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.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor