Custom survived: Somerleyton Bun and Penny Day, Suffolk

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To most people Valentine’s Day means cards, flowers, romantic meals, but to the staff and pupils of Somerleyton Primary School it is Bun and Penny Day, a unique custom.

Not a bun fight

Each year on or the nearest school day to, St Valentine’s Day, the children of Somerleyton Primary school make the journey to the impressive Hall where the Lord and Lady of the manor welcome the excitable children in their bright blue jumpers into the spacious main hall of the house. Here awaits them crates of iced buns and piles of money. The children are naturally very excited. This is clearly a highlight of their year and the older children have been every year of their primary school tenure.

Sing for your supper…or rather bun

This is not a simply turn up and get your bun and money, the children have to perform, although they were clearly happy. The children had practiced for a series of traditional songs. Lined up neatly in front of the red flock wall-paper and gold of the room, nervously at first they begin. In 2013 to link in with their studies on World War II the children attended in 1940s fancy dress. The Lowerstoft Journal reported that they were:

“ singing war time songs for Lord and Lady Somerleyton in the ballroom of the hall. They also gave a performance of 1940s-style dancing Nyree Martin, the acting head of the school, said: “The children were really excited about the visit. They were quite overwhelmed by the grandeur of the building and knew it was a really special occasion. “It was very special for them to perform in such a grand venue. They are really good singers. They performed a selection of nine songs from war time including Goodnight Sweetheart, The Quartermaster’s Store, Bless Them All and White Cliffs of Dover.”

Certainly the children soon get into the swing and clearly enjoy the performance. The children also showed their talent with performing with flutes, cellos and violas showing a wide range of talent from the children.  

No penny pinching

It is good to see that the custom has moved with the times. Whilst a penny might have bought a few sweets years back, it would not garner much excitement now. So it is reassuring that inflation has hit the custom is a good way and now each child collects a shiny a 50p piece as well as an iced bun from Lord and Lady Somerleyton, currently the Hon Hugh Crossley and his wife Lara.

In for a penny in for a pound

How did the tradition begin? East Anglia has a strong connection with Valentine’s Day (or especially Eve as I have reported with Father Valentine). It is possible that the tradition was to remember the custom of Valentining, when local children the country over would visit houses to beg for gifts. What is known for sure is that the custom dates back to when Sir Morton Peto lived in the house in the 1840s.  Why he decided to start the custom is unclear. One theory suggested is that it was a way of saying thank you to the children who worked in the fields over the summer. Although one would ask why it was done on Valentine’s Day. Another possibility is that it was originally associated with Shrove Tuesday a date more commonly associated with the giving of children buns. What is interesting is the lack of any reporting by folklorists of this custom.

Sadly like any school customs there will always be an end as noted by a Year Six pupil, Eden, said:

“This is the seventh time I have done Penny and Bun Day. It’s always really fun singing there and the buns are really tasty especially when you can eat them with your friends.”

Hopefully his secondary school could introduce a similar custom!

 

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Custom contrived: Marsden Imbolc, Yorkshire

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We have reported a number of fire festivals on this blog most of which have been associated with Guy Fawkes Day or New Years, but a relatively new fire festival has perhaps the country’s oldest credentials. Ask a person in the street when Imbolc is and they will doubtless look at you in confusion and state when is that? Spelling it out will not help either as its one of those words said differently to spoken! However, to those local to the town of Marsden in Yorkshire and they will know it for its celebration has been a major event in the town drawing 1000s of curious onlookers to witness this colourful custom.

Fire up a festival

How did this unique and remarkable event begin. In the Huddersfield Gazette Angie Boycott-Garnett the organiser records that it was the very cold winter of 1993 which made her think that:

“We wanted to put on an event in the cold winter time when people can feel down…The idea came from a group of us who were part of the now defunct Kirklees Countryside Volunteers and put on a lot of events together.”

Why might wonder why an ancient pagan festival was the event they came up with Boycott-Garnett explains that

“Duggs Carre came up with the idea for the Imbolc festival. He’d heard about the celebration, which takes place in-between two of the eight periods of the Pagan calendar year. Imbolc celebrates the end of winter and the first stirrings of spring, while encouraging the idea of regrowth and renewal.”

What started out as a local small event involving a walk through the woods with key entertainers: fire dancers and eaters and fire sculptures grew and grew. Originally they thought the event would be a one off. Angie talked about how they set up their first event.

