Let’s reclaim Easter from the chocolate companies and revive traditional games

Drawing by Heleln Allingham, 1891

By Joanna Gilar

I am an unapologetic enthusiast for festive happenings; for all spaces in which we grant ourselves permission to pause in our business, turn towards cyclical time and make magic in a great concord. Even though it is the colourful earthiness of older rites to which I would be drawn by inclination; even though it makes more sense to me, this time of year, to celebrate Spring Equinox, that strangeness of time when day and night are balanced, and the great abundance of spring and summer seems poised to leap into being, I am still an excitable child when it comes to the layered outpourings that have evolved through Christianity to be our festive markings.  

And Easter – so much quieter, in this country, than Christmas, often collapsing into muddy scraps of foil wrappings, is the one closest to my heart. For some reason, it always makes me think of dragons. The veil, this time of year, seems so thin between life and magic, not in the dark choral way of Samhain, but in a surging forth way of blue eggs and new moons.

In the Czech Republic, where I lived for ten years, town squares are turned into great Easter markets, and trees are hung with ribbons and painted eggs. It is also the tradition to whip women symbolically into fertility with woven willow rods, a tradition that I was less bothered by than I felt I should be. Maybe because, as well as the games of patriarchy, I also feel in it the gathering of an ancient transparency. For how long have we been opening ourselves up to the passions of new plants; echoing the emptiness of the oncoming moon by clearing ourselves out for new gatherings?

There are more mysteries about Easter than we often have time or generosity to acknowledge. One Easter, about three years ago, I was immersed in the writing of my thesis on shapeshifting, and I had reached the chapter in which I explored Ursula Le Guin’s dragon myth of Earthsea. Every day, as I walked out of the house to get some fresh air and hope the dragons would fill up my screen in my absence, it seemed they were already there in the fields and hedges, in the sloping hill above our village. I don’t know why. Maybe because dragons feel like the moving of elemental energies, and one way to experience this movement is to be still to it, like the hanged man on a cross. The crucifixion and subsequent dawn rising – or maybe the overlap between that and the greening of land – is a dragon image if ever there was one.

I am always on the lookout for ways to remember the magic in these nodules of sacred time, ways that “see them new” by recalling old constancies. This year, I was fortunate to stumble across a fascinating book about old Sussex folklore, by archeologist and speaker Lillian Candlin. Candlin, with unapologetic appetite for any potential sparks of pagan history, doesn’t just focus on traditional tales or songs, but locates her research in pubs and by the sides of the road to explore – with fascinating results – the old games that would once have been part of our markings of a particular time of year.

And what games there have been! There are games that make me think we should rise up and reclaim Easter from the chocolate companies and make it the site of community sports instead. In Sussex, Good Friday has long been the time for numerous sporting activities – including football, skipping, and marbles. As Candlin says, it is likely that “the tossing around of balls… goes back thousands of years”.

In Ancient Egypt, apparently, a spring fertility rite took place at the Temple of Paprenis that involved the throwing of balls and even, possibly, human heads. No such gory entertainment in Dorking, on the Sussex/Surrey border, which, nevertheless, was the site of a mass football game on Good Friday up until 1905. The fact that this game had ritualistic –  or at least theatrical – origins is suggested by the fact that the opposing teams were not called “Upper” or “Lower” town, as became common later in communal football games, but “Heaven” and “Hell”, and the players apparently wore fancy dress to represent the old gods of Britain.

Bat and Trap, or Tip-Cat, one of the world’s oldest games, involves hitting a smaller stick off a larger one, and, says Candlin, “before the invention of the motor car made playing in the streets unsafe … was played during the spring in every town and village in Sussex”; the same with skipping, which also took place on Good Friday, up to the Second World War, in almost all towns and villages across Sussex. In most towns and villages, one part of the street was blocked by lines of skipping ropes, and young and old repeating rhymes in time to their leaping. As Candlin points out: “From time immemorial people have jumped on the ground at this time in the belief that by doing so they could impart some of their vitality to the soil.” She quotes the words of a Cretan Hymn, which shows the same idea:

“Let’s leap up for full jars.
And leap for fleecey flocks,
And leap for fields of fruit
And hives to bring increase.”

I had no idea, before encountering Candlin, that Sussex is also the site of the world marble championships, which take place, again on Good Friday, in the village of Tinsley Green near Gatwick. The “championships” were only begun in the 1930s, before that, nearly every town and village played marbles on Good Friday, which was also known as “Marbles Day”. Quite frequently, apparently, the game was played on the porch of the parish church, continuing both before and after the Good Friday service. Predictably (but perhaps not impossibly) Candlin also relates the marbles to fertility rites, referring to the idea of rolling stones over soil freshly planted to ensure, by sympathetic magic, the vitality of the seeds.

Tales of Old Sussex was published in 1985, and as one reads it, it seems as if Candlin comes from the mid-twentieth century tradition of Margaret Murray, who published her works in a fever of excitement to exclaim that she had proved lines of consistency between contemporary beliefs and worship of the old gods. Today we are far more careful, and so we should be. Myths, like anything else, deserve the respect of accurate archeology. I haven’t dug deeper into Candlin’s enthusiastic claims for continuity – if I get a chance, perhaps one day I will do.

But as our old rites and traditions deserve accurate understanding, they also deserve creative intention. Whether marbles were once rolled across the newly planted fields to give energy to the tender and beginning seeds, it seems no doubt that to give a group of children a clutch of marbles and an open space is a better way to allow them to notice the time of year than to give them more chocolate. Perhaps telling them about the colourful layers of festive activity that attend the local church is also a way – for those who wish it – to draw their attention to the activities inside it.

When people ask me about my approach to fairy tales, I tell them that it is about overlap. Rather than fixing on any particular version of a story, or any particular meaning, what is interesting to me is to allow the tales their multifaceted complexity, their shifting, layered nature, to look at one tale through its thousand, silken layers of other. That is another kind of transparency, and I think it also applies to our collective rituals. For the last ten years, I have celebrated this time of year by imagining the sun light up the middle belly of the earth, the tipping point of day and night, and its heralding of the great sudden becoming of spring. But perhaps to work with the complexity of magics that connect human activity and wild rhythms, the layers of Easter also matter; the layers of its stillness, mythical and mundane, and the layers of its individual and gloriously collective movement.

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