The plastification of Halloween, fusion of festivals of the dark

Stone cross on tomb with bare tree behind against a cloud-swept sky. Photo by Bill Mill.It’s that time of year again. The supermarket aisles are filled with plastic pumpkins and however many other Halloween spin-offs the buying team was able to order from China. It always irks me to see an ancient and interesting festival being used to relieve consumers of their money for yet more junk to fill our attics and oceans.

The social and ecological objections may hold good but, as Jason Mankey points out, bemoaning the commercialisation of the ‘true’ festival makes little sense. Modern-day Halloween is a curious amalgamation of various traditions and customs which have evolved and overlapped over time: the Celtic festival of Samhain on October 31st and the Christian All Souls’ Day on November 2nd, plus All Saints’ Day, which begins with the ‘hallowtide’ vigil on the 31st.

Not much is known about Samhain’s origins in the Celtic pagan world, and there is little to suggest it was concerned with the dead and discarnate. But it seems reasonable to conclude that, in line with the other festivals that punctuate the agricultural year, Samhain marked the beginning of winter, the time when life became less certain and darker in all senses. As such, it was perhaps a time of cultivated fearfulness, with rituals designed to acknowledge and come to terms with forces beyond human control.

All Souls’ Day, on the other hand, is traditionally a time when good Christians remember their dead. Its association in the Catholic Church with the doctrine of purgatory – the state in which saved souls undergo a process of purification before proceeding to heaven – makes it a natural time for popular intercession. On All Souls’ of times past, the living helped to alleviate the suffering of their dead through the lighting of candles – soul lights – or the giving of soul-cakes to the needy.

Its calendar-neighbour All Saints’ Day also gives expression to this sense of a powerful bond between the living and the dead. Thanks are given for the lives and deaths of the saints who remain responsive to human prayers from their place in heaven. Today, in various countries around the world, observance of All Saints merges with the remembrance of the dead, with customs such as the taking of flowers to the graves of loved ones. In some countries, it’s a full-blown party in the graveyard, as held in Spain on the Dia de Todos los Santos.

The Spanish celebration of All Saints clarifies, for me, the meaning and function of Halloween in modern Britain: in a culture which has a profoundly uneasy relationship with death, the festival serves to preserve a connection with the dark and difficult. As Ronald Hutton puts in in The Stations of the Sun, ‘The fun consists principally of parodying or evoking two phenomena with which present-day industrial society is profoundly uneasy: the supernatural, and death.’

Black cat sitting behind large pumpkin
Halloween: all you need is a pumpkin and a black cat
In this respect it’s perhaps not surprising that Halloween is close, in both date and mood, to another early winter festival that centres on our difficult relationship with modern, man-made death: Remembrance Sunday. My uneasy feelings about the militaristic way we mark that day in this country crystallised in the course of research for The Secret Life of God, thanks to a sermon given by Art Lester at Croydon Unitarian Church. The Revd Lester drew on his experience of the easy mixing of the dead and living on All Saints’ in Spain – see the full account here – using it to highlight the contrasting, death-denying attitudes prevalent in Britain. And so it was that the intertwinings of our festivals of the dark enlightened me.

But the last word, for those of us celebrating Halloween this year, goes to Ovid by way of a rebuke to the purveyers of Halloween plastic: “Ghosts ask but little: they value piety more than a costly gift”.

Certifiable? Another pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago gets her compostela

Compostela for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimageI’ve finally fulfilled a long-held desire to be a pilgrim and got my compostela (official certificate) for having completed a section of the Spanish pilgrimage route the Camino de Santiago.

I’ve long wanted to do the Camino, a contemporary form of pilgrimage which is undergoing a resurgence, attracting 21st-century pilgrims of all faiths and none. My first attempt at the Camino was deferred by the death of my mother in 2011; its taken me all this time to get back round to it and, since then, the numbers receiving the compostela have gone up by almost a hundred thousand, rising to almost 280,000 in 2016.

In late August I set out for Santiago from Ferrol, having chosen to do the relatively quiet Camino Ingles. The people I met on my first day confirmed the open, pluralistic spirit of the contemporary Camino. On the outskirts of the city I met a local who had done that route ten times because he loved it so much, and then walked a while with a group of Spanish students from Valencia. ‘Are you doing this for religious reasons or for the experience?’ one asked me. The latter, I replied, although I didn’t make a hard distinction between the two. It was the same for him, agreed the student; while not a religious requirement, the Camino is more than just a hike. That evening I had dinner – a ‘pilgrim’s menu’ for nine euros – with a Catholic priest from the Netherlands.

