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Morris Traditions
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Plough Monday Yuletide May Day Harvest Home Hallowe’en Eastertide Tree Dressing

The 5 Bells, Eynesford A MORRIS CALENDAR

In our high northern latitude the contrast between winter and summer is far greater than in lands nearer the equator. The natural pivots of the year would seem to be the two solstices - the winter solstice when at last the decline in the length of the day is arrested and recovery begins, and the summer solstice when the day length reaches its maximum. Midway between these two points are the equinoxes, when day and night lengths are equal.

The Morris is solely an English tradition. The traditional times of the equinoxes and the solstices coincide with the important events of the Anglo-Saxons’ agricultural year - the sowing of seed, the start of haymaking, the end of harvesting, and the start of ploughing:

Agricultural Calendar
Vernal Equinox25th MarchSummer Solstice24th June
Autumnal Equinox24th SeptemberWinter Solstice25th December

It is no surprise to find major festivals clustered around these dates. The delight of the pagan Anglo-Saxons at the return of the sun is easy to understand. Nor is it hard to conceive how a priestly caste whose role it was to observe the signs in the heavens would in time assert that they themselves were controlling events by their magic. Unless you do this, they would declare, the flight of the sun will not be halted and there will be no seedtime or harvest. So, by inventing ritual and demanding sacrifices, they cemented their position in society as a ruling class.

The Anglo-Saxons arrived in the fifth century supplanting the already-established Celts whose ritual festivals were centred around a pastoral calendar - the beginning of lambing, putting sheep and cattle out to pasture in the spring, rounding up the animals in the autumn, and winter slaughtering.

Pastoral Calendar
Imbolc1st FebruaryBealltein1st May
Lugnasad1st AugustSamhain1st November

As the Anglo-Saxon calendar subsumed the Celtic one we also find festivals around these dates and the Morris ritual associated with them all. Christianity wisely preferred to adopt and adapt these festivals rather than obliterate them and so the ancient festivals survive in disguise.

PLOUGH MONDAY (Back to top)

Speed the Plough is an ancient tradition of touring the local district with a plough on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, when farm workers began the working year and ploughing commenced. A corn dolly, fashioned from the last stalks of the previous Harvest, in which the Corn Goddess was believed to have taken refuge, was reverently laid in the first furrow and ploughed in, in readiness for the coming season of growth. This was done so that the Corn Goddess, whose spirit resided in the corn dolly, would get to work on the new crop when the time came. The plough was then pulled round the district not by horses but by the local Morris Men with a view to collecting money from onlookers. Originally the coins would have been spent on beer in the local ale-house. Nowadays we collect for local charities.

In Essex the plough was often painted white and kept in the local church. Consequently the ceremony often became known simply as ‘The White Plough’. When the Mayflower Morris Men perform this ceremony the side is indebted to Mr. Jim Munden of Barleylands Farm Museum for the kind loan of a plough which dates from the late 1920s. In the dances the sticks were struck on the ground to awaken Mother Earth from her slumber to begin the spring. High capers encouraged her to ensure the crops would grow tall in the coming harvest. There was much primæval energy and magic in the air - so the local people were sure to partake of the good luck generated and gave alms to the dancers! In olden days those who did not contribute had the front gardens of their houses ploughed up in retribution! You have been warned!!!

YULETIDE (Back to top)

This is the time of Yule, the ancient festival celebrating the winter solstice, the shortest day, when at last the decline in the length of the day is arrested in midwinter and recovery begins. The delight of our ancestors at the return of the sun and its implications for agriculture and their consequent well-being is easy to understand. It was originally Woden who careered across the night sky in his chariot bearing gifts. Fir (Christmas) trees and evergreens have always been treated with reverence because the woodland spirits of vegetation were believed to reside in them at a time when the leaves had fallen from other trees. Cutting the mistletoe promoted the fertility of the earth and the production of good crops; the custom of kissing under the mistletoe obviously derives from this. The Yule log was dragged in with much ceremony to burn on the hearth. Wassailing ('waes hal', Anglo-Saxon for 'be healthy' and consequently the toast ‘good health!’), Mummers' Plays, and Morris are all customs associated with Yuletide and collecting money for them was never considered begging. Corn and milk were generally asked for but coins were an acceptable substitute. To give was to partake of the primæval energy and magic produced by the Morris dancers' exertions. The collecting 'boxes' from which Boxing Day gets its name were usually earthenware piggy-banks which had to be broken to extract the contents.

With the arrival of Christianity in England in the late sixth century and the reluctance of the populace to abandon their customs and ceremonies, the Christian priests were instructed to ‘graft’ the new Christian ceremonies on to the dates and places of pagan worship. That’s why so many customs of pagan origin are still associated with Christmas. In Essex it took Christianity three attempts (in A.D. 604, 653, and 675) before the Old Religion was finally officially replaced!

