Monthly Archives: September 2017

Custom survived: Colchester Oyster Proclaimation

Standard

Customs which are firmly attached to a specific date are today a rarity; many have now slipped the more convenient nearest weekend – but not Colchester’s Oyster Proclamation, itself a bit of a rarity being an Essex custom. Firmly fixed to the first Friday in September originally the first of September. Why September? Well this is the first month with an R in it!

Now there is another aspect which means witnesses the custom can be a problematic – it is held on a boat in the middle of the estuary. However, this year for logistical reason it returned to shore.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, cloud, sky, ocean, outdoor and nature

Shellfishly does it!

Dating from 1540 it is a colourful event full of the right level of pomp but not pompous. Afterall you cannot think yourself too important when you are swaying in the sea. Indeed, The Times in 22nd September 1928 recorded:

“The company were about to drink a toast in gin, in accordance with ancient custom, when the table containing the tiny glasses, filled win gin, overbalanced ad fell, crushing to the deck, together with the small cakes of gingerbread provided for the occasion. Amid hearty laughter fresh supplies were soon forthcoming and the ceremony concluded in the time honoured fashion.”

An article in the Daily Mail suggests the custom can be even more fraught with problems noting:

The oyster-opening ceremony has taken place on the sea for more than 400 years – but not this year and possibly not next year. Mrs Lewis said it was uncertain whether the tradition would even return to the water next year, when she is out of office – because of health and safety. She said: ‘The jury is still out on that one. If the next mayor wants to go back on the water, there are a couple of health and safety issues that need to be addressed. ‘The mayor nearly fell overboard last year so we had to look at the risk anyway.”

The Daily Mail had more to state:

“But because last year’s mayor almost fell into the water as he moved from boat to boat, the ceremony – which dates back to 1540 – was instead staged on land. 

And to make matters worse, the current mayor, Conservative Sonia Lewis, suffers from seasickness, further scuppering any chance of holding the ceremony on the water….Speaking about the decision, Mrs Lewis said: ‘I have never been able to attend the opening of the fisheries because of my inability to tolerate tidal waters. I confirmed on more than one occasion that I was prepared to stand down from the ‘opening of the Colchester oyster fisheries’ this year.”

So that year a Mayor nearly overboard, a seasick and a non-oyster eating Mayor made that year’s event one a memorable one in its possible 2000 year history – a claim deriving from the Roman’s love of Oysters and the significant presence in the Colchester area. Certainly it can be traced back possibly further than its 16th century record possibly to the time when the town confirmed in 1189 by King Richard I that to raise money for a crusade, its control of fishing ‘from North Bridge up to Westness was established. It is worth noting however, the Mayor came over her dislike of oysters stating:

“She had said she would not eat the oyster, describing herself as ‘more of a fish and chip girl’ but she dutifully quaffed it down with a grimace.”

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing and outdoor

Being on land does create another obstacle. Part of the ceremony was the Mayor to dredge in the first catch of Oysters…unless he was planning to scout around on the beach or have a long net, that was not going to happen. The solution was to get a local oyster chef in and to give the Mayor the first oyster on a plate to eat.

I was informed that it was alright to attend and take photos and that it would be in the Country Park. Making my way there it was not difficult to work out where it would be happening – a small white marquee at the end of the park near the sea – planned just in case it was wet!

Inside was a hive of activity, a man was shucking oysters in remarkably quick time whilst nearby a lady was carefully filling glasses of gin and another cutting slices of gingerbread. Soon all the attendees turned up with the Mayor and at the allotted time they assembled on a bank overlooking the bay. The curious spectacle of the Sergeant with his mace and the Mayor in full regalia attracted quite a few onlookers. Then the bell was rung and the proclamation read. A toast to the queen and the Mayor tasted the first oyster of the season.

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

Gingerly with the gin and gingerbread? .

Soon as the proclamation was made trays of gin and tonic and gingerbread where handed around. I didn’t partake of the G and T but the gingerbread was delightfully moist and flavoursome. I asked why it was gin and gingerbread. No one was sure but it was suggested that the ginger in the gingerbread settled the stomach on a stormy sea and the gin masked the fumes of the boat!

Image may contain: food

The ceremony it appears has to be checked out by her majesty herself. Before it a letter is sent to The Queen. In 2004 it is said to have read:

“According to ancient Custom and Charter dating back to Norman times, the Mayor and Councillors of the Colchester Borough Council will formally proclaim the Opening of the Colne Oyster Fishery for the coming season and will drink to your Majesty’s long life and health and request respectfully to offer to your Majesty their expressions of dutiful loyalty and devotion.”

She couldn’t attend but it  was a great pleasure to attend this year’s proclamation, eat the gingerbread and be for once able to hear what is said rather than trying to hear it from the shore.

Image may contain: one or more people and people standing

Advertisements

Custom transcribed: Ganesh Chaturthi – immersing of Ganesha effigies

Standard

I followed with the greatest curiosity crowds who carried in procession an infinite number of idols of the god Ganesh. Each little quarter of the town, each family with its adherents, each little street corner I may almost say, organizes a procession of its own, and the poorest may be seen carrying on a simple plank their little idol or of papier mâché… A crowd, more or less numerous, accompanies the idol, clapping hands and raises cries of joy, while a little orchestra generally precedes the idol.”

