19-04-2022

A Year of Festivals

In an ongoing series exploring British festivals and folk customs, we journey to the places and speak to the people that continue to uphold unique traditions; many contribute to defining the beguiling nature of our national identity. With many of our calendar customs cancelled because of the lockdowns of previous years, this series of articles, documentaries and recordings seeks to exhibit our local ways of being and encourage the protection of our historic festivals.

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Our islands have been invaded and settled over centuries; diverse customs, traditions and beliefs attaching themselves to our landscapes, thus our national heritage. Many of our folk traditions have existed for hundreds of years, interrupted only by war and a pandemic, though a weakening of community life due to the ‘quickening tempo of progress’ poses an imminent threat to their existence. This progress has taken on many forms; industrialisation altered our civilisation, encouraging people from rural areas into our expanding cities with their increased opportunity. The brain drain of young people from small villages and towns to larger UK cities has posed a similar risk to these festivals in more recent times. Community life as we once knew it has been weakened, yet under the surface are memories of ‘age-old rituals' where people seek 'to propitiate the forces of nature’. Some of these festivals have been lost, though others have been maintained, their survival fought for by local people with a desperate desire to preserve their historic way of being. 

A Year of Festivals: A Guide to British Calendar Customs, by Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd, is a book that comprehensively explores the annual customs that unfold across the British Isles: ‘those which lasted until recent times before succumbing to the march of progress, those of which survived two world wars, and those of a more recent origin which have some historical figure or great event as a focal point’. Beginning in May, ‘a month that represents the whole world in miniature’, celebrations mark the start of summer. May Day was a great rural festival for those before us and the folk meaning behind the day is practised with enthusiasm across communities. Primary school children can still be seen with garlands skipping around a maypole laced with flowers and colourful ribbon, often found at the heart of the festivities, the village centre. The book describes in vivid detail theses calendar customs that are attached to seasonal changes and religious feasts, with observances of British life in the 1970s, when it was published.

Our identity as British people is described as tenacious; we are creatures of habit that are deep-rooted to the landscape of these isles, regardless of how far removed we become from our ancestors. The preservation of the popular customs and traditions of our forefathers allows us to understand ourselves, and the landscapes from which we have become unacquainted, with a greater degree of certainty. Our festival history has been formed by the practices of Palaeolithic cave dwellers, Norse legends, Roman and Celtic cults and the Christian Church. The latter viewed our pagan rites with displeasure, considering those that partook in events to be anti-religious savages. Yet it was recognised that our festivities could not be discarded, so the Church began to claim many customs as their own. Today, Christianity still plays an important part in the ceremony and tradition of surviving customs. 

From when this book was written, communities in Britain have changed further due to the unwavering speed of technological advancement. Though local life has in many cases been diminished, our transportation from physical to the digital has encouraged greater participation in our quirky calendar customs. The instantaneous nature of social media has bolstered awareness of events such as Bottle Kicking in Hallaton, Cheese Rolling at Cooper’s Hill and Shrovetide Football in Ashbourne. Thousands now flock to these quiet communities to partake and witness the spectacles, seeking connection with fascinating traditions, gaining insight into their ancestral origins.

Cheese Rolling on Cooper's Hil, Gloucestershire

This archive will digitise many elements of A Year of Festivals: A Guide to British Calendar Customs, allowing readers to learn about and participate in the festivities that define our identity as British people.

Contribution

With thanks to the authors Geoffrey Palmer and Noel Lloyd, from whose book this archive of work has been greatly inspired.

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