But the growing popularity of the Camino is also giving rise to a new type of pilgrim that I liked less. These focused, driven walkers tend to get up soon after five, filling the dormitories of the pilgrim hostels with flashlights and the sound of hurried packing. Then they take off into the dark, often arriving at their next destination by the middle of the morning. Those doing the ‘sports camino’, as a like-mind amiga de camino put it, are determined to win the race for beds which in the summer months, even on the Camino Ingles, are in increasingly short supply.

The other side of the Camino revival is the degree to which it is embedded in modern Spanish culture. Almost half the pilgrims are Spanish and, I heard it said more than once, that ‘most’ Spaniards are expected to do the pilgrimage at least once, while for the young, gaining a compostela is akin to getting a Duke of Edinburgh award.

For the pilgrim, this translates into a great sense of being supported along the way. Locals, seeing you plod past their house with your rucksack, often wish you buen camino, sometimes shouting to correct you if they think you’re about to take the wrong path. Much is made, in the literature about the Camino, about the sense of history you get from walking the paths trodden by the pilgrims of millennia past. But for me, the sense of being part of something bigger came more from having a living connection to the place I was in, one largely created by the understanding and acceptance of the people around me.

One Spaniard I met in a bar – a bicycling pilgrim from Valencia – attributed the success of the modern Camino to the Galician people. ‘Galicians are polite’, he said, adding that if the ancient pilgrimage route had lain in the south of Spain he doubted whether pilgrims would have received the same warm welcome. He attributed the Galician temperament to the region’s remoteness, which had shielded it from some of the perils of modernisation and the trauma of the Spanish Civil War.
Stone tumble-down house on the route of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Galicia
And there’s no doubt that Galicia – which, like many rural regions of Europe, has suffered mass emigration – can do with the economic benefits of the Camino. Many empty houses litter its landscape, some bearing hopeful ‘SE VENDE’ notices, while others are fast going back to nature. Coming from a crowded, property-mad island, it made me sad to see so many idyllicly-situated homes being abandoned. So the fact that the modern Camino is a business which benefits the locals cheered me: what better form of tourism than one which feeds both body and soul in a way that stays true to the character of the place?

Arriving at the Cathedral in Santiago did, briefly, remind me of tourism-as-usual. In the early afternoon, the Praza de Obradoiro was awash with groups punching the air and cheering. An American woman next to me kept playing back a video she’d just made of her own arrival. The script went: ‘Wow. Wow. Wow. Amazing. Wow.’

But I wasn’t disappointed by the show the Cathedral put on at the twice-daily Pilgrims’ Mass. The music, provided by a powerful organ and some very good soloists, was the best I’ve heard in a Catholic church, and the priest officiating communicated a real sense that we, as pilgrims, had achieved something meaningful. Watching the botafumiero (giant incense burner) swing dangerously above the congregations’ heads to almost touch the ceiling – it took eight priests to pull the rope – was genuinely exhilarating.

Collecting my compostela in the Pilgrims’ office, I had to choose a column giving my ‘motivo’ for doing the Camino. On the page I filled out, eleven people had ticked ‘religious’, eight ‘spiritual’ and one the ‘tourism/sports’ column – further confirmation of the range of reasons for doing the Camino. So it was a shame that the alternative pilgrims’ ceremony I had been invited to en route didn’t, in the end, take place. Organised by a Franciscan monk in a spirit of ecumenicism, it seemed the right way to end a 21st-century pilgrimage.

Walking El Camino the English way

Scallop shell embedded in wall which bears the words, in red, Camino de SantiagoNext week I’m planning to fulfil a long-held ambition to walk a section of the pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

In its heyday, the Camino was one of the great pilgrimage routes of the western world, with the Spanish city of Santiago joining Rome and Jerusalem as one of the three holy destinations for good medieval Catholics. Santiago acquired its special status after the apostle St James reportedly travelled to northwestern Spain to found the new church there, miraculously re-appearing centuries later to help save the country from invading Muslims, In the process, he won himself the title of ‘Santiago Matamoros’ – St James the Moorslayer – and the Cathedral of Santiago became his reputed burial place.

No one knows how a Galilean fisherman might have got to Spain, and no evidence of his remains were found there: probably the Spanish wanted a bit of early-church action on their soil, much like the English when they claimed that Jesus’ feet had trodden its green fields on the way to Glastonbury.

Of course, as a 21st-century pluralist, I’m not embarking on the Camino in the spirit of a traditional Catholic, much less one endorsing a Christian jihad. Instead, I’m taking part in the modern revival of the Camino that speaks to the rise of a more experiential spiritual sensibility, akin to the one chronicled in The Secret Life of God.

The numbers walking the Camino have risen dramatically over the past couple of decades, from a couple of thousand in the 1980s to almost 280 000 in 2016. Modern pilgrims walk for a variety of reasons: surveys attest to a whole gamut, from a need for exercise to the desire for a personal challenge.

Yet when broken down so starkly, the reasons seem not to capture the spirit in which people embark on the Camino. Comments by pilgrims in the growing Camino literature and fora suggest that the motivations are broadly psycho-spiritual, and centre on the resolution of a problem or the search for healing. It seems clear that even in its modern form, there is something special about a pilgrimage, a journey to a particular destination with no practical purpose, which costs the undertaker considerable effort but often brings an intangible benefit.

I suspect that the enduring appeal of pilgrimage has to do with the human need for movement; the fact that we are, as Bruce Chatwin wrote in The Songlines, ‘a migratory species’ which has the experience of walking long and far mapped deep into its DNA. It was probably this impulse that Chaucer was referring to when he described the longing of ‘folk’ to ‘goon on pilgrimages’ that overcame the English in spring, an atavistic longing that pre-dates the traditional Catholic pilgrimage and is now evolving beyond the social and religious framework that gave it form in the Middle Ages.

My own pilgrimage will be modest. I’ve chosen to do the Camino Ingles, one of the lesser-known routes which, at about 120 km, has the advantage of meeting the minimum requirement of walking the last 100 km into Santiago to qualify for a compostela all by itself. It’s also reportedly much quieter than the last stretch of the popular Camino Frances, which has become busy with coach parties and tourists in recent years.

I like the fact that the Camino Ingles is the route that English pilgrims would have taken until the break from the Catholic Church put an end to pilgrimage as a socially acceptable activity. In times gone by, the ‘seafaring pilgrims from northern Europe’ would have sailed to Galicia’s northern coast before walking to the tomb of St James.

Path through trees on the Camino de SantiagoAfter arriving via Ryanair, this pilgrim will be taking it slowly. While an enthusiastic day-walker, I’ve never attempted continuous walking day after day, and have only moderate levels of physical energy. While I mean to complete my mission of walking to Santiago, I’m also aware that the Camino poses challenges in all sorts of ways, not least to our expectations and sense of being in control. (I’ve just read Rosemary Mahoney’s account of her Camino in Singular Pilgrim, in which her driven approach to walking is arrested by searing pain in her legs.)

So over the next week or so, don’t wish me luck, wish me Buen Camino.

A Buddhist monastery? Oh, the secret life of Bradford-on-Avon!

Sun streaming through wood-framed window onto a wooden desk in the Buddhist monastery in Bradford-on-Avon You’d never know. An unobtrusive Georgian townhouse on one of Bradford on Avon’s busiest roads, where the cars back up to squeeze through the town’s narrow streets, is home to a Buddhist monastery.

Founded in 1986 as part of a monastic order called the Aukana Trust, the monastery is only open to the public for an afternoon every other year. The house on Mason’s Lane, now called the Monastery of Absolute Harmony, is currently home to three monastics, with their spiritual director Paul Harris living next door. Having visited many Christian monasteries in Lebanon and Britain, I was curious to see what their Buddhist counterpart would be like.

So, on a sunny afternoon in June, a friend and I make our way down Mason’s Lane. The double doors that must originally have made way for a carriage have been thrown open, and the place is full of people. The first surprise is the extent of the sloping gardens that fall away from the house, divided by hedges to form ‘rooms’ for various purposes from meditation to vegetable-growing. There are clear views over Bradford’s distinctive townscape, and the onion-shaped dome of the Catholic Church seems only a stone’s throw away.

The other surprise is that among the many, largely female, helpers and greeters, my companion and I have quite a few acquaintance. They’re part of the monastery’s wider community who come to weekly meditations and on retreat; some have been doing so for decades.

