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The seasons - spring, summer, autumn, winter - are a powerful force in the rural life of Britain. The passing of the seasons is a major aspect of rural life and key points in the farming calendar were marked, and are still celebrated, in country towns and villages.
Most of the festivities are pre-Christian in origin, commemorating the important days of the Celtic year, such as the summer and winter solstices, and the spring and autumn equinoxes. Most of them were, however, given a Christian meaning in the early Middle Ages in order to confer a degree of religious respectability.
Candlemas Day, 2nd February:
Candlemas Day, 2nd February, marks the mid-point of winter, half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It was so named because it was the day on which the year's supply of candles for the church was blessed. It also commemorated the ritual purification of Mary 40 days after the birth of Christ. While it was observed as such as early as the 4th century AD, its pre-Christian origin is plain: it coincides with February, the Roman feast of purification, and with the Celtic Imbolc. Most hiring fairs (or "mop" fairs) were held around Old Michaelmas Day (see below). However, some were held in anticipation of Candlemas Day, when yearly contracts were entered into.
Shrove Tuesday, or "pancake day", signals the beginning of Lent. The name Shrove comes from the old word "shrive" which means to confess. On Shrove Tuesday, in the Middle Ages, people used to confess their sins so that they were forgiven before the seasons of Lent began. The making of pancakes provided a useful way of using up eggs and butter forbidden during the Lenten fast and pancake races form an integral part of many village traditions.
Lady Day, 25th March:
Lady Day, on 25th March, marks the spring, or vernal, equinox, the half-way point between Candlemas and Beltane (May Day). In the Christian calendar it commemorates the Feasts of the Annunciation, and was chosen because it preceded the birth of Christ by nine months. For the farming community, it was the first quarter-day (the others are Midsummer Day, Michaelmas Day and Christmas), the time for the payment of rent and other manorial dues.
Lady Day marked the start of the new year (i.e. was New Year's Day) between 1190 and 1751. When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in the UK in September 1752 in place of the Julian calendar, New year's Day reverted to the Roman new year of 1st January. During the Saxon and Norman periods, New Year was on 25th December.
Easter, which commemorates the Resurrection, is celebrated on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox; it falls between 22nd March and 25th April. Special cakes were baked at Easter - of which representatives still exist in our hot cross buns and simnel cakes - and brightly coloured eggs were also presented to friends.
Hocktide in Hungerford takes place on the second Tuesday after Easter. It marks the end of the administrative year, when rents and fines were due, and when the court sits to complete the affairs of the past year. Follow this link for much more on Hocktide and Tutti- Day
The tax year in the UK, which applies to income tax and other personal taxes, runs from 6th April in one year to 5th April the next (for income tax purposes). The odd dates are due to events in the mid-18th century. The English quarter days are traditionally used as the dates for collecting rents (on, for example, agricultural properties). The tax system was also based on a tax year ending on Lady Day (25th March).
When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in the UK in September 1752 in place of the Julian calendar, the two were out of step by 11 days. However, it was felt unacceptable for the tax authorities to lose out on 11 days' tax revenues, so the start of the tax year was moved, firstly to 5th April and then, in 1800, to 6th April. The tax year is sometimes also called the Fiscal Year. The Financial Year, used mainly for corporation tax purposes, runs from 1st April to 31st March.
May Day, or Beltane:
May Day is the Celtic festival of Beltane. Following Celtic chronology it was the mid-pont of the year. It marked the first day of summer, and was celebrated with huge bonfires to honour the sun. Traditionally, it was when the cattle were turned out.
Midsummer Day marks the summer solstice, with the longest day of the year falling around the 21st June. It was adopted by Christians as the Feast of St John the Baptist, in the way that Yule, the winter solstice, became Christmas.
Lammas Day, 1st August:
Lammas Day, on 1st August, is a religious feast day celebrating St Peter's deliverance from prison. The name is derived from "loaf-mass" when a loaf made from the first ripe corn was offered in the service of Holy Communion.
Harvest festival, which coincides with the autumn equinox, is usually held on or around 23rd September. Traditionally it was the biggest occasion for eating and drinking in the rural calendar, celebrating the completion of the huge communal task of gathering in the harvest. With the majority of his workers badly paid, it provided an opportunity for the farmer to demonstrate his largesse by providing ample supplies of beer and food.
Michaelmas Day, 29th September:
Michaelmas Day, on 29th September, is the Feast of St Michael the Archangel. It marks the end of the farming year. Traditionally it was the time when houses and land changes hands, and farm workers and domestic servants were hired for the coming year. Goose fairs and sheep sales were held on this day for hundreds of years, and in various parts of the country Michaelmas Day is still known as Goose Day.
In Marlborough two Mop Fairs (or Hiring Fairs) are still held either side of 11th October. Farm workers, labourers, servants and some craftsmen would work for their employer from October to October. At the end of the employment they would attend the Mop Fair dressed in their Sunday best clothes and carrying an item signifying their trade. A servant with no particular skills would carry a mop head - hence the phrase Mop Fair.
Employers would move amongst them discussing experience and terms, once agreement was reached the employer would give the employee a small token of money and the employee would remove the item signifying their trade and wear bright ribbons to indicate they had been hired. They would then spend the token amongst the stalls set up at the fair which would be selling food and drink and offering games to play.
Michaelmas Day is celebrated on 29th September but Mop Fairs were tied to the seasons and the harvest, not the calendar. When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1752 and eleven days dropped from that year events associated with the end of the harvest moved eleven days later to 10th October. This date is known as "Old Michaelmas Day" and since 1752 has been the date Mop Fairs take place.
Halloween, 31st October:
Halloween (a contraction of All Hallows Eve), is celebrated on 31st October, which is Samhain, the Celtic New Year. It precedes All Saints Day, the commemoration of saints and martyrs, on 1st November.
Guy Fawkes Night:
Guy Fawkes' Night is celebrated on or around 5th November, in commemoration of the attempt to blow up Parliament on 5th November 1605. The first bonfire was lit on the night following the discovery and foiling of the plot, when Londoners joyfully lit fires in gratitude for their king being safe. The ritual soon spread, first to Bristol in 1607, and from that time until 1859 it was a national day of thanksgiving.
Christmas, 25th December:
Christmas, the last major festival of the year, coincides with Yule, the winter solstice. It was not until AD320 that the Catholic Fathers in Rome decided to make 25th December Christ's birthday, in an attempt to co-opt the Yule celebrations of the Celts and Saxons. In 567 the twelve days from 25th December to Epiphany were proclaimed a sacred festive season. Christmas, in the Middle Ages, was not a single day, but rather a period of twelve days, from 25th December to 6th January. In England this lasted until the middle of the 17th century, when the Puritan government issued official policies outlawing all religious festivals.
Christmas remained moribund until the marriage of Victoria to Prince Albert in 1840. In Germany many of the Christmas traditions had survived, and he brought them with him. Christmas soon became a special occasion for the Royal Family; their celebration of it emphasised the importance of family closeness and an appreciation of children, and revived the idea of the holiday meal and holiday decorations. In 1841 Prince Albert introduced the first Christmas tree to Windsor Castle.
Boxing Day, 26th December:
Boxing Day, 26th December, earned its name from the boxes containing gifts of money that domestic servants received from their employers. It is also known as St Stephen's Day.
Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, marked the resumption of work after the Christmas holiday. It is said that farm labourers dragged a plough, dressed in ribbons and other decorations from house to house, collecting money and gifts. Before the Reformation, this was for the "ploughlights" which the men kept burning before certain images in the church to obtain a blessing for their work. In later times it was spent on celebration in the local public house!