Monthly Archives: March 2017

Custom transcribed: Stamford Hill Purim, London

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“Why isnt this better known? After all Chinese New Year is a big event and we are the only photographers here.”

So said a fellow photographer as we watched a man in tradition black and white Hasidic or Haredi dress (typified by long black coat and large fur hat) escort three bears on scooters, who were trying to dodge another dressed as a blue wolf! This was Purim, or rather its most public tradition associated with the Jewish festival.

Really considering there has been a Hebrew community possibly continually from the 1780s when Italian Jew Moses Vita Montefiore famously settled there. This notwithstanding the wholesale influx of the Hasidic community was not established until the 1940s. From then on the curious custom has become more and more evident and now over 30,000 Jews reside in around 19 streets which for 24 hours or so become a focus of so much attention.

I was first made aware of the custom in Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan’s 1994 Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem and had always been keen to track it down. The authors state:

“Purim takes place mainly behind closed doors. But because part of the ritual involves dressing in outlandish attire, celebrants can be seen doing the shopping or nipping to the Post Office dressed as clowns, Godzilla or Bambi”

It has took me over 20 years to track it down, probably put off by the ‘behind closed doors’ ( the authors state attending could be tricky) making me think it would be unlikely to see the curious ritual…however I was wrong. Within arriving at Stamford Hill darting across the road in front of me were two clowns and panda!

It’s in the book…

Book of Esther that is. That tells us that a man called Haman in Persia can convinced the King Ahasuerus to murder the Empire’s Jewish community. Fortunately, the King who was married to a Jewish woman by the name of Esther foiled the plot and Haman was hung. The name itself being derived from the word for lots, relating to the lots drawn in preparation of the planned massacre.

There are a number of different customs and traditions associated the day, the exploration of which would warrant another blog post, after all I’ve never done one just on ‘Christmas’ or ‘Easter’ Purim is one of those multifaceted traditions. No it’s the fancy dress I am interested in here.

But why the fancy dress? Purim also falls in the Jewish month of Adar, usually March but sometimes February, who is traditionally it is said “when Adar begins, joy should be increased’. How this fits into fancy dress I still don’t understand unless the persecuted Jews hid from their oppressor by disguise.

One cannot help draw comparisons to other Christian and possibly pre-Christian traditions of disguising especially at the turning of the year. Did Purim originate as a spring festival, a recognised turning of the world when spirit were abroad and disguise helped prevent them dragging you back?

Purim down!

Even the weather could not discourage the attendees. As the rain beat down this Purim, umbrellas were out but colourful costumes were not. In the spate of an hour wandering around I saw

The costumes could be divided into a number of categories:

Traditional – there were girls dressed as Esther, boys as Arabs some on Camels, some even smoking fake Camel cigarettes.

Work related – a number of girls dressed as air hostesses, some with trolleys which helped in the delivery of manot xxx. Soldiers, Doctors.

Comical – Clowns were the most common, but bears and animals common, one was dressed as a drink carton (!) and one in a retro Tony Blair mask!

Parody – What was interesting is the way in which these younger members are allowed to mock their elders. Amongst the costumes were girls dressed a cliché Jewish grandmas, army members, miniature versions of their fathers in full Hasidic dress and rabbis.  The latter were particularly common and they were proud to introduce themselves as such and encourage deference for them. Their costumes particularly looked well made and I would say professional.  Cooper and Sullivan (1994) state that mock-Rabbis were elected over Purim in a move parallel to mock-mayors in secular culture.

Comparing to Hallowe’en is an easy comparison but this is something more artful and clearly more wholesome. There’s no blood and guts.

Purim it about

This is really a community letting its communal hair down. At one point a bombing and pulsing could be heard, a beat a sound of music. Then around the corner, came a large red open top bus. On top it was throng with young Hasidic Jews wearing fezs and looking very jolly. They stopped tumbled out of the bus, looking a little worse for wear, some streamed into houses, others decided to let loose to the music and started twirling around in the road. At one point one grabbed me and putting his hat upon me, we spent a surreal moment dancing around each other, arm in arm, a Purim dance off. Then they were off!

Turn the corner and there are two students dressed head to toe in a white traditional dress, smiling singing and shaking hands. Their infectious enthusiasm and addictive beat even reaches an elderly member of the community who mounting the steps of a nearby house,  twists and turns, hands raised up singing along, perhaps remembering younger days.

