We are in that odd time between the Solstice and St John’s Day: caught between astronomical and ritual midsummer? Similar disjunction happens at the Winter Solstice and Christmas/New Year, and while plenty of scholars comment on this (Hutton being most obvious), it made me stop and look about.
The meadow at midday is bright with flowers. Or come to be with Kipling’s Puck, out in the woods all night, a-conjuring Summer in, or get up early and see a fox as the mist is dispersing. The Brook is loud after the sudden, welcome rains. Hungry young Jackdaws squawk in the trees, and incautious young Great Tits inspect the remains of our breakfast. We are a long way – as far as we can get – from Cooper’s poem and Ellis’ artwork: deep shadows and people trudging through snow. That cold Standing-Still is now maybe the most powerful for Northern European culture; I cannot speak for any other.
A long way, too, from the wheeling round of yearly celebrations of the garlands of May, the fires of Midsummer and the feasts of Harvest and Midwinter – and from the births of Jesus and John the Baptist at opposite sides of the cycle. It is as if we have given them away with no thought as to to their worth – only to find, I think, that isolation in this time of crisis shows we have very little to substitute them. We lost much of the communal aspects Easter and Whitsun to COVID19, and we see what so much of our brain is occupied by – or at least what mine is taken up with – social media and telly and shopping. God help us.
If I look at what remains of the folk-Christian crazy paving, I see light and the play of light on growing things. The two photos in this post show my preoccupations: the carnival of flowers in what we might call “Churchill Meadows,” the grassland by the Churchill Hospital on the way to the woods and fens of the Lye Valley, and that very last glimmer of light on that very last day when the days are growing longer. We have a mix of festival fullness and a hint of what it to come.
Quite why the Winter Solstice is seen as a time of crisis – will the sun come back again? – when the sunset of the Solstice seems like the first intimation that in the midst of life we are in death Media Vita in Morte Sumus I can’t quite figure out. Perhaps I am simply lugubrious.
Plenty of evidence exists (and Ronald Hutton has a lot of them) for the Midsummer Fires being a major celebration. Ou sont les feus d’antan? A bonfire: is it a boon fire, a bane fire, a bone fire? It may be, as Hutton suggests, that Midsummer was about purification: a spiritual and physical (if we may distinguish) cleansing when the greatest fire in the traditional cosmos, the sun, was putting out most strength after being cooped up in the cold and wet. Maybe the cleansing follows after the Christian introduction of St John Baptist – and then I am back in Garner Country, and his hinting and probing the relationship between the cult of St John Baptist – Jenkin – and non-Christian rites. It is the bull-cult crowd that in his great novel Thursbitch Garner depicts as power and glory and terror as Nan Sarah looks down at the crowd gathered in the moonlight, celebrating sacrifice:
“Oh bonny Bull. Come thy ways…”
They were one swarm of noise…
Something was in the field. It grew from the mass, and yet was it, yet made it more, drawing the dark writhing to its own purpose , the yelling to its own tongue. What was there grew to reach the moon and gave one cry such as Nan Sarah had not heard in all her days: the cry of man and bull.Alan Garner, Thursbitch, Chapters 12 and 13.
Garner has the mindset just right: the numinous presence that grows from the crowd; the celebrating – remembering that the roots of the word are in crowding, joining together – making something more. The crowd knows it at a Rugby match; at the singing of the Christus Vincit; it was felt at Leonard Cohen’s singing Hallelujah at Glastonbury; the crowd engaged in mystery sensing, in transcendence. Joining in; belonging; being there together.
Spirituality is about belonging in many ways, and celebrations show a communal aspect to a range of concerns. So we make celebrations out of what we can: birthdays, ours and others; arbitrary days to thank parents, teachers and so on. But such calendar points are double-edged. We encourage children to participate – and maybe indirectly to feel guilty when they don’t quite hit the mark? The ambiguity of the recent clapping for NHS workers is one example: thank you for this and that, but not in a way that acknowledges the enormity of your tasks. Or (as in my case) they take the edge off my family’s desire to celebrate Fathers’ Day by my finding it rather uncomfortable. But where else do I belong? As lockdown is relaxed more and more I feel its tensions more keenly in my desire to be united with people with whom I feel I belong, making ordinary places thin – full of something bigger than just me and my paltry resources, as I have discussed before. Mercer (cited in this Thin Places blog post) sees spirituality as having in its components
meaning-making, to relationships with others and to relationships with the sacred/transcendentMercer, J (2006) Capitalizing on children’s spirituality: parental anxiety, children as consumers, and the marketing of spirituality
and I think I would add to this in that the relationship to the transcendent and the relationship with others having the actual or potential aspect of physicality. Belonging, it seems to me, is what we do by scent and touch as much as by sight and hearing: we are animals, after all, not disembodied ghosts.
So – although this is a short dash and still, like a dog in a field, off at so many different tangents – this is really only a quick dash into a very deep idea: that belonging has physical expression deep in its veins.
In the Winter Solstice
They carol, feast, give thanks,And dearly love their friends, and hope for peace.
and this Summer evening I will raise a glass to the people I love whom I can’t be with, and hope they are singing the same delight, and the same hope for wholeness once again.
St John Baptist Eve: Old Midsummer Eve.
Postscript: I got up for the dawn this morning.
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