A chronicle of ancient sunlight

Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton Oxford University Press, pounds 19.99; Why mistletoe? Why morris dancing?
Lent is now 'the run-up to Easter'," noted Alan Bennett in his Diaries. It is not so much the times that are a-changing, but time itself. With so many people now working every day at home, the notion of a week is fast vanishing and, with it, the once-stately rhythm of the year has gone. In its place is a minimalist beat, so much so that it is now hardly disconcerting when a Christmas episode of Friends reaches us in high summer. This time-shifting has almost done for the ritual year, both pagan and Christian, sedulously chronicled in Ronald Hutton's Stations of the Sun. In parallel with his Restoration studies, he has developed a line in paganism and the ritual year, whose first fruits were The Rise and Fall of Merry England, a study of 1400-1700, some of which is now incorporated in this equally dense, 560-page study which follows the cycle of a year, its surviving customs and vanished roots. One might have thought that all this was calmly antiquarian, but such spirits have always been among the most disputatious. As the makers of Mission: Impossible have discovered, punctuation is a hot topic, and a while ago there was much debate about The Folk-Lore Society's plan to drop the hyphen (which it did - a move to make its activities more dynamic). Certainly, Hutton's work is not dry as dust but of a piece with the ever-expanding purlieux of social history.

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.