Anglo-Saxon festivals, traditions, and celebrations in America and Britain

Term Paper, 2019

42 Pages, Grade: 5.0


Table of contents


Chapter One
The Historical Roots of Traditions and Festivals
1.1. The Meaning Behind the Words
1.2. A Dash of Folklore
1.3. What does the Calendar has to do with Customs and Traditions?
1.4. Religious Roots of Traditions
1.5. Secular Roots of Traditions

Chapter Two
The World of British Traditions
2.1. British Calendar’s Most Celebrated Days
2.2. Traditions Connected with Royalty
2.3. Traditional Food and Drink

Chapter Three
American Ways of Celebrating
3.1 Around the Year – Seasonal Traditions
3.2 Federal Public Holidays
3.3. Festivals, Folklore and Tradition




The celebration of special days and seasons, both religious and secular, is universal. From primitive times onwards, special rites and festivals marked the religious mysteries of existence – the miracle of birth, life, death, and rebirth in the environment and in individual human experience. Such celebrations fulfilled a deep-seated longing in the human psyche, evoking profound emotions associated with the changing pattern of the year, the expecting of spring, the joys of summer, the harvest, the decline of the year through fall to the rigors of winter, and the promise of a new spring coming. Inevitably such celebrations involved a measurement of time, so that seasonal festivals could take place at appropriate dates in the cycle of the year.

Secular holidays excite deep emotions. We love to celebrate the birthdays of family members and friends with greetings and gifts. So, too, we feel a strong sense of belonging to a social group or nation observing holidays that unite us in common ties of special interest, ethnicity, or national pride.

The range of festivals and secular holidays in the various countries of the world is now vast. In modern times the proliferation of national and local events has also resulted in scores of special group days, and even whimsical and bizarre observances, ranging from very unique celebration of All Saints Day both in Poland and Ireland, to the Rat’s Wedding Day in China. Nevertheless, this thesis focuses on the Anglo-Saxon festivals, traditions and holidays as celebrated in America and Britain.

The paper is supposed to provide a truly comprehensive annotated reference work giving information on national festivals and holidays, with descriptive entries covering religious, cultural, ethnic, historical, popular, and sports celebrations from Britain and America, with sections on calendar systems, and tables of state and national public holidays.

Britain is full of culture and traditions which have been around for hundreds of years. British customs and traditions are famous all over the world.

When people think of Britain they often think of people drinking tea, eating fish and chips and wearing bowler hats, but there is more to Britain than just those things. Englishmen have British traditions of sport, music, food and many royal occasions. There are also songs, sayings and superstitions. Many festivals and holidays in Britain are centuries old. Every town or village in Britain has its own traditions, some involving months of careful planning and preparations of costumes and choreography, others requiring simply a desire to make a complete and utter fool of oneself.

The wide range of international coverage reflects the history and cultural identity of many countries. This has special significance for the American part, which has always been a melting pot of nationalities, each with their own traditions and customs. Side by side with the memory of such ethnic and cultural identity goes the assimilation of specifically American history and culture. Therefore, while delving through American-related festivals and traditions, one can understand the pride and pleasure in honoring the great events of world history and culture, the men and women who brought them about, and sharing the excitement and happiness of festival days.

The goal of British and American Traditional Festivals and Holidays is to prove that the deeply rooted traditions that come along with any nation, shape the vision of the given country and also constitute their uniqueness and individual portrait recognizable all around the world. While the author of this paper wanted to provide the reader with an interesting but also valuable source of information referring to the subject of the thesis, various sources were used such as referential books, magazines, online articles as well as Internet pictures and schemes.

The First Chapter presents a short introduction to the tradition of festivals and their celebrations with the very beginnings and origins connected with various aspects – both religious and secular that had its impact on British and American society.

Chapter Two is centered around the traditions that shape and create the British portrait in the international scene. It is therefore divided into parts that refer to the sport events – so popular in Britain, consequently discussing the religious celebrations and finally secular holidays and attractions in the ‘Queen’s country’.

The Third Chapter is an analysis of the American culture with its ‘melting-pot’ attractive traditions. This chapter, throughout in-depth analyze of the holidays, celebrations and cultural points stresses how the nations that formed that country influenced and made America unique.

