Wytch Hazel Cottage

Reclaiming Our Ancestral Folkways

Year: 2016

Wassailing Traditions

Wassailing has been associated with Yuletide for hundreds of years. The word wassail comes from the Anglo Saxon “waes hael” meaning to be of good health. This old custom took place at the beginning of the New Year when good wishes could be passed between family and friends.

Wassail is an ale which is seasoned with spices and honey and was served in huge bowls made of pewter or silver with perhaps an egg or two. The huge bowl was passed around with the greeting of “wassail” and was often taken to other people’s homes as well. This has now become the tradition of carol singing. The lord of the manor would often shout “waes hael” and the assembled crowd would reply “drinc hael” which means drink and be healthy. He would then give food and drink to them in exchange for their blessings and good will. ” Love and joy come to you and to your wassail too. And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year”.

Apple Tree Wassails are songs that were sung to the health of the apple trees. In some places this tradition took place on Christmas Eve and in others it was on twelfth night ( 6th January or 17th January before the calendar changed in England in 1752). For others, New Year’s Day morning had young boys “Apple Howling”, where they would beat the trees with willow sticks and sing rhymes.

It was tradition to sprinkle wassail ale around the base of the apple trees and to pour it on the roots of the largest and most beautiful tree, after which it was dressed with ribbons or strips of cloth. Pieces of toast soaked in ale were also placed in between the tree’s branches.

The villagers would then gather around the orchard, banging on pots and pans, making a tremendous noise to wake up the spirit of the trees and to frighten away any bad spirits.

Wassail songs were sung or chanted as a blessing to bring a good apple harvest the following autumn. Part of the labourers’ wages would have been paid in ale, so the owner of the orchard needed healthy abundant apple crops to attract good workers.

“Apple tree, apple tree we all come to wassail thee,
Bear this year and next year to bloom and blow,
Hat fulls, cap fulls, three cornered sacks fills…”

In parts of the UK there are still places that practice wassailing, so keep your eyes open for these and join in the fun. If not you could perhaps buy a small fruit tree and adapt this tradition to suit you.

Ivy In European Folklore

Ivy is a climbing vine that attaches itself to stone, brick and other surfaces, including trees. It climbs by way of small tendrils that grow from the vine which can become large as each tendril sends out another branch. It does not take very long for ivy to completely grow up a wall and cover it. Although it is not likely to damage a brick wall, it can become extremely invasive. Ivy leaves are heart shaped and can be green with white or cream accents. Unlike other plants, ivy flowers in the autumn and sets seeds in the spring.

Ivy has a fascinating history full of tradition and folklore and like holly and mistletoe stays green throughout the year. This fact led to the belief that it had magical and protective qualities and was therefore used to decorate homes during the winter months. Ivy has become a symbol of eternal life because it is often found growing on dead or decaying trees, as well as being found growing over headstones in cemeteries. However, at the same time because it is often found in cemeteries it was also viewed as a symbol of death. It used to be said that if ivy was found growing abundantly on a young girl’s grave it meant that she had died of a broken heart.

In other traditions, ivy was a symbol of marriage, fidelity, luck and love. This was perhaps due to its tendency to bind. Brides and grooms in Greece wore crowns of ivy as a symbol of fidelity.

Some versions of the Medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde, refer to ivy’s ability to bind. Tristan was a Cornish knight and Isolde was an Irish princess. Tristan went to Ireland to bring her back as a bride for King Mark. However, Tristan and Isolde fell in love before they reached Cornwall after drinking a love potion.

In ancient Rome, ivy was associated with Bacchus also known as Dionysus in Greek mythology, the God of wine and revelry. It was said that a handful of bruised ivy leaves steeped in wine would make it less intoxicating to the drinker, but at the same time more potent! For this reason, taverns used to display an ivy bush over their door as a sign that they were serving the best brew.

The Greeks and Romans held the plant in high esteem as it was seen as a protection against evil and Roman poets were crowned with a wreath of ivy so they could think more clearly. Perhaps it was the Druids who influenced the Romans, as they too wore crowns of ivy for clarity of thought. Virgil, a Roman poet, once spoke of a golden ivy that grew yellow berries. Sadly this ivy is now extinct.

Women carried ivy with them to promote fertility and wands were decorated with ivy or made from ivy wood for use in spells and fertility rites.
Ivy was also used in love divination especially at Samhain, as this following verse shows:

Holly In European Folklore

Holly has been traditionally connected to this time of year for thousands of years. Just like mistletoe, its origins can be traced back to northern Europe and was of great importance to our ancestors. Its leaves are dark shiny green with sharp jagged edges and its red berries were associated with blood. Druids wore holly in ceremonial head dress when they went into the forest to gather mistletoe.

