Lighting-Up Time

Wendy Doniger

  • The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton
    Oxford, 542 pp, £19.99, June 1996, ISBN 0 19 820570 8

By what witchcraft did I receive this book about so-called pagan festivals on the same day that the Times ran an article on an organisation that calls itself the Pagan Hospice and Funeral Trust? The article, alluding to ‘Neolithic practices still followed by some today’, spoke of ‘priestesses, witches and druids’ who ‘regard themselves as the oldest religious group in the British Isles’. One such priestess, Anne Wildwood, who ‘hopes to return as a wild horse’, deplored ‘the usual “Witch eats baby under oak tree at full moon” type of thing’, and insisted that ‘the Christian Church took over all the major pagan feast days,’ and that ‘the choice of a date to mark Christ’s birthday at Christmas ... was influenced by the ancient Roman celebration of the birth of the sun on December 21.’

Now, if those witches read The Stations of the Sun, they will learn that Christmas was not, in fact, derived from, superimposed on or designed to replace ancient, Neolithic, pagan festivals in Britain. Indeed, that belief is not older than 1890, when Frazer published The Golden Bough, popularising the theory that ancient pagan rituals were the direct source of both modern folk rituals and Christianity. Against Frazer and the neo-Frazerian coven, Hutton argues that each of the major rituals that we still celebrate today (Christmas, New Year, Valentine’s Day, Shrove Tuesday, Easter, May Day, Guy Fawkes and some others) can be traced back to a specific moment in British history, and that few, if any, are connected with the surviving remnants of ancient or pre-Christian Britain.

Ignoring the religious content of the Christian overlay, this meticulously argued, painstakingly documented and often fascinating book provides a rich historical analysis of the development of the non-Christian (but also non-pagan) aspects of contemporary festivals. Guy Fawkes would seem to be particularly resistant to a Frazerian construction, for the obvious reason that it explicitly commemorates Guy Fawkes’s attempt to blow up King, Lords and Commons in the Palace of Westminster on 5 November 1605. Even Frazer demurred when-his followers insisted that the bonfire was ‘associated intensely’, if vaguely, with a tradition of sacred fires, coming down from prehistory and created by the emotional demands of the season itself’. Hutton argues that there is no evidence of sacred fires, but is more sympathetic to the second half of the argument, for he grants that the midwinter festivals (Guy Fawkes, Christmas, New Year) have remained popular in large part because they struck a blow against ‘the three most obvious privations of the season: the lack of green leaves, light and warmth’. Guy Fawkes remains ‘a comfort to gathering darkness ... a potent symbol of excitement, heat, light and celebration ... at precisely the moment when the onset of cold, darkness and decay are most apparent’. So, too, Christmas candles provide light in midwinter, and the Yule log (which Frazer added to his collection of putative fire rituals from ancient Europe) was introduced into British Christmas ceremonies in about 1600 to provide heat during the night of merry-making. In other words, if there hadn’t been a Guy Fawkes (or a Jesus?), some cold, damp Briton would have had to invent him.

When Hutton generalises in this way beyond the specific historical moments that constitute the bulk of this massive book, he is arguing for human rather than pagan needs. The neo-Frazerians want to explain the apparently idiosyncratic, inappropriate features of contemporary rituals (antlers, songs with incomprehensible words) as survivals from a time when they did make sense, atavistic symbols of pagan beliefs we no longer hold. But if, like Hutton, you reinterpret ‘pagan’ features (or ‘archaic paradigms’, as Mircea Eliade preferred to call them) as expressions of certain general human longings (renewal, warmth and light), then you end up in the same church, if not the same pew, as the neo-Frazerians. Hutton argues that Christmas in ancient Britain ‘was not pagan in the strict sense, of honouring ancient deities, but in the looser and more secular one, of being concerned with honouring natural forces and human responsibilities’. An even better definition of both ‘pagan’ and ‘ritual’ was offered by a Mummer at Headington:

I asked one of them if he thought that hit play was pagan. He replied that, whether It was ancient or not, it was certainly pagan in spirit, for nothing could be less Christian than the resurrection from death of a braggart, performed by a quack armed with a medicine bottle. I asked him if he regarded it as a ritual. He answered that anything becomes a ritual if you have to do it ten times in a single night.