It is author’s hope that the thesis will be an interesting view of two countries from a different perspective – that which makes people celebrate and enjoy – depending on the season or the part of the lunar calendar.

Chapter One

The Historical Roots of Traditions and Festivals

Since the beginning of time, and despite the advent of modernity as the reduction of the latter to the linear progress of secular history, the life of most human societies has usually unfolded within the sacred cycle of a strict succession of festive observances. Interrupting daily routine, they temporarily loosen and rearrange the social fabric-the better to reaffirm its underlying pattern of beliefs and assumptions, hopes and fears, founding myths and redemptive visions (Roy xi).

British tradition and culture, similarly to the proverbial elephant held by several blindfolded people, seems to be a very different animal depending on where given person touches it. The aspects discussed in this and the following chapters are united by the terms ‘British’ and ‘American’ but separated by the boundaries of a ‘culture’ that has never been still and always been in a state of flux.

Contemporary culture, as well as life, are changing faster than ever before, which means on the one hand that many of the traditional elements of so-called ‘British life’ or ‘American life’ are no longer so important in a definition of an assumed and recognized world-wide national identity. On the other hand, due to the fact that the speed of changes is so sudden, a vision of modern cultural practices is inevitably going to be distorted. Therefore, keeping in mind that the traditions, customs and festivals have their roots in the historical past is one of the most important factors to remain truthful to one’s identity.

It is worth realizing that a particular culture’s sense of its timeless bases comes to light during such festive occasions. According to Roy, such identity is acted out through rituals that move participants beyond modern time to a renewed awareness of their place in the scheme of things – whether in terms of social structures, of the seasons and cycles of nature, or of their own final spiritual destiny. These different levels of meaning usually coexist in the ceremonies and customs of traditional festivals – understood as regularly happening actions which aim at making festive and interesting a particular dimension of human beings’ belonging to a sacred order, as reflected in the ever-recurring cycles of time (Roy xii).

Such a variation from ‘normal’ time is what makes them stand out as the ancient manifestation of that ‘play element in culture’ to which the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga devoted his well-known study:

The sacred act is “celebrated” on a “holiday”— i.e., it forms part of a general feast on the occasion of a holy day. When the people foregather at the sanctuary they gather together for collective rejoicing. Consecrations, sacrifices, sacred dances and contests, performances, mysteries—all are comprehended within the act of celebrating a festival . . . Whether we think of the Ancient Greek festivities or of the African religions today we can hardly draw any sharp line between the festival mood in general and the holy frenzy surrounding the central mystery (Huizinga 21).

Every traditional festival is at once “a popular festivity and a mystic ceremony” and belongs, as such, at some level at least, among “the only true festivals that religious festivals are, unlike secular, social festivals, since no contingent caprice attaches them to some day or other that is not specially meant for them, that has nothing essentially festive about it”, as Marcel Proust noted in the beginning of his novels’ cycle Remembrance of Things Past (Roy xii). Accordingly, as Rabley points out:

From Scotland to Cornwall, Britain is full of customs and traditions. A lot of them have very long histories. Some are funny and some are strange. But they're all interesting. There are all the traditions of British sport and music. There's the long menu of traditional British food. There are many royal occasions. There are songs, sayings and superstitions. They are all part of the British way of life (Rabley 3).

Indeed, the way in which festivals play an important role in the collective understanding and perception of communities span from uniting during such ‘unique moments’, anticipating and participating in ‘timeless’ moments that continue to exist throughout the time. As it can be described as a peak experience, social time can be said to follow the religious rhythm of tradition, in opposition to the modern down-to-earth life.

1.1. The Meaning Behind the Words

A good start to gaining some understanding about the lives of people living in a given country is to look at their cherished customs and traditions. These illustrate not only what is important to the people living there, but also how they relax and have fun. However, one has to distinguish between at least two various forms of ‘relaxing’ – namely between custom and tradition. Festivals seem to stem out from the two previous.

1.1.1. Custom

It is described by the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English as “something that is done by people in a particular society because it is traditional” (Summers 386). The same word is explained by Merriam Webster Dictionary in the following way:

a : a usage or practice common to many or to a particular place or class or habitual with an individual b : long-established practice considered as unwritten law c : repeated practice d : the whole body of usages, practices, or conventions that regulate social life (Merriam-Webster: digital).

