Britain has relatively few public holidays compared with other European countries. Generally, public holidays include bank holidays (holidays proclaimed by a king or queen) and common law holidays (they are not specified by law as bank holidays but have become customary holidays because all people observe them).
British bank holidays have been recognized since 1871. The name “bank holiday” comes from the time when banks were shut and so no trading could take place. Even though banks are still closed on these days many shops remain open. Because of this, anyone who works on bank holidays usually gets paid extra.
In England and Wales there are six bank holidays: New Year’s Day, Easter Monday, May Day, Spring Bank Holiday, Summer Bank Holiday and Boxing Day. There are also two common law holidays on Good Friday and Christmas Day.
In Scotland there are nine public holidays: New Year’s Day, January 2, Good Friday, May Day, Spring Bank Holiday, Summer Bank Holiday, St. Andrew’s Day (November 30), Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
In Northern Ireland there are seven bank holidays: New Year’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), Easter Monday, May Day, Spring Bank Holiday, Summer Bank Holiday and Boxing Day. There are also two common law holidays on Good Friday and Christmas Day and a public holiday on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne or Orangemen’s Day (July 12).
When public holidays in the Christmas and New Year period fall on Saturdays and Sundays, alternative week days are declared public holidays.
New Year’s Day
People welcome in the New Year on the night before. This is called New Year’s Eve. In Scotland people celebrate it with a lively festival called Hogmanay. A number of Scottish New Year’s traditions are very old, but the custom of singing “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight is a relatively new one. It has been practiced for only about 175 years. When the clock strikes twelve everybody stands in a circle, crosses their arms and links them with those who are on either side and merrily sings the rousing tune of Burns’ poem. “For auld lang syne” means “in memory of past times”.
In Wales the back door is opened to release the Old Year at the first stroke of midnight. It is then locked up to “keep the luck in” and at the last stroke the New Year is let in at the front door.
First-footing is another custom that is very popular in Scotland and northern England. The first young man to enter a house is known as the first-foot. He is believed to bring the New Year’s Luck. He should have dark hair, eyes or complexion. A female first-foot is regarded with fear as women are considered to bring bad luck. The first-foot has a right to kiss the girl who answers the door. It is considered the height of merriment to have a crone come to the door instead of the expected bonnie lass.
The first-foot is required to carry four articles: a piece of coal to wish warmth, a piece of bread to wish food, a coin to wish wealth and some greenery to wish a long life. The visitor takes a pan of dust or ashes out of the house with him, thus signifying the departure of the old year.
The symbol of the incoming year is the New Year babe. Children born on New Year’s Day have been regarded as harbingers of years of good fortune for the whole household.
Parties on New Year’s Eve are usually for friends. Most people see in the New Year with a group of other people. In London, many go to the traditional celebration in Trafalgar Square where there is an enormous Christmas tree which is an annual gift from the people of Norway.
St. Patrick’s Day
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated worldwide by Irish people and increasingly by non-Irish people usually in Australia and North America. Celebrations are generally themed around all things Irish and the colour green. Both Christians and non-Christians celebrate the secular version of the holiday by wearing green or orange, eating Irish food and/or green foods, taking in Irish drink such as Guinness or Baileys Irish Cream and attending parades.
As well as being a celebration of Irish culture, St. Patrick’s Day is a Christian festival celebrated in the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, and some other denominations. The day almost always falls in the season of Lent. Some bishops will grant an indult, or release, from the Friday no-meat observance when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday. When March 17 falls on a Sunday, church calendars move St. Patrick’s Day to the following Monday and when the day falls during Holy Week (very rarely), the observance will be moved to the next available date or, exceptionally, before holy week.
Blue, not green, was the colour long-associated with St. Patrick. Green may have gained its prominence through the phrase “the wearing of the green” meaning to wear a shamrock on one’s clothing. At many times in Irish history, to do so was seen as a sign of Irish nationalism or loyalty to the Roman Catholic faith. St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Trinity to the pre-Christian Irish. The wearing and display of shamrocks and shamrock-inspired designs have become a general feature of the holiday.
The first day of the month of May is known as May Day. It is the time of year when warmer weather begins and flowers and trees start to blossom. It is said to be a time of love and romance.
May Day celebrations have their origins in the Roman festival of Flora, goddess of fruit and flowers. The festival marked the beginning of summer. People would go out before sunrise in order to gather flowers and greenery to decorate their houses and villages with, in the belief that the vegetation spirits would bring good fortune.
Young women would rise early to cleanse their faces in May morning dew and blankets would be soaked in the same, in the belief that sick children would be cured once wrapped in them.
In some parts of Britain, May Day is called Garland Day. Two garlands are prepared by the village children. One is made of garden flowers and the other of wild flowers. Sometimes they put a doll inside to represent the goddess of spring. The garlands are carried round the houses, where they are shown and money is given to the children. This is the remnant of what was once a much more elaborate May Day custom involving garlanding the local fishing boats.
