Category Archives: Christmas

Custom survived: Mummers or Darkie Day in Padstow

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I was staying in Padstow over the 2000-2001 New year once (the real dawning of the Millennium but that’s another story!), after escaping some of the worst sounds of the party being held in a pub in the town I went to bed earlier so that I could greet the new dawn. The next day was a delightful one full of clear skies and promise, I got up early the next day to be greeted by the spectacle of local people with blackened faces playing traditional instruments of drums and accordions and singing with much gusto. A strange sight and one which in recent years has become much in contention beyond Cornwall. I’d written this post back in 2011 and did not post…perhaps I was a bit nervous of doing so…..and its only posted now as I have been ill and did not have time to do another post…..interestingly its more current than ever, what with news reports about banning black faced Morris in Birmingham so its worth examining a new.

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A black mark against the town?

Listening to the songs I became wary of their odd lyrics they appears to be minstrel songs, I admitted although I had been to May day in the town I had never heard of this tradition, it was absent from my books. Clearly local people and tourists enjoyed the spectacle. I thought little more of it and was glad I had witnessed the custom
A few days later driven by an article in the Daily Mail and the Guardian I believe a storm developed over the racist element of the day, with the usual subtext of ignorant yokels (in itself racist of course). Soon prominent black politicians understandably got involved and a media storm ensued this time involving the BBC with comments from the venerable late London MP Bernie Grant:

“I thought the days when white people dressed up as black people were well behind us”

Padstonians insist that this is not the case and deny both description and allegations and indeed as early back as the 1970s the content and conduct was apparently reviewed to avoid offence…although one must remember Love Thy Neighbour and The Black and White Minstrels were popular at that time!! That said the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary did get involved and saw no reason for arrest. The Padstonians showed obvious concern and renamed it Mummer’s day but the controversy continues.

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Keep mum?

How old the custom is, is difficult to say. It is known that in eastern Cornwall, such get-togethers were common in pubs and private homes in the 19th century but antiquarian interest and indeed national press coverage is lacking, which is surprising considering the acres of footage on the town’s famed May Day. Most reports are local, the Cornish Guardian certainly report it since 1901 as Carol singing. A copy of the Padstow Echo in 1967 notes in a diary entry where 15, 7 to 13 year old children travelled the town visiting the elderly. The three women are thanked for:

“keeping alive the Padstow Darkies by training the young Padstonians with the Darky Songs which have been traditionally sung here, with also the musical accompaniment.”

An online article using local informants recollects their involvement in the 1940s and then into the early 20th century when their parents were involved. On this basis it can be included as a surviving custom if it is a rather secretive one, but possibly a changeable one.

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Not all black and white
The origins of the day are confusing; the blackening of one’s face after all is very common in a wide range of folk customs from mummers to molly dancers. The overall theme being to disguise the face, so that in most cases the employers would not have recognised them, as the majority of the customs, including this one, were begging. This has probably been done for centuries long before English people ever had contact with our African relatives.
Whether confusion occurs is the claim that it stems from the town’s experience with slaves, emphasized by a tradition that slaves were allowed free time in the town and this would have naturally brought they into contact with the natives. This happened elsewhere and did not create a folk custom, which suggests that the Cornish were either more susceptible to the traditions the slaves had or in support of the non-racist origin had greater sympathy, a point I will explore later.
From what can be gathered is that the original tradition was closer to a mummer’s play and perhaps because it was undertaken mainly by children who I argue either had difficulty in remembering lines or else the play had unsuitable themes, someone changed it. Anyone who has children will know it’s easier to get to get them to sing carols than do the nativity!
In simple terms someone seems to fused minstrel songs to an older tradition and because these songs were probably better, more tuneful or memorable, this aspect dominated. This theory is supported by an article by…where one of the correspondents says:

“I believe that the mummers went from house to house performing their play and got fed up with the same old lines and tried out the new at that time Foster music hall songs. This was enjoyed and response probably favourable and the tradition took off in place of the mumming”.

Is it racist?

