Theo Hobson

Britain needs to revive its festivals

Britain needs to revive its festivals
The 1955 May Day festival in Elston, Bedfordshire (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Text settings

Happy Epiphany! The coming of the wise men means that this strange Christmas is finally over. It used to be a twelve day holiday, but nowadays there’s at least a month of build-up.

I have nothing against Christmas (except that it brings out the most hideous bourgeois side of us), but I do worry that it has become the only game in town. Our festive culture is too Christmas-heavy. The phrase ‘the festive period’ says it all. We need lots of little festive periods. In Japan they have about one a month. To Japanese ears, ’the festive period’ would sound as strange as ‘the cultural period’ or ‘the meaningful period’. For festivals are essential to authentic culture, and we have allowed almost all of ours to wither away. Hallowe’en is almost the only other contender.

Of course it’s largely about secularisation. We used to have lots of saints days, some of which overlapped with agricultural festivals. Nowadays only a few boffins could tell you when St George’s Day is. A few decades ago, the average person was aware of Whitsun, another name for Pentecost, and Harvest Festival, and Shrove Tuesday. But it’s also about the demise of public patriotism — for a century or two, royal and imperial pageantry was a sort of replacement for public religion.

There are still plenty of local and subcultural festivals — the Notting Hill carnival, Glastonbury, the Last Night of the Proms, Gay Pride and so on. Every tribe has its jamboree. But we need to revive one or two pan-national ones. So what on earth can unite us? Anything to do with the nation or royalty or religion is probably out — even St George’s Day is too English-nationalist, as well as too Christian. Could Guy Fawkes be repurposed as an inclusive ‘Liberty Day’? Maybe. Or maybe May Day could be reinvented as a celebration of both the environment and work.

I know we have other more practical problems right now. But I think it is of real political importance that our festal life is so weak and disunited. These events cheer us up, bring us together, remind us that real culture is about making things and singing things, not watching Netflix.