Our shoes are collected through window as we go into the house, which is fully carpeted in a series of soft, warm colours – soft gold, muted pink and deep blue – to minimise noise. We are greeted at the top of the stairs by Sister Sarah, a smiley woman of perhaps fifty, with close-cropped hair, dressed in a navy karate-style trouser suit. I ask her about the monastic day.

‘Mornings are quiet, starting with a group meditation – one person takes it in turns to get the breakfast,’ she smiles. In the afternoons, the work of the house and garden is done, still in silence – a kind of ‘working meditation’. The evening meal is the talking time of the day. ‘Structure is essential,’ she adds. ‘It’s difficult to meditate on your own. There’s a part of us which is lazy and will always find something else to do’.

A gate and archway revealing a vista of tree, garden and house that is the cover of The New Monastics by Alex KlaushoferSo far, so like the division of the day into work and prayer followed by the order of Benedictine nuns that I stayed with when researching Christian monasticism.

As we move through the retreat wing, we are impressed by the rooms offered to retreatants: generous-sized and simply but comfortably furnished. Each has a single colour theme: apricot-gold, pale green, powder blue, and can’t resist choosing our favourite room. Mine is the Crane Room, a large room decorated in shades of gold and with a triptych of windows overlooking the town. It reminds me of my own home but without the (psychic) noise created by my busy mind.

The attic rooms where the three resident monastics live are smaller but furnished along similar lines. There is no sign of personal possessions, apart from a few carefully-chosen Buddhist images and statues.

The interior of the monastery, we learn, is maintained according to the Buddhist principle of impeccability, which rules that everything must be kept simple and clean.

Barbara, a mutual acquaintance, a long-standing friend and beneficiary of the monastery tells us about the week-long retreats she does: there’s silence all day, including at meal times (retreatants are given a tray to take to their rooms). But there are three, pre-arranged sessions of twenty minutes with Paul during the week to discuss any concerns that come up through meditation.

Golden shrine in the Buddhist monastery in Bradford-on-AvonLike children, we ask her which room she likes best. The blue one, she replies immediately. But, she adds, to avoid creating an ‘attachment’, retreatants are not allowed to stay in the same room twice. Emanating pride, she shows us the shrine which, she says, is ‘the centre of the monastery’. It’s a large room, almost a small hall, carpeted in rich blue, with rows of chairs facing the golden shrine.

Personally, I prefer my shrine carpeted with grass and with hedges for walls. We sit in several of the monastery’s garden rooms, ending up in the shade of some trees by a large leylandi hedge. On the other side is Mason’s Lane, with its never-ceasing traffic. An emergency vehicle screams past and makes the point about two worlds co-existing side-by-side. When I’m next in that traffic I won’t see this road in the same way again.

Dying to talk: death cafe at Bradford on Avon

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to do something I’d been wanting to do for some time – attend a death cafe. The death cafe movement, which aims to address the western stigma against talking about death and dying, has been going from strength to strength since the first British death cafe was held in Hackney in 2011. In the South West, writer Sue Brayne has now run over thirty on her canal boat Mystic Moon.

I can’t write about Sue’s death cafe better than Sue herself, so her blog, with her kind permission, is reproduced below.

Two daffodils, with pale outer leaves, against a black background
Photo by Tejvan Pettinger

Well, how long IS it going to take for them to die? Guest post by Sue Brayne

Mystic Moon rocked gently on her moorings as participants climbed aboard, making one participant a trifle uneasy. But we soon settled down to talk about what really matters with Noo Noo, the cat from next door’s boat, purring blissfully on someone’s lap.

Our conversation began by discussing the difference between Eastern and Western attitudes towards death and dying.

One participant had lived in India and Indonesia for many years and is a practising Buddhist. She has only recently returned to the UK, and now works in pastoral care at a local hospice. ‘I am saddened and shocked by people’s attitudes towards death and dying over here,’ she said. ‘There seems to be such reticence to talk about end of life issues. People seem to be so fearful of speaking about it. In Asia death is accepted as part of life. When someone dies the community comes together to celebrate their life, and it’s normal for members of the community to lay out the body as a mark of respect.’

“I think it’s because so few families live together these days in UK,’ said a participant. ‘We have lost community and what community means, especially when people die.’

‘Lack of community and accepting that death is a normal part of life makes people worried about doing the wrong thing or saying something to make things worse,’ said another participant. ‘I agree,’ said someone else. ‘The dying are also afraid of upsetting their relatives, so they hold it together for the family and nothing important is mentioned.’

