We are in the week between Halloween and Bonfire Night, or in what I have started to refer to as the week of the Autumn Festival. As humans we feel the need to mark the changing seasons, and it makes sense that we do so. Most of our seasonal festivals have a Christian element, including Halloween which traditionally was “All Hallows Eve” or the day before All Saints Day. It sometimes feels as though if you are not religious these events are reduced to commercialism and a way to fill the children with sugar. Yet I believe there are important things for humans to consider and celebrate throughout the year.
There is plenty of information out there about how Christianity co-opted existing festivals and how certain times of the year are celebrated in similar ways by many religions. It is not surprising – as midwife Mark Harris points out we are “meaning making creatures” and we like to make sense of the world around us and our experience of it. The seasons and the weather are totally beyond our control. This was terrifying in the days when we had little shelter or ability to cope with extremes. It is still terrifying today as we are so used to being able to control so much about our lives, that we are up in arms if faced with a flood, drought, hurricane or power cut. Why wasn’t something done? Why are these things allowed to happen?
Celebrating and marking Autumn, Midwinter, Spring and Summer allow us to face our fears and celebrate the ways in which we overcome them. Halloween may have a Christian element, Bonfire Night may be a historical tradition, but there is a reason they have both survived despite huge changes in the way they are marked. As the nights draw in and winter approaches it is helpful to face our fears of the dark. To make light and make lots of noise to frighten away the spectres. Much of Halloween is a confrontation of our darker selves and that within us which frightens us. So many people who suffer from anxiety and depression struggle more with the cold, dark seasons. So we brighten up the night sky, we treat ourselves to sugary snacks and we laugh at that which scares us. We will not be cowed by winter.
Midwinter arrives and it is natural that we should celebrate on a massive scale. If we are fortunate, we have survived another year as have our family and friends. If we are lucky we have warmth, food and plenty even in the depths of the coldest season. We have love, we have our family and friends around us. And we think about those who are not so fortunate and who need our support, our time, our gifts and our donations.
We celebrate Christmas with feasting and treats. We stick up two fingers to the winter and the fact that in years gone by we would have found it difficult to preserve food or find it at this time of the year. We are so lucky to have plenty to eat, and we are so relieved to have it when many others do not. And we share this plenty with our loved ones. Our tribe. Safe and warm together.
Again, we use light to chase away the dark. So many Christmas decorations and traditions involve light and warmth. Again, we make noise but this time by means of song. Carols, Christmas music, parties and dancing – we light up the dark, we frighten away the winter nasties with our festive cheer and we keep each other warm, physically and emotionally.
It is no coincidence that the personification of this winter festival, Father Christmas, is a fat jolly man in warm clothes. He clearly has plenty to eat, he is full of cheer on the darkest days of the year, he is warm and welcoming and embraces all children. He underlines our plenty and good fortune by showering us with gifts.
It is these themes that make Christmas such a particularly difficult time for those without loved ones, for those who have lost close friends and family members and for those who do not experience good fortune. And it is part of our shared humanity that we help and include those people in our celebrations where we can.
And then, spring time! The nights draw out, the sun comes up, new plants push through the soil and baby animals are born. We celebrate with chick, lamb and rabbit motifs, with eggs and daffodils, and with Mothering Sunday to salute the women who bring forth and nurture new life in our species. Once again, we do that very human thing – we feast. We gorge on chocolate, roast lamb and sweet breads. And we include our family and friends in the celebrations.
Summer no longer has a particular national point of celebration, although May Day and midsummer are still marked by some. But you only have to look at the travel agents and the summer holiday suggestion pages to see how we elevate the summer break. Did you have a good summer? How was your summer? What have you got planned for the summer? The summer break is not just a time for children to rest from school – it is a time for travel and adventure, sight seeing and family gatherings. No matter how we actually spend the summer months we all have the idealised vision of paddling in streams, running on the beach, walking in the park and lazing in the sunshine. We are never happier than when we can break out the sandpits, paddling pools and barbecues. Let the fun begin!
In all of these celebrations there is another crucial element: fresh air. Fresh air is so important for our mental health and wellbeing. We go outside on Halloween to trudge through the cold evening air in search of candy. We gather outside on Bonfire Night to watch the show. We feel that Christmas is somehow incomplete without a snowball fight and the ability to toboggan in the park. Easter is indelibly linked to the outdoors, and of course being outside in the warm sunshine is what summer is all about.
No matter what commercial interests try to sell to us, we instinctively know what we need to keep us going. We need our family around us. We need our friends. We need good food. And we need fresh air. These are the things upon which we focus at the four corners of the year, and it is what keeps us going through the cold, through the down times, through the soggy summer days and through the times away from our loved ones. By all means spend a fortune in the shops if you really want to. But if you worry about commercialism, secularism or a lack of tradition just remember this: it’s all about family, friends, food and fresh air.