Druids regarded holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life and it was believed to have magical powers. In Druid lore, cutting down a holly tree would bring bad luck, but hanging holly sprigs up in the home was believed to bring good luck and protection. Holly was also thought to protect homes against lightning strikes.

The holly tree is one of the trees that can be found in the Ogham (pronounced oh-am), an ancient script that can be seen on certain standing stones in Ireland and Wales. Our ancestors respected and honoured trees which were often the focal point of celebrations. Similar to runes, the Ogham can be engraved onto wooden sticks and used in divination and magic. In the Ogham the holly symbolises protection, balance and compassion.

The Ogham letter for holly is ‘Tinne’ and this word means fire. Holly has been associated with fire for many hundreds of years and was used in fires that were lit during the Winter Solstice. Charcoal made from holly was seen as extremely potent and smiths used it for making swords. Smiths were seen as almost godlike with their powers of transformation, creating weapons and tools from molten metal. The use of holly during this process made the act even more magical.

Holly was also offered up to the Roman god Saturn during the festival of Saturnalia. It was said that the holly was the sacred plant of this god and was therefore highly valued by the Romans. It was also seen as an extremely symbolic gift to offer a person.

In the north of Britain, young women who wanted to know who their future husbands would be, placed three sprigs of smooth holly leaves wrapped in a cloth tied with nine knots under their pillows at night. They hoped that theywould see him in their dreams.

It was believed that if you wore a sprig of holly then you would be protected from the faeries and a holly wreath on the door would certainly make sure nothing evil passed over the threshold.

In Scotland, it was said that holly was both feminine and masculine. Smooth leaves were feminine and the prickly ones were masculine. The type of leaves that were brought into the home at Yule indicated whether it would be the husband or the wife of the household that governed over the coming year.

Throughout Europe, holly was used to ward off evil spirits and was seen as a protective barrier, especially during the winter months when the Wild Hunt was taking place. So it would be hung over doorways and windows to stop wandering bad spirits from entering the home.

Mistletoe In European Folklore

illustration_viscum_album0Kissing under the mistletoe is an age old Christmas tradition, but have you ever actually asked yourself why we do it? Thinking about it, it all seems very strange, but there is much more to this Yuletide plant than meets the eye.

The mistletoe of northern Europe can definitely be called the original mistletoe. Viscum Album is the mistletoe that can be found in all of our ancient European traditions and legends.

The familiar white berried plant is parasitic and relies on its tree host to survive, taking the tree’s own water and nutrients. Being a parasite, mistletoe can seriously damage the tree, but fortunately this is not a problem if only one or two branches are covered. However, if it does establish itself on every branch, then it is not good news. The tree will not be able to have enough foliage of its own, nor water and nutrients and will eventually die. Thankfully, mistletoe can be managed properly if pruned.

The use of mistletoe in herbal remedies has its roots in prehistory.  According to Pliny the Elder, the Druids of Britain used to harvest mistletoe from their sacred oaks to use in rituals and medicine. It is actually very rare for mistletoe to grow on an oak tree.

A special ceremony would take place a few days after the Winter Solstice once the Druids had prepared for their sacrificial feast. Under the chosen oak they would bring two white bulls whose horns had never been bound. A Druid dressed in a white robe would then climb the oak and with a golden sickle cut the mistletoe, which they caught in a white cloak. It was important to them that the mistletoe did not touch the ground and become contaminated. The Druids divided up the boughs into sprigs and distributed them among the people, believing that the mistletoe would protect them from fire and storms as well as evil spirits. It has never been clear exactly how they used mistletoe in their herbal cures, but it has had a reputation ever since as a “Heal All” and can be used to enhance fertility, cure nervous disorders and relieve high blood pressure. (Please consult a qualified herbalist first before using any herbal remedy).

The earliest archaeological evidence of mistletoe is from the Lindow Man; a bog body found preserved in Cheshire, England from the time of the Roman occupation. Analysis of his stomach contents revealed a few grains of mistletoe pollen and this has been interpreted as evidence that he drank some sort of mistletoe drink before his death. Some people believe that the mistletoe remains are proof that he was perhaps a Druid or even a sacrificial victim of the Druids, as mistletoe is poisonous in large amounts.

