Monthly Archives: December 2015

Custom survived: Sending Christmas Cards

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“Sending cards is a very British thing…”I have a few French friends who think we’re all a bit potty for doing it, but it’s engrained in our social culture – it’s what we do.”

If you are anything like me you’re probably staring at a pile unsent. Or else looking at a card from the one person you didn’t send to or perhaps you again sent them too late! Whatever it is you’ve sent Christmas cards…what is less well known is that the custom of sending cards is relatively modern – arriving in 1843 and is British!

What a card!

A civil servant called Sir Henry Cole was investigating how the general public could utilise the newly established post office – and what an invention he came up with – one which has undoubtedly kept that service alive and kicking into the 21st century. However, like all good customs it was not original people had been giving new year cards for many years previous

Sir Henry invited an artist friend John Horsley to design it. The card which cost 1 shilling had three panels. The central panel showed a family eating Christmas dinner with two side panels of people caring for the poor. Around 1000 cards were printed. The message was a traditional and still popular ‘A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you.’

Despite a short run the success of the card was sealed. The establishment of the postal service’s Penny Post made the sending of items more affordable to the general public. Soon based on the train large volumes prices for sending these new cards dropped to half a penny for one in an unsealed envelope, a much cheaper method of correspondence that letter at the time which cost a penny!

Sign sealed delivered I’m yours

Unsurprisingly Dickens has a hand in it…indirectly. A man who could claim possibly single handedly reinventing Christmas! His artist William Egley was one of the first noted individuals to draw for a Christmas card. Most of these early cards naturally showed the nativity, but by the late 1800s snow scenes and the Robin appeared. By 1900 it had spread across Europe and English speaking colonies and ex-colonies.

Not everyone is keen on them of course! Those with Robin were unpopular. For it was also unlucky to bring a Robin into the house and this remained a belief and possibly still is a belief into the age of card sending. Some people refused to have it on the card suggesting a death in the family would arise as result! An account from a Gloucestershire correspondent of Folklore recorded in 1955:

“A young women told me it was a death sign to receive a Christmas card with a robin on it. This saying dashed me considerably at the time, as I had just had card with robins printed. However, I sent them out in spite of the warning, and I am happy to say that here was no undue mortality amongst my friends that year.”

Steve Roud (2006) states that the belief was still recorded in the 1990s and may still be around.

Fall of a card

2007 Telegraph was telling us that Britain was:

“falling out of love with the Christmas card. The number of festive cards bought in High Street shops has dropped by 20 million in the past two years.”

Why? The eCard an electronic greeting sent over the Internet or by mobile phone and the Telegraph told us it was:

increasingly popular with young people who say it is easier, cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than traditional cards.”

However, despite this clarion cry for its demise. It has not happened. In 2009 a 3% rise in sales was recorded and it was perhaps because of the lack of thought associated with e-cards. Some companies like Scribbler noted for their rather avant garde and sometimes downright rude cards even saw 15% increase.

Stephen Bayley a design critic and cultural commentator noted:

“In our exhaustingly pixellated world where gigabytes count for more than a winning way with a rhyming couplet, the greetings card may seem a quaint anomaly. But its survival is not so very strange. Nowadays any fool can reach 50 million people after a few minutes heartless work on a keypad, but reaching an individual is altogether more interesting. In the same way that a single witty postcard is worth more than 25 million Tweets, a card suggests something that went missing in the digital revolution: intimacy.”

So in a way the Christmas Card tradition is like any other custom, preserved because it still means something and everyone welcomes a card.

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Custom revived: Harthill’s Derby Tup

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A surviving custom?

The Derby Tup or Owd Tup of all the traditions that are to be found along the eastern midlands is the most enigmatic and fascinating.

It is possible that in the Harthill area there is an unbroken tradition of Tupping. On the Sheffield Forum a member called Denise relates that:

“We lived in Renishaw, my Brother and his friends use to do the Derby Tup around Mosborough, Renishaw, Eckington, Barlborough etc through the 1970s. They used to borrow my mother’s Shirley Bassey Wig for my wife and came to our house to count up and share out the money (lots of it).”

