Rites, rituals and reconnecting

HAVE you been to the Ottery Tar Barrels, Up Helyar in the Shetlands, Bonfire Night at Lewes, when they burn the “Papist effigies,” or our own Bridgwater Carnival in Somerset? While some of these are nominally pegged to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, most have their roots much deeper into pre-history and our relationship with fire.

They are ancient rituals, beloved by all who take part, fiercely guarded by the communities in which they are held, open to all, but grounded in the heritage of their place. There are countless rituals in Britain and around the world – even our “afternoon tea” is, in its simple way, is a ritual, albeit only a couple of hundred years old.

Like fire festivals, Glastonbury Festival, back this year for its 50th after the Covid-forced cancellations of 2020 and 2021, is tied to its place – Worthy Farm at Pilton, with the famous Tor, visible a few miles away across the Somerset Levels. And it is probably no coincidence that it happens a few days after the Summer Solstice, still celebrated in many places (not just by 21st century Druids and their acolytes at Stonehenge).

New festivals and rituals can be invented – but look hard enough and you will probably find they have roots that go much deeper than a well-rounded press release. Take Apple Day, created by the environmental arts charity Common Ground in 1990. It was devised as part of a visionary project to save and revive England’s orchards, before they were all grubbed out in the name of Progress. Over the years Common Ground and its supporters rescued many old and abandoned orchards and planted new ones. They also collected the names of apples local to specific areas, counties and regions.

Apple Day rapidly became a national event, spreading out, like the branches of an ancient oak, from its origin in Covent Garden to villages, towns, parks, gardens and orchards across the country. It also, inadvertently but pleasingly, encouraged the return of other rituals rooted in the distant past – winter Wassail ceremonies to bless the cider trees and encourage a good crop in the coming year, mummers plays in their season (and some new plays in the old tradition) and an enthusiastic revival of cider-making, cider-drinking and cider clubs. There are now cider festivals, including at Burrow Hill Cider, the Temperley family’s home and cider brandy business, where wassail, mummers and other plays are part of the year-round business of apples and orchards.

This new festival was not really NEW – it was in many ways connected to the old marking of harvest time, the harvest festival which limps along nowadays, usually in the form of dried food or canned goods heaped in school halls or on the chancel steps in the parish church. It’s a far cry from the fresh produce, fruit, vegetables and eggs that would have been brought by the community to give thanks for a good harvest.

A new play (see our Review pages), The Southbury Child, has two rituals in its sights – the obvious one, the funeral for a little girl, who was the Disney princess apple of her mother’s eye, and the riverside town’s ceremony of Blessing the River, over which the flawed but deeply human vicar, David Highland, has presided for many years.

Witty, often caustic, David is a heavy drinker who had an affair in the past. He is no saint – but he has an innate understanding of the significance of rituals and of rituals that are carried out properly to fulfill their meaning. So he won’t agree to the bereaved mother’s demands that the church be filled with Disney balloons.

At a simplistic level he is wrong – what’s the problem with sending the little girl off with images of the Disney princesses she loved? But at a deeper level, in his ethical, philosophical reasoning, he is right.

However, in the age of Instagram, Snapchat, instant gratification, the warp speed of social media vilification and a herd mentality that has to get in on the action, David, with his often unconventional ministry, is doomed. Even the ceremony of Blessing the River is taken away from him, because of the threats of violence. The seasick, nervous curate has to step into the wobbly boat – the procession and blessing go ahead, as they will the following year and the years after … The ritual is stronger than the individual.

Rituals are not immutable – they must and do change, otherwise they are merely rules for no reason and we all have a duty to challenge break rules! They are important to us as human beings and as members of a community – the more we are separated from them, the more that social media replaces social life, the harder it is to reconnect. Anyone who has been to Glastonbury (you don’t need to say Festival – everyone knows what you mean), or the Ottery Tar Barrels or any of Somerset’s illuminated carnivals, understands that they are greater than the sum of their parts. They reconnect us with a wider community, they open our eyes to experiences that are new as well as ancient, they excite all our senses and, even if we get soaked in November storms or smothered in June mud, we come home re-energised, reinvigorated, with heads full of memories.

The Southbury Child exposes the threats that rituals face – but also their resilience and our need to know ourselves in our place.