“We thought it would be good to bring people together. The first was quite small and revolved around a walk through the woods near Stannedge Tunnel, where entertainers would be performing. We had things like fire sculptures, fire dancers and eaters. We originally thought it would be a one off but the event was very successful. So we decided to run it again but we wanted to make sure that the community involved to keep it going.”

The event has continued to go from strength to strength, although the cost of organising it, around £7000 meant that since 2014 it has been every two years.

Fire in the belly

Imbolc is an old Celtic tradition traditionally followed Candlemas and remembered the longest in Ireland. It was believed to remember the coming of spring and its etymology may refer to the pregnancy of ewes, washing oneself in a ritual cleanse or budding. Whichever the day has become an important one to neopagans and as such Marsden has developed into a major celebratory event for those in this community.

Baptism of fire

My first Marsden Imbolc I did not know what to expect except that it would be evocatively captivating and indeed it was. The event with an atmospheric procession from the Old Good’s Yard. To the sound of bagpipes and drums, hooded figures wearing animal and solar and lunar masks loom into view carrying torches.The most ominous being the large figure of a crow man who loomed over the watching crowds. Said to represent Druids and Celtic gods they certainly added an air of the mysterious. Following up these mysterious figures was a procession of lanterns made by local children and driven forward by a steel band. The crowds which watched this atmospheric entourage joined the end and we made our way to the site of the festival.

There to the rhythmic intoxicating sounds of the drums these masked figures with their torches stood in a formation and swirled around their torches in a spectacular mesmerizing pattern. Whilst they did this tableaux of Spring scenes where light and they blazed in their pure white light against the pitch black night.

No photo description available.

Fight fire with fire

The main event is the battle between Jack Frost and the Green Man. This symbolic battle is said to represent the fight between winter and spring. The towering figure of Jack Frost eerily comes into view covered in fireworks he sparkles and spits fire into the air accompanied by masked torch holding acolytes. After his display the Green man makes his appearance. He too is associated with masked and hooded figures carrying torches and accompanied by the sound of bagpipes which drifted through the cold icy air, he was ready to confront Jack Frost. They fronted onto each other whilst the hooded figures of each side swirl and throw their torches to symbolise conflict. The Green man stares into Jack Frost as they stand facing each other and then as the drum rhythm builds Jack turns and is defeated…to cheers, whistles and claps from the crowd. Winter is over and spring is here.

The evening ended with a riotous flash of white light as an array of fireworks launched into the air and overall a wonderful experience sadly one would have to wait two years to witness it again but well worth the wait!



 

Custom demised: Valentining on St. Valentine’s Day

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A forgotten tradition associated with St Valentine’s day was very widespread in the last century was Valentining and whilst the obvious assumption was that it was to do with love, the love aspect was furthest to the back of the mind. No Valentining was another form of begging in response to sung doggerel.  A detailed account in the Cambridgeshire village of Duxford and other adjoining parishes. According to the Antiquary, the custom in 1873 was ‘is still in feeble existence’. The account states that:

“They start about 9 a.m. on their expedition, which must be finished by noon ; otherwise their singing is not acknowledged in any way. In some few cases the donor gives each child a halfpenny, others throw from their doors the coppers they feel disposed to part with amongst the little band of choristers, which are eagerly scrambled after.”

In Northamptonshire it is recorded that:

“In this county children go from house to house, on the morning of St. Valentine’s Day, soliciting small gratuities. The children of the villages go in parties, sometimes in considerable numbers, repeating at each house the following salutations, which vary in different districts.”

The rhyme

In Cambridgeshire the rhyme would go:

“Curl your looks as I do mine. Two before and three behind. So good morning, Valentine. Hurra ! Hurra ! Hurra!”

In Oxfordshire the first rhyme indicates how a valentine was a random gift, later it was manifest itself as a person:

“Good morrow, Valentine, I be thine, and thou be’st mine, So please give my a Valentine.”

Another rhyme went:

“ Good morrow, Valentine God bless you ever I If you’ll be true to me, I’ll be the like to thee. Old England forever.”

or

“Good morrow, Valentine ! First it’s j’ours, and then it’s mine, So please give me a Valentine.”

In Kyburgh Norfolk it was a bit more specific going:

“God bless the baker ; If you will be the If you will be the giver, I will be the taker.”

One wonders whether the tradition of Jack or Father Valentine derived as a way to prevent unwanted begging. Interestingly in Hone’s Everyday book (1838) informs us that in Herefordshire:

“the poor and middling classes of children assemble together in some part of the town or village where they live, and proceed in a body to the house of the chief personage of the place, who, on their arrival, throws them wreaths and true lovers’ knots from the window, with which they adorn themselves. Two or three of the girls then select one of the youngest among them (generally a boy), whom they deck out more gaily than the rest, and placing him at their head, march forward, singing as they go along : “Good morrow to you, Valentine; Curl your locks its I do mine, Two before and three behind. Good morrow to you, Valentine.” This they repeat under the windows of all the houses they pass, and the inhabitant is seldom known to refuse a mite towards the merry solicitings of these juvenile serenaders.”

Interestingly this account suggests the evolution of more love related gifts given to the children and association of activities between the boys and the girls, but this form of Valentining is for another blog post.

 

Custom survived: New Year’s Day First footing

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As what you do on the first day of the year determines the rest of the year, or so it is said, I was invited to speak on local radio about New Year Day customs – prominent in these is First Footing and I was interested to hear both the newsreader and the presenter recounted their own First footing.

First footing is an interesting piece of British folklore and one that is clearly spreading and as it has taking away local variants no doubt. Early accounts record that it was restricted to the north of England and Scotland but clearly has spread in the first place as the 1st of January was accepted in England as the first day of the year and as media has recorded it.

Indeed the earlier accounts record it as a Scottish custom as noted by Chamber’s 1856 Book of Days :

“There was in Scotland a first footing independent of the hot pint. It was a time for some youthful friend of the family to steal to the door, in the hope of meeting there the young maiden of his fancy, and obtaining the privilege of a kiss, as her first-foot. Great was the disappointment on his part, and great the joking among the family, if through accident or plan, some half-withered aunt or ancient grand-dame came to receive him instead of the blooming Jenny.”

A dark night?

Who should be the first footer was always important but there appears to have been virtually countrywide agreement. For example the standard description for the first footer is described in Lancashire:

“a light-haired man is as unlucky as a woman, and it became a custom for dark-haired males to hire themselves out to “take the New Year in.””

Paying someone to do it was not unusual and Maureen Sutton in her 1996 Lincolnshire calendar records an account from the city of Lincoln which recalls:

“We believed the first dark haired man to set foot over your threshold would bring with him good luck. He had also to bring in the silver, the coal, and the wood that you had put out the night before. My mother used to pay one of our neighbours to first foot she wanted to make sure that everything was done as it should be. Some women thought that first dark haired you saw on New Year’s day you would marry. A fair haired man would bring bad luck, a ginger one was even worse and a women was out of the question. I think she paid the neighbour a shilling.”

Christine Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire in 1936 records that:

“To avoid the risk of such disastrous visits. The master of the house, if he is dark, usually goes out just before midnight. As the clock strikes, he is admitted as First foot.”

In Northumbria according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria it was also desirable that they be unmarried, possibly recalling another tradition of marrying the first man on the new day.  However in Yorkshire although it was important that the First footer:

“always be a male who enters the house first, but his fairness is no objection.”

Tony Dean and Tony Shaw in their Folklore of Cornwall 2009 stressed how the presence of a man was important:

“A female must never be the first over the threshold on New Year’s Day and sometimes boys were main nominal sums to pass over the step before a lady.”

And in the 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather, she notes that:

“a women would not enter a house without first enquiring if a man had been there that day”

And a story is even told of a young Mansfield girl barred from the home on New Year’s day and subsequently picked up by the police in late 1800s because no man had visited the house yet. However equality was rightfully affecting this tradition. In Birmingham a Ted Baldwin recording back in the 1920s in Roy Palmer’s 1976 Folklore of Warwickshire that:

If the person had black hair he or she would be welcome to come in the front door and leave by the back, it was a sign of good luck for the coming year and anyone performing this generous act was awarded sixpence according to custom.

And in Worcestershire it is recorded that in Notes and Queries that:

A belief exists in this county, that if the carol singer who first comes to the door on New Year’s morning be admitted at the front door, conducted through the house, and let out at the back the inmates will have good luck during the year.”

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Bring in the coal

What was brought in and how is equally important and now it appears that in most cases the items have become standardised if sometimes difficult to obtain. Ted Baldwin’s:

Another tradition was to present neighbours with a piece of coal as a symbol to warn off want.”

