A Point Of View: Solstice and the lack of symbolism in Britain

A woman at Stonehenge celebrates summer solstice

The Church's appropriation of many pagan festivals has left an important gap - the summer solstice. Tom Shakespeare casts an envious eye at the seasonal rituals celebrated in other countries and urges more symbolism in British holidays and traditions.

If in this year of 2013, an interplanetary anthropologist came to England for fieldwork, what would they discover? On a variable Sunday each spring, we give our children more chocolate than is good for them, eat roast lamb and visit garden centres.

On the last day of October, we dress the kids up in old sheets, black bin liners and plastic fangs, and send them down the street to extort sweets from our neighbours. A few days later, we gather around a bonfire, set off rockets and celebrate the execution of a Catholic conspirator. The following month, we get together with our birth families to exchange gifts, to eat too much and to argue.

And that's about it.

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Tom Shakespeare
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST
  • Tom Shakespeare is a sociologist, writer and performer who researches disability studies, bioethics and medical sociology
  • He was born with restricted growth and leads research into the condition

The word "festival" is now reserved for occasions when people who are young, or would like to be, huddle together in a field to listen to music in the rain and shop for ethnic clothing and candles. And get inebriated.

Some 1,500 years ago, our Anglo-Saxon and Celtic ancestors had a much better idea. They celebrated regularly to mark the passage of the seasons that governed the natural world around them and the cycle of the sun, which gave them light and warmth.

Life being nasty, brutish and short, they made the most of these moments of hope and plenty. Like most religions, pagans had festivals such as Yule, and the spring fertility festival, Eostre, not to mention Beltane, Lammas, Samhain and so forth.

The arrival of Christianity meant that people had to give up sacrifices and the more sexually adventurous forms of celebration. But in return, the new religion offered an increasing roll call of saints - each of whom was owed their day of partying.

The pagan holidays were recycled as Easter and Christmas. Shrove Tuesday compensated for the rigours of Lenten fasting, and gave a great excuse for a festival from Basel to Brazil via New Orleans.

At the end of summer came the harvest festival, that strange Anglican anachronism now centred on the ritual donation of tinned goods and unwanted vegetable marrows. All Souls' Day, on 2 November, was the day people remembered and celebrated their dead, although Christianity has never given ancestors enough credit.

Rituals and traditions in the Magazine

But the Church's appropriation of pagan festivals left one rather important gap, at least in Britain. I am talking about midsummer, the summer solstice, which this year fell on 21 June at 5am. Unless you are living in Cornwall or Edinburgh or Binchester, or are one of the 56,620 Britons who identified themselves as pagan in the 2011 census (up from 42,262 in 2001), you are highly unlikely to take any notice whatsoever of midsummer.

And that makes me rather sad.

It also makes Britain somewhat unusual. For example, the Nordic countries mark midsummer rather well. Perhaps because they know what it is to experience long months of darkness, they relish their summers, and gather each June for communal celebrations.

Sweden does midsummer in the most elaborate fashion, with the midsommarstang maypole and dancing, and flowers in the hair. Norway's midsummer rituals entail bonfires, preferably out in nature, near a fjord or river. Finns and Danes also go for the fire, underlining that midsummer is a festival of light.