This is interesting for two reasons. One because it is close to the village visited in Russell’s 1974 Derby Tup film and his Survey of traditional Drama in North–east Derbyshire 1970-78 and secondly, because it overlaps with the Harthill Morris revival which begun in 1974. Furthermore, the local school continue the tradition and indeed may have since the 1970s.

The Tup play differed according to the village and each village had a different type. A competitive element was introduced when groups of young boys would vie to be the first group in a certain pub to give a rendition and obviously earn the biggest pot. According to Derreck another forum member, who relates that this rivalry ended up in fighting.

What’s tup?

The Tup is a curious play half acted and half sung about a large sheep being seen and then slaughtered. The play starts with the following lines:

Here comes me an’ ar owd lass, Short o’ money an’ short o’ brass: Pay for a pint and let us sup, Then we’ll act the Derby ‘Tup’.

The ram then dances around as the following is recited:

“As I was going to Derby, Upon a market day, I met the finest ram, sir, That ever was fed on hay.

(Chorus repeated after every verse) Faily, faily, ready for haily day!

This ram was fat behind, sir, This ram was fat before, This ram was three yards high, sir, Indeed he was, or more!

The wool upon his back, sir, Reached up to the sky, The eagles built their nests there, For I heard the young ‘uns cry.

The wool upon his tail, sir, Was three yards and an ell, Of it they made a rope, sir, To pull the parish bell.

The space between his horns, sir, Was as far as a man could reach, And there they built a pulpit, But no man in it preached.

This ram had four legs to walk on, This ram had four legs to stand, And every leg he had, sir, Stood on an acre of land.

Now the man that fed the ram, sir, He fed him twice a day, And each time that he fed him, He ate a rick of hay.”

A piece of dialogue then is recited and the Tup is killed. He lays on the floor and the butcher with the knife stands over him:

“The man that killed the ram, sir, Was up to his knees in blood, And the lad that held the pail, sir, Was carried away by the flood.

Indeed, sir, it’s the truth, sir, For I never was taught to lie,And if you go to Derby, You may eat a piece of the pie.

And now our song is ended, We have no more to say, So please will you gi’e us a copper or two To see us on our way.”

At which point a collection is made.

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What’s tup with that?

Many of the older Tups were simple structures made from a broom or even a turnip. In Worksop it was common to use a preserved head – a rather gruesome but effective device. Some had moving jars and illuminated eyes. That of the Harthill Tuppers is the latter, a substantial beast covered in wool with glowing ball eyes, an articulated mouth and a very impressive flapping and rolling tongue.

I planned to see the Tuppers at the Phoenix Inn, Ridgeway. After eating a rather fine meal there, I nearly missed the team as they Introducer came bursting in with his bell, fast behind him came the characters-the Farmer, Old Sal, the fool, the butcher and of course the TupCo-incidentally it is to Ridgeway that Ian Russell in his 1974 documentary on the Derby Tup of which more in a moment.

A pagan ramemberance?

Some folklorists suggest that the theme of the story is pre-Christian in origin. It is easy to read into pagan motifs into the story. The enactment around the summer solstice and new year emphasising this even more. Of course the ram image is a very significant figure. The Devil is always portrayed as goat like, but this is a personification of a pagan god. By killing him as the year ends, perhaps his blood is said to fertilise the land and encourage farm beasts to breed, as a sacrifice.

As with similar customs such as the Poor Owd Oss, it is also tempting to link the custom with the view of the Archbishop of  Canterbury, Theodore in the 7th century Liber Poenitentialis . He complained about tribes dressing in animal skins at the Kalends of January (the 1st) stating:

“whoever at the calends of January goeth about as a stag or bull; that is, making a himself into a wild animal and dressing in the skin of a herd animal, putting on the heads of the beast, whose who in such wise transform themselves into the appearance of a wild animal, penance for three years because this is devilish.”