And finally, Phillips, in Oxford Wordpower defines custom in a very similar way to the previous author as: “a way of behaving which a particular group or society has had for a long time” (Phillips 1998).

It seems therefore that the common denominator in all three versions of definition is a collective cherishing some day in a stipulated way. And that is truth – people of different cultures have their forms of presenting that some days mean more to them than the others.

1.1.2. Tradition

Generally speaking, a tradition is a custom, opinion or belief handed down from one generation to another, often orally or by practice. This time, Merriam-Webster provides the broadest definition and probably the most straight-forward, dividing the meaning of the word ‘tradition’ into three aspects:

1. an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom) and also a belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable.
2. the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.
3. cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions (Merriam-Webster: digital).

Oxford offers the simplified explanation stating that it is “a custom or belief that has continued from the past to the present” (Phillips 802), similarly to Longman who postulates that tradition is “a belief, custom, or way of doing something that has existed for a long time, or these beliefs, customs etc. in general” (Summers 1763).

On a basis of these three definitions, one can draw a conclusion that traditions are practiced in many distinct forms. Traditions are commonly known as some ritualistic practices that are passed on generation after generation. They are passed through society, family and individual influences. Some traditions are based on religious beliefs. Other traditions may provide an understanding of a particular culture. Whichever way a tradition is learned, it will always define the principles of customs for the people who practice them.

There are various sub-forms of traditions, below the author of this thesis offer only several of them:

a) Religious Rituals: during religious days like for example God Friday – when fasting food is obligatory from dusk until dawn – a religious ritual makes a tradition of connecting with God through prayer and meditation of Jesus’ death.
b) Legendary Customs: for example finding a four leaf clover or keeping Christmas carp’s scale for good money. These customs are more or less universal and are practiced by cultures that are not associated with the origins of the tradition.
c) Family Traditions: usually they are influenced by folklore or by the influence of the elders of the society. For instance, it is a custom for some Polish country-dwellers to stick a flower’s bouquet on top of the house the wedding takes place.
d) Societal Traditions: society also influences the practices of generational traditions. Familiar ‘Eighteen’ parties are an example of rites of passage ceremonies that many Polish teenagers go through at the age of eighteen.
e) Cultural Traditions: traditions can begin with fellowship. Sportsmanship passed on from father to son is one way that cultures can start and share traditions.
f) Individual Traditions: they can be practiced in solitude and usually hold a profound reasoning behind the ritual. Making a New Year’s Resolution is a practice that many individuals choose to make.

1.2. A Dash of Folklore

A number of historians have intensively studied specific aspects of ‘traditional’ customs - and repeatedly revealed that these traditions appeared before the eighteenth or nineteenth century. A few ‘traditions’ really are traditional - but there are few of them. When people decorate their homes with greenery and give each other presents at Christmas, they are following a custom which goes back ‘time out of mind’. Few of us light bonfires for Mayday or lets wreaths on rivers, up until the late nineteenth century, these were a common­place customs which, also, can be traced back beyond written records. But written records ominously peter out for all other ‘traditional’ customs. Simms and Stephens, the authors of Living Folklore claim that:

We study folklore because we are interested in the ways that people decorate their yards or use recycled items to create art, in how they use charms to foretell the sex of unborn children, in the cures people create for colds and hangovers, in family recipes, in stories about el chupacabra or cry baby bridges—and much more. For us, folklore is a way of understanding people and the wide-ranging creative ways we express who we are and what we value and believe (Simms-Stephens xi).

Such presentation of ‘being who we are’ sounds familiar in the use of particular wording, namely, the one that refers to expressing personality and common beliefs. As such it connects itself with the above mentioned customs and traditions. Accordingly, the understanding can be drawn that customs, beliefs and traditions are nothing more but partly-pagan folklore rituals.