Mistletoe was so sacred in the eyes of the Celts that even enemies who happened to meet beneath a mistletoe in the forest would lay down their arms and exchange a friendly greeting, keeping the truce until the following day. From this ancient custom came the practice of hanging mistletoe over a doorway as a token of good will and peace to all who entered. By the 18th century in Britain, this evolved into the kissing tradition we have today. At this time, it became popular to create a ball of mistletoe that would be hung as a Christmas decoration. If a couple was found standing under the mistletoe, they had to kiss if the mistletoe ball still had berries. For each kiss, one berry would be taken from the ball. Once all the berries were gone, all the “luck” in love and marriage was considered to be drained out of the mistletoe and it was now bad luck to kiss beneath it.

According to Norse legend, when the Goddess Frigg and her son Baldur both had dreams concerning his death, Frigg made all of the things on Earth, both living and dead, take an oath to never harm Baldur. All took an oath not to harm Baldur except the mistletoe, who Frigga considered far too young. Read the rest of this story here on one of my favourite Norse mythology pages.

The Death of Baldur

The last fact about mistletoe is that it was banned from being used in church decorations when Christianity took root in northern Europe, most likely due to its connection with the old folkways. This ban is still widely observed today.

Yule Log Traditions

The Yule log was traditionally set alight in honour of the Norse God Thor; protector of mankind and the Aesir. Usually cut from an oak tree or sometimes an ash, the log was burnt in sympathetic magic to encourage the return of the sun.

The log would have been lit with a charred remain from last year’s Yule log, symbolising the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. Sprigs of holly and other evergreens were thrown onto the burning wood to encourage a year of good fortune, health and protection. The log was never left to burn completely because pieces were needed to craft into charms that would protect the wearer over the coming year.

In some parts of Scotland a similar tradition was observed, but instead of a log, a figure of an old woman was carved from an old tree trunk. The Cailleach Nolliach which means ‘Old Winter’s Wife’ was brought into the house and laid onto a burning fire. The household would then gather and watch the figure be consumed by the flames. The Cailleach did not represent new life; she represented death. To avoid death and misfortune the carving was burnt to ashes.

Traditionally, those who followed the Old Germanic folkways brought the Yule log into the home on 20th December, which they called Mothers’ Night. Before the log entered the longhouse, a procession took place through the village with the decorated tree trunk decked out in ribbons and greenery. This was seen as a joyous occasion and after being lit, the huge tree trunk was expected to burn for twelve nights; not an issue when you lived in a longhouse. The log was seen as sacred symbol and no one was allowed to walk barefoot near it or even squint!

In Yorkshire, England, it was customary for children to beg and sing from house to house as the Yule log was carried in. This tradition was called Mumping or Gooding.

Nowadays sadly, the only Yule logs we see are chocolate ones found in the frozen section of supermarkets, but we can change this and start our own Yuletide tradition. For those of you who do not have an open fire or even a fire pit outside why not buy or make candle holders out of small branches and after lighting them blow out the candle and make a wish for the new year.

Reinventing The Wheel

Stepping onto an earth based path from having previously been a Christian was very unnerving for me. I had absolutely no idea what to do to get myself up and over the invisible wall that I imagined was blocking my way. Even though I knew deep down that the faith I grew up with no longer served me, at least there was a safe familiarity about it; the routine, the boundaries, the expectations. All of these were ironically comforting. I didn’t have to think for myself because it was all done for me.

My free fall into unfamiliar territory was thankfully short and my discovery of ‘The Wheel of the Year’ gave me the structure and guidance that I so desperately needed. ‘The Wheel of the Year’ as many of you will know is the neo-pagan seasonal calendar that celebrates the solstices, the equinoxes and the four fire festivals; the latter being based on the agricultural year and Celtic mythology. Collectively, neo- pagans call these celebrations ‘Sabbats’.

My journey along the path of seasons and ancestors was and still is a slow and appreciative one. I see the world through the eyes of a child, noticing the subtle changes of Mother Nature’s breath; subtleties that I never would have made the time to notice before because I was just too busy being busy. But now I make a conscious effort to stop and take note.

How could I have seriously believed that February was winter and that August was summer? Lambs take their first tentative steps in February among the snowdrops while crocuses burst through the frozen ground. These are the subtleties of spring. And as for August, how did I not realise that the leaves begin to turn and the mornings hold the promise of cooler days ahead? These are the subtleties of autumn.

As I have been celebrating each turn of the Wheel I have come to realise how much more connected I feel to the land around me. Each spoke of the Wheel gives me the opportunity to take stock of my life and to appreciate how far I have come. With our busy modern lives it is all too easy to lose track of time as we get caught up in the daily humdrum, forgetting that we are one with the world; the world that is right outside the kitchen window.