According to Kingsley Palmer in the 1976 Folklore of Somerset:

“It was the man who first set foot inside the house on New Year’s Day who shaped the pattern of life for the coming months. He should be dark and carry a lump of coal….although the observance is generally practiced in the northern counties it is also a Somerset tradition and can still be found today. Needless to say, a dark man with a few small pieces of coal can visit his friends at this time of year and be rewarded for his efforts.”

In Durham a homeowner would check their larder was full and their coal and firewood stocks were high according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria. In Cornwall money would be left on the window sill. A correspondent from Boston in Sutton recorded stated:

“Silver meant meant you’d have money for the year; coal would give you light and heat; and if you take in wood, you wont take a coffin out in the year, y’er wont take wood out of the house”

Hence the expression recorded in Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire:

“Take in and then take out, Bad luck will begin, Take in and then take out, Good luck comes about”

She continues to record that:

“A curious adaptation of this idea was shown in a Manchester murder trial. During the New Yeae holiday there, one of the habitues of a public house asked for whiskey on credit. The publican refused on the grounds that it was unlucky to give it then. The infuriated customer drew a knife and stabbed the host who died.”

Hole also notes that:

“It was unlucky to give fire, or a light, out of the house on the 1st January. To do so might cause a death in the family within the year or bring some misfortune.”

In Sussex according to W. D. Parish a Dictionary of Sussex Dialect of 1875 that it was unlucky to bring mud into the house and it was called January butter and in Cornwall it is recorded that even dust was swept inwards. In Essex recorded at Colchester by Sylvia Kent’s 2005 Folklore of Essex was the following rhyme for the first footer:

“I wish you a happy new year, a pocketful of money, a cellar full of beer, a good fat pig to last all year. So please give a gift for New Year.”

Warwickshire the following must be said by boys or men:

“A good fat pig to serve you all year Open the door and let the New Year in, Open the door and let me in.”

A Birmingham correspondent recorded in 1966 when she was 40 states that it was:

“and a big fat goose to last you all year.

At this point that poke the fire, runs three times around the table and shouts ‘New air in with the door open and then runs out.”

In Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria children would beg as they first footing:

“Get up aad wife and shake your feathers, dinna think we are beggars, we are just bairns come out to play, get up and giv our hogemany.”

Wrong footed

Is this custom now dying out? Its one of the few private customs which is still undertaken despite no obvious benefits, indeed there is even has a wikihow webiste: https://www.wikihow.com/Celebrate-a-First-Footing. Having said that there has been concern over its survival. In Dundee it was reported in the Evening Telegraph in 2016 that:

“Dundonians are being urged to revive an age-old New Year’s tradition by giving a lump of coal as a first-footing gift. The Scottish custom of visiting neighbours after midnight on Hogmanay has become less common in recent years. Traditionally, visitors would have come with gifts, including coal, shortbread, whisky or salt. In a bid to restore the custom, supermarket Lidl will give out lumps of coal to customers in Dundee – the idea being it would have been placed on the host’s fire to keep it going. Paul McQuade, Head of Buying for Lidl in Scotland, hoped the giveaway would keep the encourage folk to keep the tradition going. He said: “Hogmanay and New Year’s Day is a time for eating and drinking with friends, neighbours and family. “It’s a special time around the world, but especially in Scotland.“This year, we want to give our customers something extra – a lump of coal to present to their neighbours and hopefully this will help revive the tradition of first-footing in the community.” The coal will be available at checkouts in all Lidl stores from today, while stocks last.”

Well I can record that it is still done as noted in my radio interview. So next year my bread, coal, silver will be sitting on the doorstep ready for the doors to open!

Custom occasional: Hunting the Mallard at All Soul’s College Oxford

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Such elaborate junketing may sound a little odd to anyone unconnected with All Souls . . . But presumably, if Homer may be excused an occasional nod, a Fellow of All Souls may be allowed, once in a hundred years, to play the fool.”

Account from Cosmo Lang’s Biography

Back in 2001 I was invited to see a strange spectacle which by its rarity and unusual description I honestly didn’t believe actually existed, All Soul’s College Hunting the Mallard. Sadly in the end I could not go and missing out in a way cemented by desire some may say obsession to catalogue our curious and colourful customs. Why? Well because the Hunting of the Mallard is the rarest of beasts, as rare as the said Mallard, as it is only done every 100 years.

Interestingly Thistleton-Dyer in his excellent Popular customs past and present 1876 appears unaware of the 100 year cycle recording:

“This day was formerly celebrated in All Souls College, Oxford, in commemoration of the discovery of a very large mallard or drake in a drain, when digging for the foundation of the college ; and though this observance no longer exists, yet on one of the college ” gaudies ” there is sung in memory of the occurrence a very old song called ‘ The swapping, swapping mallard.”

