Beforehand, I would like to apologize to the readers of this blog for not writing as often as I used to. I’ve been very busy – and there is no need to make a list of the things that keep me occupied – so I don’t have the free time I used to have to come here and write about something. I will seize these few moments of free time that I have today, to write about subjects I wanted to write before. Lets go straight to the subject of this post before my free time runs out.
The Ascension Day is a subject I wanted to write at the end of the month of May, but as I’ve stated before the reason why I couldn’t have posted something as often as before, now I’ll just have to squeeze in this May celebration in the month of June.
Once in awhile a celebration is at our doorstep. We enjoy the feasts which have been in our communities and/or country traditions for generations. But how much do we know about the origins of such celebrations? How deep do the roots of a tradition goes?
According to the christian tradition, Jesus Christ ascended into heaven after his resurrection on a Sunday during Easter – ascension Day is the universally celebration of this happening. Just like many other Church celebrations and feasts, incorporating folk traditions and pre-christian pagan beliefs, Ascension Day isn’t different and has a past which was changed and given a new “look” by the Church. One of these ancient traditions during this day is beating the bounds, which is quite possible the origin of the Ascension procession (which is still carried out today in some church parishes).
When communities beat their bounds, which means going round the boundaries, the whole village would process from marker to marker (often standing stones) that determined the limits of the parish. In most cases, the stone marking the boundery was beaten with willow or hazel twigs and marked with chalk as a sign of the passing of the people. The beating reinforced the rights of the parishioners, setting the boundary of who belongs to that church, as such, could also be married and buried in the that same church and its grounds. This process marked the boundaries between the parishioners and those who were outsiders, meaning, those living out of the village or in other villages, and those who did not participate in this process.
This tradition dates from a period before the Norman Conquest of Great Britain, so it is quite possible that it has pagan roots. The beating of the twigs in the stones, or maybe another objects, afforded the bounds between the communities and the outside wild world which was seen as the realm where gods and magical creatures dwelt. This was a process of driving out evil spirits before the land was blessed. In economical and political affairs, the procession itself may have been a means to demarcate a place of power, notifying neighbours that the boundary must not be breached just as the standing stones in prehistory did; along with many other religious and spiritual meanings, it was also to mark the boundaries of a community. Indeed, small boys often took the beating on behalf of the stone, ritually suffering to confirm the pact with the local spirits of the land. Some trees in the landscape still bear names such as Gospel Oak, showing they were part of the annual round as soon as the Church became involved in local traditions and ancient celebrations.
As part of the church services nowadays during this celebration, the first fruits are blessed, presumably in anticipation of the harvest. This certainly replaces the earlier prayers and blessings offered to the spirits of the land at the beating of the bounds, ensuring that the soils will be bountiful in the year to come and that the next harvest will be plentiful. There are indications that the custom of blessing the land and its produce was widespread across early medieval Europe.
The modern Ascension Day feast, presumably celebrating Christ’s ascending to heaven, has far older roots involving the communities’ connection to the land around them, acknowledging the local spirits, and also offering thanks for the anticipated harvest to come to them and quite possible to the old gods of harvest and fertility. The spirits of the land and/or the deities, have been replaced by the son of the christian god. Ascension Day certainly has pagan roots which have been adapted and embraced by the Church.