May Day is given over to various festivities. There is dancing in the street, archery contest and exhibitions of strength. The highlight of the day is the crowning of the May Queen. By tradition she takes no part in the games or dancing, but sits like a queen in a flower-decked chair and watches her “subjects”.
A traditional May Day dance is known as maypole dancing. People used to cut down young trees and stick them in the ground in the village. They danced around the maypoles in celebration of the end of winter and the start of the fine weather that would allow planting to begin. Many English villages still have a maypole and people dance around it on May Day. The tallest maypole is said to have been erected in London on the Strand in 1661; it stood over 143 feet high. It was felled in 1717, when it was used by Isaac Newton to support Huygen’s new reflecting telescope.
Another traditional dance you will often see on May Day is morris dancing. The dancing is very lively and often accompanied by an accordion player. Morris dancers are usually men and wear different clothes depending on the part of the country in which they dance. They are often dressed in white with coloured belts across their chests. The dancers may carry white handkerchiefs that they shake, or short sticks that they bang against each other as they dance. There are also single dancers who wear special costumes.
The Bath Festival
The number of festivals held in Britain every summer goes on and on increasing but few are as well established or highly thought of, particularly in the wider European scene, as the Bath Festival. In June when the city is at its most beautiful the festival attracts some of the finest musicians in the world to Bath as well as thousands of visitors from Britain and abroad.
The festival presents a programme of orchestral and choral concerts, song and instrumental recitals and chamber music, so well suited to the beautiful 18th-century halls of Bath. The range of music included is wide and young performers are given opportunities to work with some of the leading names in their fields. But the festival is not all music.
The programme usually includes lectures and exhibitions, sometimes ballet, opera, drama, or films, as well as tours of Bath and the surrounding area and houses not normally open to the public, often a costume ball, maybe poetry – the variety is endless.
The Edinburgh Festivals
The post-war years have seen a great growth in the number of arts festivals in Britain and other European countries. Among them the Edinburgh International Festival has now firmly established its reputation as one of the foremost events of its kind in the world. On most evenings during the festival there are as many as six events to choose from on the official programme: symphony concerts, ballets, plays, recitals – all given by the finest artists in the world.
The idea of the festival originated in the first post-war year when all over Europe rationing and restrictions were the order of the day. And in 1947 the Festival was inaugurated. Glyndebourne Opera, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the Old Vic Theatre and Sadler’s Wells Ballet were only a few of the participants of this first venture. The Festival was a success, and has been held annually ever since.
It is a good thing that the Edinburgh Festival hits the Scottish capital outside term time. Not so much because the University hostels are needed to provide accommodation for Festival visitors, but because this most exhilarating occasion allows no time for anything mundane. It gives intelligent diversion for most of the twenty-four hours each weekday in its three weeks (it is not tactful to ask about Sundays – you explore the surrounding terrain then). The programmes always include some of the finest chamber music ensembles and soloists in the world. There are plenty of matinees; evening concerts, opera, drama and ballet performances usually take place at conventional times – but the floodlit Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle obviously doesn’t start till after dark, and late night entertainments and/or the Festival Club can take you into the early hours of the morning.
“Fringe” events bring performing bodies from all over Britain and beyond, and student groups are always prominent among them, responsible often for interesting experiments in the drama. Then there is the International Film Festival, bringing documentaries from perhaps 30 countries; Highland Games, and all sorts of other plays from puppet to photo shows.
England’s Harvest Festival
The English have given thanks for successful harvests since pagan times. Local communities honour this day by singing, dancing and decorating their churches and villages with flowers, baskets of fruit and branches, in a celebration known as Harvest Festival.
At one time, both the beginning and end of the harvest was accompanied by lively ceremonies and rituals – and it was also traditional for each day of the harvest to be welcomed by the tolling of church bells. In many neighbourhoods the cailleac, or last bundle of corn, which represents the spirit of the field, was made into a doll and drenched with water as a rain charm or burned as a symbol of the death of the grain spirit. The corn dolly often had a place of honour at the banquet table, and was kept until the following spring. The actions surrounding the cutting of the last bundle were known as Crying the Neck – the ‘Neck’ being a columnar-shaped strand of straws, representing the pole to which sacrificial victims in 8th century B.C. Phrygia were tied before being beheaded and having their blood offered to the soil.
A great many ancient customs are still observed to this day. For instance, the mayor of Richmond, who is also Clerk of the Market, presents a bottle of wine to the first local farmer who brings a ‘respectable sample of the new season’s wheat’, or the First Fruits of the Harvest. The wine is used to drink the mayor’s health and the farmer is given a second bottle to take home.