The intoxicating joy and celebration is difficult to miss…but this is a busy day, cars rush by driven by super heroes who toss their charity contributions in awaiting collectors, one dressed as a golf course!

Purim and out

Indeed as an observer, the whole event appears to be a frenetic flash of colour, as parents escort their fancy dressed charges in and out of houses to deliver their Mishloach manot gifts. Many of these are an art form in themselves, luxury chocolates tiered into pyramids, other expensive bottles of alcohol – for this is the one time of the year the community can drink!

Doors are opened. Every door is open. Children stand and sit of steps in fancy dress! Children their faces full of anticipation sit there waiting…and waiting…sometimes with wistful places… is it me next. Closed doors have Mishloach manot awaiting – one had five bottles of wine awaiting for its owner!

After a while it all becomes a bit too dazzling and you are looking for the next more bizarre costume. At one point I was swamped by a large group of children dressed as soldiers, knights, rabbis, arabs and what in intents and purposes looked like a character off the side of Robinson’s marmalade smoking a cigarette – some costumes were perhaps a little over the right side of PC! They were keen to have their photos taken…all upon doing so they asked for a donation! Upon seeing a girl dressed as a giant fish I think I might have reached the apex!

Purim, its public face, is a crazy festival, but a great one of giving, charity itself is important on the day, but above all celebration. It is said when the Messiah does come all Jewish festivals will cease bar Purim…let the party continue

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Custom revived: Coddington Mothering Sunday, Nottinghamshire…where it all begun!

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“Thank you God for the love of our mothers;

Thank you God for their care and concern;

Thank you God for the joys they have shared with us;

Thank you God for the pains they have borne for us;

Thank you God for all that they give us:

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”

‘I’ve lost my mothering’ service

The origins of Mothering Sunday are little obscure although in the Christian calendar the Sunday of the Golden Rose which dated back to the 11th century.  It was believed to date from when communities from satellite churches could pay tribute to the mother church or even communities who rarely made it to church due to their remoteness did so on this date. This then manifested itself as the time when the servants would have the day to visit far off relatives. Various foods became associated with the day, in North in particular, Carlins, a type of pea soaked and then fried in butter was eaten and a cake Simnel cake was baked. Over the years, the religious aspects of the custom, as a result of the Reformation, disappeared and the secular observation slipped away similarly.

Keep Mum! Mothering Sunday and Mother’s day are not the same!

It may not be wise to mention it but every year there are two days which celebrate mothers and two card giving days. The Americans were first. However, it is Constance Penswick Smith that we can thank for the modern revival, for it was whilst reading an article in the Evening news of a lady in Philidelphia was thinking down similar lines. This was in 1906, Miss Anna Jarvis created a secular tradition, set down for the second weekend in May where Mothers were celebrated. It is thought that like Hallowe’en and Valentine’s day, the Stateside Mother’s day was also imported by servicemen in the 1940s and this coincided with the church’s attempt to revitalise the custom.

Setting up headquarters at 15 Regent Street Nottingham, she and a friend Ellen worked tireless to get the ceremony re-established, even designing cards, collected appropriate hymns and approached the Mother’s Union who were keen but thought the custom too long dead to be revived. She published a book in 1921 and from this the idea spread. First locally, when the Reverend Killer of St Cyprians Nottingham and when the new church was consecrated in 1936, mothering Sunday became an annual event and then using her four brothers, who took holy orders, introduced the service into their churches. By the end of the Second World War, the amalgamation of the two customs had become entrenched and despite a few cards which proclaim the correct name, they are generally inseparable as names now especially since the 1950s when merchants realized the commercial potential!

Back to mum! Where it all begun

One of the most important places to celebrate the day must of course be where it was first revived. Coddington’s Mothering Sunday service is like everywhere a very popular service, but here there is perhaps more of an appreciation. So in 2013, on Sunday the 10th March, the parish church of Coddington in Nottinghamshire celebrated the 100th anniversary of the re-foundation of Mothering Sunday by Constance Smith.

The church was packed with some of the congregation even having to sit in the bell tower, or on some of the older pews to the side! The talk used the children to find the words around the church and used these to discuss the important qualities of mothers (as well as saying dads could be the same!) The Revd David Anderton, the present day vicar of All Saints Coddington, said of the service:

“Mothering Sunday is important in the life of the church and it is one of our most popular services – thanks to Constance, who is buried here in the churchyard. The choir of Coddington Church of England Primary School join us and mothers are given a Primula plant.  It’s a wonderful celebration and I’m encouraging people to post their prayers for mothers online as we mark 100 years of Mothering Sundays.”

A different clyp ‘round the ear!

“The congregation then takes part in ‘clipping the church’, forming a ring around the building and, holding hands, embracing it.”

The church service led by the Rev William Thackrey and the curate Rev. David Anderson and notable features of the service was the delightful touching tribute to mothers made by the children of Coddington primary school, and then their clyping of the church. This is done in a number of churches, including some Nottinghamshire churches, although usually this is done outside, the horrendous wintry weather meant it was more sensible to clyp the inside of the church. The origins of this custom are obscure but it is associated with Mothering Sunday in Staplehurst in Kent. Some authorities have tried to link the custom to pagan origins but certainly the idea of embracing the mother church is wholly appropriate to the theme of the celebration. Whilst clyping a special hymn ‘We love the place O Lord’ was sung to recognise the importance of the church. The children in this circle then processed through the vestry and into the chancel where the vicar and curate awaited holding trays of primroses; free gifts for their mothers.

Just like mum’s cake

With a final hymn and blessing the congregation were given a bookmark commemorating Constance Smith and Simnel cake. This is of course an old food traditionally associated with the custom of Mothering Sunday. Its creation put down to an argument between Sim and Nell how to cook it; one boiling and one baking.  Some people don’t like it but it always reminds me of my mum’s cakes which I suppose is the point.

A hundred years on from the thought, Mothering Sunday in its religious and secular guise is with us as long as we need to appreciate mothers…and sell cards no doubt!

Find out when it’s on:

Calendar Customs link: The Coddington celebration is not on there but if you need to find out when Mothering Sunday is…

http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/mothering-sunday-mothers-day/

 

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Custom demised: Borrowing Days from April

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Image result for april showers

A widespread tradition across the British Isles and indeed beyond for it is noted in France and Spain are that March borrowed its last three days from April. Brewer’s 1894 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable records:

“March said to Aperill,

I see 3 hoggs (in this case meaning sheep) upon a hill;

And if you’ll lend me dayes 3

I’ll find a way to make them dee (die).

The first o’ them wus wind and weet,

The second o’ them wus snaw and sleet,

The third o’ them wus sic a free

It froze the birds’ nebs to the trees.

When the 3 days were past and gane

The 3 silly hoggs came hirpling (limping) hame.”

Notes and queries of 1852 records:

“The three last days of March are called ‘the Borrowing Days’ in Scotland, on account of their being generally attended with very blustery weather, which inclines people to say that they would wish to borrow three days from the month of April in exchange for the last days of the month of March.”

As noted in an 1852 work North of Ireland:

“Give me (says March) three days of warmth and sunshine for my poor lambs whilst they are yet too tender to bear the roughness of my wind and rain, and you shall have them repaid when the wool is grown.”

However the above account appears at variance to the general believe of the bad weather, as John Brockett’s 1846 Glossary of North Country words records:

“March borrowed of April, three days and they were ill, The one was sleet, the other snow ad third was the worst that e’er did blow.”

It is probable that this association with bad weather begun with the 1548 Complaynt of Scotland which recorded that it ‘froze birds legs to trees’ as such:

“March borrowed of April Three days, and they were ill The one was sleet, the other of snow The third was the worst that e’er did blow.”

The bringing of bad weather may seem a little confusing at first but in Ireland a local legend was established to explain it. It is recorded that the old Brindled Cow or An tSean-bho Riabhach, made the claim that the bad weather of March could not even kill them and so it borrowed three days from April. And the month used these days to kill and skin the poor cow. using these extra days with redoubled fury, killed and skinned the poor old cow. Interestingly this time around it the first days of April which are seen to be unpleasant as a result!

However, I feel that the commentators are missing a point – April is famed for showers – and has a write this the days running up to the 29th are warm and fine, ironically rain and storms came in as the 29th came in…April weather!