‘A big problem is that death has become so medicalised,’ said an end of life care worker. ‘People mainly die in hospitals these days because lots of families don’t want to, or can’t cope with caring for a dying relative at home. This is beginning to change, especially for those with cancer because of Macmillan nursing support. But you don’t automatically get that with other terminal illnesses like Motor Neuron disease or heart disease. People have to get on with it the best they can if they want to be cared for at home.’

‘The decision to care for someone at home is a very personal thing,’ said a participant. ‘I’m not that sort of person, so for me it is out of the question. My mother knows this, and I don’t feel bad about it. ‘

‘I really didn’t want to see my father naked,’ said another participant. ‘I never did when he was alive, and I felt really uncomfortable about seeing him naked as he was dying. So I was very relieved he was in hospital being cared for by nurses. They were fantastic.’

Other participants also felt uncomfortable about washing their dying parent, or caring for the body after they had died, although some felt better about doing this for one parent more than the other. ‘I feel okay about caring for my mum,’ said a participant, ‘but I had a very difficult relationship with my father, and I couldn’t imagine wanting to do that for him.’

‘In my experience of working in palliative care,’ said the end of life carer, ‘sons are more reticent to see their mother naked than daughters seeing their father naked. But it does depend on the kind of relationship they have had.’

The end of life carer went on, ‘Because we have co-opted death to professional agencies, and it is now expected that professionals will care for the dying, it removes families for the reality of death or being able to cope with caring for a dying relative. Instead, I have experienced many family members expecting us to stop death from happening. They assume that if we are in the nursing profession our job is to make their relative well again. This might not be what the dying person wants, by the way, because they may be wanting to die but not saying it for fear of upsetting those around them.’

This started a discussion about DNRs (Do Not Resuscitate) statements. The pastoral carer voiced concern about whether DNR requests were respected by medical staff. ‘One patient told me how terrified they were of their DNR request not being followed when they started to die. They said in considerable distress, “I don’t want to be half way up the stairs, and to be brought back down again.”’

‘The difficulty is that these days doctors are terrified of not offering life extending treatments – to show they are doing something to the relatives,’ said another participant. ‘Paranoia about medical mal practice is becoming as bad as it is in the USA.’

‘I had a different experience,’ said someone else. ‘My mother was given a DNR by the doctors, but she didn’t want it. She was terrified of death, so she wanted the hospital to do anything and everything to save her life even though there was nothing they could do for her. When I approached the doctors about this, they just fobbed me off. I found that very distressing. If a patient wants to have life saving treatment, they should be given it without question.’

This turned our conversation yet again to the importance of making an Advance Directive. ‘It’s all very well talking it through with your GP,’ said the end of life carer, ‘but if you don’t actually have it in the house, or beside your bed, it doesn’t mean anything. So if it’s not there and the ambulance is called, they are legally bound to resuscitate you even if you have requested a DNR’.

‘That’s a big issue for paramedics,’ said a participant who works as a front line responder. ‘We have to resuscitate people unless the person has their Advance Directive on them. Which, of course, they don’t if they’ve been knocked down in the street or involved in a car crash.’

This prompted a discussion about the difference between providing solace to those who are terminally ill and those are involved in fatal accidents. ‘There’s often a lot of panic around when there’s been a harrowing incident,’ said the first line responder. ‘So it’s about containing that, and also providing support and care for the person who is probably dying in acute trauma. I often see fear in their eyes, but rather than using a platitude like, “You’re going to be okay,” I just hold their hand and say, “I’m here with you.” It seems to give them comfort. I have discovered over the years that people, even when in major distress, know if you are lying to them.’

‘I agree about the important of being honest with those facing the end of life,’ said the end of life carer. ‘But over the years I have noticed how stressed relatives can be, so they often don’t really connect with what’s going on. I’ve had relatives ask me things like how long is it going to take for Mum or Dad to die because they need to get back to work. They will have a look of alarm on their face and say something like, “I can’t possibly take six weeks off – so how long is it going to be?” I’ve also known some relatives say, “But I’ve got a holiday booked”. Or even, “It would be better for them to die now because it’s the school holidays soon.” I have to explain that dying from a terminal illness is a process not an event, and the person dies when they are ready.’

