Monthly Archives: February 2023

Custom survived: Snowdrop candlemas folklore

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Original Vintage Print 1995 by Cicely Mary Barker.  The image 1

‘The snowdrop, in purest white arraie,

First rears her hedde on Candlemas daie.

While the Crocus hastens to the shrine
Of Primrose lone on St Valentine.’ 

Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanac (1824) Dr Thomas Forster

Nothing preludes the end of the cold winter months like the small white nodding heads of the snowdrop. Said to have been introduced to England by Italian monks in the 15th century or as early as the Roman occupation.  it has forever more been associated with the celebration of Candlemas or Imbolc and thus called the ‘Fair Maid of February’, ‘Mary’s tapers’ their Latin name Galanthus nivalis translates as ‘Milkflower of the snow’ and in Welsh it is called ‘Eirlys’ the ‘Snow Lilly.’ The Scottish poet George Wilson in his poem ‘The Origin of the snowdrop’:

“And thus the snowdrop, like the bow
That spans the cloudy sky,
Becomes a symbol whence we know
That brighter days are nigh ;

Their blooming at Candlemas meant they were known as ‘Candlemas bells’.  One name Eve’s tear derives from a German folktale relating to Adam & Eve’s exile from the garden of Eden. Here they encounter the for the first time and here an Angel tells them that Eden is no longer and tearful they wander off. It is said that the Angel felt sorry for them and so taking snow into the hand and breathing upon it makes the first snowdrops and says

“Take these little flowers as a sign of hope. A sign for your kind and for the earth outside.”

Such begins the flowers tradition of being a harbinger of better days ahead. However, another piece of folklore associates them with doom and gloom. The association of snowdrops with graveyards meant they developed an association with death. It is thought that the Victorians actively planted snowdrops on graves. Vivian A Rich in their 1998), Cursing the Basil: And Other Folklore of the Garden  that it:

“was considered the epitome of good taste to edge the grave in blue scillars with snowdrops planted on the grave”

According to Roy Vickery’s 1984 Unlucky plants:

“it has been suggested that the association of snowdrops with death results from the flower’s resemblance to a shroud”

Rich continues to add that the resemblance to a shroud even meant just touching a snowdrop was bad luck; such that people will still never take snowdrops into houses or indeed hospitals. The Victorians believed that death will occur in the family within the year. As xx notes:

“Many cling to and practice this superstition still claiming resolutely that a plucked snowdrop brought upon their threshold was the reason they were widowed.”

Alternatively, Margaret Baker in her 2011 Discovering the Folklore of Plants that people in Herefordshire and Shropshire did bring them in for cleanse the house although did note that if brought in when hen’s were laying would stop them. Similarly, it was also said the snowdrops in the house would spoil eggs and turn milk sour.

Katherine Briggs in her 1974 Folklore of the Cotswolds states that an exception was made for Candlemas itself when snowdrops could be brought inside being blessed by the virgin that day.

Custom revived: Ash Wednesday Imposition of Ashes

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Any attendee of an Ash Wednesdays can be easily spotted by the presence of a the remains of an ash cross upon their forehead. This is called the imposition of ashes and in the Anglican church is a revival of an old English tradition

The origin of the day originates in the 8th century he celebration of the day as the beginning of Lent is not attested earlier than the 8th century.  The imposition of ashes seems to be an English innovation of the 10th century, it is believed to have been adapted from an earlier ritual for public penance in sackcloth and ashes which was thought to be unpopular. The earliest account appears from Aelfric of Eynesham around 1000 who states that the ashes were “strewn” on the head.

Ashes to ashes

What formed the ashes in those medieval times is unclear, but current Catholic instruction states the ashes should come from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service and sometimes mixed with oil and holy water. The current practice is to smudge the forehead with the sign of a cross which many Christians choose to remain visible as a sign of their faith for the rest of the day.

ASH WEDNESDAY: WHAT DOES THE IMPOSITION OF ASHES MEAN? | Ash wednesday, Ash,  Wednesday

Dust to dust

It thus was common practice but the Reformation had a significant effect it. On the 6th February 1548, a Royal Proclamation stated that it was forbidden and then in banned in 1549 prayer-book.   The revival of the custom came with the toleration of Catholicism and the re-introduction of the faith, who presumably had continued the practice overseas or in secret. It was the 19th century development of the Anglo-Catholic movement that started to import back into the Anglican ritual many Roman Catholic practices. Research suggests that the Ash Wednesday ritual was still being introduced into some cathedrals in the middle of the 20th century with a liturgy used taken from the Roman Catholics. As a service Ash Wednesday became more popular during the second half of the 20th century.  However, the imposition of ashes finally reappeared in the official Anglican liturgy in 1986. Guidance from the church of England website states:

“Ashes are imposed on the forehead of each person, including the leader. Members of a household may impose ashes on one another. At the imposition the person administering the ashes may say Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. or the ashes may be imposed without the use of words.”

