Wicker Lessons

Beltane creeps up unnoticed.  Not an official holiday in these parts, it is, hopefully, a sign of slightly warmer weather than we’ve been having in April.  It’s also the day that I can’t help but think of The Wicker Man.  One of the early intelligent horror offerings, it came out 49 years ago.  My book on the movie, as far as I know, is still scheduled to come out next year, on its fiftieth anniversary.  Watch this space for further announcements.  In any case, today I have a piece on The Wicker Tree—the “spiritual sequel” to the movie, appearing on Horror Homeroom.  Societies in old Europe tended to celebrate this as the beginning of summer, which explains why Midsummer comes half-way through June.  The seasons aren’t always the same in all times and places.

In Germanic countries, Walpurgisnacht, which began last night, was a time of concern about witches.  Our modern calendar tries to concentrate our fears in late October, but they are appropriate any time of year.  These days Beltane’s more of a day when we expect warmer weather to start rolling in and perhaps, especially this year, hopes for peace.  May tends to be a hopeful time—it’s a transition.  The persistence of our fears suggests that learning to deal with them might well be a good idea.  Instead of hiding monsters away, why not face them?  The Wicker Tree isn’t a great horror movie, but something holds true for it—the monsters are us.  In that film capitalism is the real horror.

What makes The Wicker Man the classic that it is is religion.  More specifically, the clash between religions, neither of which is willing to yield.  This is largely behind religious violence throughout history, up to the present.  Religions convinced that they’re the only possible way to the truth can’t recognize that believers of other religions feel exactly the same way.  Yet May is about transitions—one season giving way to another.  It’s part of the inexorable change that marks life on this planet.  We may not fear witches in the mountains any more, but we still fear what’s out there.  Beltane is a hopeful holiday—a day of blessing animals and building fires to encourage the strengthening sun.  Instead of making it a day of clashing beliefs, perhaps we should look for our common humanity in it.  Perhaps we can learn a deeper lesson from The Wicker Man.


Next Trick

Book contracts make me happy.  For my next trick, I’ll be writing a book on The Wicker Man for the Devil’s Advocate series.  This will be a short book, and hopefully priced down where individuals can afford it.  The Devil’s Advocate series was initiated by Auteur Publishing some years ago.  The series covers individual horror films in about 128 pages.  I pitched the idea of The Wicker Man for a couple of reasons.  One, Auteur didn’t have one in the series.  And two, I’ve been working on holiday horror for some time.  Holiday horror encompasses movies where a holiday features in the story, generally in a significant way.  Think Halloween, or April Fool’s DayThe Wicker Man takes place during a pagan celebration of May Day, falling neatly into the category.  You may see, in coming weeks, posts about various Wicker Man books.

While still in the horror genre, this next book will be a departure from the supernatural horror of Nightmares with the Bible.  Demons are frightening, no doubt, but Wicker Man is more about how religion can motivate people toward evil.  It is part of what has been termed the “unholy trinity” of early folk horror, classed with Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  This “unholy trinity” overlaps in time another famous threesome: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  There can be little doubt that modern horror really began in 1968, which also gave us Night of the Living Dead.  Folk horror utilizes both folklore and the landscape—generally rural—as the basis for its fear.  And you can’t get much more isolated than Summerisle.

The hope is to get this book out in 2023.  That will be the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Wicker Man.  Although it came out when I was eleven, I didn’t see it for another thirty years at least.  By that point in time I’d watched and read about enough horror to find out about and appreciate this particular, indeed, peculiar movie.  I was blown away the first time I saw it.  It is quirky but stunning.  Christopher Lee maintained throughout his career that it was his best movie.  I haven’t seen all of Lee’s movies (who has?) but I’m inclined to agree.  I’ll be getting to know this movie in some depth over the next several months.  Having watched it many times already, I’m drawing a map for a journey to Summerisle. You’re welcome to come along.