‘What would help people to deal with the fear of death?’ asked a participant. ‘I don’t know,’ said someone. ‘I was brought up to be terrified of death. My mother was Jewish and used to tell me, “Death is the Enemy.” Over the years I have got used to this fear, and I actually like it now. I think the most important thing to realise is that death is part of the creative process. There are peeks to every facet of life. Eventually everything comes to an end, because that’s what happens.

‘Life is like a wave, said someone else. ‘It’s follows the law of physics, and everyone’s life has a beginning, middle and end to it.’ ‘Can you imagine if life never ended?’ said someone else. ‘How ghastly that would be. Everything would just fall apart. We need to know there will be an ending to value what we have right now, and to give our lives structure and meaning.’

We all agreed with this, and it was a poignant moment for the pop-up Death Café to conclude.

Sue Brayne’s The D Word: Talking about Dying: A Guide for Relatives, Friends and Carers is available on Amazon.

Exploring doubt and evolving non-fiction

Cover of the book 'Exploring Doubt' by Alex Wright featuring a row boat beached on a boggy landscape

Alex Wright’s short book Exploring Doubt is bang on zeitgeist. Situated firmly in the terrain between religious faith and unbelief, it turns on the thesis that ‘it is in hiddenness, not transparency, that life’s meanings may most eloquently be expressed.’ Along with a growing number of voices pointing to the limitations of a society which defines meaning in terms of the certain and the measurable, Wright calls for a recognition of ‘the practical value of mystery’. In this, the most literal of times, he argues that people ‘have lost sight of how to refer to the divine analogically, with meaningful – and therefore truthful – reference to symbol, metaphor and creative approximation.’

Whereas most modern thinkers of agnosticism tend to look for the locus of non-religious meaning in art – see Alain de Botton, among others – Wright choses two issues which we twenty-first century folk typically struggle with: the breakup of a relationship and the loss of a home. Drawing on his own experience of divorce and concomitant move from his beloved landscape of Norfolk, he illustrates how loss and uncertainty are bound up with the birth of new life and creation of new meanings. It’s an argument by analogy: as in human life, so in the experience of the divine.

As an exercise in experiential theology on similar territory to The Secret Life of God, I found plenty to enjoy and agree with. But, for me, the main interest of the book lies in what it says about the direction of contemporary non-fiction. Part academic essay, part memoir, and with some sections of beautiful nature writing, Exploring Doubt is an example of a trend that has blossomed over the last decade of books crossing conventional genre boundaries. The best examples of this genre-weaving non-fiction take a ‘home genre’ such as travel (The Hare With Amber Eyes), or a starting subject such as gardening (The Morville Hours), and work out from there, expanding to include other styles and subjects to create a read that is more than the sum of its parts.

The result is the emergence of a capacious form of non-fiction eminently suited to exploring modern meaning-making: a diverse, evolving field that spans human relationships, nature, self-actualization and spiritual growth, articulating them from different perspectives and in different ways. This blend of thought and lived experience is what traditionally defined the essay, a form which has, since its heyday, been sieved through the specialisms that confine books to specific categories and spurred into narrative by the popularity of the novel and is now undergoing a creative renaissance.

I’m not sure how successfully Wright’s book melds together its constituent generic elements; its form certainly owes more to the academic essay than narrative non-fiction. But it’s a welcome addition to a vibrant literary form which expresses the questioning, questing character of the other twenty-first century.

Alex Wright’s Exploring Doubt is available on Hive.

Hail the yew, the first Christmas tree

Bright red berry on stem of yew

The first British Christmas tree was not the perfectly proportioned Scandi fir that adorns the ideal living room.

It was a single yew bough, introduced to the English court by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, decorated with ribbons and candles. She went on to display an entire yew tree and from that the Christmas tree tradition, whether yew, fir or plastic, evolved.

A native British tree, the particular qualities of the yew made it the object of reverence long before the advent of Christianity. Its old wood can put forth new shoots and drooping boughs take root, with the result that a single tree can live hundreds, possibly thousands, of years.

According to Yew expert Fred Hageneder, it was these qualities that contributed to its sacred status among the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Nordic people of northern Europe. ‘The Tree of Life is an image of the whole universe, or at least of planet earth, which embodies the notion that all life is related to each other and that all that lives is holy,’ he writes. ‘To serve as an ‘earthly representation’ of the Tree of Life, different cultures chose different tree species, according to which species grew in the region and – since all tree species have different characteristics and qualities – which tree character resonated best with the spiritual ideals emphasized by any given culture.’

It’s not hard to see how, in the northern hemisphere where life was historically dominated by seasonal cycles and the darkness of winter, the yew became an emblem of death and renewal. As the darkest point of the year shifted into the beginning of the new year, for the Druids it was the quintessential solstice tree. And, poisonous in all but its berries, it could provide an arboreal portal to the underworld …

Although it’s not known exactly why, under Christianity, yew trees continued to be planted in churchyards – there’s a summary of many possible explanations here – it seems likely that as churches were built on or close to pagan burial sites, they inherited the long-lived yews that grew there. To make their presence theologically sound, all that was required was a small lexical tweak from ‘rebirth’ to ‘resurrection’. In tooday’s churchyards yews still provide shelter for the modern pilgrims, as does this one at Wilmington in the summer of 2016.

So it’s good to conclude my final blog of the year with this thought of the happy coexistence of the pagan and the Christian, nature-based faith and institutional religion, outdoors and indoors. Happy Christmas tree!

The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent. But in the spirit of unreformed Scrooge, the offer ends at Christmas. Humbug!

St Lucy – the Catholic goddess of midwinter

St Lucy with her eyes on a plate
Not a lot of British people know this, but December 13th is the Feast of St Lucy, a young girl who died under the Roman persecution of Christians in the 4th century.

Until a few centuries ago, under the Julian calendar that preceded the modern Gregorian one, St Lucy’s Day was also the shortest day, the darkest point of the year just before the rebirth of the sun, as celebrated by John Donne in his Nocturnal about ‘the day’s deep midnight’.

Sound familiar? The intertwining of pagan with Christian elements means that St Lucy the Catholic martyr is also the goddess of the Winter Solstice, her feastday a festival of light. (Lucy derives from lux=light)

St Lucy is celebrated in various ways in different countries, from processions of girls wearing headdresses of candles in Sweden and other Nordic countries, to the planting of Christmas wheat in Hungry and Croatia. It’s a syncretic feast that the modern Catholic tradition seems to have integrated with ease.

Facts about the historical Lucy are few, but myths abound, and they have a contemporary resonance. One version of her life puts her firmly in the tradition of virgin martyrs, telling of her torture and death as a result of her refusal to marry – a counter-cultural option taken up by a tiny minority of women. Another gory story tells of how her torturers torn her eyes out, a legend that made her the patron saint of the blind, pictured with her eyes on a plate. Then theres the tale of how Lucy smuggled herself into the catacombs of Rome to take food to the persecuted Christians hiding there. Think foodbanks, humanitarian aid!

So I like St Lucy, and the way she embodies key elements of the Christian and pagan traditions that shape the way we experience winter. And I like the richness of the myths about her, and how they provide resources for thinking about different and difficult aspects of life – misogyny, religious persecution, brutality. She’s a good example of how both Catholic and pagan traditions use human figures, whether saints or goddesses, to bring into focus qualities and experiences that might otherwise seem remote.

And I like, finally, that as I was born an hour into December 14th, my birthday* coincides with a woman who went against the orthodoxies of her society to live the life of the spirit.

This is the third in a series of weekly blogs on Christian and pagan themes through Advent. The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent.

*The author would like to apologise to users of Facebook who were led to believe that my birthday was on April 1st and took the trouble to send me birthday wishes. This was a joke conducted for data protection reasons.

Pagan Advent: a time of silence and secrets

Winter field with frozen stone and grass in the foreground
Photo by Nicklas Lundqvist

Behind the Christian, the pagan: it’s now generally accepted that the origins of Advent and Christmas lie in the midwinter festivals celebrated by ancient cultures.

The pagan take on Advent is pretty familiar to anyone concerned with the interplay between nature and the human: it’s the season that approaches the turn of the year, moving inexorably (in the northern hemisphere) to its darkest, deadest point.

Then, after a short period of ‘standing still’ – the meaning of ‘solstice’ – the sun resumes its journey, bringing light and the renewal of life. As in Christianity, it’s thought of in terms of birth, but rather than a single, human and dramatic interruption of history, the re-birth of the sun is part of the cycle of life and the earthly nature of things. In both versions of Advent, Sun-days – the days of the sun – are significant.

This sense of stopping, of the (temporary) deadness of the natural world, is central to the pagan understanding of midwinter, and is fed, each and every year, by our experience of what’s (not) going on outside in the natural world. It’s so powerful that it seeps into one of the best-known, oft-sung Christian responses to the season: ‘In the bleak midwinter … Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,’ writes Christina Rossetti, acknowledging the intractability of the hibernal, before returning returning to the sentimental Christianity characteristic of the Victorian age.

