Like many 14 year olds, I was dragged out - often kicking and screaming (I would have rather been doing my hair) - to spend quality time with my family. However, whilst regular trips to the beach and lemonades down the pub were on my parents check list, so were some more unusual activities. You see, I come from Devon where pagan traditions are kept alive, and various festivals celebrating fertility, reproduction and nature are dotted across the calendar.
It wasn't until I stated at the University of Edinburgh that I realised how uncommon these traditions have become. As we approach the middle of February, villages across the South West will host Wassails, yet I find myself constantly explaining to friends and colleagues that going to a Wassail is a) not worshipping the Devil and b) a valid form of superstition.
Orchard-visiting wassails begun in the early 1800s and, whilst many villages have their own specific ceremonies, the general purpose, to scare away the bad spirits from the apple trees, remains the same. Often an assembled crowd will sing, shout and bang drums and pots before guns are fired. As a gift to the good spirits - and to persuade them to stay after all the noise - toast is soaked in cider made from the previous harvest and hung from the branches.
To some of you, this may sound like a particularly bad episode of Most Haunted, but it is one of the many long-standing festivals that still take place. Other traditions still celebrated include Mummer's Day. Previously known as Darkie Day, Mummer's Day is part of an ancient pagan festival and is celebrated in Padstow, a small fishing town in Cornwall, twice in the midwinter season. It is centred round the practice of guise dancing - a folk custom where traditional plays are performed, with actors and members of the public often blackening their faces as a form of disguise.
And while the rest of the country is burning a stuffed-figure of Guy Fawkes on November 5, a small village in Devon have their own unique celebration. Every year, the village bell-ringers from Shebbear turn over a one tonne lump of rock, known as the Devil's Boulder, which lies in the centre of the village. Local tradition asserts that the Devil dropped the stone while fighting with God and was flattened by it as a consequence. Turning the stone allegedly stops the Devil crawling out and prevents bad luck falling on the village.
Many people argue that maintaining these traditions is very important because the number of pagans is increasing. According to the 2011 census, 0.14 per cent of respondents in England and Wales considered themselves pagan, more than double the number registered in 2001. In 2010, the Pagan Federation extended this statistic and estimated that the number of pagans is actually three times higher than the census statistics show.
However, I do not declare myself a bona fide, whole-hearted pagan. Not even close. For me, maypole dancing, going to Mummer's plays, attending Wassails and watching Morris Dancers was a valuable part of my life. When I tell people this, they usually cock their heads on one side with a confused expression, and look like I come from another planet or a couple of centuries ago.
But is burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes and turning a stone over really that different? Whilst I accept that Guy Fawkes is based on an historical event, arguably turning over the stone, or watering apple trees, is equally (and rightfully) ingrained into British tradition. Whether it is through socio-political, religious or superstitious means, all the events bring together people and are an important part of southern culture. Plus, if nothing, I've learnt how to do a mean Plait on the Maypole.
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