By this definition, most contemporary festivals are ‘pagan rituals’ in the ‘looser sense’.

The Horn Dance, for instance, involving antlers and a man-woman called Maid Marian, long regarded as ‘an archetypal relic of a pagan custom’, is in fact ‘not an archetype but an anomaly’, found only in one part of England at one period. It was revived, however, ‘probably because of the glamour of those remarkable antlers, and survives, from this perspective, as a single living reminder of north Midland winter revelry half a millennium ago.’ So it is, in a functional sense (the sense that most interests Hutton), ancient and pagan. Elsewhere, he remarks, grudgingly, that ‘these customs do have a way of communicating something genuinely archaic, whatever their actual age.’

For example, he is able to demonstrate that the British Christmas tree is not a survival of a pagan tree cult: it was a German custom, which only caught on in England in 1841, when ‘the good German Prince Albert made the custom fashionable by setting one up at Windsor Castle.’ But it endured as a British custom because it meant to the British precisely what it had meant to the Germans, and to the Christians (and could have meant to the hypothetical pagans): renewal and light. Indeed, the celebration of Christmas itself is an example of renewal, for it was dormant in England for centuries until the 19th-century Victorian obsession with ‘family values’ revived it and turned it from an occasion for public revelry into a moment of piety, charity and family reunion.

One could argue that the green tree symbolises not merely renewal but rebirth, which ranks low on Hutton’s list of ritual priorities but high on that of the pagans. Though Hutton generally ignores the human/pagan hunger for sex and magic (which combine in most rebirth rituals), he sometimes rather wistfully and tentatively ventures beyond the confines of his starkly functional analysis, especially in his discussion of Christmas. As for magic, he remarks that ‘even von Sydow ... conceded that at times the [Yule] log was regarded as conferring some kind of magical protection upon the home; and this function is abundantly clear in the earliest account of it in Britain.’

But what about sex? Frazer certainly cared about the sex in pagan religions; that’s one reason The Golden Bough has remained at the top of the charts, long after scholars exposed its blatant inadequacies. Frazerian amateur folklorists generally ignored the high-spirited obscenity and horseplay of the rituals but insisted on the deadly solemnity of the celebration of Fertility. (This humour-lessness, especially about sex, together with their upper-class mannerisms and bovine earnestness, made such folklorists the butt of many jokes and inspired the Pythonesque stereotype of ladies in sensible shoes, slumming in their good-natured but patronising attempts to understand the People.) Hutton, who takes as much care to distance himself from such covens as from those of the neo-pagans, nevertheless seems as tone-deaf as they are to the sexual aspects of these rituals. He traces back to the 18th century the ‘kissing bush’, usually but not always mistletoe, and drily remarks that the plant may have been chosen for this use ‘because of some significance (never explained)’. The man-woman in the Horn Dance, and more general cross-dressing at May Day, represent, in Hutton’s view, ‘a way of expressing licence and legitimating misrule’. But surely there are other ways of doing that; something is missing here.

Hutton implies that, if the ancient Britons had had electricity and central heating, maybe a greenhouse or two, they would have had no need for rituals. But these occasions also have a lot to do with death and sex, and on these subjects the witches knew something that Hutton doesn’t care to delve into. And what about religion? Occasionally it raises its head in this book to remind us of its existence, as in the delightful observation that ‘the idea that the Christ Child filled the stocking did not last long in England.’ (St Nicholas, Santa Claus and Father Christmas took over.) But surely there is more to the spirit of Christmas than staying warm and well-lit – in every sense.