At this time of year, I find I’m instinctively looking for complements in the human realm. As night falls, there’s a desire to stay in and be quiet. But it’s also a time of year when, unusually, I feel a strong pull to attend a church service. One year I found a perfect liturgical match in a kind of dramatic enactment of Advent at St Martin-in-the-Fields: the service began in total darkness, gradually illuminated by candles. I loved it, but it was too much for about a fifth of the congregation, who left early on. One pagan winter solstice gathering, by contrast, proved so busy and chatty that I never went back to that group again.

Perhaps, then, to put it another way, this time of year is about silence and secrets. It’s no secret – with a book title like the one to the right – that I’m drawn to the hidden and the unacknowledged – so I especially like the way this anonymous writer on Patheos characterises Advent:‘Perhaps the season between Samhain and Imbolc is meant to be focused on Silence.
On Secrecy, and things kept very close to the heart.’

This is the second in a series of weekly blogs on Christian and pagan themes through Advent. The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent.

Alternative Advent 1: a season of mindful preparation

A bright star over a dark horizon featuring trees and boats
Photo by Edoard Costa

Advent. ‘Tis the season of consumption and frantic socialising where, in a tacit acknowledgement that everyone is overloaded, mention of any unrelated project is prefaced with ‘after Christmas, obviously …’

Traditionally, of course, Advent – from the Latin for ‘a coming’ or ‘arrival’ – derives from a religious season marking precisely the opposite: a time of waiting and preparation for, variously, the baptism of new Christians at Epiphany, the birth of Christ, and the second coming. In the Eastern tradition, the run-up to Christmas is a period of abstinance and penance known as the Nativity Fast. The season commemorates the time when the Israelites awaited deliverance from their suffering in a spirit of anticipation mingled with uncertainty – a waiting characterised as ‘watching’ with a range of emotions by John Henry Newman.

Every year, Christian leaders remind us of this, the religious significance of Advent, although in a culture as incorrigibly materialist culture such as ours they’re careful not to push the point too hard. As Rowan Williams points out in his former role as Archbishop of Canterbury, in modern times the word ‘advent’ is primarily associated with ‘calendar’ which reframes the waiting for Christmas as a time so dull that we need daily treats of chocolate to get through it.

The features of our culture that occlude the qualities of reflectiveness and receptivity that are supposed to characterise Advent seem stronger than ever. Amazon – hot on the heels of yet more reports about the human cost of its business model – is now offering delivery within an hour in some London shops. On Black Friday, I switched on Radio 4’s You and Yours to hear the chief executive of Argos boasting that customers can now expect their in-store orders fulfilled within a minute. This commercial fostering of instant gratification sits oddly with our growing understanding that working to relentless, unrealistic targets militates against what people need to maintain health of body and mind.

We can’t, I think, opt out of the culture in which we live, at least not during the season which is most about spending time with family, friends and community. Impossible to adfast, unless you want to be like the ultra orthodox Jews who avert their eyes from the contaminating nature of the adverts on Oxford Street. And who wants to sit in and miss every festive gathering?

Yet I think it’s still possible to do Advent differently, and to build on the customs that have emerged over the last decade or so to limit the frantic shopping of the modern Christmas.

I’m thinking of the limits that families put on spending – say £10 per present, or outright present bans for adults. Then there’s the rise of the home-made present, a trend which combines nicely with a custom I share with a couple of friends of trying a new Christmas craft, such as wreath-making, every year. Last week I went to an auction with a friend who bought a lot of glasses and linens with which she plans to make cushions and candles. Since she’s on the go most of the time, the home-made presents only rule agreed by her family means she’ll perforce be spending a few quiet evenings sewing and making.

Since my people don’t go the home-made route, this Advent I’ll be indulging my love of slow shopping to the max. Slow shopping involves making careful decisions about things you consider useful, beautiful or funny (Think William Morris with a sense of humour) fitted to the person you’re buying for. It’s ideally done locally – perhaps at a good Christmas market such as the Kennet and Avon floating market – and can involve quite a bit of chat.

So hail Advent, season of mindful preparation. Long may you take!

This is the first in a series of weekly blogs on Christian and pagan themes through Advent. The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent.