Monday, December 19, 2022

A Poem for Christmas: Christmas Revels (1838)

Twelfth Night Revels in the Great Hall (1838) by Joseph Nash, Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, from 'Architecture of the Middle Ages'.

The Irish artist Daniel Maclise (1806–1870) was a well known artist of the nineteenth century and he painted many scenes featuring British and Irish history. His painting Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838) was eventually purchased by the National Gallery of Ireland in 1872. This festive work contains many figures of various ranks and degrees and depicts aspects of the declining traditional Christmas festivities of his time.

Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall (1838)
(Source: Gerald Leonard)

Maclise also wrote a long poem about this painting titled Christmas Revels: An Epic Rhapsody in Twelve Duans which he published under the pseudonym, Alfred Croquis, Esq. It was published in Fraser’s Magazine for May in 1838.

Maclise's poetry was influenced by the British novelist, poet, playwright and historian, Sir Walter Scott’s poem Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, published in 1808. Marmion is a historical romance in verse of 16th-century Britain, ending with the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Marmion has a section referring to Christmas festivities:

    “The wassel round, in good brown bowls,
    Garnish’d with ribbons, blithely trowls.
    There the huge sirloin reek’d; hard by
    Plum-porridge stood, and Christmas pie:
    Nor fail’d old Scotland to produce,
    At such high tide, her savoury goose.
    Then came the merry maskers in,
    And carols roar’d with blithesome din;
    If unmelodious was the song,
    It was a hearty note, and strong.
    Who lists may in their mumming see
    Traces of ancient mystery;
    White shirts supplied the masquerade,
    And smutted cheeks the visors made;
    But, O! what maskers, richly dight,
    Can boast of bosoms half so light!”

Maclise's Merry Christmas in the Baron’s Hall shows around one hundred figures covering many different traditions of Christmas. In his poem, Maclise describes most of the activities taking place in his painting as these excerpts demonstrate:

    “Before him, ivied, wand in hand,
    Misrule’s mock lordling takes his stand;
    Drummers and pipers next appear,
    And carollers in motley gear;
    Stewards, butlers, cooks, bring up the rear.
    Some sit apart from all the rest,
    And these for merry masque are drest;
    But now they play another part,
    Distinct from any mumming art.
    First, Father Christmas, ivy-crown’d,
    With false beard white, and true paunch round,
    Rules o’er the mighty wassail-bowl,
    And brews a flood to stir the soul:
    That bowl’s the source of all their pleasures,
    That bowl supplies their lesser measures”

The Lord of Misrule stands in the centre of the painting holding his staff and leading the procession of musicians and carolers coming down the stairs with a boar's head on a platter. Father Christmas, ‘ivy crown’d’, sits in front of the wassail bowl and is surrounded by mummers (the Dragon and St George sit side by side) and local people. On the left side of the picture we see a group of people playing a parlour game called Hunt the Slipper. In the background on the dais (a part of the floor at the end of a medieval hall, raised a step above the rest of the room) the baron sits with members of the upper classes watching the proceedings.

While Charles Dickens famously drew attention to the idea of a family Christmas dinner (Christmas Revels was written in 1838, A Christmas Carol in 1843), Maclise seems to have been more interested in the former collective celebrations of Christmas.

Many earlier traditions of Christmas involved the whole community celebrating together, entertaining or being entertained: wassailing, mumming, carol singing, medieval plays, dancing, cards and games. The increasing urbanisation and industrialisation of society had distanced people from what was seen as countryside and peasant revels. Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol (1843) showed a 'civilised' Christmas based around the nuclear family, far from the collective celebration (and chaos) of countryside communities whose egalitarian traditions posed a symbolic threat to the individualistic status-quo of burgeoning bourgeois society.  

Maclise had an ongoing interest in the ideology, history, and traditions of ordinary people as can be seen in the subject matter of some of his paintings, for example, Snap-Apple Night (1833) [Hallowe’en traditions], The Installation of Captain Rock (1834) [depiction of violent nationalist ‘Rockite’ movement], The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (1854) [depiction of the Norman conquest of Ireland and the death of Gaelic Ireland], and The Trial of William Wallace at Westminster (before 1870) [one of the leaders of the First War of Scottish Independence].

Many of the earlier Christmas communal/public traditions had their roots in pre-Christian nature-based pagan rituals. With the spread of Christianity, the church tried to incorporate pagan cults or feasts into the church, as Joseph F. Kelly writes, "at the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory I urged the Roman missionaries to Anglo-Saxon England to preserve as much of the local culture as possible while cleansing it of its pagan associations." [1]

Pre-Christian traditions

Wassail, for example, was made from hot mulled cider, ale, or wine and spices, and used in an ancient Yuletide door-to-door drinking ritual or to drink to the health of the apple trees and scare away evil spirits.  The expression “to make a toast” comes from the toasted bread often served on top of the wassail bowl. The toast was also hung from the branches of the apple trees.

A Christmas Eve 1842 issue of the Illustrated London News,
depicting Father Christmas in a wassail bowl.

Father Christmas is the traditional English name for the personification of Christmas. In pre-Victorian times "Father Christmas had been concerned essentially with adult feasting and games. He had no particular connection with children, nor with the giving of presents."  Father Christmas had been around since at least the fifteenth century whereas the popular American Santa Claus arrived in England in the 1850s and soon "distinctions between Father Christmas and Santa Claus largely faded away in the early years of the 20th century."

Mummers acted in folk plays such as St George and the Dragon, the theme of which, death and revival, relates back to earlier ideas of resurrection and the spirit of vegetation, a "magical ritual intended to promote the fertility of vegetation", where the main narrative structure includes "a quarrel, a death, and a miraculous restoration to life." [2]

The boar's head was an ancient tradition introduced to Britain by the Vikings and the Romans. The boar was killed as a sacrifice to their god Frey/Freyr as swine was the sacred animal associated with him. [3]  Frey was "associated with kingship, fertility, peace, and weather".

Saturnalia (1783) by  Antoine-François Callet, showing
his interpretation of what the Saturnalia might have looked like

The Lord of Misrule, appointed to be in charge of Christmas partying at court, universities, and in the great houses of the nobility was similar to the mock king of the Roman feast of Saturnalia when social mores were turned upside down for the duration of the festivities (probably as a form of social catharsis). [4] 

Holly and ivy are associated with the Roman Bacchhus cult whereby "holly was the female counterpart to the male ivy" and in wreaths were united as 'mythical parents that guaranteed renewed life in springtime. [5] Similarly, the evergreen fir tree was the "symbolic embodiment of the mythological world tree and wonderous, ever-fertile nature." [6]

Carols also had pre-Christian elements such as the Boar's Head Carol along with other carols featuring holly and ivy as their subject. [7]

The 12-day festival of Yule and the Yule log was historically observed by the Germanic peoples and connected to the Wild Hunt [a chase led by a mythological figure escorted by a ghostly or supernatural group of hunters engaged in pursuit, the hunters are generally the souls of the dead or ghostly dogs], the god Odin, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht ("Mothers' Night").