If we were to just take notice of the earth’s rhythms, her ebbs and flows, our five senses would explode into life. We would see the grass snake basking in the last rays of sunshine. We would hear the swallows as they take off for warmer climes. We would smell the musty damp leaves as they slowly decompose and become part of the rich soil. We would taste the bonfire smoke on our tongue and feel the crisp sharp wind on our face.

So this is how it has been for me for these past few years until this autumn when I didn’t celebrate Lughnasadh. My heart just wasn’t in it, there was no anticipation and this led to me feeling very disappointed with myself. I had never missed a seasonal festival ever; I loved them all.

Yet I came to the stark realisation that a change was needed. I had to start thinking for myself again and break away from yet another stale practice. Even following the ‘Wheel of the Year’ can deprive a person of a free flowing, organic and creative spirituality.

The traditional ‘Wheel of the Year’ has been a wonderful introduction to a pagan practise and I am grateful for the solid foundation that it has given me, but I no longer want to be comfortable, I no longer want to follow the crowd and just go through the motions. I needed a practise that meant something to me; to my land, my ancestors, my folkways.

My spirituality is a living breathing organism. It doesn’t want me to practice the same rite on the same day, year in year out. Isn’t that what Christianity is all about? It wanted me to go outside and be guided by the wildflowers, the trees, the standing stones and the streams, to follow the heart beat of the earth and allow it to show me when the right moment was to celebrate the transition between the seasons of where I lived. Spontaneous and unpredictable it needed to be nurtured.

This way of conscious living reflects entirely how our pre-Christian ancestors would have lived. People long ago were not enslaved by the clock and the calendar; instead they allowed themselves to be guided by the earth and the moon. Rituals were not rushed and the preparations took the time they took. Celebrating the arrival of spring on the Isle Of Man did not happen at the same time as celebrations in the county of Kent and so it should be the same for us today.

So now I am looking to reinvent my own wheel of the year at the same time as being mindful of the rhythms within the landscape that surrounds me. And if I happen to celebrate the turning of a season the day before everyone else or a week after everyone else then that is just fine. We all need to follow the beat of our own drum, as well as to remember that our ancestors celebrated more festivals and rites on their own than they collectively did with their tribe.

For the moment I am thinking about ways to personalise my year so that it will compliment my spiritual path as it stands today. To achieve this the following are just a few ideas that I would like to incorporate into my daily practise.

  • Research the folkways of my Celtic and Anglo Saxon ancestors and how they celebrated the turnings of the seasons.
  • Mark meaningful days to me on my calendar such as Joan of Arc’s feast day and days of remembrance for my kin and other figures that inspire me to be a better person.
  • Carve out time to explore and reconnect to my landscape, trusting in the natural signs that indicate when change is occurring in my environment and not just celebrating a festival because the calendar says I should.
  • Go for daily walks even in the rain.
  • Leave small daily offerings in the garden or out on my walks, such as native wildflower seeds, acorns, hazelnuts or homemade bread. These offerings could be for a deity, my ancestors or the land spirits.
  • Keep a field guide where I can write about my explorations, thoughts and impressions. A notebook that I can fill with sketches, maps, leaves and flowers. A place where I can observe and note down the weather, temperature, moon phases and the time that the sun and moon rise and set or even the return of the swallows that nest in the old barn behind our cottage. Poems, herbal remedies and rituals. A messy and wonderful keep sake of my spiritual journey.

If you are feeling that your spiritual practice has become stale and uninspiring then I urge you to give some of these ideas a go and let me know of the things that you do to keep in tune with the unfolding of the seasons. I would love to hear about them.

The photo is of the Boskednan Stone Circle in Cornwall

All Hallows’ Eve Traditions

All Hallows’ Eve is a time of the in-between; a time that is neither here nor there. Deeply rooted in ancestor veneration, the Christian church was powerless to wrench it away from our forebears and like many of our ancient feasts it was adopted into the Christian calendar instead. To allow for this to happen, the Christian feast day of All Hallows was moved from the month of May to 1st November.

It is believed that the term ‘All Hallows’ most probably dates back to 17th century Scotland and the shortening to ‘Halloween’ was eventually made popular by Robert Burns’ poem of the same name in 1785.

