Make England merry again

Thursday, June 23rd, 2022

Ed West wants to make England merry again:

Today is Midsummer’s Eve. There was once a time when people up and down the country would spend the evening around bonfires, drinking ale and generally being merry in that way I like to imagine medieval people. The whole community would get together and mark the passage of the longest evenings of the year before the arrival of the hot summer.

Midsummer’s Eve, also known as St John’s Eve after John the Baptist, was formerly a huge day in the English calendar, as it still is in much of Scandinavia. As medieval historian Eleanor Parker writes, it was once ‘a popular communal celebration: houses were decorated with lamps and greenery, there were parades with pageantry and music, people feasted with their neighbours, and bonfires were lit in the street.

‘After the Reformation, midsummer bonfires were suppressed as Catholic superstition, though in some regions they survived as late as the 19th century. But numerous customs lingered in later folklore that preserve the idea of Midsummer Eve as a magical time when you might encounter ghosts, when unmarried girls could try love-divination to find out about their future husbands, and when anyone who kept watch in the church porch at midnight would see the spirits of those fated to die in the coming year.’

Well that’s nice, some people will say, an interesting historical anecdote. But, I would counter, what’s to stop us bringing this back? The love-divination and midnight spirits-watching could be optional, but I mean the general feast. I have many crank beliefs, but one of my strongest is that the medieval calendar should be returned in some way, even if most people no longer believe in the religion that inspired it.


Contrary to the fashionable Noughties takes about the evils of supernatural belief, religion has huge psychological benefits. There is a vast array of evidence showing that attending religious ceremonies increases dopamine responses in the brain. Overcoming our fear of death is not even the key part; it is meeting other people and taking part in a common ritual, which has huge benefits, including reduced risk of suicide or addiction. Religious attendance is ‘associated with lower psychological distress’ and ‘related to higher well-being’.

Modernity, diet and substance abuse may have slightly increased rates of extreme mental illness such as schizophrenia, while social media has allowed people with personality disorders to become prevalent, especially in politics. But most of the ‘mental health crisis’ is just loneliness. People attend fewer communal events because of the decline of religion, they see other people less regularly and they have fewer friends — of course they’re unhappy! Humans are not just social mammals, we are ultra-social by the standards of other species; that’s why we need common rituals and why we’re chasing that religious feeling everywhere and can’t find it. It is why, as Madeline Grant wrote in the Telegraph this week, that as well as progressive institutions adopting religious-type feasts, even exercise classes increasingly resemble Mass.


So Ed, the sceptics will ask, are you just suggesting we have a completely fake return to the pre-Reformation calendar, marking religious festivals even though a small minority of the population are actually believing Christians? Are you suggesting that the unreligious get involved in church-run events such as Midsummer bonfires and parish ales, in a completely pastiche way? Yes, that is exactly what I’m suggesting. I’m an unapologetic believer in ersatz tradition, because ersatz traditions have all the benefits and few of the downsides.

Midsummer, by the way, is celebrated right around the summer solstice, the first day of summer:

It has often been claimed that the Church authorities wanted to “Christianize” the pagan solstice celebrations and for this reason advanced the Nativity of John the Baptist as a substitute for a formerly pagan festival.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    As late as the 1950′s, Methuen, Massachusetts had a bonfire festival, but I believe it happened on July 4. Methuen then was a heavily French-Canadian Catholic town.

    The bonfire was huge, an immense stack of old lumber, railroad ties, etc.

  2. McChuck says:

    It would be better if they made England English again.

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