Holidays, Holydays, Carnivals, Festivals, and Vacations

We’re on holiday this week, away for some rest and recreation. This is the third year that my beloved and I have met my brother-in-law and his wife in Rotorua, which has been billing itself as New Zealand’s thermal wonderland for more than 100 years.

The getaway has become part of the rhythm of our life; something we do each year as Autumn slides down towards Winter.

Other regular patterns are punctuated by the liturgical year of our Catholic faith. We’ll be home for Palm Sunday, to be followed by Holy Week and Easter. Ascension Thursday, Pentecost (which the English used to call Whitsunday), the beginning of Advent, Christmas, and around again to Lent. And lots of other feast days and commemorations along the way.

Some of these have also become secular celebrations, joining national commemorations like Anzac Day and Waitangi Day. And sports adds another whole layer of seasonal markers: duck-shooting season, the first day of rugby or cricket or athletics for the year.

Then there are the markers particular to our family: anniversaries of good things and sad. Weddings, births, deaths. The night my beloved and I first kissed. (August 3rd 48 years ago! Where did the time go?) The day we experienced our first snowfall after moving from the North Island to the South. Births of children and grandchildren. The day my mother died. Milestone events, many of them at crossroads on my life’s journey.

In the past I write about, those living in the English countryside still measured their years by the changing seasons, with the liturgical year intertwined around the natural rhythms. The English term for holiday comes from the old English word for holy day. In medieval times, holy days meant only basic necessary work. Peasants worked long hours, of course, during spring planting and the harvest season, but they expected, and got, time off in the rest of the year. (Relatively speaking. No swanning off to the coast for a week; animals and people still had to be fed.) Even better if the holy day was also a festival, for the term festival comes from the Latin word for joyous, and by the 14th century had already taken on the connotation of an abundant meal, a feast.

Feast days punctuated the year; major feasts like Easter, Christmas, the Epiphany, and the feast day of a local Saint; minor feasts for other saints. And all of them had their own special food: in England, Simnel Cake, Twelfth Night Cake, Tansy Pudding, Shrove Tuesday pancakes, and on and on.

Carnival is an interesting word. It comes from an old Italian word meaning ‘to remove meat’, and originally meant the day before Lent, a time of penance when no-one in the Catholic world ate meat. Or does it? Some scholars think it predates Christianity and has something to do with the worship of the goddess Carna, to whom worshippers sacrificed pork and beans. At first glance, their rationale seems to be based more on not wanting the origin to be Christian than on actual evidence, but there you go.

The last word on my list is vacation, which is what they call holidays in the United States. The term is a more recent one, and has Puritan roots. The Puritans didn’t think much of holidays. Six days a week you worked, and the seventh you prayed. However, school worked by different rules, if only because the children were needed at home to help with the harvest. The teacher and students vacated the classroom; in other words, they went on vacation.

I appear to be falling into the habit of including annual celebrations in my Golden Redepenning novels. Farewell to Kindness revolves around the week following Whitsunday; A Raging Madness (out in May) reaches its climax at Easter; the one I’m writing now, The Realm of Silence, takes place over midsummer. And the research is fascinating. In the early 19th century, many of the old traditions survived, at least in country areas and among the ordinary people. A few still survive into the modern day. What traditions do you and your family keep?

Also see: To everything there is a Season; Festivals on WIP Wednesday



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