Custom survived: Nicholas Smith’s Dole, Hartfield, East Sussex

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Hartfield is a charming village on the edge of Ashdown Forest. It is particularly famed for its association with A. A Milne’s famed Pooh Bear – the shop Pooh Bear remembering it. However, visit it on Good Friday and you will see another famed association Nicholas Smith’s Dole. I say see but perhaps I should add if you are unlucky.

Hart -felt story

A 17th Century local story tells how Nicholas Smith was an itinerant who had travelled around the Sussex countryside dressed in old clothes looking for food and shelter. At each placed he was treated poorly by the local inhabitants who thought he was a beggar and sent unceremoniously on his way. Finally he arrived at Hartfield where the local people gave him a friendly welcome. Thus he revealed himself to actually be a wealthy man. As a result he finally settled due to the friendliness of the locals at Cotchford farm. When he died in 1634 he left money to be given to the poor each Good Friday from his tomb which lies close to the south door of the church. The Reports of the Commissioners appointed…to inquire concerning charities and education of the poor in England and Wales (1815-1839) records:

Nicholas Smith of Hartfield, gentleman, in his will dated 18 October 1634 and proved in and proved in PCC on 29 April 1635 (PROB 11/167), gave a rent charge £5 on that part of the Manor of Cotchford, Hartfield in the possession of Lady Sherley, for the poor of Hartfield to be paid 21 days before 25 December and distributed at the discretion of the minister, churchwardens and overseers ‘upon the stone which should then be lying on his grave”.

It is claimed that Nicholas Smith was the son of a rich squire at East Grinstead. However, Jacqueline Simpson’s 1973 Folklore of Sussex:

“But the real origins of the custom remain obscure; some attribute it to an eccentric called ‘Dog’ Smith because he drove about in a cart drawn by dogs.”

Grave matters

The dole is distributed on the grave which suggests its founder remembers the tradition of sin eating and one wonders whether food may have been given out at some point. Now it consists of money in an envelope the amount distributed dependent on how many attend the custom. Although previously as Simpson notes in The Folklore of Sussex:

“The custom demands that immediately after the Good Friday service is over, the Rector and the churchwardens  walk to what they believed to be Nicholas Smith’s tombstone in the churchyard, and lay out the money on it, the churchwardens calling out the names of each recipient.”

Never a dole moment?

I had read of the custom in an old book and on the off chance I happened to be in this area of Sussex in around 1994 and decided to see the custom. I turned up just as the then vicar appeared and got dressed into the white hassock in the porch and was pleasantly surprised to see me. ‘Are you here for the dole? He asked ‘ I replied yes to film it not to collect it’ He looked a little crestfallen and said ‘well I’ve vicar here for many years and no one has ever come to collect it’. It did not seem positive but nether-the-less I awaited. And waited. And waited. And he was just about to disappear with his white envelopes when two elderly ladies appeared. Had they come for the dole? One of them said they were local residents and had read about and came to see if they were eligible. The vicar was clearly delighted and duly gave over the envelopes. Unfortunately, the two women were too embarrassed to being photographed having the envelopes handed over – although I did take some photos and believe I videoed it too – sadly I cannot find good copies of either at the moment! It was amazing coincidence that I should be there when it happened. Interestingly,  Averil Shepherd notes on her page on the ever excellent Calendar customs website:

The dole is given to local residents in the churchyard in a simple low-key ceremony, which is only publicised normally in the parish magazine. When we went in 2013, there were no claimants; we discussed the likelihood that even though there are probably local people in need of a helping hand, they won’t want to publicly admit it and be seen to be asking for money.”

Perhaps I witnessed the last collection. Of course in a largely affluent area such as the Sussex Weald there fortunately is not much demand for charity of this nature although it is surprising that it is not visited by some who might not exactly be financially eligible might well appreciate the tradition and a bit of pin money. Back when F. J. Drake Carnell’s 1938 Old English customs and ceremonies include a photo of it (though no reference in the text) it looked well attended and even Homer Sykes’ visit in 1975 showed attendees but clearly local demographics change. The Hartfield Dole asks the questions when does a custom become defunct? Perhaps the church could return back to the list and calling names as seen in the Pathe film Caught By Camera in 1935 it is successful in other affluent areas with such customs.

Custom revived: St Alban’s Bun, Hertfordshire

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Recently I was in a well-known supermarket and referred to hot cross buns as how it was odd that unlike mince pieces they are sold all year round now and they look puzzled at me. Why they asked? I said because they were something you’d only eat around Easter time. Oh they said. That got me thinking it would be worth exploring it

Bun in the oven

Herts Advertiser of 1862 April 26, 1862 reports it as follows:

“It is said that in a copy of ‘Ye Booke of Saint Albans’ it was reported that; “In the year of Our Lord 1361 Thomas Rocliffe, a monk attached to the refectory at St Albans Monastery, caused a quantity of small sweet spiced cakes, marked with a cross, to be made; then he directed them to be given away to persons who applied at the door of the refectory on Good Friday in addition to the customary basin of sack (wine). These cakes so pleased the palates of the people who were the recipients that they became talked about, and various were the attempts to imitate the cakes of Father Rocliffe all over the country, but the recipe of which was kept within the walls of the Abbey.” The time honoured custom has therefore been observed over the centuries, and will undoubtedly continue into posterity, bearing with it the religious remembrance it is intended to convey.”

When these buns stopped being made is unclear but one would imagine that their Christian imagery fell afoul of the Reformation and the puritanical thoughts. However, the hot cross bun did survive and has remains popular today.

Have cake and eat it

It looks like my view on why it was available all year around rang in accordance with the Dean of St Albans who wanted to reclaim the hot cross bun for Good Friday according to the Telegraph in 2009. The Very Rev Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans Cathedral, stated:

“Recently we’ve lost touch with the significance of the bun, and its link to Holy Week and the Cross. These days it’s possible to buy Hot Cross Buns throughout the year. Whilst any reminder of the importance of Easter is welcomed, we’ve come to the conclusion that the Alban Bun might be a way of reaffirming the significance of the bun as a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection.”

As a result they looked into reviving their very own St Alban’s bun. A local mill was contacted, Redbourne Mill, and the recipe selected, which kept close to original one and was described as being “denser, and more cakey”. As they were hand made, their shape were not uniform and rather than use pastry the cross is made by knife.

So thus the Alban bun was revived and since then every Lent culminating with Good Friday of course you have been able to visit the Abbott’s kitchen and re-taste this revival. I myself had planned to turn up on Good Friday to taste the said revived bun but something prevented me…I cannot remember what….and I just made some myself instead!

Custom demised: Hocktide Rope Monday and Binding Tuesday

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The popular holidays of Hock-tide, mentioned by Matthew Paris and other early writers, were kept on the Monday and Tuesday following the second Sunday after Easter Day; and distinguished, according to John Rouse, the Warwickshire historian of the fifteenth century, by various sportive pastimes, in which the towns-people, divided into parties, were accustomed to draw each other with ropes. Spelman is more definite, and tells us,

“they consisted in the men and women binding each other, and especially the women the mem.”

and hence it was called Binding-Tuesday or as Plot in his work on Staffordshire notes on Monday, called Rope Monday. In Nottinghamshire it is noted:

“Hock-binding consisted to stretching a rope across highways and enclosing within its compass persons travelling on the Monday and Tuesday following the second Sunday after Easter. On the Monday, the custom was practiced by men of the village, and women had their turn on Hock Tuesday, impounding members of the other sex and relieving a contribution ostensibly devoted to the maintenance of the fabric funds of the parish church.  The custom is said to commemorate a massacre of the Danes by the exasperated Anglo-Saxon in England and although it had no legal sanction and was contrary to the freedom of passage of the King’s highway, it was indulged in as part of the merriment of the day, and fines for freedom to pass were modest and usually paid. As might be expected, the sums collected by women usually exceeded those gathered by men. The amounts paid over were sometimes appreciable, the local churchwardens receiving the equivalent of several pounds in modern currency, and on busy thoroughfares much more. The custom died out generally at the Reformation, but in some parts lingered in degraded from into the 19th century.”

Cowel informs us that it was customary in several manors in Hampshire for:

“the men to hock the women on the Monday, and the women the men upon the Tuesday; that is, on that day the women in merriment stop the ways with ropes and pull the passengers to them, desiring something to be laid out in pious uses in order to obtain their freedom.”

Binding day made Hock-day a day which authorities had wanted to supress it. It is reported that hokking as it was called was forbade between 1406 and 1419. However it was successful for in 1446 hokking was again banned to improve public behaviour before a visit by Queen Margaret. Similarly in Essex, reports in Maldon’s court rolls mention a Rope Monday in 1403, 1463, and 1468Indeed the over-exuberance of the people taking part was probably the reason for its disappearance for example Ipswich curate Samuel Byrd called it cruel and abusive. Calling it noxious corruption in a letter to the almoner of Worcester cathedral, John Carpenter, Bishop of Worcester, soundly condemned the holiday. He noted that

“one set day usually, alas, when the solemn feast of Easter has ended women feign to bind men, and on another (or the next) day men feign to bind women, and to do other things-would that they were not dishonorable or worse!-in full view of passers-by, even pretending to increase church profit but earning loss (literally damnation) for the soul under false pretenses. Many scandals arise from the occasion of these activities, and adulteries and other outrageous crimes are committed as a clear offence to God, a very serious danger to the souls of those committing them, and a pernicious example to other.”

The bishop demanded that all parishioners:

“cease and desist from these bindings and unsuitable pastimes on the hitherto usual days, commonly called hock days.”

Anyone caught still participating in the holiday was to be brought before the bishop’s consistory court. These predations clearly had their effect as Hock tide bindings have long ceased and even the name Hock tide is forgot all but in Hungerford of course.

Custom survived: The Oranges and Lemon’s service at St Clement Danes

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“Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clements,

You owe me five fathings, Say the bells of St. Martins

When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey,  

When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch

When will that be? Say the bells of Stepney,  

I do not know, Says the great  bell of Bow, 

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,

And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!  Chip chop chip chop the last man is dead”

 

A well know London rhyme but what might be less well-known is that since 1920 it has been commemorated in the church first mentioned, St Clement Danes in the Strand, London. Each year in March school children process down to the church for a service. A more poignant date now.

The custom is associated with The Reverend William Pennington-Bickford who had the bells of the church restored so that they could play the tune of that rhyme. On the day they were blessed they were also dressed with garlands of oranges and lemons. He decided that to march the day the bells were fully restored, 31st March 1920, a special service would be arranged and at the end each child would get an orange and lemon distributed by the city’s Danish community with Danish children dressed in their national colours of red and blue.

For the 1923 service the rhyme was sung with music composed by Pennington-Bickford and his wife. The following year the broadcast became nationally famous as it was broadcast to the nation and the sung became a regular feature

In 1941 the church and its bells were damaged in a bomb blast. Yet despite this the tradition continued and in 1944 despite rationing, twenty-six children received only an orange among the ruined building. It is reported:

“In 1944, it is recorded that the then Priest in Charge of St Clement Danes, the Reverend P D Ellis, distributed oranges – no lemons were available – to 26 children in the bombed-out ruins of the church. Even then, the handbell ringers were present and a choir from the school sang Psalm 122”

when the building was rebuilt and the bells rehung in 1957 the custom was restored to a regular basis in 1959. An account noting:

“Garlands of oranges and lemons were hung above the new bells. For many years, the oranges and lemons were specially flown in from RAF bases on Cyprus. In recent years, the Amicable Society of St Clement Danes has generously funded the gift of oranges and lemons for the children of our school.”

Oranges are the not the only fruit

My one and only time attending the service was back in 1994, I turned up at the church and was warmly welcomed. One of the teachers said to be the best place to observe the ceremony was up it the balcony and from there I watched as the smartly dressed children processed in. The church bells were chiming that famous tune as they had processed holding hands from their church. At the start of the service a group of parishioners played the tune again on hand bells and the service begun.

To be honest I cannot remember much of the actual service but I do remember the children being involved in a presentation. It would have sadly been a special year in 2020 – its 100 anniversary. The school’s website reported it in 1999:

“Just as it had been for the children of St Clement Danes parish 99 years ago at the very first Oranges and Lemons service, today our service opened with the moving sound of handbells ringing the famous nursery rhyme. Continuing the century-old tradition, at the end of the service today each child was given an orange and a lemon as they left the church.”

This time the presentation was to remember the first landing on the moon and the children were suitably dressed as astronauts (not withstanding two dressed as oranges and lemons!):

“This year, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the first human landing on the moon. In celebration of this important moment in history, this afternoon the children of St Clement Danes took everyone on A Space Adventure. The children were absolute STARS and their performances were truly OUT OF THIS WORLD!”

Once the church service was finished all the children sensibly lined up to go outside where a table was set up. Upon this was the most memorable part of the service – certainly from the children’s view – for the vicar and church wardens handed out oranges to the children who gleefully took them! Although some had a problem peeling them!  They also gave lemons which did not go down as well as the orange. Some younger children looked very confused.

A pithy point

It is thought originally that the oranges and lemons St Clement was the St Clement Eastcheap but since 1920 it has been St Clement Danes. The first event had 500 children at it. The custom was a real hit with the media and Pathe covered it a number of times. Sadly, as noted in 2020 it did not see its 100th anniversary lock down happened too soon but I am sure it will with colour and spectacle.

Custom demised: St Benedict Day weather predictions

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In Collectanea is recorded the following:

“If the wind is in the east at noon on St. Benedict’s Day (March 21st), it will neither chop nor change till the end of May”

Another view stated that:

“As the wind is on St Benedict’s day. So it will stay for three months.”

Days in March were often seen as good indicators of the transition from the harshness of the winter into the calm of spring. It was also thought to be the day when time was created as noted by the Anglo Saxons:

“the earth shows by the shoots which are then quickened again that this is the time which should most rightly be the year’s beginning”

Ælfric was one who admired St Benedict and gave an opinion that  St Benedict’s day in March ought to be the first day of the year because it was when the plants begun to grow.  Clearly Farmers naturally too heed of the weather on St. Benedict’s Day and it was also said that:

“On Benedict sow thy peas or keep them in the rick.”

There is certainly a cold wind from the east across much of the UK until the 21st March in most years and so there appears to be some fact to the folk belief.

 

Custom occasional: Jumping over PH at St Salvatore’s College, St Andrews.

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On the 29th of February 1528, 24 year old Patrick Hamilton died and entered St Andrew’s folklore. For on that day he was burned alive for his Protestant beliefs and generations of St Andrew’s University students have avoided the location of his martyrdom ever since.

On the pavement set into the cobblers inconveniently in front of the college chapel and entrance are the letters PH. To many it might be missed but to the students of the University and especially this college it is greatly avoided. For stepping on it could either result in failing your exam or losing your entire degree!

Jumping the curse

https://www.facebook.com/5f9264ee-27b5-47b2-88c5-50e2565b8ec3

Whilst I was there a student was making a beeline to the pavement and at the point of the PH made a side step and continued I asked them why:

“Well I don’t want to tempt fate I have finals this year!”

A number of views on the St Andrew’s Twitter feed note the same. A David Kaiyewu @kaynis1 tweeted that
“Better safe than sorry I think. Knw sm1 who stepped on it n didn’t pass. Superstitious or not just avoid it, it’s just one tiny spot.”
Another posting stating:
“As an undergraduate I never dared to step on the initials!”

Although Abdulmalik Ismaila@AbdulTaibah boldly stated;

I stepped on it several times and I still passed my degree.”

But why the curse?

It is said that the fire burned for  six hours and in this time Patrick Hamilton unleashed a curse to any future student who would step on the place he burned. It is thought the initials were placed  both to mark the martyrdom and make it clear where not to step!

Lifting the curse

It was evident that the custom was very much believed. However, there is a way of reversing the curse fortunately for someone who might inadvertently step on the PH . It can be removed by running into the sea on May Day near naked at dawn or running around Sailles Quad eight times. The St Andrew website wryly observes that:

“While May Dip remains an extremely popular tradition among students, I have yet to witness or hear of someone attempting the latter.”

The number of those in the waters on May Day must suggest that plenty of students must step on it – or they are crazy enough to enter the icy cold waters of the North Sea – you decide.

Once you got your degree of course you were free of the curse’s power and it is said that another tradition exists of upon receiving the degree you would immediately walk past sallies quad with the paper in hand before stepping on it.

I’ve got a degree but one day I may need one from St. Andrews so thought I’d better not risk it!

Custom contrived: Sheringham Viking Procession and Long Ship burning

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When one thinks about Viking festivals one will probably say Up Helly Aa, some may mention York’s Yorvik festival or even Flamborough – only one of which unfortunately I have had the pleasure of attending. Few might say Sheringham, a fantastic week long event, has rapidly getting a reputation to rival the others.

Taking a Viking to the place

Sheringham takes it name from Shira meaning a Viking Lord and Heim meaning home. The custom, fairly young, was started by a local artist called Colin Seal who saw a potential to both honour its heritage, raise its profile and produce some well needed money for the seaside town in a time which is traditionally very quiet and not a time we think of visiting the seaside. In an interview for North Norfolk Press he stated:.

“After Christmas, it’s a bit of a let-down…January and February are quite miserable, so it’s nice to have something to do and, even though it’s cold, people wrap up and we go ahead whatever the weather.”

Cold it was, but at least the sun was shining as we arrived. It had certainly lived up to its promise. The town was very busy with adults and children milling around awaiting the procession.

Over the week there had been all manner of Viking themed events in the museum and local Oddfellows Hall transformed into a Viking Hall from shield and axe making to talks on Viking history but it was the final day which attracted my interest – a whole day of Viking re-enacting culminating in a splendid Viking Longship burning.

Been inViking to a great event

The event now run by a carnival committee also attracts a considerable number of reenactors from Essex to Leicestershire; although the local Gorleston Wuffa group were the main group. There was said to be around 200 and they certainly looked impressive. These re-enactors were excellent looking very convincing both in dress and hair. There were beards a plenty and lots of menace. It really did feel as if the Vikings really had landed that day as they assembled on the clifftop showing off their archery and axe throwing.

However it was the torchlit procession that I was waiting for. Slowly the sun was setting glimmering across the water and people were massing along the road and on the beach.  The Vikings then began to march, both men and women, holding their torches to the side. The warm of the torches certainly helped keep the crowd warm but it was about to get a lot warmer. Behind them came their Long boat and slowly they dragged it to the beach down the ramp followed by two Vikings carrying their torches aloft and the crowd behind them. Two groups of Vikings awaited holding their torches facing each other ready to burn it as the boat was physically raised over the pebbles to its burning place.

Do Burn your boats

Soon the Viking crowd threw bits of wood and other combustibles. The 28 foot long Longboat was an impressively made piece and a shame to see it burn, with its menacing dragon head. According to the Eastern Daily Press it:

“built by West Runton carpenter Brian Howe and his son Henri.Featuring a dragon-like figurehead with mythical creatures and Norse themed decorations on the bow, the boat also includes a mast and sail, as well as more than 30 hand-painted Viking shields emblazoned with the names of the town businesses sponsoring the festival. Weighing in at around 500lb, it has been painstakingly painted over hundreds of hours by a team of volunteers led by artist Jill Brammer, Viking Festival founder Colin Seal and former TV and film set designer Chris Neville.”

It was slowly lowered by the awaiting torch bearers on the softer and flatter sand. More and more wood was laid within it and one by one the torch bearers threw their torches in. A blast of the horn went out and the crowd cheered high above beach at a safe distance as the Vikings magically bathed in its glow. Raising their axes and swords the Vikings formed a group menacingly! Cheers went out from the Vikings and slowly but surely the boat began to be engulfed in the flames. As the sea lapped at its footings the flames continued to burn until after around an hour it was nothing but burn scraps, flames leaping into the air as it lay on its side collapsing. All in all a remarkable end to an excellent day and week.

 

Custom demised: Leap Year Agricultural and garden lore

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Today is the 29th of February – a date which as you know only comes around every 4 years- intercalary year or bissextile year. Readers may be familiar with the belief regarding “Ladies Day” or “Ladies’ Privilege,” but there were other beliefs and customs associated with the day due to its rarity.

With a day made up of .25 of a day, there would be bound to be issues and the most wary of this change as always was country folk.  Weather governs agriculture and it according in a year leap the weather always changes on the friday and considering the awful windy and rainy weather of 2020 so far, I did notice that it did change accordingly…but lets see how that changes over the year.

Leaping lambs

Often the presence of an extra day appeared to knock the whole calendar both literally and folklorically out of kilter. One Scottish countryside view was regarding sheep and it was said that:

Leap year was ne’er a good sheep year”

This is reported in an 1816 edition of the Farmer’s Magazine:

“It has long been proverbial here that ‘leap year never was a good sheep year,’ an observation which this winter has been fully realized.”

Interesting in 1816 there was a considerable drop in temperature which meant that the snow quickly turned to ice and many lambs died. Whether it happened on a Friday though is unknown!