Joyous Beltane

Every year around Beltane, I think of The Wicker Man.  Of course, the holiday itself, aka May Day, is no cause for alarm.  What makes the movie so effective—and I mean the original film, of course—is the fear of others’ religions.  My last two books have explored the nexus of horror and religion and The Wicker Man always stands out as an example of how naturally the two go together.  May Day, or Beltane, represents one of the cross-quarter days.  It falls roughly halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice.  Days are noticeable longer now than they were back before the equinox, and Beltane, like many cross-quarter days, uses the symbolism of light to remind us of the seasonality of life.  While the light is here we should make use of it.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

Agricultural festivals—and many ancient holidays began as such—acknowledge the importance of the lives of animals pastoralists depended upon.  Imbolc, the start of spring, was marked by sheep beginning their lambing.  Beltane was the point at which cattle could be driven to pasture.  It stands opposite Samhain, the origin of our Halloween, with Lughnasadh falling between.  These holidays were often celebrated with bonfires (thus The Wicker Man), but fire was understood as protective rather than destructive.  Although the Celts seem to have originated in east-central Europe, they were pushed to the northern fringes of the British Isles by other invading peoples.  Their location in chillier climes suggests that fire may have also held a practical purpose.

May Day is celebrated throughout much of Europe as a day associated with fertility.  This, it seems, was a major cause of concern among Christian missionaries.  Fertility is, of course, a natural hope.  Agrarian peoples rely on it to survive.  Fire served to bless the animals and to keep away the mischief of the little people, or nature spirits.  Much of what we know of Beltane, as with other Celtic holidays, has to be reconstructed since the Celts didn’t leave a scholarly archive that could be farmed for information.  Indeed, prior to widespread literacy what would’ve been the point of writing down what the folk already knew?  It was obvious that summer was on the way.  Even in years when the temperatures struggle to warm consistently, there are hints that “the light-soaked days are coming.”  The bonfires of Beltane represent the warmth and light that are on their way.  And what religion could object to that?


Cross Quarters

Happy Beltane!  We could use a holiday right about now.  For those of us who are under the spell of intelligent horror, May Day brings The Wicker Man to mind.  Not the remake, please!  I first saw it about a decade ago—my career history has made watching horror an obvious coping mechanism—and I was struck by the comments that the film was a cautionary tale.  One of the problems with being raised as a Fundamentalist is that you tend to take things literally and I supposed that the cautionary tale was against Celtic paganism.  The Wicker Man is about the celebration of Beltane on a remote Hebridean island, and it was only as I watched it a few more times and reflected on it that I came to realize the caution was about those who took their religion too seriously, pagan or not.

Photo credit: Stub Mandrel, via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Summerisle, after all, admits that his religion was more or less an invention of his grandfather.  More of a revival than an invention, actually.  In other words, he knows where the religion came from, and he has a scientific understanding of the soil and how and why crops fail.  That doesn’t prevent him from presiding over May Day celebrations to bring fertility back to the land.  The people, as often is the case with religions, simply follow the leader.  Of course, Beltane is a cross-quarter day welcoming spring.  It is celebrated in Celtic countries with bon fires and obviously those fires are to encourage the returning of the sun after a long winter.  The days are lengthening now.  I can go jogging before work.  The light is returning.

Capitalism, which is showing its weak side now, doesn’t approve of too many holidays.  Like Scrooge they think days off with pay are picking the pockets of the rich.  The government stimulus packages show just how deeply that is believed in this country.  Celts we are not.  So as I watch the wheel of the year slowly turning, and see politicians aching to remove restrictions so that money can flow along with the virus, I think that cautionary tales are not misplaced.  The love of money can be a religion just as surely as the devotion to a fictional deity.  Herein is the beauty of The Wicker Man.  Beltane is upon us.  As we broadcast our May Day it could be wise to think of the lessons we might learn, if only we’d consider classic cautionary tales.