Ducking and diving

As noted above the Mallard has a strong association with this venerable Oxford college; it is their mascot and can be seen on various objects around the college. But how did it all start? 1437 is the date given when during the digging of the college’s foundations the college’s founder Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Clichele, was indecisive of where he should build his college. But during a dream he was told that:

“…a schwoppinge mallarde imprisoned in the sinke or sewere, wele fattened and almost bosten. Sure token of the thrivaunce of his future college”

The location in the dream was next to the church and upon digging where he was directed and could hear in a hole: “horrid strugglinges and flutteringes” reaching in he pulled a duck describe as the size of “a bustarde or an ostridge.” This was a the sign and as the bird flew away the academics who were to become the Fellows of All Souls chased it, caught and then of course ate it! And so immortalised the bird in the college’s history.

When the custom started is unclear but an account by Archbishop Abbott in 1632 is the earliest recording:

“civil men should never so far forget themselves under pretence of a foolish mallard as to do things barbarously unbecoming.”

It may have been thoughts like this which resulted it in being a 100 year cycle!

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Yes Mall’ord

On the night of January 14, 2001, some of Oxford’s most learned fellows could be seen marching around All Souls College behind a wooden duck held aloft on a pole. They were engaged in the bizarre ritual of hunting the mallard that occurs once every 100 years at the College. I was up at Oxford at the time, and one of my tutors was present and so I got the eye-witness account of the matter.

After a commemorative feast the fellows paraded around the College with flaming torches, singing the Mallard Song and led by “Lord Mallard” carried in a sedan chair. They were in search of a legendary mallard that supposedly flew out of the foundations of the college when it was being built.

And so, during the hunt the Lord Mallard is preceded by a man bearing a pole to which a mallard is tied. Originally it was a live bird, by 1901 it had become a dead bird, and by 2001 it was a bird carved from wood. The last mallard ceremony was in 2001 and the next will be held in 2101.

How many hunting the mallards there officially have been is unclear – one presumes six – as little is recorded. The only one to have been documented before the 2001 one was the 1901 custom. The Mallard Lord being Cosmo Gordon Lang, who recalled via J G Lockhart, his biographer:

“I was carried in a chair by four stalwart Fellows – Wilbrahim [First Church Estates Commissioner], Gwyer [later Chief Justice of India], Steel-Maitland [later Minister of Labour] and Fossie Cunliffe – for nearly two hours after midnight round the quadrangles and roofs of the College, with a dead mallard borne in front on a long pole (which I still possess) singing the Mallard Song all the time, preceded by the seniors and followed by the juniors, all of them carrying staves and torches, a scene unimaginable in any place in the world except Oxford, or there in any society except All Souls.”

The account related that in 1901 that:

“The whole strange ceremony had been kept secret; only late workers in the night can have heard the unusual sound, though it is said that Provost McGrath of Queen’s muttered in his sleep, ‘I must send the Torpid down for this noise.”

At the end of the event Lang notes that the dead mallard was thrown on a bonfire to which Lang noted:

“some of the junior fellows could not be restrained from eating portions of its charred flesh”.

Its all quackers!

As the procession hunted the duck the procession would sing the Mallard Song:

The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon

Lett other hungry Mortalls gape on

And on theire bones with Stomacks fall hard,

But lett All Souls’ Men have ye Mallard.

CHORUS:

Hough the bloud of King Edward,

By ye bloud of King Edward,

It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

Some storys strange are told I trow

By Baker Holinshead and Stow 

Of Cocks & Bulls, & other queire things

That happen’d in ye Reignes of theire Kings.

CHORUS

The Romans once admir’d a gander

More than they did theire best Commander,

Because hee saved, if some don’t foolle us,

The place named from ye Scull of Tolus

CHORUS

The Poets fain’d Jove turn’d a Swan,

But lett them prove it if they can.

To mak’t appeare it’s not att all hard:

Hee was a swapping, swapping mallard.

CHORUS

Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,

Hee was swapping all from wing to thigh;

His swapping tool of generation

Oute swapped all ye wingged Nation.

CHORUS

Then lett us drink and dance a Galliard

in ye Remembrance of ye Mallard,

And as ye Mallard doth in Poole,

Let’s dabble, dive & duck in Boule.