Mistletoe was also important. Pagan cultures "regarded the white berries as symbols of male fertility, with the seeds resembling semen. The Celts, particularly, saw mistletoe as the semen of Taranis, while the Ancient Greeks referred to mistletoe as "oak sperm". [...] The Romans associated mistletoe with peace, love and understanding and hung it over doorways to protect the household."

The Great Hall in Barley Hall, York, restored to
replicate its appearance in around 1483

The Great Hall

All these traditions were exhibited in the local great hall when the tenants and locals were invited for the Christmas festivities. During the Middle Ages the great hall was a focal point as the "administrative centre of a manor in the European feudal system; within its great hall were held the lord's manorial courts, communal meals with manorial tenants and great banquets."

The great hall had many functions:

"A typical great hall was a rectangular room between one and a half and three times as long as it was wide, and also higher than it was wide. It was entered through a screens passage at one end, and had windows on one of the long sides, often including a large bay window. There was often a minstrels' gallery above the screens passage. At the other end of the hall was the dais where the high table was situated. Even royal and noble residences had few living rooms until late in the Middle Ages, and a great hall was a multifunctional room. It was used for receiving guests and it was the place where the household would dine together, including the lord of the house, his gentleman attendants and at least some of the servants. The halls of late 17th, 18th and 19th-century country houses and palaces usually functioned almost entirely as impressive entrance points to the house, and for large scale entertaining, as at Christmas, for dancing, or when a touring company of actors performed."

The Abbot of Unreason (1837) by
George CRUIKSHANK (1792-1878) - Collection

By the late 16th century the great hall began to lose its function as a local administrative centre and was used more for "large scale entertaining" but "with the arrival of ballrooms and dedicated music rooms in the largest houses by the late 17th century, these functions too were lost."

The American writer, Washington Irving, like Maclise, seems to have also been influenced by English manorial customs:

"In his 1812 revisions to A History of New York, he inserted a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon, an invention which others dressed up as Santa Claus. In his five Christmas stories in The Sketch Book, Irving portrayed an idealized celebration of old-fashioned Christmas customs at a quaint English manor which depicted English Christmas festivities that he experienced while staying in England, which had largely been abandoned. He used text from The Vindication of Christmas (London 1652) of old English Christmas traditions, and the book contributed to the revival and reinterpretation of the Christmas holiday in the United States."

While such gatherings were a source of the Romanticist regard for the feudal hierarchies of medieval times, they also contained the origins of much earlier communal peasant agricultural gatherings rooted in the cycles of nature's seasons and polytheistic worship of pagan deities and spirits. As the pantheistic traditions of the peasants went into decline, the stage was set for a new type of Christmas which was re-invented and emphasised family over community. As Paul Frodsham writes:

"Prior to the accession of Victoria in 1837, no-one in Britain had heard of Santa Claus, had sent or received a Christmas card, or had pulled a Christmas cracker; few ate Turkey for Christmas dinner, and hardly anyone outside the royal family had ever seen a Christmas tree. By the end of the Victorian era, in the early twentieth century, these were all accepted aspects of our 'traditional' Christmas, celebrated as a major festival throughout most of the western world." [8]

Judith Flanders comments that:

"Dickens took the changes to industrial society - office and factory work, urban poverty and want, food that was bought in shops, not grown in kitchen-gardens, cooked in laundry-coppers and commercial cookshops, not by servants in great halls - he took this new consumerist society, and through Scrooge's 'conversion', he turned it into a sacred duty. Following his lead - cooking the turkey, playing games, drinking toasts, or buying a toy for your child - became the quasi-religious observances of the new middle-class domesticity." [9]

Despite the strong connections between Maclise and Dickens (Maclise illustrated several of Dickens's Christmas books and other works), their artistic works show different emphases regarding Christmas and society, especially at a time when industrialisation was moving society away from largely agricultural cooperating communities to self-sufficient family groups. Today, the most similar events to the manorial gatherings of the past are wedding receptions in hotel dining rooms, with their large gatherings of people partaking in food, dance, entertainment and frolics.

St Albans Mummers production of
St George and the Dragon, Boxing Day 2015-7

The collective gatherings depicted in Maclise's painting were significant in that they show the life of the community and their respect for nature. Today we are surrounded by the cults and culture of death. Christmas is an important feast because it is about life and renewal. Unfortunately, our tendency is to exploit and destroy nature, and now we are gradually realising the serious repercussions of these acts. Maclise's poem shows us a very different way of celebrating Christmas.

The full text of Maclise's poem is republished below:

BY ALFRED CROQUIS, ESQ. (Daniel Maclise)

After the painting: Merry Christmas in the Barons Hall by Daniel Maclise (Fraser's Magazine, Vol. 16, May 1838, p635 to 644)

HURRAH ! Hurrah!

'Tis the Feast of Yule, and all are gay
For Christendom's brave holiday.
Room for old Christmas, crowned with holly:
No other days are half so jolly!
Room, room for Christmas, ivy-crown'd:
No merry days like his are found!
We cast our cares and maxims trite,
And wise remarks away to-night!

