As the celebration of Hop tu Naa looms on the horizon, celebrated academic Professor Ronald Hutton returned to the Isle of Man to speak about his extensive research on the subject to a packed auditorium at the Manx Museum lecture theatre.
Delving into his own studies from the early 1990s, Professor Hutton spoke eloquently about this subject and his understanding of its development over time, but remaining sensitive to his Manx audience.
Leaving no stone unturned, Professor Hutton checked both Victorian and Edwardian research, finding occasional mistakes and some details masquerading as truth, including the misreading of an old Irish text by folklore collector Charles Hardwick.
Another Victorian scribe, Sir John Rhŷs, who visited the Isle of Man, Wales and Scotland, allied customs of these areas to Hogmanay, revealing it to be conclusive proof that the Celts celebrated this time as New Year, but did not complete any detailed research.
It was also to become linked with other customs commemorating the dead.
But Professor Hutton reasoned that his research reveals that such celebrations at this time of the year open the season of the winter, with feasts for the dead more likely about the month of April. It was, perhaps, inevitable that most deaths would take place during the winter, with an occasion such as this bringing a sense of closure.
The principle of commemorating the departed began to take a greater hold as the result of Christian theology. With souls moving on to their destination, prayers to a favourite saint might be viewed as a convenient motivation to shorten their time in purgatory.
Samhain is recognised as a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, or the dark time of year, and it’s here that the origins of both Halloween and Hop tu Naa develop.
Professor Hutton expanded upon how this was the first feast after the harvest, which brought together both land based workers and sea traders. It was a time for reunion, stocktaking, storytelling and generally preparing for the winter ahead. Darkness and cold brought fear to the community, which fire, light and stories could suppress.
This was an oppressive and dangerous time of year for our ancestors and a bit of merrymaking may well have brought a little light relief.
Professor Hutton also reminded us how modern scholars look towards Mediaeval manuscripts for their research, which we should view with some caution, and that we should resist examples of modern folklore.
His view is that folk culture renews itself every few generations and that we back-project modern beliefs, but the basic nature of a custom does not change.
Towards the close of his lecture, Professor Hutton also spoke of the acts of divination, which also brought protection at this time of year, and how the supernatural element arrived during the nineteenth century.
As time moved on there were subtle changes, poorer folk began travelling from door to door to beg for food when work wasn’t so freely available, and eventually this morphed into a demand for money. Ultimately songs and rhymes became a part of that exchange.
Irish emigration to the USA may have helped mould our modern concept of this important change in the year, but many celebrating Hop tu Naa on the Isle of Man this weekend will resist its infiltration and continue to plough their own furrow.
© October 2015