Thursday, 25 March 2010
Survivals from the wreckage: "Lady Day" and “Flowering Sunday?”
Today, the feast of the Annunciation, called Lady Day in England and Wales, although stripped of its religious meaning for most of our compatriots, still has a significance for the rural community, in that by long-established custom it is one of the quarter days on which rents are due for those in traditional agricultural tenancies.
It’s many hundreds of years, of course, and something which has completely faded from ancestral memory, since the Cistercians of nearby Tintern Abbey would have held their agricultural courts and collected their rents at Porthcasseg on the hillside overlooking the village here.
It’s interesting, though, to note just how many medieval customs - in a non-liturgical form - have survived the Tudor State’s “nationalisation” of religion and its eventual imposition of an ambiguous and royalist reworking of continental Protestantism, and its illegitimate offspring, secularism and rationalism, marking the beginning of a process which has lead inexorably to the post-modern cultural experiment of ‘culturelessness.’
If it ever comes about, the islamification of the west (predicted by the more alarmist commentators out there) will only take place because of a process of cultural suicide mirroring the physical culture of death which pervades our society. Is it honestly preferable for Muslim immigrants to western countries and their offspring to abandon their cherished traditions, customs and beliefs and exchange them for assimilation into - what?
A quasi-fundamentalist superstition about the long march of scientific progress which for most people is translated into a meaningless lifestyle constructed around a diet of Hollywood–style entertainment and celebrity worship, T.V. dinners and endless shopping trips. If it's that interesting. Admittedly, for those with intellectual pretensions there is the somewhat uncritical use of the arts as a religion-substitute but freed from those worrying connotations of transendence traditionally associated with spiritual matters.
Frankly, I’d rather be what the French, rather anachronistically to our ears, still call a “musilman.” I’d also very much prefer it if the Church (my part of the Church, as an Anglican if only for the time being - as long as the time being lasts) wasn’t part of the lemming-like rush over the precipice of cultural oblivion. Hope - and there is hope - lies elsewhere.
However, in this part of the world among the older inhabitants of Monmouthshire (at least those born and brought up here or hereabouts), Palm Sunday is still known as “Flowering Sunday.” Even now in our highly secularised society families will still come to our churchyards over the approaching weekend to lay flowers on their family graves, taking time also to tidy things up generally after the winter. Although I’m not sure they know why they do it.
Rather stupidly, I’ve always assumed that this was simply a local custom, a kind of displaced tradition here on the borders of Wales after the ending in the sixteenth century of the practice of decorating graves on All Souls Day.
But not so, the custom exists throughout Wales (where next Sunday is known as Sul y Blodau – again, “Flowering Sunday.”)
But far from being a product of the forcible ending of the Catholic culture of the middle ages, it seems that “Flowering Sunday” is another remarkable survival of at least one aspect of a widespread European pre-Reformation Passiontide tradition. In Spain, for example, the term Pascua Florida, later used to describe the Easter celebrations themselves, originally meant just Palm Sunday.
The Palm Sunday procession (an Anglo-Catholic restoration here as in many parts of modern Britain), which, of course, would originally have included the Blessed Sacrament to represent Christ himself, would have proceeded around the parish church and halt at the churchyard crucifix, which would have been richly decorated with flowers. While the clergy sang the appointed hymns and antiphons, the congregation would disperse among the tombs, each family kneeling to pray and lay flowers at the grave of their relatives. The celebrant would then sprinkle holy water over the graveyard, and the procession would re-form and enter the church for the rest of the liturgy.
[Incidentally, Eamon Duffy in 'The Stripping of the Altars' gives us a vivid description of the traditional Palm Sunday liturgy, of which our modern, simplified rites are in many ways only a pale imitation.]