Indeed, evidence for its greater significance was given as the Tup left to be put in the car, a local lady said is this the Tup upon giving it a touch for good luck. It was interesting to see some traditions die hard!

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Tup and down

In 1974, folklorist Ian Russell toured and interviewed Tups around the Ridgeway. His film is a fascinating window into a custom which whilst in good health was perhaps in failing health. How did something which appears to have thrived die out in the intervening 30 years? But the film perhaps illustrates some reasons why the custom had begun to disappear. Let me discuss the reasons

Firstly, what is worth noting that in a scene in a pub, the death of the animal is greeted with boos! The early 70s was a period linked with greater awareness of such issues and as such younger people would have been less inclined to be involved in such a bloody thirsty custom. Interestingly, I think we’ve gone through the period of time which would seem ‘ritual slaughter’ offensive and now again children would enjoy this. A number of children watching the Tup with me were thoroughly enthralled.

We cannot discount apathy. Children today have many other enjoyments and this is evident in the film that many Tuppers may have been going through the motions. The first team shows this by the group of teenagers either not wanted to be filmed or not wanted to do it. However, the other scenes show more enthusiasm. Of course this lack of involvement combines with three other factors. One being increased affluence. Now that is a good thing of course, but children are less likely to find ways to raise their own money if they don’t need to. This combined with ‘Danger-Stranger’ probably sealed the fate of the original run of the custom – many people could not imagine their young children travelling around pubs to collect money and be concerned, rightly so, for their safety. The final important factor is society’s immunisation to begging. Collecting money for one self this way is frowned upon. I long to hear a Morris team or old custom which collects for itself rather than charity! As the prevailing culture was to collect for a worthy cause, other than themselves, this would be a factor to discourage the Tuppers. This is perhaps combined with ‘Charity lives at home’ attitude.

All these appear to have sadly caused the demise of the Derby or Owd Tup tradition as enacted by children, but fortunately this team excellent and energetically uphold the tradition and long may they continue. However one could not help feel that this was a dying tradition – and even from the words of one the main protagonists – they were not always welcome!

Custom demised: The Vessel or Wassail Cup

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The demise of this custom shows how easily common traditions can be lost. So popular was the custom that it had a place in the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica:

“What is popularly known as wassailing was the custom of trimming with ribbons and sprigs of rosemary a bowl which was carried round the streets by young girls singing carols at Christmas and the New Year. This ancient custom still survives here and there, especially in Yorkshire, where the bowl is known as `the vessel cup,’ and is made of holly and evergreens, inside which are placed one or two dolls trimmed with ribbons. The cup is borne on a stick by children who go from house to house singing Christmas carols.”

In the 1800s up to around 1920s, local children around the midlands and northern England, County Durham, Lancashire, and particularly Yorkshire, would enact a curious custom like a mix between carol singing and May Dolls. The custom had many names, often localised Wesley Bob, a Wassail Bob, a Vessel Cup, a Pretty Box or a Milly Box. When the custom was done varied. Visitation days varied accounts recorded in Yorkshire emphasis this variation in Thorpe Hesley it began at Christmas Eve and went on for two to three days. Whereas Hoyland Common only on Christmas day morning. West Melton and Hemingfield it was Boxing Day and Rawmarsh it was New Year’s Day. Generally though the tradition would begin at Advent or more often St. Thomas’s Day, although in some areas it was November, suggesting there is nothing new in the early celebration of Christmas!

How the custom was organized differed from place to place. Sometimes it was a private form of begging and at others organized by the church. The basic approach was as follows: two girls would be the ‘vessel maids’ and they carried a box, decorated with evergreens, often fruit and spices, from home to home, covered in a white cloth. At the people’s homes, the girls would sing a carol and solicit the homeowner for some money, usually a penny, to reveal what was under the sheet. This was a scene of the Holy Family.