Everyone heard such thing before ‘It’s just folklore’. People commonly hear it when newscasters are announcing the report of a popular home remedy that does not really cure people and may actually harm them. Some might even say it – when a friend is telling a story about the haunted house on the winding street in the neighborhood. People often call something ‘folklore’ to dismiss the validity of the subject they have been discussing. To some people, the term ‘folklore’ commonly suggests something is untrue, not real – it is just a story or an old-fashioned belief. But that is a misconception. Some people come to folklore study expecting to learn only about quaint cultures from the past or contemporary cultures of those less educated, less fortunate, and less sophisticated than they are – primitive or simpler groups. However, that, too, is a misconception. Therefore, Simpson and Roud point out that:

[…] ‘folklore’ is notoriously difficult to define with rigour, and the term now covers a broader field than it did when invented in 1848, linking many aspects of cultural traditions past and present. It includes whatever is voluntarily and informally communicated, created or done jointly by members of a group (of any size, age, or social and educational level); it can circulate through any media (oral, written, or visual); it generally has roots in the past, but is not necessarily very ancient; it has present relevance; it usually recurs in many places, in similar but not identical forms; it has both stable and variable features, and evolves through dynamic adaptation to new circumstances (Simpson-Roud v).

Simpson, in a preface to the book A Dictionary of English Folklore claims that the English have never used folklore to assert their patriotic identity, or even until recent years, to attract tourists, though certain counties and regions have. Whereas Scotland, Wales, and Ireland have celebrated their traditions with pride, here folklore is seen as something quaint, appropriate to rural backwaters, but irrelevant to nationhood (Ibid.).

And summarizing, while there is so many points that folklore remind about the subjects of this thesis, A Working Definition of Folklore as given by Simms can serve as a good starting point for understanding how far in past does common sport events or popular festivals reach:

Folklore is many things, and it’s almost impossible to define succinctly. It’s both what folklorists study and the name of the discipline they work within. Yes, folklore is folk songs and legends. It’s also quilts, Boy Scout badges, high school marching band initiations, jokes, chain letters, nicknames, holiday food . . . and many other things you might or might not expect. Folklore exists in cities, suburbs and rural villages, in families, work groups and dormitories. Folklore is present in many kinds of informal communication, whether verbal (oral and written texts), customary (behaviors, rituals) or material (physical objects). It involves values, traditions, ways of thinking and behaving. It’s about art. It’s about people and the way people learn. It helps us learn who we are and how to make meaning of the world around us (Simms-Stephens 2).

It is worth realizing that history records an ever-changing flow. The difference of the modern day is mostly that the processes of communication are more immediate and more detailed, giving a greater awareness of change. An additional difference is that, until recently, the ‘meanings’ of popular customs were not fixed by written accounts. The reason behind way in which things were done was only the rooted aspect of these activities.

1.3. What does the Calendar has to do with Customs and Traditions?

Inevitably celebrations involve a measurement of time, so that seasonal festivals could take place at appropriate dates in the cycle of the year. But for thousands of years, primitive and pantheistic concepts of the universe inhibited the exact timing of festivals. In the natural division of time, the solar day was the daily revolution of the earth and the change between light and darkness. It is the nature of solar year which is nothing more but the circle of seasons of the earth’s revolution around the sun. Months are the divisions resulting from the lunar phases of the moon. But the division of time into hours, days, or months is more arbitrary, and it was not until early Roman times that the calendar month as such was formalized for civil convenience; the word ‘calendar’ itself derives from the Latin Kalendae.

The etymology of the word ‘calendar’, as offered by Merriam Webster Dictionary states that in Middle English it was pronounced ‘calender’ deriving its form from Anglo-French or Medieval Latin; Medieval Latin ‘ kalendarium’, from kalendae/calends depicted all the events that were important for a particular activity (Merriam-Webster: digital).

Basically, a calendar is a means of counting time through the application of divisions such as days, weeks, months, and years. Some of these divisions, such as months, originate in observations of phenomena of nature. Others, such as weeks, are rather erratic. In primitive times, people differentiated passing of time by cycles of the moon which reflected months, but when a more convenient, shorter period was needed days were grouped, e.g. intervals between market days probably led to the use of the seven-day week. Interestingly and worth realizing is the fact that the originally Jewish seven-day week became a standard throughout Western civilization starting from the third century B.C (Henderson xxi). Still, the basic counting standard was that based on the months while:

A lunar month, the period of a complete cycle of the phases of the moon, lasts approximately 29.5 days, is easy for all to recognize, short enough to be counted without using large numbers, matches closely with the female menstrual cycle and, given its relation to the tidal cycle, with the duration of cyclic behavior in some marine animals. Its simplicity and minimal ease of observation (if one discounts cloudy skies) led to its great significance, and it was widely used as the basis for calendars in many cultures. The length of each month varied according to the culture, e.g., the Babylonians alternated between twenty-nine-and thirty-day months, the Egyptians fixed them at thirty days, etc. (Ibid.).

