Very few follow the Christian religion, yet to some degree we all remain tied to its festivals. Is there an alternative?
A few weeks ago, Dave Hill gave us an amusing tale of Muslim youths going around the houses in his part of Hackney in East London, engaging in an Islamified form of the extortion known as “trick or treat”.
“Ramadan trick or treat” may be no more than a scam perpetrated by a bunch of East End scallies, but Dave’s story set me thinking about how we continue to be bound to the Christian calendar, and rarely ask ourselves why.
Talking of trick or treat, what of Halloween? This is a corruption of an old festival that may be likened to New Year, although in traditional European paganism the concept of ‘new year’ is not considered important, and this is true also of religions such as Judaism and Islam. In the Celtic tradition, Halloween is Samhain (pron. Sow-in; [ˈsawənʲ]). It signifies the death of nature, when one agricultural year ends and another begins.
But forget the religious dimension, with its sky fairies and magic; Samhain is worth celebrating as a secular, cultural festival. In fact, I wonder why we don’t observe it in preference to the commonly accepted calendar new year, which is so close to Yule/Christmas that it loses significance it might have if placed elsewhere. After all, there’s no reason why New Year has to be at the end of December.
Maybe we could go the whole hog and observe in a secularised form the eight major pagan festivals, and dispense with the hodgepodge of Christian holydays and bank holidays we have now.
Samhain (31 October – 1 November: Halloween)
Midwinter (21-22 December: winter solstice/Yule)
Imbolc (1-2 February: beginning of the thaw)
Spring (21 March: vernal equinox/Ostara)
Beltane (30 April – 1 May: Mayday/shagging and rioting day)
Midsummer (21 June: summer solstice)
Lammas (31 July – 1 August: beginning of the harvest)
Autumn (21 September: autumnal equinox/Harvest Home)
We would be rid of Christmas, which many of us love to hate, and have our main spring holiday on a fixed date rather than the moveable feast of Easter. The festivals go by different names in different places, but in all traditions, the year is divided into eight roughly equal sectors tied to four astronomical calendar points – the solstices and equinoxes, or “Quarter Days” – and the division reflects the changing of the seasons.
The festivals listed above follow the natural cycle of the year, whereas many of the holidays we observe in the west have no connection with the natural environment, and were imposed by a religion that only a tiny minority of the population now follow. Believers celebrate their religious festivals, but in the secular realm, the “Wheel of the Year” has a lot going for it.
See Ronald Hutton’s book Stations of the Sun for a comprehensive history of folk calendars in the British Isles.