MAY DAY (Back to top)

May Day is the festival of the greenwood, having its roots far back in time when England was a forest country. With trees bursting into leaf, birds nesting, animals mating, and flowers blooming, the season of fertility was self-evident. The human counterparts are seen in the ancient pagan Maypole, Maying, Maydew, Maybaby and Queen of the May customs. The festival associated with May Day was Bealltein, one of the Celtic quarter days. Bonfires were lit to rid the fields of evil winter spirits, after which it was safe to turn livestock out to graze. The May Queen and King were tree spirits concerned with the renewal of vegetation. May Day was their wedding day, hence the May fertility customs. The hawthorn, sacred to the May Queen, was brought into the home to bring good luck, was used to decorate the village Maypole and is alternatively known as the Mayflower.

Male ritual Morris dancing would traditionally have occurred around the Maypole to placate Mother Earth for all the goodness taken out of the soil over the previous year. Energy produced from the dancers’ exertions replaced the energy taken from the soil. Many features of the Morris reflect its early origins from the spring flowers around the hats, to the Animal character (showing Man’s reliance on Nature), to the Fool (showing man’s naïvety), to the fertility symbols within the dances. A Jack i’ the Green (a dancer dressed as a Green Man) was often one of the characters in the side.

HARVEST HOME (Back to top)

‘Harvest’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘herfst’ meaning ‘autumn’, the time when the harvesting of crops was coming to an end, and occurred at the time of the autumnal equinox on 24th September. As the crops were gathered, it was believed that the domain of the Corn Goddess shrank as each sheaf was cut. When the final cornstalks remained in a field corner it was believed that the Corn Goddess resided within them. So the last sheaf was fashioned into a corn dolly, placed on the cart containing the last load and borne home to much singing, dancing and, no doubt, drinking. A branch of oak leaves would be held over the cart - a survival from ancient times when all rites and ceremonies were conducted under an oak tree. The corn dolly would be taken to the farm workers’ Harvest Home feast where it had the place of honour on the top table. Afterwards the corn dolly would be kept on a mantelshelf or a safe place in a barn until the ploughing season started in January when it would be ceremonially placed in the first furrow and ploughed back into the soil to ensure its regeneration and productivity.

At the Harvest home there would be celebrations and thanksgivings in the villages for the benefits of the harvest on which the Morris Men would be expected to bestow the blessing of their magic. The Corn Goddess and her associated ceremonies had parallels throughout the world. The modern Harvest Festival is a much watered-down continuation of the traditional Cerealian ceremony.

HALLOWE’EN (Back to top)

The evening of the 31st October, before Hallowmas or All Saints’ Day, was the evening when traditionally the ghosts of the dead walked the Earth and the landscape was alive with witches, elves and goblins. The warding off of evil spirits was an important village ceremony and many of the morris traditions belie their early origins - the jingling of bells and waving of white handkerchiefs to frighten away the evil spirits, the clashing of sticks to represent the fight between good and evil, and so on.

Huge bonfires (‘bone fires’) would be lit bringing with them the protection of the light against the unknown of the night’s darkness. This tradition was easily transposed to 5th November and Guy Fawkes’s Night. In Germany this day is known as St. Walpurga’s Day and Hallowe’en as Walpurgisnacht - witches traditionally gather on the Brocken mountain in the Harz Mountains.

EASTERTIDE (Back to top)

The vernal equinox, 25th March, the arrival of the spring, was an important date in the pagan calendar. The rebirth and flourishing of new life in the plants and crops of the countryside was matched by the rearing of new life among the birds and animals of the counrtryside. An outburst of fertility was everywhere apparent and to encourage that fertility the Morris would be expected to dance - by their exertions to appease Mother Earth, the goddess Eostre (hence ‘Easter’), and to put back into the soil through their stampings all that energy which over the previous year man had extracted from the earth in the form of harvested crops. Thus the importance of the egg as a fertility symbol, the giving as presents of eggs, and all the traditional egg-rolling, and egg-pacing ceremonies throughout the country at this time of the year are explained. The Resurrection of Christ, conveniently placed around this time, enabled the Christian Church to hijack the festivities and expropriate the festival itself.

TREE DRESSING (Back to top)

Tree-dressing is actually tree-worship and was practised as part of the pagan religions of both the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic inhabitants of this island. Trees, like wells and standing stones, were common objects of veneration in ancient times. They were the home of powerful spirits whose worship was associated with fertility. An essential feature of the ceremony is the ‘dressing’ – the presentation of offerings, charms and tokens to the tree. This practice lingered late in traditions like Beating the Bounds and Wassailing and lingers still in the decoration of the Christmas tree. Another feature is the association of the Morris dance with the festivities conducted round the tree. Both were intended to show reverence to and to propitiate the spirit of the tree. The traditional time of year for the ceremony was Midsummer’s Eve, the 22nd June and an associated ceremony on May Day, 1st May.

Oak groves were the original forerunner of churches – they were the sacred sites of the Old Religion – and when Christianity arrived on these shores they became the site of today’s churches. Even the design of church interiors aped the architecture of the oak grove in an effort to entice believers of the Old Religion within. Marriages continued to be celebrated under an oak until the Church prohibited the practice and even for long afterwards it became the custom for couples to go from church to dance three times around a sacred oak. The custom of tree-dressing continued long after tree-worship ceased and its many associated customs survive in much diluted forms from the Yule log to the Maypole, from the Green Man to touching wood for luck. Long may they continue!