Solstice around the world
The midnight sun in Tromso, Norway Norway: People attending a concert marking the midnight sun in Tromso, where there are 24 hours of sun during the peak of the summer
 People dressed in traditional costumes of Han nationality, offer fruits as scarifices to Heaven China: People dressed in traditional Han costumes offer fruits as scarifices to heaven, during a ceremony to mark the winter solstice festival, started during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD)
Hindu devotees worship the sun god by the sea India: Hindu devotees worship the sun god on Makar Sankranti, a Hindu holy day marking the winter solstice when the sun transits from the astrological zone of Sagittarius to Capricorn
Girls jump over a fire during celebrations for Ivan Kupala, the feast of St John the Baptist, a traditional Slavic orthodox holiday celebrating the summer solstice Belarus: Girls jump over a fire during celebrations for Ivan Kupala, the feast of St John the Baptist, a traditional Slavic orthodox holiday celebrating the summer solstice
Aymara natives arrive to Khona bay for summer solstice celebrations on Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia Bolivia: Aymara natives arrive in Khona bay for summer solstice celebrations on Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, in December
Aymara natives gather at sunrise to celebrate the winter solstice, which marks the Aymara New Year, at the Valley of the Moon, near La Paz, on June 21, 2012. Bolivia: The winter solstice is even more important to Aymara natives, as it marks the Aymara New Year, and was made into a Bolivian public holiday in 2010
People are practicing yoga at the megalithic observatory of Kokino, in Macedonia Macedonia: These people are practicing yoga during summer solstice at the ancient astronomic observatory of Kokino - it is more than 4,000 years old and is filled with astronomical markers on its rocky surface
People take part in a Mayan ceremony to celebrate the summer solstice before an ancient Mayan temple El Salvador: People take part in a Mayan ceremony to celebrate the summer solstice at Tazumal archaeological site, in Chalchuapa near San Salvador
Numerous people practicing yoga in Times Square, New York City US: In recent years Times Square in New York City has been brought to a standstill during the summer solstice by a mass yoga event
People watch a traditional midsummer festival bonfire to mark the summer solstice Austria: People watch a traditional midsummer festival bonfire to mark the summer solstice - bonfires are also used to mark the summer solstice in Norway, Finland and Denmark

I know what you're thinking. Norway, Sweden, Finland… these are the lands of the midnight sun. Here in Britain, it would be nice to have some midday sun, let alone midnight.

True. But it's not just in northern latitudes that midsummer is taken seriously. In many Catholic countries, such as Portugal and Brazil and Argentina, the festival of St John has recuperated midsummer, and turned it into a celebration that needs no midnight sun to be meaningful.

Start Quote

Alain de Botton

[Non-religious people] still require ritualised encounters with concepts such as friendship and gratitude”

End Quote Alain de Botton

I would not for a moment suggest that we revert to the liturgical calendar, let alone to paganism. Druids parading at Stonehenge seem to me as contrived as Morris dancers. But I believe that we are poorly served when it comes to festivals and celebrations. Our working lives are broken up only by the school holidays, by the new year sales and by bank holidays.

And what a terrible thing bank holidays are. Just blank spots on the calendar that are entirely devoid of symbolism.

When Sir John Lubbock, a banker and politician, introduced the bank holiday in 1871, in the era where working people did very little other than work, they were welcomed with open arms by the exhausted populace. But now we are entitled to at least four weeks' regular holiday, we don't know what to do with the imaginatively named Early May Bank Holiday, Spring Bank Holiday or Summer Bank Holiday.

Alain de Botton, in Religion for Atheists, proposes that "those of us who hold no religious or supernatural beliefs still require regular, ritualised encounters with concepts such as friendship, community, gratitude and transcendence".

If by this he means we need some better festivals, I rather agree with him. When I look at other cultures, I feel a strong sense of festival envy.

De Botton mentions the Buddhist Tsukimi ritual, when people gather to view the harvest moon, and the Jewish festival of Birkat Ha Ilanot, which marks the first blossoming of spring. In Japan too, the seasons are celebrated - I was in Tokyo in April for Hanami, when the parks are full of people picnicking and admiring the cherry blossom.

Druids dressed in white march in single file on Primrose Hill to celebrate the Autumn equinox Druids celebrate the Autumn equinox on Primrose Hill, London, in 2009

One reason that I like the idea of festivals is that they give rhythm to the year. Without regular and repeated moments, 365 days can just become a whirl, our busy lives offering no moments to pause and reflect.

What is paganism?

Druids celebrate the summer solstice at Stonehenge
  • Largest non-mainstream religion in England and Wales
  • Best described as a group of religions and spiritual traditions based on a reverence for nature
  • No single founder, scripture or religious philosophy - most pagans believe in the divine character of the natural world
  • Druidry is just one tradition in a religion which covers many different beliefs. The neo-pagan community encompasses Shamans, Sacred Ecologists, Odinists, Heathens and Wiccans - or Witches

In a country like Britain with real seasons, the annual cycle of the earth's movement around the sun has significance. It was only as I was considering this topic that I remembered that the word "equinox" refers to the two days a year when night and day are the same length. If we don't mark such moments, then I fear that our years will just become a featureless smudge in time.