The discovery of what is known as the Coligny Calendar, unearthed in 1897 France, shows us a glimpse of a much older tradition. The bronze tablet portrays the merging of a lunar calendar with a solar one; a hybrid of the old ways with the new Roman way of measuring time. Dating from the second century AD, the Coligny Calendar depicts Samhain, a Gaelic name given to the time period that coincides with All Hallows. The actual wording is ‘Trinoxtion Samonii’ which translates to ‘three nights of the end of summer’. There are written sources such as the Icelandic Sagas that mention pre-Christian peoples celebrating important feasts that lasted for three nights; Yule and Winter Nights being two examples we have from northern Europe.

Samhain for the Iron Age people was the end of the old year and the start of the new. Any livestock they thought would not survive the winter was slaughtered and preserved or otherwise ritually purified on the fire before eating. The remaining entrails were used for divinatory purposes. The gathering of the last harvests, fruits and medicinal plants also took place during this time. A small share of the harvest was left to placate the puca, a strange shape shifting creature of Celtic myth that was capable of great mischief.

In later years, the Beltane fires were lit once more for All Hallows’ Eve in readiness for driving away evil spirits and household hearths were also lit from these new flames. All Hallows was a time for seeking answers from the Otherworld which was an easier task during this period due to the belief that the veil between our world and the other was much thinner than usual. The ancestors were also honoured with prayers and offerings of food, as were the nature spirits and saints who had no feast day of their own.

It was common for these ceremonial fires to be lit for the repose of the souls in purgatory. People would pray as they held burning handfuls of straw in the air in the belief that this comforted the souls trapped in limbo.

It is very likely that the enjoyment of celebrating Guy Fawkes Night owes more to the ancient rites of All Hallows than it does to the celebratory tradition of the 5th of November, started in 1605 after the failed attempt by Catholic plotters to assassinate the protestant King James.

In Lancashire, there was a custom called ‘Leeting the Witches’, meaning ‘scaring the witches’. It was believed that lighting a candle and carrying it around the fells between 11pm and 12am would unnerve the witches and therefore keep them away. However, it was also thought that the witches would do their best to extinguish these flames which would bring misfortune to the carrier. In many places it was believed that waving around fiery brands would scare witches away too.

Another name for All Hallows is Mischief Night and many tricks were played on people. Doors were taken off their hinges, gates were left open, door latches were tied and doors were whitewashed. This was the perfect pretext for petty revenge.

Children played simple and fun games on this evening such as apple bobbing. Each child in turn had to dunk their head in a barrel of water to try and catch one of the floating apples with their mouth. Snap apple was a similar game, but this time the apple was tied to a string that hung from the ceiling. In both of these games the important symbol is the apple. The apple harvest ends at this time of year and these games are surely relics of ancient rites that were performed in gratitude of the fruit harvest.

Captivating stories of fairies, witches and ghosts were traditionally told on All Hallows Eve, which was also called Nut-Crack Night (a form of divination) and Cake Night (some households baked a small cake for each member of the family).

In some regions on Punkie Night (a punkie was a lantern) village children would walk through the streets singing their Punkie Night song, knocking on doors and asking for money or candles to put inside their hollowed out turnips. Sometimes these hollowed out lanterns were stuck on poles and covered in a white cloth or a face was cut into it and a candle placed inside. Strategically placed on a gate post or in a tree, its purpose was to scare away witches and evil spirits.

“A Soule cake, a Soule cake, have mercy on all Christian soules for a Soule cake”.

The custom of souling, which entailed begging for specially made cakes for the souls of the dead, was widely practised from the time of the Middle Ages. Originally, soul cakes were given to friends and family of the deceased and in some parts soulers begged for soul cake in return for saying a prayer for the dead of the family whose doors they knocked on. In Ireland, beggars would be given food to feast on in honour of St Columbus. A Soul cake was a flat round biscuit that was made from a mixture of spices, currants and raisins and was marked with a cross.

“Soul, soul, for a soul cake! I pray, good missis, for a soul cake! An apple or pear, a plum or a cherry. Any good thing to make us merry. One for Peter, two for Paul, three for Him who made us all. Up with the kettle and down with the pan, give us good alms and we’ll be gone.”

In other soul songs there were requests for ale, beer or silver coins and they usually contained verses that thanked the donor, wishing him good health and a long life to his family, workmen and livestock.

In Cheshire, the soulers were accompanied by the Hodening Horse; a man dressed in a white sheet and a horse’s head with hinged jaws that snapped. The Hodening Horse’s origins are obscure, but some believe that it derives from the Norse God Odin or sacrificial horse rites. Others believe there to be a connection with Robin Hood.

