“But, oh, she dances such a way
No sun upon an Easter day
Is half so fine a sight.”
Whilst perusing the old 1900 issue of the Transactions of the Devonshire Association I came across a report about the old tradition of watching the sunrise on Easter Morning. The belief was that on this day the sun as it rose into the moorland sky actually danced for joy. The reason being that it was celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The article also mentioned an earlier instance of the practice in the 1876 issue of the Transactions of the Devonshire Association, TDA 1900, pp. 85 -86.
On the 16th of April 1876 one F. H. Firth of Cator was awoken as the first rays of light shone upon the moor by some gravel being thrown at his window. Outside the window he discovered ‘Old John’ who had called to take Mr. Frith to see the ‘sun dance’. Having quickly dressed he and his sons followed Old John the three odd miles up to Corndon Tor. On reaching the summit Frith remarked that; “a scene of unparalleled splendour broke upon their view, through a cloudless sky and rare atmosphere.” According to Old John the sun would carry on performing it’s dance until around 10.00am although less vigorously. He also remarked how he had see the sun practicing its dance for the Easter Morning performance on previous Good Friday. The account does not say if Old John had failing eyesight but for some odd reason they gave him a pair of binoculars in order for him to get a better view? The old man must have seen some movement in the sun because he remarked how the edges of the sun had turned a shimmering scarlet colour. The reason for this according to Old John was that it was commemorating the saviour’s robe which too was supposed to have been of a scarlet hue. Unfortunately the account does not tell us the age of Old John because he did mention that as a boy living at Venton the same practice was carried out. Then the moor folk would parade up to the summit of Rippon Tor to watch the sun dance, TDA 1876, pp. 57 -58.
For those not wishing to trudge up to their nearest tor or hilltop and maybe not wishing to burn out their retinas there was another option. This simply involved a large tub or bowl filled with water which would be strategically placed on the ground. As the sun rose its reflection could be seen shimmering on the water and if it didn’t a gentle kick on the receptacle soon made it dance.
There was a slightly more reverend custom akin to the dancing sun but that was simply to watch the sun rise on Easter Morning. It didn’t dance or jig around just merely rose in the sky which acted as a reminder of the resurrection and acted as a form of devotion. Below is a short verse which explains the thinking behind the tradition and was written by the famous author and Dartmoor aficionado Sabine Baring Gould
“Get up, my men I give you warning
The sun will rise soon, this Easter morning.
Shame to the man that lies abed
When Christ so early rose from the dead,
And see not the sun drive away the night’s gloom
On the morning that Jesus arose from the tomb.”
Sabine Baring Gould.
By no means was this custom exclusive to Dartmoor as there are records of it taking place the length and breadth of the country. As to why it died out nobody seems to know, maybe it had something to do with the fact that it became common knowledge what eye damage looking directly at the sun could do?
Another take on this Dartmoor custom was that once again on Easter Morning parties of young girls would go out onto the moor armed with pieces of darkened glass with which they could safely watch the sun rise. Only this time they would not be watching to see it dance but in the belief that they would see an image of the Lamb and Flag appear in the sun, TDA 1900, pp. 85 -86. In this instance it does appear that this belief was very much confined to Dartmoor and Devon in general.
Could it be that these traditions are adaptations of pagan rites held at Beltane which celebrated the coming of Spring? Here fire played an important part in the various rites as it was thought to cleanse out the winter blues. OK, Easter Day would have occurred roughly a week earlier but could have been a Christianisation of the old pagan tradition. If so maybe the ‘dancing’ rays of the sun replaced the fire’s flames and became associated with the resurrection of Christ – again cleansing the evils of the world?
If you wish to dispel the belief that the only sun dances on Easter Morning then take yourself up to any high point on a clear dawn on most days. Because the sun is rising low in the sky its rays are travelling huge distances to reach your location. As this happens in certain atmospheric conditions the sun rays can get refracted thus, with the addition of some imagination, the sun appears to ‘dance’. In other words what you would be witnessing is a type of mirage.
Frith, F. H. 1876. The Sun Dancing of Easter Day – TDA Vol. VIII. Plymouth: W. Brendon & Son.
T. N. B. 1900. The Sun Dance on Easter Morning – TDA Vol. XXXII. Plymouth: W. Brendon & Son.