as it still is in much of Scandinavia. As medieval historian Eleanor Parker writes, it was once ‘a popular communal celebration: houses were decorated with lamps and greenery, there were parades with pageantry and music, people feasted with their neighbours, and bonfires were lit in the street.
‘After the Reformation, midsummer bonfires were suppressed as Catholic superstition, though in some regions they survived as late as the 19th century. But numerous customs lingered in later folklore that preserve the idea of Midsummer Eve as a magical time when you might encounter ghosts, when unmarried girls could try love-divination to find out about their future husbands, and when anyone who kept watch in the church porch at midnight would see the spirits of those fated to die in the coming year.’
Well that’s nice, some people will say, an interesting historical anecdote. But, I would counter, what’s to stop us bringing this back? The love-divination and midnight spirits-watching could be optional, but I mean the general feast. I have many crank beliefs, but one of my strongest is that the medieval calendar should be returned in some way, even if most people no longer believe in the religion that inspired it.
Last week, for example, most of continental Europe got a holiday to mark Corpus Christi, once a huge event in England but killed off by the Reformation. Why can’t we have a holiday too? It was 27 degrees in London last Thursday — it would have been great.
We’re all aware, on some subconscious level, that there is a need for communal feasts and holidays, and in some ways the idea of a June procession to celebrate the official religion has made a comeback with Pride. The feast-shaped hole in our lives is why, from time to time, the great and the good come up with very boring ideas for substitutes feasts, the latest being ‘Celebration Day’. The idea is for ‘one day in the year when we can all take a pause in our busy lives to reflect, remember and celebrate the lives of people no longer here’. You mean, like the feast of All Saints’ and All Souls’, which again was a huge part of our calendar once and is still marked in Catholic countries? Like that one?
If you ever visit Poland around late October and early November, you will see huge numbers of people carrying flowers to take to the graves of loved ones. It’s very poignant, especially considering the tragic history of that country, and one of many aspects of Polish culture I find very admirable. But much of that used to be our culture, too, and there is considerable evidence that we suffer from its absence.
Contrary to the fashionable Noughties takes about the evils of supernatural belief, religion has huge psychological benefits. There is a vast array of evidence showing that attending religious ceremonies increases dopamine responses in the brain. Overcoming our fear of death is not even the key part; it is meeting other people and taking part in a common ritual, which has huge benefits, including reduced risk of suicide or addiction. Religious attendance is ‘associated with lower psychological distress’ and ‘related to higher well-being’.
Modernity, diet and substance abuse may have slightly increased rates of extreme mental illness such as schizophrenia, while social media has allowed people with personality disorders to become prevalent, especially in politics. But most of the ‘mental health crisis’ is just loneliness. People attend fewer communal events because of the decline of religion, they see other people less regularly and they have fewer friends — of course they’re unhappy! Humans are not just social mammals, we are ultra-social by the standards of other species; that’s why we need common rituals and why we’re chasing that religious feeling everywhere and can’t find it. It is why, as Madeline Grant wrote in the Telegraph this week, that as well as progressive institutions adopting religious-type feasts, even exercise classes increasingly resemble Mass.
Lockdown, traumatic though it was, was merely an extreme version of the trend towards solitude already underway (with working from home, online shopping and various other lockdown activities on the rise before 2020). Most traditional societies would consider our everyday lives in non-Covid times to be a form of lockdown, with historically very unusual levels of isolation. That is why the extreme loneliness of lockdown gave rise to ersatz rituals such as Clap for Carers.
Yet you just can’t beat the real thing. As Parker wrote at the time, ritual decline was a real sadness in our lives: ‘From the Middle Ages until the first half of the 20th century, Whitsun and the week that followed was the chief summer holiday of the year in Britain. It was a time for all kinds of communal merry-making, varying over the centuries but consistent in spirit: the season for feasts and fairs, dancing and drinking, school and church processions, and generally having a good time.’
Whitsun was an important feast right until the 20th century but then, alas, it was destroyed under the Heath Terror (the same regime which abolished traditional counties): ‘And then, in 1971, it was decided that the Spring Bank Holiday should be a fixed rather than a moveable feast, and would always fall on the last Monday in May. The holiday lost its centuries-long link to Whitsun; as a result, even the name is now increasingly forgotten.’
Why? Why do people have to go around changing things?
So Ed, the sceptics will ask, are you just suggesting we have a completely fake return to the pre-Reformation calendar, marking religious festivals even though a small minority of the population are actually believing Christians? Are you suggesting that the unreligious get involved in church-run events such as Midsummer bonfires and parish ales, in a completely pastiche way? Yes, that is exactly what I’m suggesting. I’m an unapologetic believer in ersatz tradition, because ersatz traditions have all the benefits and few of the downsides. The reality is that medieval life was unbearably hard for most people, filled with trauma and heartbreak — 23 June was also the date that the Black Death arrived in England, in 1348. Life was hard for our ancestors, but loneliness was not one of their nine hundred and ninety-nine problems.
So, instead of some made-up fake holiday, let’s return to the original, tried and tested feast days which served the community for so long. May Bank Holiday Monday should revert to being Whitsun. Corpus Christi would mean a holiday in June. We should move our August Bank Holiday to the 15th, the Feast of the Assumption, as they do in most of Europe — this also means a small but not insignificantly lower chance of rainfall (my main memory of August bank holiday is that it feels like autumn).
Currently we have no holidays between August and Christmas, but that can be easily solved by making November 1 — All Saints’ Day – a public holiday, as it is in most of Europe. Perhaps politicians could be encouraged to be photographed bringing flowers to the graves of their loved ones; because this is Britain they’ll have to say some words of thanks to the NHS, but successful religions always take account of local deities.
Bonfires, parades, communion with our deceased loved ones. These are healthy common rituals which our ancestors enjoyed for hundreds of years, before the sour pusses took them from us — but there is nothing to stop us bringing them back.
Admittedly there would be huge cultural resistance from people who dislike religion, even when it clearly has psychological benefits. But the bigger problem would be that deep-rooted British desire to stop things happening, the same people who comprise our Licence Raj and prevent anything being built. The people who insist that, if you wish to eat al fresco, you can’t also be served a glass of wine because of the council.
I can imagine the response we’d get if a sensible government authorised Midsummer’s Eve parties as part of a Return to Ritual. ‘You got your bonfire loicense, m8? Have you checked the carbon footprint? Have you filled out a diversity impact statement for that bonfire? We’re concerned that people congregating in large groups could lead to anti-social behaviour.’
These people come from a very deep-rooted tradition dating back to the Reformation. To quote one Englishman brought before the court in the time of Elizabeth I: ‘it was never merry in England since the scriptures were so commonly preached and talked upon such persons as they are’. Perhaps it’s time to Make England Merry Again.