Angelo de Gubernatis, Bombay Gazette (1886)

One of the most fascinating thing about having an interest in customs and ceremonies is the adoption of customs from other parts of the world. Even more pleasing is when on a day out at the seaside one comes across a custom quite literally whilst sitting on a deckchair having a cup of tea! It happened on Saturday in early September – unfortunately I didn’t have my SLR camera but I did manage some okay photos with my mobile!

So one minute I was sipping my tea and then just behind me I could hear the beating of drums and chanting. A small group of people had assembled with drums and some were carrying effigies. They appeared to be processing straight to the beach. What I was encountering is the very public spectacle at the end of Ganesh Chaturthi, a Hindu festival celebrating the God Ganesha, which lasts for 10 days from late August to early September.

Who is Ganesha?

It is perhaps significant that the Lord Ganesha is celebrated at this time of year, the harvest time, because he is the God of New Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles. The ceremony is focused around installation of clay idols of the god in homes or temporary stages. On the tenth day they are carried in procession to the nearest water whether river or ocean – on in this case the pool at Shoeburyness, Essex. It is believed that as the deity dissolves in the water the God is returned to Mount Kailash to fellow deities Parvati and Shiva.

It was a small but nevertheless colourful procession with three Ganesh effigies. These were adored with flowers and jewellery and looked splendid if slightly heavy. The adornments were carefully removed for what would happen next would be that they would be immersed in the sea.

Under the sea

What I found interesting and amusing about the custom is despite this being clearly a Hindu festival it was typically British in the approach some of the attendees had to it. Some of the younger members upon the moment their toes hit the water forgot all ceremony and complained about the cold of it – and then after seeing a crab – one almost refused to enter!

He was convinced and after wading to their waists, the effigies were then lowered into the water bits appearing to break off even before they were fully submerged. One of the women in the party who appeared to be organising the event reminded the men that they needed to immerse themselves fully in the water. They weren’t keen! After some berating they begrudgely lowered themselves and disappeared beneath it! They emerged looking cold but slightly enriched by the experience.

What such a custom shows is behind even the most solemn custom the comedy of human nature is always there…and that there could be a custom around the corner at any moment! Be prepared!

Custom demised: Avoid eating Blackberries after Michaelmas Day

Standard

On Michaelmas Day the devil puts his foot on the blackberries.

-Irish Proverb

Across the British isles it was believed and possibly still believed that eating blackberries after the 29th September was deemed a bad idea.

In the Western Antiquary of 1882 it is reported that:

“The belief that it is unlucky to eat blackberries after Michaelmass Day because ‘His Royal Highness’ then tampers with them, still lingers in Exeter and neighbourhood, whilst walking the country around here, a young friend who was with me warned me against picking any blackberries: Because’ said he, grimly ‘it’s past Michaelmass Day and the Devil’s been at ‘em”

F. Newman (1945) in Some Notes on Folk Medicine in the Eastern Counties in Folklore notes:

“The common blackberry is excellent either raw, stewed or as a preserve. Like most fruits with pips, it is a natural bulk food and so relieves constipation. The different varieties of blackberry ripen at varying times during late summer and autumn, but all over Great Britain and Ireland there is a general belief that blackberries must not be eaten after Michaelmas day. There are two Michaelmas days in this country-the ‘new’ quarter-day, September 29th, and ‘old’ Michaelmas, October 11th, which is still recognized over a great part of the Eastern Counties, especially in connection with farm Tenancies. It was believed that after Michaelmas blackberries were unwholesome as ” the Devil has spat on them and they were not gathered later than that date..”

Lizzie Hadley, in the Folklore of Flowers in an 1893 edition of the Journal of Education notes:

“In Scotland it is said that late in the autumn the devil throws his club at the bushes to show that the remaining berries are his.”

It some cases he wipes his club over them or his tail, or in some cases spits or even urinates over them!  Another discouraging piece of folklore is given by Lizzie Hadley, in the Folklore of Flowers in an 1893 edition of the Journal of Education:

“Children who are fond of the blackberry may be interested, but in our times I think will hardly be deterred from eating its luscious fruit by the legends attached to it. ….. Another superstition is that on this day he spits on all the bushes, and if one eats a berry after this time, he, or some member of his family, will die before the year is over”

Why?

Tradition tells us that on Michaelmas, the archangel Michael kicked Satan out of Heaven and he landed on a blackberry bush so annoyed he hit back and decided to prevent them being of use! Although the Scottish account of him wanting them for himself goes against that belief!

F. Newman (1945) in Some Notes on Folk Medicine in the Eastern Counties in Folklore notes:

“ It is true that late in the season blackberries are infested by flies especially if there are near-by cesspools and may cause acute intestinal trouble.”

Of course, the seasonal reason is that this was often the time of the first frosts and here we have a custom belief possibly affected by climate change. More often than not the weather is fine in late September and late frosts do not appear until October, so perhaps those who stuck to the old Michaelmas day were right such as the contributor to a 1909 version of Folk-lore who stated in Worcestershire that:

“All children who either gather or eat blackberries on or after the 11th October will fall into great trouble. It is said that ‘the Devil puts his paw on them’ on that day.”