Like so many old customs that fade from memory or morph into something else entirely, the custom of baking Soul cakes became rarer and rarer until eventually they were replaced with sweets and money. Irish immigrants settling in America took these traditions with them and the begging of sweets and cake became an activity for children. Events were eventually organised to make it safer for children and the phrase “trick or treat” was coined for the first time in 1939. So now the original reason for giving is forgotten and all that remains is a shadow of a custom that is devoid of any true meaning and importance.

Of all the festivals that offer the opportunity for divination, none is more well known and favourable than All Hallows’ Eve in respect of love, marriage, health, wealth, sickness and death. I will end this post with the following forms of divination that were once performed in England at one time or another on All Hallows’ Eve.

In Derbyshire, young girls would put a crooked sixpence and a sprig of rosemary under their pillow in order to dream of their future husband. Pouring molten metal in cold water and deciphering the shape afterwards was another popular form of divination.

All Hallows’ Eve was a favourite time to test the fidelity of lovers. In Lancashire, this was done by burning nuts in the fire. A woman would put two nuts in the fire, one for her and one for her love. In southern England it was believed that if the nuts exploded, then that was a sign of a happy marriage and in the north of England they believed that same future would occur if the nuts burnt quietly. In Suffolk, ripe brown apple pips were used instead, with the hope that the heat would cause them to explode.

Another form of divination was performed by slipping a wedding ring onto a piece of thread held between the thumb and forefinger saying, “If my husband’s name be…….Let this ring swing”. When the preferred man’s name was spoken the ring would hopefully swing.

On the Saturday closest to All Hallows’ Eve, fruit pickers in Penzance would display their largest apples in their windows and locally these apples were called ‘Allan Apples’. It was customary to buy and give these apples to every member of the family to be eaten for good luck. Young women would put them under their pillow first so that they could dream of their sweetheart.

Young girls would place a piece of clover with only two leaves on it in their right shoe in the belief that the first young man that they came across would either become her husband or another man who had the same surname would.

In Herefordshire, if a girl went out into the garden on All Hallows’ Eve to cut a cabbage at midnight then she would she a vision of her future husband.

The following death divination was also performed in Herefordshire. An ivy leaf was taken for each person and their name was written on it before being placed in a bowl of water and left overnight. It was believed that if a leaf was marked with the appearance of a coffin image then that person would soon die.

In the north of England it was customary to wave a lighted brand in front of the face to forecast good or bad luck. How the fire burnt out indicated this. For example, if the fire burned out quickly, then it could mean the loss of some money.

It was once a custom in Devon and other parts of England to beg for fire on 31st October at rich people’s houses. The fire was generally gifted with money as well.

In Shropshire, groups of young girls would lay their clothes on the back of a chair in front of the fire and waited until midnight when they repeated a charm for ten minutes while waiting to see which of their clothes moved first. This indicated the first of the girls to marry.

If a young girl went out into the garden at midnight and picked a sage leaf at every strike of the clock up until the ninth one, then if she was to be married she would see the face of her future husband. If not, she would see a coffin.

The ‘Church Porch Watch’ was a custom where people used to sit in the church porch all night on All Hallows’ Eve, with the expectation of seeing the spirits of the living who would die in the next twelve months. If any watcher fell asleep during this time then it was believed he would die before the next night watch.


British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936

A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978

The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Henry Taylor, 1906

The History of Honley, Mary Jagger, 1914.

The Borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, Anna Eliza Stothard. 1879

Shropshire Folklore, Charlotte Sophia Burne 1883

Old English Harvest Celebrations

Harvest thanksgiving is one of the oldest and most joyous of all the traditions our ancestors celebrated. A community’s sense of relief at seeing their crops safely gathered must have been an unimaginable weight off their shoulders; knowing that they would have a greater chance of surviving the coming winter.

Most pre-Christian harvest festivals have either completely died out or have become a shadow of their former glory due to the age of industrialisation and Christianity. Today, harvest festivals are celebrated in churches all across the country and have been in their present form since 1843 when a Victorian vicar had the idea of bringing the tradition back as part of a holy sacrament for his parishioners. However Harvest Festival is celebrated today, we must not forget that it is a relic of our ancient past that is capable of reconnecting us to our folk memory.

The leading role of the harvest celebration was held by Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. In Britain, she was later known as the Maiden, the Harvest Queen, the Kern or the Corn Baby, the Kern Doll, the Ivy Girl, the Neck and the Mare. Sometimes she was just simply stalks of corn dressed in fabric and decorated with ribbons and lace. Whatever her form she could always be found in the centre of harvest feasts and rituals of ancient times.

