Festivals, now and then

Adrian Arnold
5 min readJan 14, 2021
Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

Life for people living in the Middle Ages between the 5th and 15th centuries was hard. Any escape from the daily grind was welcome which often came in the form of a festival. Most Medieval people were peasants, over 90% of the population, but the divide between peasants and nobility was very clear-cut. The peasant class included freemen, who had some rights and land, serfs, who had no rights, and slaves, who were bought and sold.
The working day was largely governed by the light of the seasons and the reawrds for such work was meagre to say the least. Sundays were the only day of rest and even then attendance at church was expected

The average life expectancy at birth was around 35 but a great many of the people born died in childhood. We don’t know exactly what percentage died but if we say about 25% of people died before they were 5 years old we are probably not wide of the mark. Perhaps as many as 40% died before they reached adulthood. However if you could survive childhood and your teenage years you had a good chance of living to your 50s or your early 60s and even in the Middle Ages there were some people who lived to 70 or 80.

The only relase from this unremitting hard work were the festivals which were mainly religious with a few adopted pagan rituals thrown in. The origin of the word was described in the 1580’s as “a festal day, appointed day of festive celebration.”

Throughout history, music has played an important role at these mass cultural gatherings. For example: The Pythian Games of ancient Greece, dating as far back at the 6th century B.C., featured competitions of musical ability in addition for the physical feats for which they are primarily remembered.

Celtic and Gaelic cultures held cultural fairs from as far back as the year 1000, named Mods in Scotland and Feis in Ireland, of which dance competitions were major aspects.

Middle Ages Holidays or festivals marked an event of religious importance for every month of the year when the rural population of the Middle Ages had their days of rest and amusement. Middle Ages holidays were much more numerous than at present. At that period the festivals of the Church were frequent and rigidly kept, as each of them was the pretext for a forced holiday from manual labour. A calendar of religious and other festivals are detailed as follows:
Middle Ages Holidays in January: Twelfth Night Religious festival and feasts celebrating the visit of the Wise Men, or Magi, following the birth of Jesus
Middle Ages Holidays in February: St Valentine’s Day. The Medieval festival celebrating love — singing, dancing and pairing games
Middle Ages Holidays in March: Easter celebrated by the Mystery plays depicting the crucifixion ( Good Friday) and the resurrection, (Easter Monday.)
Middle Ages Holidays and Festivals in April: All Fool’s Day. The Jesters, or Lords of Misrule, took charge for the day and caused mayhem with jokes and jests!
Middle Ages Holidays and Festivals in May: May Day was a spring festival celebrating May Day when a Queen of the May was chosen and villagers danced around the maypole.
Middle Ages Holidays and Festivals in June: Midsummer Eve, the Mummers entertained at the ‘Festival of Fire’ reliving legends such as St George and the Dragon. Bones were often burned leading to the term ‘bonfire’. The summer Solstice was June 23rd.
Middle Ages Holidays in July: St. Swithin’s Day falls on 15th July. Legend says that during the bones of St Swithin were moved and after the ceremony it began to rain and continued to do so for forty days.

Middle Ages Holidays in August: Lammas Day was celebrated on August 2nd. The ‘ loaf-mass ‘ day, the festival of the first wheat harvest of the year. Houses were sometimes decorated with garlands and there were candle lit processions.
Middle Ages Holidays in September: 29th September was when Michaelmas celebrated the life of St Michael and the traditional food on Michaelmas was goose or chicken.
Middle Ages Holidays in October: October 25th celebrating St Crispin’s Day. Revels and bonfires and people acted as ‘King Crispin’.
Middle Ages Holidays in November: The Day of the Dead — All Souls Day or All Hallow’s Day ( Halloween ) when revels were held and bonfires were lit.
Middle Ages Holidays in December: Christmas celebrations.

In our more recent and secular times the religious feasts have been superseded by the modern music festival although these often include exhibitions of medieval crafts

Whatever our station in life we need feasts, festivity and festivals to brighten our years and the Covid vaccines will hopefully bring them back to us.

Music festivals as we currently know them in the Western world can be drawn back as far as the 1950s. The Newport Jazz Festival was founded in Rhode Island in 1952. 13,000 people attended academic panels during the day and jazz, gospel, and blues performances by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie during the night. The fest is widely considered to be the inception of the United States’ long history with festival culture.

In 1969, at Woodstock in Bethel Woods, NY, festival and counterculture were announced on a global scale. 400,000 people came together for “three days of peace and music,” and “the music festival” officially became ingrained as a societal ritual.

The next year, 1970, the Isle of Wight Festival took place on an island just off the southern tip of the United Kingdom and attracted a whopping 700,000 people. It is still considered to be one of the largest music festivals to ever take place. That title, however, belongs to Milwaukee’s Summerfest, conceived for the first time in 1968, by drawing a total of 1,000,000 people over 11 days in 1999

Glastonbury 2015
200,000 — Number of revellers expected at the 2015 festival
900 — Acres of the Vale of Avalon used for the festival site
200,000 — number o revellers expected at the 2015 festival.
15,000 — Hand-painted signs that have been used for festivals so far
5,000 — The number of long-drop toilets on site
1,000 — Compost toilets: a relatively new addition for a “more enjoyable, environmentally friendlier” experience
2 — Years that compost from these toilets can fertilise Worthy Farm
800 — Number of market stalls on the festival site
400 — Water taps serve the festival
150 — Years that Worthy Farm has been in the Eavis family



Adrian Arnold

Retired veterinary surgeon now a collector of trivia. Married to a wonderful wife, four children and four grandchildren. Author of A Veterinary Life on Amazon.