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As the parents who waved flags at the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977 roll out barrels of beer for 2002's street parties, does anyone wonder what a Jubilee is? Or was? Leviticus is the book of the Bible which lays out Mosaic law. As well as ordaining that every seventh day should be a sabbath, on which no one should labour, chapter 25 further decrees that every seventh year should be a holiday for the land, in which crops lay fallow. Hence our term "sabbatical". After the seventh seventh year, the 50th year was a "year of jubilee", a holy year in which behaviour was to be governed by the highest ethical standards. This Holy Year was initiated by the blowing of the ram's horn or "jobhel" (pictured here) on the 10th day of the seventh month or Day of Repentance (Yom Kippur). Annually, the sound of the horn on Yom Kippur calls for every Jew to repent their sins; on Jubilee years, its raucous shout called for that repentance to be measured in practice for the whole year.

Or that was the theory, anyhow. Jubilee years offered the chance to redeem slaves from servitude, return property taken in lieu of debt and return to a Golden Age of equality. This was the idea underlying the Jubilee Drop the Debt campaign preceding the Millennium: radical Christians (and others) called for the interest on Third World debt to be waived and crushing repayments to be abated. The Hebraic idea of a Holy Year was taken up by the medieval Church. The first jubilee was proclaimed by Pope Boniface VI in response to a spontaneous mass pilgrimage in Christmas 1299. So moved was he by the faith of these thousands of devout poor-who included the poet Dante and painter Cimabue - who had come seeking his blessing, that the Pope called for a "year of forgiveness of all sins", to be held the following year (1300) and every 100 years. Whether it also addressed the plague, famine and armed strife then racking Europe, history may judge. In the chequered career of the medieval Papacy, dates got moved around somewhat. The intervals got reduced to 50 years and then 33, in memory of the earthly life of Jesus. Pope Boniface XI opened the Holy Door of St Peter's to call a Jubilee on Christmas Eve 1390. Such was the crush, he called another one in 1400.

Roman Catholic Holy Years, like Her Britannic Majesty's celebrations, now get called every 25 years and are the occasion for the Church to call for moral crusades and affirmations of faith. But the name of jubilee has served other causes, notably in the American Civil War.

"Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the jubilee!"

"Hurrah! Hurrah! The flag that makes you free!"

So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea, While we were marching through Georgia.

So sang the victorious Union soldiers as they marched from Atlanta to Savannah, November 16 to December 21, 1864. As General William Tecumseh Sherman said to General (later president) Ulysses S Grant: "I could cut a swath through to the sea, divide the Confederacy in two and come up on the rear of Lee." Though the soldiers boosted their own morale by singing of emancipating the slaves and hence bringing jubilee, Sherman's march through Georgia is generally agreed to be one of the first examples of modern Total War, leaving destruction in its wake and crushing the Confederacy. Was it the sound of a ram's horn calling for repentance or the Latin "jubilare" (to rejoice) that Georgia resounded to?



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