For a long time it was a commonly held belief that folk customs could be assumed to contain ancient Pagan remnants. After all, the common folk are so often an illiterate, uneducated lot, not too bright… what can they do but repeat what they’ve always done? Clever people from the literate classes can interpret things into the unwitting actions of the folk people.
I’ve been doing some deep, deep work over the last few days, listening to the voices of my peasant ancestors, and this is the wisdom I have brought back to you.
We have to make our own fun, and so we make stuff up. We tell stories. Some stories are old and some are new and some are the kind of new stories that are really the old stories in new skins.
Begging is mostly illegal and shameful. None of us are beggars. Although, if you get a nice bit of greenery and a dead bird to show people, that’s not begging, that’s tradition. Sing the song, do the dance, pass the bowl round. That’s not begging either, that’s a custom and it’s heritage and thank you yes, a pint would go down very nicely just now. Got any apples? How about a nice bit of pudding? We’re very good at coming up with things that aren’t begging at all, but that result in people who have a lot of money, food and drink passing it around to those of us who don’t have quite so much.
But we’re just simple country people acting out the timeless traditions. So that’s different. If you don’t pay up, we’ll plough your drive, or piss on it, or put a rude verse in about you for next year. That’s traditional too, that’s not menacing anybody, it’s how things are done.
It’s amazing how many ancient folk traditions involve passing round a bowl or demanding refreshments. We could talk about the symbolic sharing of wealth to encourage the fertility and wellbeing of the tribe… we could shoehorn that into what we want to think ancient Paganism looked like, but I’m not convinced. I’ve been out with mumming sides, I’ve carol sung door to door. Most of the year you cannot knock on doors and demand money in exchange for a song, but in the week before Christmas, it’s fair game. Most of the year you can’t turn up in a costume and demand sweets, but on the 31st of October a lot of people will have sweets in, just in case. Penny for the guy? Ritualised begging. It’s mostly about the begging, and the sweets. I wonder how long we’ve put a skim of religion over the top of that? Because of course if you let yourself believe it’s religion or tradition, you can also pretend that the people you are ritually relieving of distress aren’t also bloody poor and in need the rest of the year.
It’s not poverty, it’s not begging, it’s traditional, and therefore the rest of the time we can pretend the need doesn’t exist. Because we’re clever and literate and we can read in the signs of ancient religion that tell us these people are just fine, and acting out ancient Pagan heritage, and not actually starving.
Most mummers these days aren’t starving, but as Christmas is the season of token-gesture charity giving, it’s worth a ponder.
(Also, I owe a lot to Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun for this.)