Clement Miles in his Christmas in Ritual and Tradition notes that:

“At Gilmorton, Leicestershire, a friend of the present writer remembers that the children used to carry round what they called a “Christmas Vase,” an open box without lid in which lay three dolls side by side, with oranges and sprigs of evergreen. Some people regarded these as images of the Virgin the Christ Child and Joseph.”

Wassail song

As Wright, in their A Yorkshire Wassail Box in Folklore (1906) notes the song sung varied. Sometimes it was the familiar ‘God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen’ followed by:

God bless the master of this house,

Likewise the mistress too,

And all your pretty children

Around your table go.

For it is the time of year

When we travel far nad near;

So God bless you and send you

A Happy New Year.

We have a little purse,

It is made of leather skin,

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Our boots are very old,

And our clothes are very thin;

We’re tired out with wandering around,

And if we cannot sing,

If you only spare a copper

To line the purse within.

So God prosper you and I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

At Normanton the following could be heard:

“Here we come a–wessailing (sic), among the leaves so green.

And here we come a—wandering, so fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,

And to you your wassail too,

And God send you a Happy New Year, a New Year!

And God send you a Happy New Year!

“We are not daily beggars, that beg from door to door,

But we are neighbour’s children, that you have seen before.

Love and joy come to you

I have a little purse lined with stretching leather skin,

And I want a little of your money to link it well within.

Love and joy come come to you.”

Then the box contents were revealed!

A description of the box from the Yorkshire village of Wheatcroft described it as follows:

“The dolls in it have been carried round for twenty–five years.  The box measures 111/4 in. x 7 1/2 in. by 3 in. deep.  It has a lid, but this is not always the case, though the contents of a box are always covered. The box contains besides the two dolls (the large of which is dressed in red), paper flowers, a lemon, holly and mistletoe, a purse, and an artificial orange and an artificial apple, both the artificial fruits containing sweets.  If all the fruits are real, it is necessary to put in a bag of sweets.  The purse should have a hole in it… S.A.’s mother says that the dolls represent the Virgin and Child, and that the box should be made of “parch–board” and lined with moss and ivy. 

Curious origins

Bad luck was associated with the vessel cup if the householder denied it or if it did not arrive. Duncan (1925) in his Second book of carols notes a saying:

“As unhappy as the man who has seen no Advent Images.”

Thistleton Dyer in his British Popular Customs,

“The household visited by the party were allowed to take from these decorations a leaf or flower, which was carefully preserved as a sovereign remedy for toothache.”

All these associations perhaps link it to a possible pagan origin. Certainly, Wright (1906) believed it was associated with pre-Christian deity Dionysius. For as a baby he was placed in a cradle and surrounded by flowers, although it is more likely the biblical crib story derives from that. He also notes that the name vessel came from ship and that the effigy was the boy Sceaf (afterwards changed to Jesus) as a representation of the birth of a new year. Support for this comes from author such as Chaucer who does record the belief that New Year “like a child, came over the sea in a ship.” However it is more likely that it comes from wassail as in was hael ‘good health’.

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Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren

Death of the custom

When the custom died out is unclear but certainly by the 19th century it was coming under some criticism being described as ‘impious,’ being celebrated by ‘the lowest dregs of humanity,’ and ‘the singing so wretched caterwauling.’

Interesting like many customs it appears in the early 20th century to have gone through a transformation. Dunstan in his West Riding Vessel Cup or Wassail Song states the song is:

“as now generally sung by children decked and carrying evergreens and sometimes having blackened faces.”

And no actual cup! Thomas et al (1926) in their Advent Images and Lucy Green, continues on the theme, the Lucy green is a small child dressed in evergreen branches and called it “Lucy Green.” And another called “Turkey Claw Chori” where a turkey claw as a badge of office for those soliciting money. Even the song changed ‘Seven Joys of Mary’ but sung to the tune of ‘God rest you merry.’ However, a search on the internet shows people are keen to revive and presenting some stateside Catholics have revived it…will it ever return here…time will tell.

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Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren