Thirty years ago, in the background paper for the World Health Organization’s new Healthy Cities program in Europe, Len Duhl and I identified 11 evidence-informed characteristics of a healthy city.
One of them was “connection to biological and cultural heritage,” and was particularly influenced by an interesting review of the literature on environments, people and health by Ros Lindheim, an architect, and Len Syme, a noted social epidemiologist.
They identified three major aspects of urbanization that are important for the health of urban populations, one of which was this connection, which they saw as helping to “define a person’s sense of self, a person’s place in the world.” They saw it as “important to health that natural (circadian, seasonal, etc.) rhythms be respected, that our hunger for nature and variety be satisfied.” There has been a good deal of evidence developed since then that suggests they were right.
While I am always somewhat conscious of these connections, they are much in my mind at the winter solstice. This is the time of the year when I perform the Green Man in our Mummers Play and at a couple of Wassails. So at this point, you are probably wondering what all these strange ideas are — Green Man, Mummers Play, Wassail — and what does this have to do with health.
I have been a Morris dancer — an ancient English folk tradition — for the past 40 years. Longtime readers of my column might recall I wrote about the health benefits of dancing back in June 2015. A related part of English folk tradition is the Mummers Play; both the Morris and the Mummers Play have their roots in village life and are connected with nature.
The Morris dance was performed in the spring — especially May Day — and on into the summer, and is believed by many to be, in part, a fertility ritual. The Mummers Plays — which have elements of pantomime within them — were performed around mid-winter.
While every village that did this had its own version, at the heart of every Mummers Play there is a fight, a death and a quack doctor who brings the victim back to life. Many believe this is an invocation of a much deeper tradition concerning the death of the old year and the birth of the new. I see it as a way of reminding us of — and celebrating — the solstice, of re-connecting with the cycles of nature.
As to the Green Man, that is an even older tradition. Thousand-year-old carvings of “green men” (the technical term is foliate faces) can be found in the churches of England and other northern European regions. While nobody is quite sure why they are there, they are widely assumed to represent some sort of forest spirit — perhaps a forest guardian — at a time when forests were dark and dangerous places.
For me, the Green Man and similar traditions — the Wild Men that can still be found in villages across Europe, and the festivals associated with them — are an important way of reminding us, at a deep level, of our vital connection to and roots in nature. It’s a lesson we desperately need to re-learn these days, not just intellectually, but emotionally.
The Wassail is another ancient tradition; the word itself comes from the Middle English wæs hæil — “be healthy!” (Haeil is also the root word for hello, hail, whole, hale, health and holy). Villagers went around to the “great houses” and cider orchards in mid-winter singing wassails (many might know the Christmas carol: Here We Come A-wassailing), blessing the apple trees (“we hope that your apple trees blossom and bear, that we may have cider when we call next year”) and seeking food and liquid refreshment. (I wrote about the health benefits of singing together in one of my first columns, in December 2014.)
For those who are interested, our final public performance of the Mummers Play this season is at the Sea Cider Wassail on Sunday, Jan. 21. So waes haeil in 2018!
I hope you find your own ways of connecting with nature and your cultural heritage. It’s good for your health, especially when combined with singing and dancing together.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.