CHORUS”

The song is not restricted to the Mallard and is song at events such as the Gaudy held annually.

Duck soup

In 1801 it was said that a live mallard was chased around, by 1901 it was a dead one on a pole and by 2001:

There will be a wooden mallard duck carried at the head of the procession on a pole.”

The History Girls blogsite accounted that in 2001 Dr Martin Litchfield West was the Mallard Lord it reported:

“Behind Dr West, fortified by the Mallard Feast and dressed in black tie and gowns, marched the other fellows of the college. Among those expected to participate were William Waldegrave and John Redwood, members of the last Conservative Cabinet, and Lord Neill of Bladen, former chairman of the committee for standards in public life and once warden of All Souls. All fellows taking part in the procession are expected to give full voice to the Mallard Song. …There will be 118 people, all fellows or past fellows, carrying torches. We shall go around the college and up the front tower and back again. We will then join the college servants for a lot of drinking and there will be a fireworks display.”

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An account of the custom first hand related to the blogger of the excellent History Girls blogsite notes:

“My tutor gave us the insider’s view of the Great Mallard Chase of 2001. She and the other Fellows partook of a 14 course dinner in the medieval Codrington Library, accompanied by superb wines (All Souls has the best cellar in the country – better than Buckingham Palace). I have reprinted the menu from 1901 below. Dr Martin Litchfield West as the Lord Mallard, and the Fellows sang, much as they have done for hundreds of years, the Mallard Song. The Victorians disapproved of the reference in the song to the Mallard’s “swapping tool of Generation”, mightier than any other in “ye winged Nation” (of birds) and dropped this verse from the song. It was restored in the 2001 ceremony, when the Fellows sat down to the Mallard Centennial Dinner, which did include a duck. When everyone was in an excess of good spirits, four of the younger fellows hoisted the Lord Mallard up in his special sedan chair (the same one used in 1901 – but we’re not sure if it was also used in 1801) and they chased a wooden mallard duck around the quad. In the days before Animal Rights (a very serious consideration in Oxford, given letter bombs to scientists and sabotage of laboratories), they chased a real duck. But this century, for the first time, a fake duck had to do. So, with the Lord Mallard hoisted high in his sedan chair the whole congregation of fellows chased this wood duck around the quadrangle bellowing out the Mallard Song. Now, given that he was not expending any energy and was the centre of attention, the Lord Mallard was anxious to repeat the experience. “Again, again” he cried, and he was carried around the quadrangle again, and then for a third time at his excited urging. But, when he said “Again”, wanting a fourth perambulation, the poor sedan carriers rebelled and dumped him on the ground. Then there were wonderful fireworks, including fireworks in the shape of a mallard. “

Sad to have missed it and not a single photo…ah well here’s to 2101!!

Custom demised: Handsel Monday in Scotland

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“In their impatience to have the holiday commence, young people usually waken the villages by kicking old tin pans at unearthly hours of the morning through the quiet streets,”

Such was the popularity of this lost custom. William Walsh in his 1897 Curiosities of Popular Customs records that:

“Handsel Monday. The first Monday in the year. This is a great holiday among the peasantry and the children generally in Scotland, being especially devoted to the giving and receiving of presents, or, in the Scotch vocabulary, handsels. The young visit their seniors in expectation of some remembrance, and postmen, scavengers, and newspaper carriers look for the equivalent of what in England are known as Christmas boxes.”

Chambers Book of Days notes that:

“The first Monday of the year is a great holiday among the peasantry of Scotland, and children generally, as being the day peculiarly devoted in that country to the giving and receiving of presents. It is on this account called Handsel Monday, Handsel being in Scotland the equivalent of a Christmas box, but more specially inferring a gift at the commencement of a season or the induing of some new garment. The young people visit their seniors in expectation of tips (the word, but not the action, unknown in the north). Postmen, scavengers, and deliverers of newspapers look for their little annual guerdons.”

This lost custom a sort of Scottish Boxing Day survived the longest in Fife and Perthshire when despite Dundee and Glasgow moving to New Year’s Day as a holiday of choice rural areas still remembered it. in Auchterarder .It was marked with:

“much noise and boisterous mirths….Boys, carrying flambeans, began to perambulate the town shortly after 12 o’clock and from that hour till morning the streets resounded with their hideous noise…. “well fortified withing…A few fist blows were exchanged later in the evening, but this appeared to be the head and front of the offending,”

Its popularity deriving from it being a holiday for farm workers as report in the Dunfermline Press in 1890 states that:

“On farms, Auld Hansel-Monday, where it is kept, is the great winter holiday of the year. Outdoor and indoor servants have a complete escape from bondage for the day, and many a farmer will own that the hardest day’s work for him and his wife throughout the year occurs on Handsel Monday.”

To Handsel was then to give a gift and it is recorded that:

“Not only has he himself to fill their place, but he is expected to handsel them, from foreman to herd-boy; and part of the handsel almost invariably includes a gift of a little money.”

On January 6, 1870, the Perthshire Advertiser called the day the “holiday-in-chief” of the year

The death of the custom

What killed the custom off was the adoption of New Year’s Day as a holiday as reported from a public meeting held in Dunfermline to make this decision. Many argued in the November 1886 meeting that it was a much loved tradition. The former Provost Robert Robertson, who could not be parted from it ‘without a pang’ from his “old friend” stating that:

“In his younger days, Handsel Monday was the day of all days – the principal day of the year, and a day of much pleasure. Then it was that family circles met together. Grandfather and grandmother, father, mother and family, all met together, There were no strangers admitted to the family circle then. Children came many miles…and if there was one member of the family absent, there was a sad blank.There was no teetotalism then, but in decent families there was no hard drinking. It was a great day, and because of that it was long looked forward to.”

Despite the pleas Dumferline chose January 1st and Handsel was consigned to history.

Handy breakfast

The breakfast was one of the most popular parts of the custom. The farmers would treat their servants on that morning to:

“ a liberal breakfast of roast and boiled, with ale, whiskey, and cake, to their utmost contentment; after which the guests went about seeing their friends for the remainder of the day. It was also the day on which any disposed for change gave up their places, and when new servants were engaged.”

An interesting account of the healing powers of the custom and its associated victuals noted by Chambers from Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland, xv. 201:

“It is worth mentioning that one William Hunter, a collier (residing in the parish of Tillicoultry, in Clackmannanshire), was cured in the year 1738 of an inveterate rheumatism or gout, by drinking freely of new ale, full of harm or yeast. The poor man had been confined to his bed. for a year and a half, having almost entirely lost the use of his limbs. On the evening of Handsel Monday, as it is called, some of his neighbours came to make merry with him. Though he could not rise, yet he always took his share of the ale, as it passed round the company, and in the end he became much intoxicated. The consequence was that he had the use of his limbs next morning, and was able to walk about. He lived more than twenty years after this, and never had the smallest return of his old complaint.”

Now there is a reason to revive a custom!

 

Custom survived: The Christmas Tree

Standard

“Children knew nothing about Santa Claus or about Christmas Trees – those are German innovations which should be left to Germans…instead of the German tree we had the old fashioned English Mistletoe Bough.”

1890 J. S Fletcher A picturesque picture of Yorkshire

Well everyone can have an opinion but clearly J.S Fletcher was wrong…I am sitting composing this in the flickering light of mine, picture below, but on reflection cutting down, dragging in and setting up a tree in one’s house is such an odd tradition – but it is one that 8 million do each year. Indeed, in an odd way, the Christmas Tree is the most religiously neutral of Christmas paraphernalia…and for over a hundred years people have been putting up with the smell of pine and pine needles embedding in the feet, carpet, cracks of the floorboards (delete as appropriate)…the mistletoe bough was relatively simple..

Branching out from Germany

The origin of the Christmas Tree is often attributed to Prince Albert, Victoria’s consort. However, although he may have popularised it he did not introduce it. Its origins did not come as J. S. Fletcher noted came from Germany but from the Medieval region which is now Estonia and Latvia. It really only just gained popularity in Germany when George III’s wife Charlotte introduced a tree at a children’s party in 1800 it what is believed to be the first one. In a way it would be one of the most notable examples of a transcribed custom becoming a native and now surviving custom. Charles Grenville grandson of a duke was staying at Panshanger in Hertfordshire when the wide of the Russian Ambassador Princess Lieven had in 1829:

“got up a little fete such as is customary all over Germany. Three large trees in large pots were put unto a long table covered with pink linen, each tree was illuminated with three circular tiers of coloured wax candles – blue, green, red and white. Before each tree was displayed a quantity of toys a quantity of toys, gloves, pocket handkerchiefs, workboxes, books and various articles  – presents made to the owner of the tree. It was only for the children, in Germany it extends to persons of all ages.”

Incredibly little has changed since except now the trees tend to be dead rather than living in pots and much larger one would assume. It was evidently popular in the Royal family as Victoria recalls in her journal for 1832 at Christmas Eve that after dinner:

“ we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room… There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees.”

By the 1840s, the custom had spread to the wealthy middle-class families  followed the fashion. An 1842 newspaper advert for the Times recalls:

“GERMAN CHRISTMAS TREES. The nobility and gentry are respectfully informed that these handsome JUVENILE CHRISTMAS PRESENTS are supplied and elegantly fitted up.”

The 1844 The Christmas Tree: published by Darton and Clark also recorded:

“The ceremony of the Christmas tree, so well known throughout Germany, bids fair to be welcomed among us, with the other festivities of the season, especially now the Queen, within her own little circle, has set the fashion, by introducing it on the Christmas Eve in her own regal palace.”

Cant see the wood from the tree

Setting up a Christmas Tree is a bit of an adventure. Once you’d been around measuring up and looking at examples. And despite the fact they all are basically the same, you still go to several suppliers. Its then packaged up and the first challenge is to get it in the car, all the seats down and its head sticking out of the front passenger window!  Next challenge getting it into the house and manipulated into the drawing room. I managed to get the tree in through the door, after sawing off the base of course to supposedly keep it fresher for longer – it didn’t seem to work. Then it was a case of then inserting the mighty log in the base….now that was a  real challenge as it swayed back and fro. Was it in. Yes. No. Let’s see…oh its fallen…another go and yes finally. Next open it up. Snip snip snip…pong the branches spring out pushing me backwards but fortunately the windows survive.

The undressed tree

Then comes dressing the tree. The first dressings were wax candles – slightly impractical as much as I like to keep to tradition – electric lights are more sensible The first Georgian trees were dressed  with “roses made of coloured paper, apples, wafers, tinsel, sweetmeats”. I had a choice of baubles, ornaments, candy canes and my least favourite tinsel and after about what seemed an hour it was dressed…last state the star. I got the ladder but as I got closer I realised a problem. The ladder was tall enough but I could not safely reach the top..so no star!

Firm roots for a custom

By the mid 1840s, adverts were regularly appearing in the Newspapers such as in The Times, 23 December 1844 called it “A new pleasure for Christmas.” By 1847 Prince Albert wrote:

“I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be.”

The tradition slowly spread through the aristocracy for example a letter to William Fox Talbot on the 2nd of January from Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire recorded:

“Constance is extremely busy preparing the Bohemian  Xmas Tree. It is made from Caroline’s description of those she saw in Germany.”

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The dressed tree

By January 1848,  the custom was well-enough known for The Times to compare the January budget of 1848 with gifts handed out beneath “the Christmas tree”: From this point onwards it appears that the tree spread from the wealthy families to all families and by 1906  The Poor Children’s Yuletide Association. According to the Times had

“sent 71 trees ‘bearing thousands of toys’ to the poorest districts of London.”

And by 1926 it was stated that:

“’Poor families in Lewisham and similar districts are just as particular about the shape of their trees as people in Belgravia…’ ‘Shapely Christmas Trees.”

However, it looked like this establishing custom would be cut down before it fully grew its roots. Again the Times wishing its readers  “A Merry Christmas”: The Times in, 27 December 1918, stated:

“the so-called “Christmas tree” was out of favour. Large stocks of young firs were to be seen at Covent Garden on Christmas Eve, but found few buyers. It was remembered that the ‘Christmas tree’ has enemy associations.”

But fortunately this association was soon forgotten for in 1919 again the Times noted that a charity fair in aid of injured soldiers featured ‘a huge Christmas-tree’ at St. Dunstan’s Christmas Fair. By 1937 British farmers had started to invest money in Christmas Tree Plantations and it has not looked back since. Indeed despite another conflict with Germany the tree did not wain in popularity presumably because its Germanic associations had been largely forgotten. Indeed, in 1947 as the Norwegians remind us it is Norse – not German tradition – a fact they annually remind us every Christmas in Trafalgar square. The 20 metre high towering Norway Spruce which adorns Trafalgar Square has been an annual thanksgiving gift from the Norwegian government as it states each year:

“This tree is given by the city of Oslo as a token of Norwegian gratitude to the people of London for their assistance during the years 1940-45.A tree has been given annually since 1947.”

And after all as we annually gather around our Christmas Tree the message that Norway gives every year is more than reticent…peace to all at Christmas.