Not bean a good year

Planting crops were particular affected by Leap Day and the whole year. New plant fruits should not have been planted on the day as they only bore fruit once every four years. But the most reported was that broad beans and peas grew the wrong way in that their seed would be set in the pods in a different way to other years i.e back to frint. The reason for this appears to be that as this was the Ladies Privilege year when the idea of proposing was upside down the bean would lie the wrong way but why broad beans (and often peas) should be associated with this is unclear.

The custom even got to the ears of the great scientist Charles Darwin who in his autobiography stated who discussion of his scepticism:

“In illustration, I will give the oddest case which I have known. A gentleman (who, as I afterwards heard, is a good local botanist) wrote to me from the Eastern counties that the seed or beans of the common field-bean had this year everywhere grown on the wrong side of the pod. I wrote back, asking for further information, as I did not understand what was meant; but I did not receive any answer for a very long time. I then saw in two newspapers, one published in Kent and the other in Yorkshire, paragraphs stating that it was a most remarkable fact that “the beans this year had all grown on the wrong side.” So I thought there must be some foundation for so general a statement. Accordingly, I went to my gardener, an old Kentish man, and asked him whether he had heard anything about it, and he answered, “Oh, no, sir, it must be a mistake, for the beans grow on the wrong side only on leap-year, and this is not leap-year.” I then asked him how they grew in common years and how on leap-years, but soon found that he knew absolutely nothing of how they grew at any time, but he stuck to his belief.

After a time I heard from my first informant, who, with many apologies, said that he should not have written to me had he not heard the statement from several intelligent farmers; but that he had since spoken again to every one of them, and not one knew in the least what he had himself meant. So that here a belief—if indeed a statement with no definite idea attached to it can be called a belief—had spread over almost the whole of England without any vestige of evidence.”

With all this in mind I thought I might go ahead and plant some beans and see what happens! I’ll report back in 2024 – hopefully – at the latest.

A.C. Smith in their 1875 article from Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine on Wiltshire Weather Proverbs and Weather Fallacies they note:

“I must also call attention to the remarkable prejudice against Leap-year, a prejudice as common and as widely spread as it misunfounded. It is popularly supposed that neither children nor  domestic animals born in that year will thrive and that neither ” Leap year never was a good sheep year.”

Perhaps the last word though should be for A.C Smith’s who states:

“I need scarcely say that these are all popular delusions, founded on no reliable basis, though doubtless they do occasionally, however unfrequently, by accident, come true ; and then they attract unmerited attention, and are held up to admiring disciples as infallible weather-guides.

One thing however seems quite certain, and that is that if our observations are recorded through a long period of time, there will be found to be a balance of averages, both as regards heat and cold, and wet and dry weather: and in short the general average through the whole period will be found to be maintained.”

And with such cynicism and logic the custom must have died out!

Custom survived: Chalking on Epiphany Eve

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At the local catholic church I noticed at the mass before Twelfth night that they would be blessing chalk and handing it out to the congregation. Why is this you may ask? Well the church as does many across the Christian world – Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox continue a curious custom which has its roots deep within the superstitious world of the medieval mind.

At the chalk face

The custom appears to have originated in central Europe at the end of the middle ages and spread. When it first arrived in Britain is unclear and indeed it is equally unclear how long as a custom it has been undertaken but a cursory check online would suggest it is fairly widespread from Paisley to Plymouth.

When and actually what is done varies in some places it would be done on New Year’s Day, but more commonly it would be done on the more traditional Feast of the Epiphany. Indeed, as noted in the introduction it would take place after the Epiphany Mass when blessed chalk would be taken home for it to be done at home by either a priest or more often the father of the family.

Chalk and talk

The chalking the doors follows the following formula for the ritual; over a door would be written for 2020 for example:

20 + C+M + B + 20.

The numbers refer to the year but what do the letters refer to? Like many religious activities it has two meanings. Firstly C M and B are the initials of the first names of the Magi who visited Jesus on Twelfth Night, Caspar, Malchior, and Balthazar. But also they mean:

Christus mansionem benedicat

A Latin phrase meaning:

 “May Christ bless the house.”

The “+” signs represent the cross.

The purpose of the chalking those is to request the house is blessed by Christ and this good will is taken for the rest of the year and secondly that it shows those passing of the family’s faith and welcoming nature. Sometimes the custom is simply chalking but it some causes holy water is used and prayers said

Chalk it up

What is particularly interesting is that the custom is a widespread survival of a much more curious lost custom; that of making ‘witch marks’ or ‘apotropaic’ marks to protect the house and its occupants from evil forces. The carving of sunwheels, Marian symbols, pentagrams, etc can be found on entrances or exits of old houses across Britain. By doing so it prevented the evil spirits from entering and protect and bless the house. Chalking the door is the only survival as far as can be ascertained of this custom and as such is of considerable interest.

Traditionally the blessing is done by either a priest or the father of the family. This blessing can be performed simply by just writing the inscription and offering a short prayer, or more elaborately, including songs, prayers, processions, the burning of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water. An example below being given:

Prayer:

On entering the home,

Leader(Priest, if present, or father of the family) : Peace be to this house.
All: And to all who dwell herein.

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

All Pray: The Magnificat. During the Magnificat, the room is sprinkled with holy water and incensed. After this is completed,

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

Leader: Our Father. . .
And lead us not into temptation

All: But deliver us from evil.
Leader: All they from Saba shall come
All: Bringing gold and frankincense.
Leader: O Lord, hear my prayer.
All: And let my cry come to You.

Leader: Let us pray. O God, who by the guidance of a star didst on this day manifest Thine only-begotten Son to the Gentiles, mercifully grant that we who know Thee by faith may also attain the vision of Thy glorious majesty. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

Leader: Be enlightened, be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee—Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary.

All: And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light and kings in the splendor of thy rising, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon thee.

Leader: Let us pray.
Bless, + O Lord God almighty, this home, that in it there may be health, purity, the strength of victory, humility, goodness and mercy, the fulfillment of Thy law, the thanksgiving to God the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

After the prayers of the blessing are recited, each room of the home is sprinkled with Epiphany water and incensed. The initials of the Magi are inscribed upon the doors with the blessed chalk. (The initials, C, M, B, can also be interpreted as the Latin phrase “Christus mansionem benedicat” which means “Christ bless this house”.)

Example: 20 + C + M + B + 20 

Another possible prayer to say during your Chalking:

May all who come to our home this year rejoice to find Christ living among us; and may we seek and serve, in everyone we meet, that same Jesus who is your incarnate Word, now and forever. Amen.

God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only-begotten One to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Loving God, bless this household. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness, and abiding in your will. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.”

It appears that the custom is in some sort of revival of interest. It is described in St Asaphs, Wales,  St Paul’s Wokingham, St Giles Matlock and St Mary’s Hardwick, Derbyshire. An account from the COE website states how the custom can fall again into abeyance often to do with the views of the incumbent:

This used to be an annual feature of the Epiphany ceremonies conducted by the Revd Brian Brindley of Holy Trinity, Reading, who was something of a dramatist in liturgical matters.

The idea was that the members of the congregation took home a blessed piece of chalk, and also a piece of black paper, on which they were asked to write the traditional names of the three Wise Men. This was taken home and attached to the front door of one’s house in order be identified with the aim of the pilgrimage of the kings.”

Interestingly, in the 1800s custom appears to have become secularised if this account is any suggestion:

“At Skipsea, in Holderness, Yorkshire, the young men gather together at twelve o’clock on New Year’s Eve, and, after blackening their faces and otherwise disguising them- selves, they pass through the village, each having a piece of chalk. With this chalk they mark the gates, doors, shutters, and waggons with the date of the new year. It is considered lucky to have one’s house so dated, and no attempt is ever made to disturb the youths in the execution of their frolic.”

Such secular exuberance appears to have died out but its religious observance continues.

Custom contrived: Chepstow Wassail and Mari Llwyd

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Each January the boarder town of Chepstow becomes home to a fascinating mix of Welsh and English customs – The Chepstow Wassail. A colourful picandmix custom.

On arrival it is very evident this has become a rallying place for all people who wish to celebrate the winter and as such Morris teams from a wide area attend. The town is awash with blacks, purples and the sounds of bells, cries and clashing of sticks.

Strictly speaking the custom is divided into two – the wassail an English luck giving custom previously described here and the Mari Lwyd – a Welsh house visiting good luck custom which has not been fully covered yet in this blog.