Holy May Days

The first few weeks of May are peppered with holidays, some religious, some secular. As my regular readers know, I’ve been working on a book about holidays for kids, so I showcase a few pieces on this blog, on occasion. Instead of providing several posts on May’s holidays, I’m combining the first three special days into a holiday compendium for early May.

May Day (May 1) is, in origin, a religious holiday. It is an ancient, pre-Christian Celtic holiday called Beltane, it celebrates fertility, and it is a day that workers throughout the world fight for fair treatment. Sometimes it is associated with Communism. So, where do we begin to unpack all that? To start with, May Day is a cross-quarter day (Groundhog Day and Halloween are two others). Cross-quarter days fall halfway between the solstices and equinoxes – the days that mark the change of seasons. Ancient Europeans believed that cross-quarter days allowed spirits of the dead and other supernatural beings into the human world, as can be seen in the Germanic Walpurgis Night (April 30-May 1). Although named after a saint (Walburga, d. Feb. 25, 779) Walpurgis Night has deep pre-Christian roots in northern Europe. It celebrates the coming of May, or summer, with huge bonfires lit at night. It Germany it was also called Witches’ Night (Hexennacht) because it was believed that witches gathered on Brocken mountain to await the coming of May. The Celtic May 1 is Beltane. For the Celts Beltane marked the start of summer and it was one of their two major holidays (the other comes around Halloween). Like the Germanic tribes, the Celts lit bonfires on Beltane. Druids would light two fires to purify those who would pass between them. In Ireland people would dress their windows and doors with May Boughs and would set up May Bushes. These were signs of the returning fertility of the earth. This tradition survives in parts of the United States in the form of the May Basket. May Baskets are filled with treats and are left at someone’s door. The tradition is to knock and run, but if you get caught, the gift recipient gets to kiss you! These days, however, an unexpected basket at the door is more likely to result in a call to the bomb squad, so let your sweetie know ahead of time if you plan to give a May Basket!

Today is Cinco de Mayo, and like most things Hispanic, it is misunderstood by many Angelos. Frequently Cinco de Mayo is represented as Mexico’s day of independence. What it actually commemorates, however, is a historic battle. Napoleon III’s French Army was in Mexico in 1862. These guys were in the state of Puebla where an outnumbered Mexican force under 33 year-old General Ignacio Zargoza actually beat them on May 5. In the States, Cinco de Mayo is becoming a day to showcase Mexican culture, kind of like St. Patrick’s Day is for Irish culture. The Battle of Puebla is not Mexico’s independence day – that falls on September 16 and often escapes notice in the United States.

And, of course, Sunday is Mother’s Day. People around the world celebrate their mothers at various times of the year, but many don’t realize that this holiday goes back to the ancient Near East. Cybele was an ancient goddess associated with all things motherly. Originally from the Levant, the Greeks and Romans believed her to have been from Turkey (Phrygia). She had a festival day at the vernal equinox. Although there is no direct connection with the date or form of our Mother’s Day, it is possible that this annual recognition of an exceptional mother gave people the idea for Mother’s Day. Whatever it ancient origins may have been, Mother’s Day as we know it started in the United States as a protest against the Civil War. Many women believed war to be wrong. During the Civil War Anna Jarvis organized Mothers’ Work Days (as if they didn’t already have enough to do!) to improve sanitation for both armies. Julia Ward Howe wrote the Mother’s Day Proclamation, which was a document calling for the end of the war. The idea was to unite women in protest and bring the conflict to a close. After the war ended Anna Jarvis’ daughter (who had the same name as her mother) campaigned for a memorial day for women. Because of her efforts, a Mother’s Day was celebrated in Grafton, West Virginia in 1908. After that various states began to observe Mother’s Day, and President Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday in 1914, ironically the year the First World War began. It is celebrated on the second Sunday in May.

For whatever spirits, political ideals, or goddesses you admire, May is the appropriate time to celebrate.