Up to the fretted roof is sent
The mingled roar of merriment!
With blithesome laugh and joyous shout
Of comely maid or handsome lout,
That oaken roof full oft has rung
To laughing lilt from lusty lung,-
To boisterous mirth and honest glee
Reflected from its canopy;
But never lent its sheltering aid
To blither groups than here portray'd;
And never will its arch spread o'er
Such merry-making Christmas more.
The Baron with a courteous grace
Then sits him down, in pride of place;
And ready vassals near him stand,
And watch his eye for a command;
Towards gentle dames turn valiant knights,
Fierce from the brunt of fifty fights;
The haught eye quenched, the voice hushed low,
Quailing beneath a fairer foe, -
That voice the war-cry erst above,
Sunk in soft accents to his love.
Oh! not alone in youth's soft hour
Love can assert his mystic power,
But may in manhood's hour of noon
To soft strains his stern heart attune;
The ills of man's decline assuage,
And tinge the sunset of his age.
Circling the fire, a merry band
The slipper hunt from hand to hand;
A romping group of happy faces,
As bright with ribands as with graces.
That shriek of glee! that laugh — that shout —
Tell the hid slipper is found out,
But not yet gain'd; though yon page tries
To check its progress as it flies.
Ah, happy boyhood! merry page;
Of just the frolic-loving age,
Ere serious chase your life engage.
The oaken table's mighty length
Will soon require its utmost strength,-
For, heap'd upon its ample board,
Good cheer in mountains will be stored;
A numerous clan, — but first, and chief,
In place and space, bold Baron Beef.
A merry king, in festive prank,
His virtues felt, and gave his rank;
Sir Loin, as renown'd a name
As heralds' blazon'd parchments claim,
For virtues rare, and wide-spread ſame.
His vassal-meats are ranged around,
And pasties huge might there be found,
Where every dainty did abound;
The mighty chine, the savoury goose,
Capons, and turkeys crammed for use,
The lusty brawn, the venison haunch,
And all that wholesome was, and stanch:
Such famous sweetmeats, too, stood nigh, -
Plumb-porridge there, and eke mince-pie;
And now the boar's head is brought in,
'Mid song, and shout, and music's din,
By lusty serving man, in pride,
With form erect, and scarf o'er side;
Between the tusks a pippin's placed,
Rosemary wreaths around it traced,
Garlands of flowers the dish has graced;
With laurel his fierce head is crown'd,
And loud the applause that rings around.
Before him, ivied, wand in hand,
Misrule's mock lordling takes his stand;
The baron's spear lauds to the skies,
And eke the boar's vast strength and size.
With vauntings huge he well can tell
The time, the place, and how he fell;
How such a famous hound he tore, -
Describe his eye, his crest, his roar;
And, ending, swear such chase, such boar,
He ne'er shall see, nor saw before.
On either side a gay page stands,
Mustard and spice-box 'tween his hands;
And close behind might there be seen
The woodman in his garb of green;
Drummers and pipers next appear,
And carollers in motley gear;
Stewards, butlers, cooks, bring up the rear.
Some sit apart from all the rest,
And these for merry masque are drest;
But now they play another part,
Distinct from any mumming art.
Ah! we're not able for the task,
To conjure up “The Christmas Masque;”
Or, if we were, what needs it, when
Preserv'd in pages of “rare Ben,”
It shines on us in all its glory,
From the bright regions of his story —
A Poet's heaven; and now not fainter
Glows on the canvass of the Painter;
And, as our tints cannot be warmer,
We'll merely name you each performer.

First, Father Christmas, ivy-crown'd,
With false beard white, and true paunch round,
Rules o'er the mighty wassail-bowl,
And brews a flood to stir the soul:
That bowl's the source of all their pleasures,
That bowl supplies their lesser measures;
And as he brews, loud rings the laughter, -
He tastes before, and likewise after;
For as he throws in each ingredient
To try th' effect is but expedient.
And see them still fresh bottles bringing,
While loud the hall with mirth is ringing.
Once more the mixture, then, he tries, —
His lips approve, judge by his eyes.
Spices and wine are in the bowl,
And o'er the surface apples roll;
With rosemary sprig he stirs the whole.
At Christmas time, whate'er betide,
The hobby-horse was ne'er denied;
And dull that festal day had been
Where his gay prancing was not seen,
The maddest sport upon the green.
Where'er he bounds among the crowd,
There is the laugh and scream most loud,
Resounding as he goes along
Amid the gay and shifting throng.
All day the village through to roam,
At eve he makes the hall his home;
And, tired of being such a ranger,
Behold him now at rack and manger,
Replenishing his faded prime
To grace the sports of supper-time.
And so the hobby's turned his tail,
And sits his half-man to regale
On mighty beef and humming-ale.
Enters the wonder of the night,
The Dragon, with St. George to fight;
Armed cap-à-pie, from head to tail,
Against St. George in scaly mail.
What face is from his jaws a peeper
But that of honest John the Reaper.
The village tailor only all knows,
But keeps the secret of his smallclothes.
John deems an extra cup no sin,
Well to sustain his man within,
And thus to fortify his heart
Up to the pitch of Dragon part;
A reason John thinks of besides,
He carries with him two insides.
But, oh beware, my worthy Reaper,
Wassail may turn you to a sleeper.
Wassail a Dragon's eyes will close,
And lull e'en him into repose;
Lifting too oft a foaming flagon
Is not decorous in a Dragon.
But now he sets him at the table,
To eat and drink while he is able, -
Folds up his tail, thrusts forth his head,
And asks of Saint George to be fed;
For mark how Christmas old feuds ends,
The Dragon and Saint George are friends.
Enters Saint George in all his pride,
And takes his seat by Dragon's side,
Completely armed in pasteboard bright,
A famous champion and a knight.
The maidens wond'ringly admire
The hero in his rich attire.
One ties a sash, one pins a shawl,
And one a scarf flings over all.
The merry rogue who acts the Saint,
With smutted beard and cheek of paint,
Repays these favours of the misses,
Beneath the misletoe, with kisses.
And well they know the laughing eyes
That peep beneath the helm's disguise.
He now forgets both helm and mail,
And Dragon's wings and scaly tail;
Both from the same full beaken quaff,
And shout and sing, and roar and laugh.
That Turk, by Christian knight to fall,
'Mid laughter and applause of all,
The creed forgets which Turk denies;
Unchristianlike, the bowls supplies:
Yet he's rehearsing but his part
Allotted of the drama's art,
And lifts the brimming cup on high,
His nerve's firm steadiness to try,
With practised hand and steady eye;
Judge by that cup, which sheds no drop
Till at his mouth the brimmer stop,
That the wide whirling of his sabre
Will be performed with little labour.
Others in tiring room are nigh —
Sir Loin, Saint Distaff, and Mince Pie,
Plum Porridge, Carol, Wassail, enter,
Straight to the board as their own centre;
Mumming and Misrule, Baby Cake,
Now altogether merry make;
And he who acted to his name
Did best perform his part of game:
They ate and drank, till they in fact did
Look quite the heroes they enacted.
Such are the persons of the masque;
And now proceed we with our task.
Rogues, gipsies, jugglers, have got in,
From simple souls their pence to win.
Mark, first they sit in lowly place,
Nor of their calling shew a trace;
But as the strong ale goes about,
And lulls suspicion, they come out;
Till, bolder grown, they may be found
Where jokes and laughter most abound,
Tricking and juggling all around.
See, one on table takes his stand,
And one beside on either hand —
Wonder on wonder quick succeeds;
And good folks, puzzled, praise the deeds.
The old, with ill-concealed shame,
Look on and wonder, while they blame;
The young devour with ardent gaze,
And looks half doubting — whole amaze —
And give youths' ever ready praise.

The brave old Hall was then to be seen
Prank'd out in garb of bright evergreen.
Over the hearth, and over the door,
Adown the wainscot from roof to the floor,
Along the cornice, and over the arch,
The triumph of holly and ivy doth march.
Suits of grim armour look bright and look gay —
Garlands of berries, like scarfs, o'er them lay;
And corslet and helm, shield, battle-axe, and blade,
Together in green robe of peace were arrayed.
High on the places where ladies may go,
Roof, door, and mantel-shelf, hangs mistletoe:
The maiden who stays 'neath this licensing bough,
To the gallant who claims it a kiss must allow.
Hail to the mistletoe’s magic, that spreads,
Like a glory, its circle above their young heads!
Hail to the bough that, like wizard's wand, weaves
A spell such as this from its mystical leaves —
Rains its sweet dew as from heaven above,
And hovers protecting o'er those who may love!

The license much they seem to prize,
For many a pair the charm still tries.
Judge by the kissing that is there,
The mistletoe hangs every where.
An honest mirth flows all around,
Rasing distinctions to the ground.
No stateliness is to be seen,
Nor chilling distance intervene —
Good humour flows, and fills between.
The baron, see, nods to the squire;
The serf unto his lord sits nigher:
And hooded coif, and cap of pride,
Were oft seen seated side by side.
The village damsel might be seen,
In scarlet vest and kirtle green,
Blushing acceptance to the heir,
Who seeks a tenant's daughter fair,
Her dimpled hand as boon to crave,
In accents humble as a slave,
To join with him the festive dance,
And thus the day's delights enhance.
For Rank stooped from his airy height,
In honour of this single night;
State kept his robe for other places,
Nor of his grandeur shewed the traces;
And Ceremony's jewelled gear,
As deem'd too cumberous to wear,
Was changed for lightsome trappings gay,
Such as best serve a holiday.
Then, room for Christmas, crown'd with holly!
No other days are half so jolly.

Room, room for Christmas, ivy crown'd!
No merry days like his are found.
All mirth, all games throughout the year,
At merry Christmas reappear.
To Christmas each a tribute pays,
Levies of merriment to raise.
More joyous each seems to have grown,
When Christmas takes them for her own.
Then, room for Christmas, crown'd with holly!
No other days are half so jolly.
The proof of this truth is quite ample —
Take what succeeds for an example.
On New Year's eve, a tinge of sorrow,
Reverting to the past, may borrow.
The future of an untried year
Less food for hope may give than fear.
The past, or friends or foes removed -
The next year's fealty must be proved.
Then, room for Christmas, ivy crown'd
No merry days like his are found.
A Twelfth Night's jollity, at best,
Is but a little Christmas drest
In smiles and trappings of the old,
But less in mirth a hundred fold:
It is from borrowed lustre light,
But dimmer by a good twelfth night;
Yet let none from that lustre take,
Hid in the bushel of Twelfth Cake.
But, room for Christmas, crown'd with holly!
No other days are half so jolly.
Shrove Tuesday's grave guests but appear
To bid adieu to all good cheer;
And o'er that night a shade is cast,
That for a while its feast's the last,
For morrow brings the sacred fast.
So, room for Christmas, ivy crown'd!
No merry days like his are found.
Then through the Holy Passion week,
If joy there be, 'tis joy so meek,
When you reflect on Christmas gladness,
It seems to be allied to sadness.
Could o'er the soul such wish be stealing,
A kiss, in point of fact or feeling,
Could then be but committed kneeling.
But, room for Christmas, crown'd with holly
No other days are half so jolly.

May-day was gamesome eke of yore,
But all his pranks are wellnigh o'er;
Or else th' observance's so degraded,
'Twere better far if all had faded.
Though earth is clad in vesture meet,
Fit to receive May's dancing feet;
Though April sheds her rainbow showers,
To give to May her brightest flowers —
Lends to the hedge a sweet perfume,
And gifts it with a precious bloom;
Falls the laburnum's showers of gold
To earth's, like Danae's lap of old,
When Jove omniscient took that form
Deem'd surest maiden's heart to warm,
And shelter gained in Danae's bower
By virtue of a golden shower;
Clusters the lilac's flowery cone,
Luxuriant piled for May alone,
That takes the sky's sweet violet hue,
And heaven so bathes with its own dew,
It seems as if in heaven it grew,
Without one taint of earthly soil
Its native purity to spoil.
Though still the fields expect their queen,
Bedecked in daisied garb of green;
And the glad streams have found a voice
To wake an anthem, and rejoice;
And the lark heavenward soars and sings,
O'er earth exulting as he wings;
And the wide landscape round looks gay,
In honour of her own sweet May:
Man seldom now his homage pays
In gaudy groups and gay arrays,
That cheer'd the May of other days.
No more the village Maypole high
Tapers into the clear blue sky;
By joyous youths 'twas reared erect,
By maids with flowers and ribands decked,
While both, uniting, gaily trace
The dance in circles round the base.
Wide as December is from May,
Or Christmas-night from young May-day,
The mirth with which each is supplied
— Though mirth 'tis still — is still as wide.
Christmas the hearth-stone clusters round;
May o'er the fields is to be found:
Yet something in our feelings tell,
If May we love, ’tis not so well —
They're centered in that place of pride,
Our hearty, homely, warm fireside.
Lo, room for Christmas, crowned with holly!
No other days are half so jolly.

When the blithe year is in its spring,
And 'neath its influence the woods ring,
With notes of life, and joy, and love,
Springing from dell, and glade, and grove,
The earth wakes from its trance supine,
To honour sweet Saint Valentine;
And Nature, like a bride, rejoices
To greet her lover with glad voices,
Framing for him such roundelays
As she, in spring, can only raise.
Still, room for Christmas, ivy-crowned!
No merry days like his are found:
For there be other merry days,
Deserving well a separate praise.

And Michaelmas and Hallowe'en
Has each his merriment, I ween;
And many more than I can name
To joy and jollity lay claim,
Gladdening the heart as they appear,
Like stars to light us through the year;
Till breaks upon our view the light
That issues from the Christmas night.
The sky of life would be but dark,
If stars like these withheld their spark;
But, shining through this life-long night,
They give us glimpses of the light.
Blessings of peace and joy we call
On festive days, whene'er they fall;
But be more bounteously supplied,
Above the rest, to Christmas tide.
Then, room for Christmas, ivy-crowned!
No merry days like his are found:
Room, room for Christmas, crowned with holly!
No other days are half so jolly.

But, well-a-day, those days are o'er!
Christmas may smile, but laughs no more
With all the lustiness of yore;
And faint the picture; vain to say,
The mirth that lighted up that day —
That light, which spread o'er home and heart,
Was of the Sun of Joy a part;
A gladsome beam, from heaven astray,
To cheer and bless us with its ray.
That light o'er lordly fane was spread,
And glistened through the cheerless shed —
Cheerless no more when hut and hall
Partakes the joy which pervades all.
For, like the sun, which lends his beam
To the vast sea and petty stream,
To objects bright new lustre brings,
And glorifies the meanest things.
Like that rare stone by sages told,
Which all it touched turned into gold,
So Christmas time made all hearts gay —
Made lord and slave alike that day;
And which the happiest — who can say?
Equality of joy to all,
In honour of high festival

Large were man's thoughts, for notions vast
Possessed his soul in days long past.
Huge was the table; vast the hall;
And free the bounty that gave all.
This gave the Yule-log to the fire,
And made the blaze burn brighter, higher;
The board with plenteous cheer supplied,
Nor to the guest aught wished denied.
In all wise-dwarfed, small is our praise,
For there were giants in those days;
Unlike to these, where, glories yet,
The Sun of Christmas had not set.
If snow-wreathed gable, roof, and wall,
Flower-wreaths decked window, hearth, and all;
If casements shook to winter wild,
The hearth with glow more ruddy smiled;
And eke our hearts with warmth were stored,
Chill winter's contrast to afford;
And treasured up those feelings gay
Which may illume the darkest day.
Young bright-winged Joy, with aspect fair,
His herald's flag waved every where,
And held a truce with hostile care.
Oh! that was not the olden time,
When the glad world was in its prime;
Then was its youth, and then its bloom:
Now it seems fitted for the tomb:
Its lustiness and vigour fled —
Its graces gone — its joys lie dead.
We're the true ancients. Habits fine
Serve but to glorify decline.
Our age is age, not youth imbued
With life, but eld's decrepitude.
If those were barbarous ages then,
Let us be barbarous again.

Then, room for old Christmas, with his crown of bright holly!
May his days all be glad, and his nights be kept jolly!
Laurel, holly, and joy, entwine in his crown,
For no king that e'er reigned merits half his renown.
For he smiles in due season, when our hearts want a cheer,
When all nature and man are both chilly and drear,
And illumes the decline and the dawn of each year.
Thus he's loved, as the nightingale's loved for his song,
When the village he cheers through the summer-night long,
By a soft serenade to his sweet-blushing rose,
As she peeps from her lattice, but feigns to repose:
For one love-song's more precious, while the moon shines so bright,
Than a hundred and one by the day's garish light.
Thus he's loved, as the robin is loved, when his lay
Is sung near the window the cold winter's day;
When, trusting to us, and forgetting his fears,
As the winter approaches our shelter he nears —
(Such reliance we love!), his small claim to allow.
He has ever been sacred — we worship him now.
Thus he's loved, as we love his own sweet evergreen,
Which rejoices our hearts when no flower is seen;
When bright holly, old ivy, themselves all alone,
Make of winter itself a spring-time of their own.
And the other gay festival days that appear,
Are the sunshiny summer-day things of the year.
But more grateful we feel for the sweet, precious light,
Which shines through our winter from bright Christmas night;
And winter is but the long night of the year,
Brightened up with the full light of good Christmas cheer.
And the full heart that speaks in the nightingale's tone,
Is not half so joyous or full as our own;
Nor the summer's long day of bright birds and gay flowers,
Half so gay or so bright as this night-time of ours:
For we turn from the bowers when the bird's song is loudest,
And regard not the flowers when the parterre is proudest.
They rejoice not for us. In the sunlight they smile,
And when his eyelids droop, then they slumber awhile. 
No, for us they shine not; but, when summer is o'er,
The bird, and the flower, and the sun are no more.
Then the bird of the moon; and the rose we love best,
That a sentinel seems to watch over our rest;
And the robin we love, as he sings his sweet lay,
Near the window, to cheer us the cold winter's day;
And the flowers that love us, and to us are most dear,
Are the green things which help our old Christmas to cheer.

Then, long life to King Christmas! his reign has been long
In our hearts and our homes, in our story and song.
Though his doubtful accession's enigma's not solved,
Obscure in the gloom of past ages involved,
Yet of one thing we're sure — it is no little while
Since “King Arthur kept Christmas in merry Carlisle.”
Through the long list of kings do his triumphs appear,
And their pageants and battles are not half so dear;
With a king oft for guest, and a prince for his slave,
He his honours received, and in like manner gave.
He created his peers, too, so generous and grand,
To equal them none might be found in the land,
With power complete o'er the great feast of Yule;
A noble and churchman, of the true good old school,
Yclept Un-reason's Abbot and Lord of Misrule.
Then, room for old Christmas, with his crown of bright holly!
May his days all be glad, and his nights be kept jolly!
Laurel, holly, and ivy, entwine in his crown,
For no king that e'er reigned merits half his renown!

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here.

[1] The Origins of Christmas by Joseph F. Kelly (Liturgical Press, 2004) p60
[2] Christmas Customs and Traditions by Clement Miles (Dover Publications, 1976 [1912]) p300
[3] The Medieval Christmas by Sophie Jackson (Sutton Publishing, 2005) p25
[4] The Book of Christmas by Jane Struthers (Ebury Press, 2012) p26
[5] Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide by Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling (Inner Traditions, 2003) p95 
[6]  Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide by Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling (Inner Traditions, 2003) p24 
[7] The Medieval Christmas by Sophie Jackson (Sutton Publishing, 2005) p53
[8] From Stonehenge to Santa Claus: The Evolution of Christmas by Paul Frodsham (The History Press, 2008) p158
[9] Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders (Picador, 2017) p128

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Fascinating Folklore: The necessity for moving from extractivism to regeneration

The goal of life is living in agreement with nature.

The world is not to be put in order. The world is order. It is for us to put ourselves in unison with this order.
Henry Miller

Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard.
Standing Bear


The history of folklore as an area of study is relatively recent compared to its ancient origins. In the eighteenth century the role of Enlightenment science in changing attitudes towards the study of folklore soon showed benefits with an increased understanding of ourselves and our history of survival throughout the centuries. Soon, the influence of nationalist Romanticism paved the way for much research and support for folklore as an integral part of every country's cultural heritage in the nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century folklore had moved from being the culture of 'backward peoples' to becoming a major tool in the hands of the state, leading to very different approaches to folklore in the Soviet Union and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Post World War 2 and the decline of nationalism, folklore and folk music have taken a back seat in the spread of globalised cosmopolitan commercialism.

However, the anxiety over the rapid pace of the destruction of nature (land, forests, wildlife, and seas) in the twenty-first century paves the way for a re-evaluation of folklore, not as an ancient tradition that was perceived to be replaced by science in the nineteenth century, but as a pro-nature ideology that was cleverly replaced by anti-nature industrialisation, thereby choking off its continuing relevance as an important part of our cultural and political struggle to end the ruination of the planet.  

Taking place every winter in villages and cities in Romania’s eastern region of Moldova, the Dance of the Bear symbolizes the death and rebirth of time. Performed between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, this ancient ritual brings together the whole community, who gather to watch the performance. The Dance of the Bear sees men of all ages, and increasingly more women, dress in real bear skins and dance to the rhythm of pan flutes and drums, to ward off evil spirits and ring in the new year. Traditionally, the procession, which can include between six and 24 bears, would visit every household of the village.

History of folklore

Folklore is generally defined as the traditions common to a culture, subculture or group of people. It encompasses oral traditions such as tales and legends, material culture such as traditional building styles and customary lore such as the forms and rituals of Christmas, weddings, folk dances and initiation rites. Folklore is transmitted from place to another or one generation to the next and these traditions tend to be passed informally from one person to another through demonstration or verbal instruction.

In 1846, the British writer W. J. Thoms invented the word 'folklore' to replace 'popular antiquities' or 'popular literature'. The meaning of 'folk' at the time generally meant rural, poor and illiterate peasants. 'Lore' comes from Old English lār 'instruction',  the knowledge and traditions of a particular group, frequently passed along by word of mouth.

The initial basis for the study of folklore derived from changing ideas about the peasantry who were seen to be losing their culture in the fast developing process of industrialisation. During the Enlightenment, the philosopher, Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), not only wrote about the importance of the nation and patriotism but he also gave the idea of the 'people' a new significance when he stated that "there is only one class in the state, the Volk, (not the rabble), and the king belongs to this class as well as the peasant". If the people were defined as significant (not backward and uncultured), then their culture and folk traditions were also significant and necessary for the process of nation building.

Thus, local traditions and rituals which were largely ignored previously were transformed into an area of culture and history that could be studied, and "from the 1860s there was a boom in the collection and discussion of folklore – the rise of social Darwinism, a growing population and increased urbanisation generated an upsurge in the idea of survivalism and a fear that these rural traditions might be lost." In England, the first female president of the Folklore Society, Charlotte Sophia Burne (1850–1923) defined folklore as:

‘the generic term under which the traditional Beliefs, Customs, Stories, Songs and Sayings current among backward peoples, or retained by the uncultured classes of more advanced peoples, are comprehended and included.’

As we can see from this quote, folklore was perceived as "relics of behaviour from the distant past" that has been passed down through the generations. The middle and upper classes, largely the beneficiaries of industrialisation, had a background of success and wealth that buttressed their view of the working class and peasantry as the 'uncultured classes'. In many countries the changes in society brought about by industrialisation created an anxiety about cultural loss:

"Encroaching modernity caused the Victorians to worry that old traditions were under threat and in need of preservation. A rising panic at the changes wrought by technology, industrialisation, and burgeoning capitalism collided with fears about the booming population and the move to city life, creating a nostalgia for the rural idyll. It was against this backdrop that an interest in recording folklore grew, alongside an anxiety that it was a way of life quickly passing."

Carved idol of Peko. Radaja Seto Museum Photo by Ivo Kruusamägi
Peko (Finnish spelling Pekko, Pekka, Pellon Pekko) is an ancient Estonian and Finnish god of crops, especially barley and brewing.


The Enlightenment approach to folklore involved a "systematic, scientific study of behaviour – the folklore collected dispassionately for future analysis" and, moreover, the benefits of such study were quickly becoming apparent:

"Nobody now disputes that the superstitions, the customs, the tales, the songs, and even the proverbial sayings of a people may throw unexpected light upon its history; and from the investigation and comparison of such things as these, once deemed unworthy of notice, scientific men have begun to reconstruct the unrecorded past of humanity."

The new interest in mythology and folklore also became a tool in the hands of Enlightenment rationalists and skeptics who used it to undermine Christianity and the Church. As Robert D. Richardson noted:

"When Pierre Bayle scoffs at the story of Athena being born without the aid of a mother from the head of Jupiter, he does it in such a way as to emphasize the story's similarity to that of Christ's having been born without the aid of a mortal father. If we smile at the miracles in Greek mythology, how can we not smile at similar miracles in the Bible?" [1]

However, the study of folklore and mythology also revealed ancient and pre-Christian beliefs centered around a profound respect and worship of nature. In his book The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941) speculated that: "shared elements of religious belief and scientific thought, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, the scapegoat, and many other symbols and practices whose influences had extended into 20th-century culture." Frazer's thesis was that "old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king." Frazer proposed that "mankind progresses from magic through religious belief to scientific thought."


Prajapati with similar iconographical features associated with Brahma, a sculpture from Tamil Nadu.
Prajapati's role varies within the Vedic texts such as being one who created heaven and earth, all of water and beings, the chief, the father of gods, the creator of devas and asuras, the cosmic egg and the Purusha (spirit).

Romantic nationalism
With the rise of Romantic nationalism during the nineteenth century, folklore took on a new significance as the 'soul' of the people. The nation state claimed its political legitimacy based on an organic unity of the people which in turn was based on elements such as "language, race, ethnicity, culture, religion, and customs of the nation in its primal sense of those who were born within its culture."  This unity from below was emphasised by nationalists in reaction to the dynastic or imperial hegemony of feudalism which claimed its authority from above, for example, the divine right of kings who were mandated by God to rule over the people.

Folklore was useful to nationalists from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, not only to counter the old ideology of monarchy but it also served to counter the future threat of socialist ideas. For nationalists, the rural-based folklore of the people could form the basis of a class-conciliatory popular ideology in opposition to the spreading socialist concepts of working class culture, class warfare and revolution among the radicals. The rise of the socialist movements, culminating in the creation of Soviet Russia in 1917 heralded both positive and negative views of folklore.

Xochiquetzal, from the Codex Rios, 16th century.
In Aztec mythology, Xochiquetzal was a goddess associated with fertility, beauty, and love, serving as a protector of young mothers and a patroness of pregnancy, childbirth, and the crafts. Worshipers wore animal and flower masks at a festival, held in her honor every eight years.

The Soviet Union

Folklore studies thrived in the Soviet Union in the 1920s as there was little state control and the government was more concerned with the new economy, trying to reverse decades of underdevelopment. However, by the late 1920s the Soviet government "repressed Folklore, believing that it supported the old tsarist system and a capitalist economy." Stories about feudal princes and princesses eventually came under criticism by the Soviet government:

"They saw it as a remnant of the backward Russian society that the Bolsheviks were working to surpass. To keep folklore studies in check and prevent inappropriate ideas from spreading amongst the masses, the government created the RAPP – the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. The RAPP specifically focused on censoring fairy tales and children's literature, believing that fantasies and “bourgeois nonsense” harmed the development of upstanding Soviet citizens. Faerie tales were removed from bookshelves and children were encouraged to read books focusing on nature and science."

