The English Festivals – Laurence Whistler

Just after WWII, the artist Laurence Whistler (brother of Rex), wrote this charming book about English festivals through the year. He wanted to remind his readers of the ancient origins of the festivals they were celebrating & also revive in some way the festivals that had gone out of fashion & been forgotten. Whistler not only describes the origins of the festivals but also gives instructions for celebrating them in the present day, especially the more obscure ones. There’s a feeling of nostalgia for a lost world, not surprising just after the war, but there’s no wallowing in the idea of a lost golden age. Whistler has an acerbic tone at times that I loved as he dismisses the half-hearted, wishy-washy observance of the festivals that was current in the mid 20th century. This book is a plea to be more observant of the passing year, especially as city living means that many people don’t notice the signs of time passing that are more obvious in the country.

The book also springs from a desire for some normality & certainty in life after the horrors & disruption of the war. Both Laurence’s brother, Rex, & his wife, Jill, died in 1944. I have Whistler’s memoir of his wife, The Initials in the Heart, on the tbr shelves & it’s also just been reprinted by Dean Street Press. Whistler describes the need for ritual in our lives,

Even those who doubt the reality of these Agents for and against us may admit the truth of what is said about human nature; our need in childhood, and indeed throughout life, of ‘that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm’, which events like Christmas and a birthday so well provide.

After an Introduction which describes the historical origins of many of our festivals & customs, whether Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman or even prehistoric, the book begins, appropriately enough for this time of year, the book begins with Christmas, the custom of the Christmas tree, popularly ascribed to Prince Albert but actually beginning with the earlier Hanoverian monarchs. Most interesting for me was his discussion of the Christmas carol, which is never a hymn but was originally a dancing song (there’s even a list of carols at the end of the book, divided into Very Well Known, Less Well Known & Specially Recommended, Secular Carols & carols for Easter, May & Whitsun).

Whistler’s own preoccupations as an artist are obvious throughout the book as he describes church decoration as it is & as it should be with suitable instructions,

It is an old custom to decorate a part of the parish church … Every feature is treated independently, yet the effect might be better if all would agree to subordinate their ideas to a general design. When the architecture is good the decoration ought to enunciate its lines instead of confusing them, and it would be a mistake to think symmetry dull.

He can be sharply critical as well,

Indeed, contemplating the insipidities relished by certain High Anglican and Roman Catholic priests, the church-shop gadgets and vapid pictures with which they dado their churches, up to a tide-mark of sentimentality, one is driven to speculate whether the best guardian of good architecture is not, after all, the Evangelical parson who leaves it alone.

He describes the attempts of the Church to claim New Years Eve as a Church festival rather than a secular party,

The Church had attempted in the fifth century to baptise the festival by renaming it the Feast of the Circumcision; but perhaps the Gentiles of the North were not greatly stirred by that event. The customs of the day, once pagan, are now secular: and thus, unredeemed, the final minutes of December 31st are somewhat sobering to a thoughtful person.

The ceremony of First Footing is described although he’s less impressed with the traditional song,

From a much older England we derive the custom of dancing-in the New Year to which Scotland has now added the refinement of Auld Lang Syne, that heartbreaking dirge of the lachrymose. It would have been better if we had adopted the midnight flourish of trumpets introduced by the Prince Consort in 1841; but trumpeters are hard to come by.

I won’t go through the whole year because that would make this post ridiculously long. I just wanted to give you a taste of Whistler’s style which I enjoyed as much as I enjoyed the information about the origins of the festivals themselves. Not all the festivals are connected to the Church, although the Church did appropriate many pagan festivals as part of their mission to convert the population. Almost forgotten rural festivals are described, such as Plough Monday, the day when work was resumed on farms after Twelfth Night & Rogationtide, when the community would go out Beating the Bounds of the parish by walking the boundaries. This ceremony has been revived in recent years & not only in the country as you can see here. Midsummer Eve has very ancient pagan origins,

The atmosphere of the night was indeed thick with magic, Oberon’s magic. If a girl walked backward into the garden, uttered no word, but picked a rose and put it away unseen until Christmas, it would be found as crisp and fragrant as the night she picked it, and her future husband would come up to her and take it out of her dress.

Whistler’s distress at the demise of these customs is evident in his appeal not to forget the past in the rush to enjoy the supposed advantages of the present,

Yet who will convince the up-to-date countryman that he has lost anything at all, duped as he is by the notion of infallible Progress? The delusion is carefully fostered by the newspapers, most of all when they speak with feigned regret of the quaintness of the ‘quaint old days’. Songless and joyless in his work he may be, and cut off from spiritual union with his fellows and with the earth – but the Grid is coming to the village, and in the new cottages there will be ‘H. & C.’
Who will convince him that an attempt to restore that union is not the same thing as antiquarian sentimentality, for which he would reasonably claim that he has ‘no time’? ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’ We do. And we find that, made without art or love, the bread itself becomes tasteless.

Maybe there’s a little of the townsman taking for granted the benefits of electricity & hot & cold running water to people living in rural districts who have had to use candles & get their water from a well in these remarks but I think there’s a deeper truth here about the benefits of being in tune with the seasons. How much more relevant these days when we can eat tomatoes & cherries all year round if we want to. The modern movement to eating locally & seasonally is the reaction to the last 70 odd years of Whistler’s idea of Progress.

Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent. The English Festivals is a lovely book for anyone interested in English history & customs. There are many quotes from other authors & Whistler’s own opinions are never far from the surface.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me a review copy of The English Festivals.

6 thoughts on “The English Festivals – Laurence Whistler

  1. Oh and the link to their site has resulted in me buying some Bobby Owen series books by E.R. Punshon …. very dangerous intro! but at 99 cents a go also great bargains!


  2. Thanks Val. I shouldn't really thank you thought because I've just bought a secondhand copy of the Grenfell book. I can't resist letters. I'm supposed to be on a book-buying ban … oh well, I've been very restrained so maybe this can be an early Christmas present?


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