A chronicle of ancient sunlight
Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton Oxford University Press, pounds 19.99; Why mistletoe? Why morris dancing?
Saturday 27 July 1996
He does not string out paragraphs upon a modicum of fact. Each is fertile with detail, so much so that the book is best read in an ad hoc fashion, sure to reveal an odd fact at every turn. Our sprig of mistletoe was once a veritable "kissing bush" (suggestion of which might now bring a slap across the cheek) and in Worcestershire, farmers afterwards fed it to the first calving cow. The lure of morris dancing must remain forever inexplicable to those with any taste but, come February 14, it could be time to revive a curious custom which killed off Valentine cards a century ago. This is the day upon which birds - whose saint is Valentine - choose their mate. If zoologically dubious, the celebration has persisted through several phases since the Middle Ages. At one time, names were pulled at random from a pair of boxes. Whether such public yokings fared any worse than those pursued by private means is debatable, but, by the 19th century, the mailing of cards boomed only to fade away in the 1890s - a demise apparently caused by the distress which came with the parallel habit of an insulting form of Valentine.
They are certainly so libidinous down in Padstow that, by May Day, the town is in need of two gruesomely-masked hobby-horses which leap and dance through the streets, each accompanied by a chorus, all of this a purgative ceremony devolved "from a prehistoric ritual in which a man representing a fertility god was sacrificed for the good of his people." Typical of the controversy which folklore, or even folk-lore, has aroused is that in 1931, one schoolmarmish observer of this event, the future President of the Society, was outraged because a clown took part; when she upbraided him, saying that there had not been one in 1929, there came the swift retort that there was no single traditional costume for it.
He was probably speaking the truth, but one cannot help but feel that it is in human nature to tease such people, just as one nowadays delights in misleading their close cousins, the clipboard-brandishing pollsters. There is a fine precedent for this. Henry Newbolt once recalled of John Meade Falkner, author of Moonfleet, that "it was believed, and not by way of disparagement, that he wrote or re-wrote some of the best folk songs himself, and taught them carefully to old men and children that they might be discovered by laborious antiquaries."
Whether or not such saboteurs have inveigled their way into the brightest pages of Stations of the Sun, this elegantly produced and remarkably cheap volume will find an honoured place in the library of every self-respecting New Age caravan that is Glastonbury-bound, and, elsewhere, it will command a sale well beyond the run-up to Christmas once known as Advent.
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