Custom demised: Shrovetide Football Derby

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The Local Derby and Shrovetide Football in Derbyshire - Derbyshire and ProudShrove Tuesday in Derby was a hectic day for the city as Thistleton-Dwyer notes:

“Formerly the inhabitants of Derby had a foot-ball match between the parishes of All Saints and St. Peter’s; the conflicting parties being strengthened by volunteers from the other parishes, and from the surrounding country.”

Some significant culturally was the custom that the bells of the different churches in Derby would have rang their merry peals on the morning giving rise to a rhymn of the five parishes of All Saints’, St. Peter’s, St. Werburgh’s, St. Alkmund’s, and St. Michael’s:

“Pancakes and fritters, Say All Saints’ and St. Peter’s; When will the ball come, Say the bells of St. Alkmum; At two they will throw, Says Saint Werabo’;O! very well, Says little Michel.”

Like similar mob football company the goals were wide apart; the goal of All Saints’ was the water-wheel of the nun’s mill, and that of St. Peter’s, on the opposite side of the town, at the gallow’s balk, on the Normanton Road. The ball was also unique it was:

“of a very large size, was made of leather, and stuffed quite hard with shavings.”

It would be thrown in;

“about noon was thrown into the market-place, from the Town Hall, into the midst of an assembly of many thousand people, so closely wedged together, as scarcely to admit of locomotion. The moment the ball was thrown, the “war cries” of the rival parishes began, and thousands of arms were uplifted in the hope of catching it during its descent. The opposing parties endeavoured by every possible means, and by the exertion of their utmost strength, to carry the ball in the direction of their respective goals, and by this means the town was traversed and retraversed many times in the course of the day; indeed, to such an extent has the contest been carried, that some years ago the fortunate holder of the ball, having made his way into the river Derwent, was followed by the whole body, who took to the water in the most gallant style, and kept up the chase to near the village of Duffield, a distance of five miles, the whole course being against the rapid stream, and one or two weirs having to be passed; on another occasion, the possessor of the ball is said to have quietly dropped himself into the culvert or sewer which passes under the town, and to have been followed by several others of both parties, and, after fighting his way the whole distance under the town, to have come out victorious at the other side where, a considerable party having collected, the contest was renewed in the river.”

He continues that:

“On the conclusion of the day’s sport the man who had the honour of “goaling” the ball was the champion of the year; the bells of the victorious parish announced the conquest, and the victor was chaired through the town. So universal has been the feeling with regard to this game, that it is said a gentleman from Derby having met with a person in the backwoods of America, whom from his style and conversation he suspected to be from the Midland Counties of England, cried out when he saw him, “All Saints’ for ever;” to this the stranger instantly retorted, “Peter’s for ever;” and this satisfied them that they were fellow-townsmen.”

Sadly this would not be the case even though by 1846 it had become the biggest and most notorious football event in the UK and ‘that ran in the veins of every Derbeian’ Indeed the historian, William Hutton, states in his 1791 History of Derby that it was so popular the ‘the very infant learns to kick and then to walk’. 

The game was well supported and the fact that the locally influential, Joseph Strutt, would play dressed in a specially made buckskin suit, suggested its wide support.

However 1846 was a significant day for the custom when the army was called in to stop it. William Mousley, the city Mayor had been granted permission from the home secretary to it using the facility of two troops of dragoon guards.  

However, the players were not keen on following the ban and the ball was thrown up in the Morledge, it was Benjamin Fearn, one of Derby’s first policemen who was sent in to get it.  He is said to have dived into the throng of players emerging soon with the ball which was then cut to pieces. Yet the crowd were defiant, later the same day, another ball was thrown up; again the police and dragoons this time chased the players out into the countryside around Normanton. Fearn again gained the ball and although he had it for ten minutes so players from St Peters overpowered him and threw him over a hedge. Despite this 1846 marked the end of the custom and its long history.