When I moved to Gateshead in 1991, I had the great fortune to meet Andy Gibson, an inspirational community worker, together with a bunch of his mates, and I joined their men's group. Please don't think this was anything to do with drumming or native American rituals. This group was all about friendship. And beer. Each and every solstice and equinox, we would gather in the Central, a tiny pub in Gateshead town centre, and drink pints and catch up and take stock and occasionally sing.

The second important point about festivals is that they bring people together. In the modern age, communal moments are few and far between, but when they happen, they are very memorable. Whether prompted by disasters such as the assassination of President Kennedy or the death of Princess Diana, or by great celebrations such as VE day, the millennium or the London Olympics, these are days when everyone is talking about the same thing and the normal routine is set aside.

And that seems to me important in life. We need moments to connect with each other and come out of ourselves.

I'm not suggesting we should be worshipping anything, neither God nor Mammon. But wouldn't it be good, if we could get together at regular intervals, with family or with friends, to take stock and commune?

At midwinter, we could celebrate the shortest day, and look forward in hope to the coming of the light. At the spring equinox, it's the time to be thinking of fresh starts. The end of summer brings harvest, a moment of thanks for what the earth has given us. On 2 November, I'd like to light a candle to remember my father, and departed friends like Andy Gibson. And midsummer should be a celebration of light and growth.

The sociologist Robert McIver writes that "the healthy being craves an occasional wildness, a jolt from normality, a sharpening of the edge of appetite, his own little festival of Saturnalia, a brief excursion from his way of life".

Do me a favour. Do something different for midsummer next year.

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Here is a selection of your comments.

Yes, in Japan, all sorts of events mark the changing of the seasons. The week after next, in Hiratsuka, near Yokohama, the Tanabata festival will mark the moment when the star-crossed stars, Altair and Vega, are at their closest in the sky, so can briefly rekindle their celestial romance. Nice article. By the way, Tsukimi, the moon viewing festival is Japanese, too, as was not mentioned. "Tsuki" = moon, "mi" = look (at).

Johnny Buckle, Japan

Tom, my boy, get yourself down to Cornwall at Midsummer. Here, on Midsummer's Eve each year, we light great fires on the tops of the old beacon hills while, in Penzance, the ancient, but revived Midsummer Festival known as Golowan is under way, and many more things besides those. Here, we've never forgotten who we are.

Craig Weatherhill, Penzance

Absolutely a perfect description of a greed self culture that has commercialised everything and in the process many people have lost the meaning of community and family values. Sadly one of the reasons I left the country

Tony C, Italy

The solstices and equinoxes are my calendar. Living in a 24x7 town they remind me of the passing seasons. As I enter my dotage they mark the cyclic progress of my health. The Winter Solstice is the prospect of the return of the light and warmth of the sun. The Vernal Equinox expands that hope. The Summer Solstice is pure joy knowing the promise is confirmed and will last for a few months. The Autumnal Equinox signals that hibernation is the only escape from the coming dark and cold. That the English Churches and commercialisation have failed to appropriate the Summer Solstice leaves it untainted - an occasion one can celebrate in a quiet, personal way.

Chris, London

I think Saint's days are a good way to remember good people from our history, not just kings and queens. It is a shame that the only feast day that most people can pin point on the calendar is St Valentine.

Adrian Odey, Burgess Hill

I am a practising Christian who enjoys celebrating the religious festivals, but I completely agree with Tom Shakespeare that religions should not have a monopoly on communal celebrations. I recall with fondness the French 'Fete de la musique' which they celebrate on 21 June each year. The streets are packed with people enjoying live music and a drink or two. Might work in the UK if we could rely on the weather.

Peter Lidstone, Woking

Yes Yes, we do need some festivals for this country, ones which show our roots, the summer solstice is an ideal one to use perhaps for open garden schemes or band nights for families in the local parks. Trafalgar Day to celebrate British historical successes of all kinds scientific, mountaineering, literary, with museums art galleries, libraries civic societies organising events. What about going back to the town parades we used to have with the local bands and all the organisations like British Legion, religious institutions, brownies local RAF cadets etc taking part - NOT a carnival; a parade to celebrate a town or county and its roots.

Barbara Whyler, Northants

Your story made me think about my own country where we have a lot of public holidays that are religious or national. The only public holiday that has its roots in ancient Egypt is Sham El Nessim which is celebrated on the Monday following Orthodox Easter, even though the ancient Egyptians had many other festivals.

Miriam Amir, Cairo

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