The Kern Baby, or whatever name she was given locally, was made from the last corn left standing in the field, which was ceremoniously cut with great respect. The act of cutting the last sheaf of corn was such a fearful one that no one wanted the responsibility of cutting down the spirit of the goddess herself. More often than not, this act was left to chance and everyone present at this ritual would all throw their sickles at the same time so as not to leave this responsibility to just one person. In Herefordshire, one of the men would shout, “I have her!”, and the others replied, “What have you?” The reply back was, “A Mare, a Mare, a Mare”. In deep folk memory there has always been an awareness of the cycle of life and death and the sacrifice that it entails.

Once this was done and all the crop was safely brought into the barn, it was finally time to celebrate. The cart which brought home the last of the corn was sometimes called the Hockey Cart and a young girl dressed in white rode the leading horse. Enthusiastic villagers waiting for the cart would throw water over the harvesters as they approached. This might have been a relic of an ancient water ritual to ensure plenty of rain for next year’s crops. A seed cake baked during harvesting was given to the hard workers and was called the Hockey Cake.

The custom of ‘crying the neck’ was once very common in the west of England. Some believe that the origins of the word ‘neck’ may come from an old Norse word for ‘sheaf of corn’ while others believe that it is connected to ‘nix’  meaning water spirit.

While the harvesters were reaping the last of the wheat, one of them would plait several of the best sheaves together into four plaits. After the others had finished working they surrounded the man with the ‘neck’ who then bent down and held it to the earth. The surrounding men would then take off their hats and bow in reverence to the soil. Standing back up again, they all raised their arms and hats in the air, shouting, “The neck, the neck. the neck. Wee yen. We yen, We yen!” (meaning “We end the harvest”). With laughter and hats thrown in the air, the ‘neck’ was taken to the farm house door, where one of the maids would be waiting with a bucket of water. If the man was able to get into the house without passing the front door he could kiss the girl, if not then he had the bucket of water thrown over him. Again this is yet another form of water ritual that continued to be practised right up until the end of the nineteenth century.

After the harvest was in the barn, a Kern Baby was held up high and carried with great ceremony to wherever the harvest feast was taking place. The farmer and his workmen ate and drunk their fill of ham, beef, vegetables and fruit with plenty of cider and beer. Afterwards there were games, singing, dancing and exchanges of gifts. After the feast, the Kern Baby was taken up to the farmer’s house where she stayed until the next harvest celebration. The previous year’s Kern Baby was ceremoniously burnt in the farmyard.

The Kern Baby could still be found many years after the conversion of Christianity in church decorations. A decorated conical figure hanging in the church porch or perhaps a Kern Baby at the end of a church pew.

Most places had their own special way of celebrating the harvest and these customs all went back to pre-Christian times. It was an act of sacrifice to cut the corn and bury the seed, so as to allow the corn spirit to rise again in the spring.

The Ivy Girl of Kent was a human shaped figure made from the best of the corn. In Scotland it was called the Maiden and was cut by the youngest girl among the harvesters. In the north east of Scotland it was called the ‘Cailleach’ or Old Woman and was dressed accordingly. The Cailleach took place of honour at the feast and was toasted by everyone. She was even taken for a dance by some of the young men.

In Bromley, The Horn Dance was a processional dance that started outside the local church at dawn and would last all day long. Touring the countryside and visiting farms, the dancers were seen as bringers of good luck and fertility.

There were six dancers, a Fool, a Hobby Horse, also known as Robin Hood, Maid Marion (the Man Woman), a Bowman who snapped his crossbow in time with the beat and two musicians playing a triangle and a melodeon. The Hobby Horse would also snap his jaws in time with the music. What makes this dance unusual is the six pairs of antlers mounted onto poles and carried by the dancers on their shoulders. The heads and antlers were wooden copies of reindeer heads and three sets were painted black while the other three were painted white. They were so heavy that the dancers had great difficulty carrying them during this symbolic mock battle, moving forward and back with their heads bowed down. The leader of the black antlers then broke away to start the procession once more while the rest of them followed behind in a single file with the Bowman at the tail posing his arrow as if to shoot at the escaping ‘Deer Men’. The Horn Dance goes back even further than we can imagine, a relic of an ancient hunting dance from a time when reindeer roamed these lands. The ‘Man Woman’ who carried two items that represented the male and the female, suggests a fertility rite was once part of this dance. Perhaps the battle of the ‘Deer Men’ represents the struggle between life and death. The Horn Dance only existed as long as it did because the Church adopted it and made it its very own. The dance not only started at the church, but the props were kept there when not in use. The money collected during the day was of course given towards the upkeep of the church.