When I arrived there a large group had assembled around a rather raggedy looking tree below the grounds of the castle. Here some Border Morris were half way through an apple wassail, pouring ale over the roots whilst the congregation assembled singing a wassailing song, toast attached to trees and ribbons swaying.  Everyone despite the cold was enjoying themselves smiling and enjoying the special bond the custom had established.

A few metres away were some dancers and weaving in an out of the crowd were Kentish Hooden Oss making the children laugh and look bemused in equal measure. They were a fair way from home again indicating the countrywide popularity of the custom.

No room at the inn or stable!

However in the pub nearby was a Mari Lwyd, one of a number in the town, which was about to go through the Pwnco, a rhyme/song full of riddles – a sort of old Welsh rap battle! The landlord was preventing the Mari Lwyd and his team from entering. From a casual observer one might agree for outside clad in a white sheet was a scene from perhaps from a horror film – a bleach white horses skull. The Mari Lwyd is a curious custom and one we will only briefly discuss here.

“The discussion was From inside the house

What, ho! Morganwg’s happy land
Is full of corn and barley
What, ho! is your request – demand?
Answer! We grant short parley

From the Mari Lwyd party outside

Honest men are we, who sue

Favours many, money due
To the Mari Llwyd from you!

From inside the house to end the contest

Come in, come in, and sit at ease

Ye merry sons of Cymru
Here’s sweet metheglin, here’s cream cheese
With milk, cream cakes and flummery!”

The Mari Lwyd is a strange mixture of macabre and marvellous. Its empty eye sockets filled with sparkling green glowing glass eyes, upon its head a crown of flowers with ribbons attached which flew in the cold winds. Its head shrouded to make it look even more mysterious – and hide the pole. Its jaw open and closing like a clapperboard.

Once inside it joined a whole throng of Mari Lwyds snapping and leaning over into people’s lunches and attempting to drink their lemonades! Those who expected them were very amused but there one or two who found it all a bit too weird.

Border Morris on the border

As darkness fell the main proceedings begun. At first the Mari Lwyds went to the bridge for the famed “Meeting Of English and Welsh at the border  Here a large crowd had assembled at the ‘border’ some carrying England flags on the English side and the others Welsh flags. The official start begun when a large rocket was sent into the air to tell the Mari Lwyd that the English wassailers had finished and that they were about to reach the bridge’s middle. With them the group carried lanterns, played music and carried a large apple cart carrying the symbol of their wassailing – a decorated apple tree. As a horn sounds, the sign of the English approach a which both them move slowly to the centre shouting and cheering carrying their flags. Warlike in a way if it wasn’t so surreally apparelled. Despite their menacing approach as soon as the middle is meet celebrations break out, hand shaking, flag exchanging and singing. Wassail to everyone and happy new year. If only every border was like. The Welsh invite the English over to join them in Chepstow. After then the Mari Lwyd descended upon the Chepstow Museum. Here the crowd once again got into good spirited boisterousness, name calling and ilk. Here the Pwnco continued until the Lord and Lady of the ceremony appeared at the museum door and offered a wassail cup full of mulled cider.

A meeting of skulls

Organised as event to revive local music dance and folk customs locally by the The Widders Welsh Border Morris and Tim Ryan of the Severn Princess ferry restoration since 2005 and has grown from strength to strength. As mentioned teams come from far afield across Wales and into the midlands and beyond. In 2019 there were 30 Mari Lwyds although this included some out of area versions such as Kimberley’s Owd Oss! For a custom once in decline it is clearly more and more popular. Indeed popularity has been an issue and in 2020 the custom went for a rest and a re-think due to its massive success. An article in a local newspaper stated that:

“It has grown so much in popularity since it began 15 years ago, to the extent that organisers have pulled the plug while they ponder how best to reorganise it. Mick Lewis, a member of the organising committee, said he is proud that they have built such a popular event, and confirmed the festival will return in 2021 after a period of “soul-searching”.”

One of the organisers stating:

“Fifteen years ago we started with just one Mari Lwyd, and now we get over 30 turn up, along with hundreds of people,”

Such can happen to customs, that their popularity outweighs their origin provision and thought. Bloggers like myself must be very aware of the impact our reviews can have. So I should state that the Chepstow Wassail is a great custom perhaps to reduce numbers not one to go to every year and spectate.