Nevertheless, the problem in the use of a lunar calendar is that the cycles of the sun, not the moon, determine the seasons, the predictability of which is essential to the success of agriculture. The seasons could be determined by solar observation, either by measuring the cycle of the midday shadow cast by a stick placed vertically in the ground, or by sophisticated astronomical calculations. Either system resulted in a solar year of approximately 365 days, incompatible with the twelve 29.5-day lunar months that resulted in a 354-day year. Civilizations attempted to coordinate lunar months with the solar year in various ways. The most influential ancient effort was that of the Egyptian astronomers, working from precise arithmetical observations, who drew up the Roman calendar that Julius Caesar introduced.

Furthermore Henderson also states that by 46 B.C., the time of Julius Caesar, “the Roman civil calendar became three months out of phase with the true astronomical year. That year was called ultimus annus confusionis – the last year of the muddled reckoning” (Henderson xxii). The Julian calendar reform in the first century B.C., which became the standard of Western countries, corrected the discrepancy and regularized a calendar based on the solar cycle. Though far more accurate, the Julian calendar still resulted in a discrepancy, since the ‘average’ year, required the insertion of an extra leap year day once every four years, and still became out of step with the real solar year. Interestingly:

The Julian calendar (O.S., or Old Style) remained in civic use in the West for more than 1,600 years, is still the basis of the “Old Calendarist” Orthodox Christian liturgical calendar, and is used by all Orthodox Christian churches to determine the date of Easter (Henderson xxii).

By the late sixteenth century, the difference between the Julian calendar and the seasons grew to ten days because the Julian year, averaging 365.25 days, was slightly longer than the actual length of a solar year, which, by modern calculation, is known to be 365.242199 days long (Summers 208). Fixed holy days began to occur in the ’wrong’ season, both for the church and for farmers, who used certain holy days to determine planting and harvesting. Pope Gregory XIII ordered the reform that at first adopted only in Roman Catholic countries, the Gregorian calendar gradually came to be accepted throughout the West, and today became the calendar used by most of the world, at least for business and government.

The above presentation serves as the proof that when discussing the wide subject of customs and traditions in any culture should involve the observation of the aspect of calendar.

1.4. Religious Roots of Traditions

As it was mentioned above, Pope Gregory XIII inaugurated the Gregorian calendar. It was in a papal bull of February 24, 1582, which required the deletion of ten days from the calendar in October 1582, and the occasional adjustment whereby three out of every four ‘century’ years are not leap years (1700, 1800 and 1900 were not leap years) (Encyclopædia Britannica 2010: digital). October 4, 1582, was followed by October 15 in the calendar, much to the confusion of the people. But the Gregorian calendar was eventually adopted, at least for civil purposes, throughout the West and remains a worldwide standard to this day. Meanwhile, of course, other ancient calendars, such as the Jewish and Islamic, have continued to exist side by side with the Gregorian calendar.

It is also worth recalling here the opinion of father redemptions Brian Johnstone who, discussing the roots and the importance of the ‘Tradition’ claims that:

Of particular importance is the notion of Tradition as a collection of truths requiring external approval by Church authority. A notable advance was made due to the influence of Möhler, Blondel and Newman, whose influence can be seen in Vatican II where a communicative-critical model emerges. The human element of Tradition may be understood as "argument" following MacIntyre and some recent work in post-modern anthropological theory. Drawing on suggestions by Nicholas Boyle and Paul Ricoeur, it is suggested that some Traditions have a special status, namely those that begin with an experience of real evil and its overcoming. The Christian Tradition is of this kind. It begins with the testimony of the disciples to the experience of the confrontation with real evil in the death of Jesus and its overcoming in the resurrection. It is here that its truth and authority are manifest (Johnstone 1).


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Anglo-Saxon festivals, traditions, and celebrations in America and Britain
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culture, traditions, festivals, UK, US
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Marta Zapała-Kraj (Author), 2019, Anglo-Saxon festivals, traditions, and celebrations in America and Britain, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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