A new way of seeing folklore was developed that put emphasis on "traditional legends and faerie tales [that] showed ideal, community-oriented characters, which exemplified the model Soviet citizen" in particular "tales that showed members of the working class outsmarting their cruel masters, again working to prove folklore's value to Soviet ideology and the nation's society at large."

Certain customs were changed (in terms of content) or adapted (in terms of form), for example, the Christmas tree. In Russia, the tradition of installing and decorating a Yolka (tr: spruce tree) for Christmas was very popular but fell into disfavor (as a tradition originating in Germany – Russia’s enemy during World War I) and was subsequently banned by the Synod in 1916. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Christmas celebrations and other religious holidays were prohibited under the Marxist-Leninist policy of state atheism in the Soviet Union. Although the Christmas tree was banned, people continued the tradition with New Year trees which eventually gained acceptance in 1935:

“The New Year tree was encouraged in the USSR after the famous letter by Pavel Postyshev, published in Pravda on 28 December 1935, in which he asked for trees to be installed in schools, children’s homes, Young Pioneer Palaces, children’s clubs, children’s theaters and cinemas.”

The Yolka tree remains an essential part of the Russian New Year traditions when Ded Moroz or 'Grandfather Frost' (with assistance from his granddaughter Snegurochka,'Snow Maiden'), like Santa Claus, brings presents for children to put under the tree or to distribute them directly to the children on New Year’s morning performances. Thus, native folklore and traditions in Russia and the Soviet Union were customised to suit the changing material conditions of society in a rational process of adaptation that contrasted sharply with the irrationalist over-importance given to them in Nazi Germany.

In Māori mythology, Rongo or Rongo-mā-Tāne (also Rongo-hīrea, Rongo-marae-roa,[1] and Rongo-marae-roa-a-Rangi[2]) is a major god (atua) of cultivated plants, especially kumara (spelled kūmara in Māori), a vital crop.

National socialism

The rise of the national socialists in Germany in the 1930s also shifted folklore in a new direction as the Nazis not only linked the concept of peasant folklore with that of national unity, but looked abroad for suitable models (the "strong and heroic" Nordic tradition), despite feeling 'guilty' about the 'foreign elements' in German folklore:

"After 1935, German folklore professors were under pressure to adapt their theories and findings to the National Socialist Weltanschauung [worldview]. This not only implied the obligation to join in the search for Nordic-Germanic symbols at the expense of other interests, but it also meant giving priority to those elements that might be of immediate ideological usefulness to the Party." [1]

According to the German anti-Nazi philosopher Ernst Bloch, "Hitler painted the ethnic heterogeneity of Germany as a major reason for the country's economic and political weakness, and he promised to restore a German realm based on a cleansed, and hence strong, German people."

Folklore, as part of the ideology of German national self-consciousness, became a way of reading and understanding history itself:

"The social and religious order of the Nordic-Germanic tribes, they claimed, was the order of the present and, certainly, the order of the future.  In their effort to strengthen the German national self-consciousness, the Nazi ideologists emphasized not only an identification with the heroic age but also a deep contempt for the Roman civilization. In their view, the glorification of Rome and everything Roman had led to a serious weakening of Germany's folk unity. The "healthy" resources of Germany's own past had been sacrificed to the admiration of Rome." [3]

This Romanticist, irrationalist view of history (and 'folk unity') was part of the glorification of the peasant as the repository of the primary culture of traditional heritage. The peasant, previously seen as backward and uncultured, was now held up as the ideal model for society and culture as elites worried about the growth of the working class. The study of folklore was also reduced to a limited racial point of view to justify German 'superiority' that would underpin the German elite's desire to conquer Europe.

Overall we can see that in the twentieth century folklore and myth served multiple purposes in differing political ideologies of nationalism, national socialism, and socialism.

Susanoo subduing and making a pact with various spirits of disease (dated 1860, copy of original work by Katsushika Hokusai)
Susanoo (スサノオ; historical orthography: スサノヲ, 'Susanowo') is a kami in Japanese mythology. The younger brother of Amaterasu, goddess of the sun and mythical ancestress of the Japanese imperial line, he is a multifaceted deity with contradictory characteristics (both good and bad), being portrayed in various stories either as a wild, impetuous god associated with the sea and storms, as a heroic figure who killed a monstrous serpent, or as a local deity linked with the harvest and agriculture.

Folklore past, present, and future

In the past, our ideas about folklore were defined as traditional or modern by contrasting Enlightenment and Romanticist theories that revealed differing concepts of time. As Diarmuid Ó Giolláin writes:

"The traditional and the modern are usually understood to be in a negative relationship to one another, the one looking backwards, the other forwards, the one static, the other dynamic, the one repetitive and the other innovative. The notion of time in traditional societies is understood as being repetitive and circular; reflecting the rhythms of nature, with the events of the beginning of time constantly being reactualised through myth and ritual, while time in the historic religions and in modern societies is seen as linear and irreversible." [4]

The linear view is teleological, encompassing patriarchal religion and capitalism that only moves in one direction (towards the Day of Judgement), and with growth as its model, despite the fact that we live in a world of limited resources. In opposition to this view, there is the circular view of time in traditional societies which reflected the ever-changing seasons and respect for nature.

The idea of linear time is reflected in Frazer's view of folklore as being on a continuum "from magic through religion to science". However, this is a sleight of hand that misses the point that folklore has been an important part of pre-Christian, pagan, and pro-nature ideology that was not replaced by science, but instead by an anti-nature ideology that uses science to justify and legitimise its industrial-scale extractivism and exploitation of nature.

The difference between folklore and science was not an epistemological difference (tradition v science) but a consequence of capitalist exploitation that operates through the destruction of nature and then tried to legitimate itself by hiding in a cloak of modernity, while at the same time negating past pro-nature practices. There was no reason why the pro-nature continuum of folklore could not have been seen as one that continued to the present and on into the future, as people's connection with nature had not fundamentally changed (nature being, of course, the vital source of our sustenance).

Our unchanged relationship with nature can be seen in the continuation of practices associated with folklore, the culture of respect and reverence towards nature, such as Hallowe'en, Easter eggs and hares, Christmas trees, and bonfires (as a few Western examples), despite increasing commercialisation.

