Festivals and Celebrations: Exploring Continuity and Change
Nicola Frost, a social anthropologist who has worked on community festivals in several parts of the world, explores continuity and change in North Devon’s festivals and celebrations.
“I was recently lucky enough to be part of an oral history discussion on the theme of festivals and celebrations, as part as the Beaford Archive project. Using a selection of James Ravilious’ and Roger Deakins’ photographs from the Archive as prompts, selected stalwarts of North Devon carnivals and fairs (in Iddesleigh, Winkleigh, Chumleigh and Hatherleigh) explored what these events mean to the communities in which they are held, and how they have changed over time.
Despite the arrival of a tap-dancing class in the adjoining hall (yes, really!), we recorded a fascinating conversation. Festivals, fairs and carnivals in North Devon have very varied histories, and equally varied character, activities, and organisation. But there is a surprising amount of common ground. Here are some of the insights that interested me most:
There is often an element of risk or danger attached to some of the traditions, and this is central to the atmosphere. At one end of the spectrum there are the flaming tar barrels of Hatherleigh Carnival, but this is only the most obvious example. In what other context is it deemed reasonable to hurl coins at children from an upper-storey window as in the Chumleigh Old Fair money scramble, though at least the coins are no longer red hot! This ‘risky’ behaviour of course adds to the excitement, and gives the affair a slightly illicit flavour. It adds to the ‘upsidedownness’ of fair time, where boundaries are overstepped, roles are reversed, and rules flouted. It’s why the introduction of health and safety regulation can sit so uncomfortably alongside carnival – several events have had to navigate a path between these two recently, with varying success.
In a similar vein, I was struck by how the photographs showed a very different use of space during carnival time. Roads, so often bisecting rural communities, are closed to traffic, and become connecting spaces, bringing people together. As traffic has increased, the difference is all the more striking these days.
Organising (and in some cases reviving) a fair or festival is seen as an important statement of a community’s distinctiveness, and of its vitality. Of course, community organising can also be a crucible for conflict, and these events can become flashpoints. But they can also be opportunities for incomers to demonstrate their commitment to their new home.
Participation in fairs and carnivals is often something someone is born into, although their role will change as they grow older. It is often families, rather than individuals, which are the basic units of carnival organisation or performance. I was very interested in a description of particular roles and responsibilities in Chulmleigh Old Fair being in the gift of the incumbent to bestow on a chosen successor, as if it is a precious inheritance being passed into the guardianship of the next generation.
In fact, the idea of guardianship is a good metaphor for the balance of tradition and innovation people described in these events. Things certainly do change – there was some talk about how to engage teenagers in community celebrations in a screen-dominated world. But there is a clear sense that it is important to take care of this living heritage, to nurture it, and to pass it on in a healthy state. Fascinating stuff, and plenty more to explore!”