A Year of Festivals, Geoffrey Palmer, 1972

British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936

A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978

Finding My Way Back Home

August 2016

I am finally writing my very first blogpost. It has taken me a long time to pluck up the courage to do this, as ever since I have joined the online pagan community I have believed that no one would be faintly interested in hearing what I had to say.

I am no pagan or occult expert; I possess no witchy credentials or have astral travel mileage behind me. I don’t even own a single animal skull. Well, that’s not entirely true. I did buy a plastic crow skeleton last Samhain and he has sat magestically on my bookshelf ever since.

I am just little old me. A girl who has found herself on an exciting path of spiritual discovery who wants to strip everything back to the bare bones so she can heal herself and others too who wish to come along for the ride. And I also want to find my authentic place in the world.

As a child growing up in the Christian faith, it was easy to feel part of a family, a part of something much larger than myself and it never crossed my mind to question any of it. Every Sunday and every Day of Obligation I dutifully turned up to celebrate with others just like myself year in and year out.

But I gradually became aware of a dawning realisation. I wasn’t like everyone else. I didn’t feel or believe everything that they believed. It wasn’t a one religion fits all scenario. I was going through the motions, but I felt numb inside. I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t just to keep the peace. And what had happened to my connection to God and the Virgin Mary? Did this connection even exist? Perhaps I had always been blindsided by the pomp and ceremony to even realise that it was never there in the first place.

I didn’t want to be here anymore. I wasn’t here for me. I was here for others. Even God didn’t want to be here.

The day I told my family I was no longer going to church anymore is a day that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Seven years later it is all water under the bridge. They have accepted it, but they don’t like it. They believe that I am still a Christian albeit one that no longer practices and I will never tell them otherwise because would hurt them too much. Of course this makes me sad that I am unable to share this part of my life with them, a part of my life that means so much to me and brings me so much joy and inspiration. I do my best not to dwell on it. I am blessed, however, to have a wonderful husband and two children who are as open minded and free spirited as I am. They are also walking their own unique paths in this life, discovering awe and wonder in the world around them and I am proud and excited to be a part of that.

Walking away from Christianity, was a lot easier than I imagined it would be, it was liberating and it felt right. Not once did I fear the fires of eternal damnation. The hardest part was actually filling the void that was left in its place.

Shortly after I had to move from the city to the countryside, a floodgate inside of me gushed open. A spiritual awakening was happening that was somehow miraculously triggered by my new environment. With no light pollution I could see the moon and the stars in high definition, even the international space station zipping over my head. While my hands were in the earth, I could hear buzzards and swallows calling from nearby. The Divine was here, but nothing like I had experienced before, except only as a child. Childhood memories came rushing back; faeries, spirits……magic.

There was something here more ancient than Christianity, even more ancient than time itself and it was calling me. I needed to know what it was, what it was called. So I read and researched, watched videos and researched even more, absorbing as much as I mentally could. I was like Neo and I was definitely plugged in.

July 2017

For many people who break away from Christianity, the realisation that the world is their oyster sinks in pretty quickly. I was no different and the feeling of euphoria was incredible, albeit overwhelming. Feeling like a child in a sweet shop I ‘travelled’ around the world picking a little something from every belief system I wanted and began tailor making my own spirituality.

At times I must admit this did leave a bitter taste in my mouth. The words “cultural appropriation” cropped up now and again, but I drowned them out with the excuse that I was a universal spirit, a part of the diversity that is life. I believed that just because I wasn’t a Native American or Tibetan Monk in this life, didn’t mean that I wasn’t one in a previous life time.  We were all part of the same spiritual soul family.

However, the unease of mixing different spiritual beliefs within my practice came back in full force. An understanding hit me; I was lost because I had cut myself off from my own ancestral roots. I was caught in the shining lights of exotic lands. I thought I believed that I was honouring my ancestors, but how could I be if I was off walking the Medicine Wheel and applying Buddhist teachings to my life?

Having an Ancestry DNA test confirmed my misgivings and gave me such clarity, that I knew exactly where I needed to look for spiritual and ancestral guidance. My own heritage. The land on which I tread is the same land as my blood kin and that is why I now follow a path of Anglo Saxon Heathenry.

I am not the same person I was seven years ago, not even the same person I was last month. My knowledge, understanding and spiritual beliefs are continuously evolving. My journey is changing who I am and this transformation is for the better.

I just wanted to share a little part of me and if you have stayed to the end of this post then I am truly grateful that you have taken the time to listen to what I have had to say. If I have touched or inspired just one person to break free and find the courage to step onto their own path of self discovery then I am content.