A similar argument was made that portrait painting was 'outmoded' by photography (a very different and mechanical process), yet portraiture has continued to today in full strength with national portrait galleries and portrait competitions. The importance of portraiture lies in its ability to evoke emotions beyond the literal interpretation of the subject, making the person who views a portrait feel something, which connects them to the artist's feelings, thoughts and desires.

The anti-nature continuum of the wilful exploitation of nature (such as the ongoing destruction of the Amazon and wildlife, the global and mass use and abuse of animals, transnational polluting industries, chemical-driven industrial crop land, and factory ship over-fishing that is emptying our seas) also continues to today in parallel with traditional pro-nature folklore customs and traditions.

Slovenia - Ptuj - Kurentovanje: celebration of coming spring - "Kurent"s urging winter to leave
Kurentovanje is Slovenia's most popular and ethnologically significant carnival event first organised in 1960 by Drago Hasl. This 11-day rite of spring and fertility highlight event is celebrated on Shrove Sunday in Ptuj, the oldest documented city in the region, and draws around 100,000 participants in total each year.


The conflict between industrialisation of nature and respect for nature is sharply highlighted by Yuval Noah Harari when he writes:

"The fate of industrially farmed animals is one of the most pressing ethical questions of our time. Tens of billions of sentient beings, each with complex sensations and emotions, live and die on a production line. Animals are the main victims of history, and the treatment of domesticated animals in industrial farms is perhaps the worst crime in history."

The importance of folklore is not that it ties us in with our past, but that it connects us into an understanding of nature in a meaningful way. If there is a distance between people and nature, it is as a result of an unfortunate coincidence of certain groups and the location of fossil fuels globally, as Michael Cronin writes:

"It is often the poorest people on the planet speaking lesser-used languages in more remote parts of the world that find themselves at the frontline of the race to extract as much fossil fuel resources as possible from the earth. [...] Bram Buscher, a geographer, has coined the term 'liquid nature' to describe the way in which fields, forests and mountains lose their intrinsic, place-based meaning and become deracinated, abstract commodities in a global trading system." [5]

Cronin quotes Russ Rymer on the importance of local knowledge built up over generations:

"When small communities abandon their languages and switch to English or to Spanish, there is a massive disruption in the transfer of traditional knowledge across generations - about medicinal plants, food cultivation, irrigation techniques, navigation systems, and seasonal calendars." [6]

Cronin points to the importance of local knowledge contained in the Irish language (an ancient but threatened language), for example, which has "linguistic resources in abundance", [7] and is particularly important in the "shift from an ideology of extractivism [anti-nature] to an ideology of regeneration [pro-nature]". [8]

Yggdrasil (from Old Norse Yggdrasill [ˈyɡːˌdrɑselː]), in Norse cosmology, is an immense and central sacred tree. Around it exists all else, including the Nine Worlds. Yggdrasil is an immense ash tree that is central to the cosmos and considered very holy. The gods go to Yggdrasil daily to assemble at their traditional governing assemblies, called things.

Folklore of sacred trees

The strong connection between people and nature has never gone away, and can be seen in past and present attitudes towards trees, for example. In a recent development in Co. Cork in southern Ireland a local Christmas tree grower now rents his Christmas trees. The grower gives the renter instructions on the care of the tree and it is returned to him in January, when it is re-potted and numbered. Why? Because many who rent the trees wish to have the same tree returned to them in the following year.

This emotional connection with trees has a long history on a global scale. Helen Keating gives nine examples of  English tree lore: "Our lives have been so closely linked with trees since prehistoric times, they've been the subjects of legends, folklore and mythology." Zteve T Evans looks at examples of Irish tree folkore: "It is believed that the ancient Celtic people were animists who considered all objects to have consciousness of some kind. This included trees, and each species of tree had different properties which might be medicinal, spiritual or symbolic. [...] Some species of tree featured in stories from their myths, legends and folklore."

J. A. MacCulloch noted that:

"Pliny said of the Celts: “They esteem nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows. But apart from this they choose oak-woods for their sacred groves, and perform no sacred rite without using oak branches. [...] A people living in an oak region and subsisting in part on acorns might easily take the oak as a representative of the spirit of vegetation or growth. It was long-lived, its foliage was a protection, it supplied food, its wood was used as fuel, and it was thus clearly the friend of man. For these reasons, and because it was the most abiding and living thing men knew, it became the embodiment of the spirits of life and growth."

The global belief in tree deities demonstrates the ancient awareness of the value of trees for our existence and survival in folklore. We are becoming acutely aware of the importance of trees today with modern science giving us much knowledge of forests as carbon sinks, showing there is no conflict between science and folklore but, in fact, a major conflict between pro- and anti- nature ideologies, as the destruction of nature continues unabated. All over the world today the wealth of folklore is being developed and added to through collection and research. People everywhere participate in and learn about their country's folklore through their education systems as well as their family and community traditions. However, we need a major re-evaluation of folklore, not as an atavistic return to pagan primitivism, but as an important step in returning our societies back to the pro-nature philosophy and consciousness of our ancestors. Our survival as a species depends on it.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. Caoimhghin has just published his new book – Against Romanticism: From Enlightenment to Enfrightenment and the Culture of Slavery, which looks at philosophy, politics and the history of 10 different art forms arguing that Romanticism is dominating modern culture to the detriment of Enlightenment ideals. It is available on Amazon ( and the info page is here

[1] The Enlightenment View of Myth and Joel Barlow's "Vision of Columbus", by Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Early American Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 1978), pp. 34-44, University of North Carolina Press ( p.36
[2] 'Folklore as a Political Tool in Nazi Germany' by Christa Kamenetsky, p221 (The Journal of American Folklore, Jul. - Sep., 1972, Vol. 85, No. 337 (Jul. -
Sep., 1972), pp. 221-235 Published by: American Folklore Society)
[3] 'Folklore as a Political Tool in Nazi Germany' by Christa Kamenetsky, p227 (The Journal of American Folklore, Jul. - Sep., 1972, Vol. 85, No. 337 (Jul. -
Sep., 1972), pp. 221-235 Published by: American Folklore Society)
[4] ' Rethinking (Irish) Folklore in the Twenty-First Century' by Diarmuid Ó Giolláin, p39 (Béaloideas, 2013, Iml. 81 (2013), pp. 37-52, An Cumann Le Béaloideas Éireann/Folklore of Ireland Society)
[5] Irish and Ecology by Michael Cronin (Foras na Gaeilge, 2019) p13/14
[6] Irish and Ecology by Michael Cronin (Foras na Gaeilge, 2019) p20
[7] Irish and Ecology by Michael Cronin (Foras na Gaeilge, 2019) p39
[8] Irish and Ecology by Michael Cronin (Foras na Gaeilge, 2019) p32/33