 

Anyone who’s been to Cornwall will know they can be a bit wary of anyone east of the Tamar, but I don’t think they are racist…indeed they are very friendly, just understandably protection of their traditions. From what I can gather there could be two reasons for the tradition. The simplest is that an adult in the 1920s when the minstrel songs were popular decided to build a repertoire of these songs for the children as they were easier to remember. The other theory is custom was established as albeit a rather ham-fisted attempt to show support for the American black people community or simpler a love of their music. Solidarity for them was often strong in Methodist areas and Cornwall is one of these. An example of this being the strike held in Manchester cotton mills where the pro-slavery confederate army uniforms were being made. Perhaps typically for the British we put our foot in it, and sadly what is seen as once support has naturally become offensive. A parody rather than show parity by dressing up – but again as blacking up is a common motif for begging is that a coincidence? Interestingly now the name is changed, perhaps the one thing which would stop the racist accusations would be to stop blackening their faces, costume aside which is although is claimed minstrel based is common to many folk groups. It was a sensible compromise. Now that this is done, would anyone really be offended after all we’ve all been singing Beyoncé and Michael Jackson songs and not been called racist..have we?

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Custom contrived: Twelfth Night celebrations at Geffrye Museum

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London always has the ability to surprise you and the Geffrye Museum on any day is a surprising find in this the most urban parts of the city. A green oasis in the centre of Hoxton. A museum celebrating the interior. Interesting it must have realised how the demographic would have changed over those years – now with its trendy middle class hipsters abounding – its ‘bang of trend’ as they would say. Similarly it spearheaded another growing trend – celebrating Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night was once a big religious event which begun to lose its popularity after the Reformation slipping into a secular celebration. Celebration of it too largely died out in the 19th century as the joint disappearance of the large estate and the move away from agricultural communities to urban ones desired the need for workers to return earlier and much more sober!  The Geffrye museum’s Farewell to Christmas, as they call their Twelfth Night celebrations have been running for 25 years now.

Cake night!

I arrived as the light was failing and a persistent rain was building up. However, the rather inclement weather had not put off the crowds, who snaked around the edge of the grounds of the museum in an orderly queue. What were they lining up for? Free cake and mulled wine.

The cake was a delicious fruit cake. The uninitiated may have called it Christmas Cake but no, this rich fruit laden confectionary was Twelfth Night cake and as such reviving a tradition which would have been common across the country on this night. In the medieval and Tudor periods the cake was a yeast based one, latterly becoming egg based plum cake which was decorated by almond and sugar pastes. This has many surviving relatives across Europe but died out in the UK or rather was replaced by the Christmas cake and Plum pudding!

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Fire up the party

In the centre of the museum courtyard was a large square box. Warm red and yellow flames lapped around it and the crowd instinctively gathered around it as they consumed their cake and wine. I was amused by a sign on the way in which read:

“Due to health and safety reasons, we regret that we are unable to burn visitors’ Christmas trees and greenery.”

The thought of a large throng of well meaning public dragging their Christmas trees to throw into the pyre amused me…shame sounded like a good idea. However, into this crucible were thrown holy, yew and rosemary – the flames lapped large and a strong smell hit the nostrils – I did notice a few people throw their own things in – despite the notice to some stern telling off from the ground staff!

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After a small period of time the focus changed as the brass band struck up and an actor appeared dressed as the museum’s founder Sir Robert Geffrye who informed us about the history of Twelfth Night and behind the carols sung – proving once and for all if you get a large number of the public together – even then no-one knows the order and numbers of the 12 days of Christmas! The crowd were better with the first Nowell though!

Then a revelation was made that some where in the cake was hidden a bean and a pea. This is explained in the 1923 Dennison’s Christmas Book who states that:

“There should be a King and a Queen, chosen by cutting a cake with a paper crown, a sceptre and if possible full regalia.”

The bean and pea were replaced by silver charms and it is clear that the silver sixpence of the Christmas plum pudding arose from this. Whosoever had the bean or pea became the rulers, the bean the King and the pea the Queen and in the big households of old this was a great opportunity of table turning and considerable hilarity! The custom has also be revived at the Bankside Wassail

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‘Sir Robert Geffrye’ introduced the notion that a chocolate buttons had been hidden in the cake. A hush went around the audience as we awaited two people who would reveal themselves as their finders…but nothing….had someone eaten by mistake? Had they melted? Finally a young girl did reveal herself reluctantly but as the crown was placed upon her head it was clear she wasn’t interested in being a Lady of misrule…and was let back into the audience slightly perplexed by the whole adventure!

The evening ended with some more rousing carols and the crowd once again circled around the flames lapping into the air. It is clear that this is becoming a popular and important event for the Hoxton community and it is great to see that people can return back to celebrating Twelfth Night perhaps it might spearhead a countrywide revival and we’ll all be celebrating twelfth night not begrudgingly removing the decorations and clambering up into the attic! Leave it until the 2nd of February

Custom demised: Holly Day, Brough, Cumbria

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In the Cumbrian town of Brough, once in Westmorland was an unusual Twelfth night custom which appeared to be the extension of the usual burning of the greenery on Twelfth night as now enacted at London’s Geffrey Museum. An account by Reuben Percy and John Timbs in their 1828 The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction which states:

“Holly Tree At Brough it is called night because it was customary at time of the year to decorate the altars holly There are two head inns in town at which the holly is provided alternately Early in the morning send out a body of husbandmen to fell large ash tree for although it is called night yet holly being a scarcity ash substituted They then affix torches of greased reeds to each bough tree and then take it into the inn to remain till seven o clock in At that hour a gun or pistol is fired the tree is taken out into a convenient part of the town where it is lighted after huzzaing for about half an hour is carried up and down the town on shoulders followed by the and stopping every time they the cross at the top of the town again salute the holly and fireworks are discharged It is taken town again and so on till it is The person who carries the his shoulders is named Ling who it is extinguished carries it to of the town and after throws it among the crowd eagerly watch the opportunity of away with it for I should observe two separate contending parties to whichever inn it is carried the to spend the evening in drinking very often it terminates with a name given to all their The origin of the custom as I observed from the offerings to the altars at of the year which is the by the name given to it WHH”

William Hone in his 1827 Everyday book added:

“Twelfth Night, or Holly Night, was formerly celebrated at Brough, by carrying through the town a holly-tree with torches attached to its branches. The procession set out at 8 o’clock in the evening preceded by music, and stopped at the town-bridge, and again at the cross, where it was greeted each time with shouts of applause. Many of the inhabitants carried lighted branches as flambeaux; and rockets, squibs, &c, were discharged on the joyful occasion. After the tree had been carried about, and the torches were sufficiently burnt, it was placed in the middle of the town, when it was again cheered by the surrounding crowd, and then was thrown among them. The spectators at once divided into two parties, one of which endeavoured to take the tree to one of the inns, and the other to a rival inn. The innkeeper whose party triumphed was expected to treat his partisans liberally.”

A curious custom which appears to be a mixture of burning out bad spirits into the new year with some survival of a pagan tradition mixed up with wassailing. What is more curious is that in some form we have not seen it restored.

Custom survived: Visiting the Lewis Santa’s Grotto, Liverpool

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So reads the sign as we enter

Santa’s grotto. Seen in department stores, shopping malls, garden centres and indeed everywhere across the English speaking world from Australia to (New) York. A staple all through the 20th century.  Yet I bet you thought it was an American invention? But no! The first place ever to invite Father Christmas to enchant children was in Liverpool and what’s even less well known perhaps outside of the city is that the same grotto is still going strong 137 years on! At first it might seem a little unusual to consider this a custom but a custom it is – a calendar one – and possibly the most engaged in custom in Britain. And one which is truly English.

The story begins with David Lewis who upon visiting the world’s first department store, the Parisian Bon Marche, who brought the idea of a department store in 1877 back to Liverpool. What is interesting is that the store had an exhibition area, an idea Lewis also adopted – then in 1879 it decided to introduce a Christmas themed exhibition.

Santa Claus is coming to Town

Naturally in a city dominated by its maritime history, it was not surprising that Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, patron of seafarers as well as children would visit Liverpool first. Christmas Fairyland was the title of the world’s first Santa’s grotto. It was an instant success with the public attracting people from across the country who could finally meet Father Christmas in person and wonder at his grotto. The grotto covering 10,000 square feet became a popular seasonal sight for Liverpool. Its popularity caused other department stores to develop their own grottos of varying quality, including Blackler’s in Liverpool famed for its giant Father Christmas, again another seasonal staple, whose re-appearance at the Museum of Liverpool has been a welcome one for those who fondly remember it. By the end of the century the grotto had been established in the USA and Australia ensuring Santa would be very busy on the run up for the big day.

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Naughty or nice?

Entering the Lewis Grotto is still a magical experience. There is a whiff of exciting anticipation as one waits in the downstairs waiting room, ready for one’s number to be called, ascend the staircase and enter the magical world. Crossing the threshold one is confronted with a fairy tale fantasy world populated by a miniature world of elves and teddy bears. The grotto’s theme when I visited was nursery rhymes and famous children stories, Snow white, Pinocchio, Nutcracker, Peter Pan. Sleeping Beauty, Little Mermaid, Pocahontas and Aladdin are represented by a tableaux, some moving and many incorporating familiar Liverpool sites like the Rapid Tower and the Liver Building. Other displays in the past have been Alice in Wonderland set in Liverpool and Santa on the Moon. Figures move and sway, wave and enchant both young and old. The display comprises interestingly of both the Lewis Grotto with additions from that of Blackler’s which ran from 1957 until 1988 a youngest compared to Lewis of course, these polar bears guard the entrance to Santa.

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Finding a new ho-ho home!

After 130 years of enchanting children it looked like this iconic grotto was to see its last Christmas, when like many department stores, it closed. But all was not lost. Then then grotto manager, a Mr Mike Done purchased the stock of the grotto at a considerable expense. He was the natural choice to want it to continue as he had worked with it 27 years. After looking around all of Liverpool for a suitable place – size and geography wise – Mike settled on perhaps the slightly incongruous 4th floor Rapid Hardware store. The first theme of its new location was to be about how Santa lost his home and ended up at Rapid.

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So there on the top floor the grottos is set up. This setting up takes a number of months consisting of blocking out windows, painting the backgrounds, setting up the figures, the electricity and everything needed to make the site magical.

It is fantastic to still be able to visit the grotto that spawned such a popular countrywide custom and one which has kept to its own traditions. It is clear by the busy downstairs waiting room that it is still an essential part of a Liverpudlian’s Christmas. Indeed as I was told by Mr. Done one particular visitor has been an 103 year old who worked in the store for 80 years previous and ever misses a visit. He was quick to add that such events spur him to continue with the grotto. Furthermore, as Mr Done related, grottos such as this are a dying tradition. True that Father Christmas is a busy as ever but these are in and out enterprises with very little event to them. This is certainly not the case at the Lewis grotto it is all about the experience.

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Not a grotty grotto

After wandering through these delightful displays we await our moment to meet– the curtain pulls across and there in a Victorian styled drawing sitting on a wreath wrapped thrown – was Father Christmas – even the most cynical is swept along with the enchanting experience and the children certainly leave spellbound with a special glint in their eyes.

In this modern quick fix world of the rapid turnover visit to Santa this Lewis grotto is indeed from another era – one as much about the experience and the build up being as much a part as meeting the man himself. So if you are looking to find that special magical Christmas feeling make a pilgrimage to the oldest and perhaps the best Santa’s grotto,  make it to Lewis grotto now firmly ensconced at Rapid and hopefully continuing well into its second century. Long may Santa be visiting it too.

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Custom transcribed: Christmas Tree Festivals

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I was recently asked how long does something have to go for, for it to be considered a tradition. I answered ten years because once you’ve gone past the decade there’s a feeling of ‘let’s keep it going’. Christmas Tree festivals appear to be the fad new fashion of the 21st century…last century I had never heard of them…now search for them on-line and you’ll find one in virtually all the counties of Great Britain! The website http://www.christmastreefestivals.org/ has 176 of them recorded.

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Branching out!

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of this modern custom. The oldest I can find go back to the mid 1990s such as those of Hitchin, Hertfordshire and Brighstone on the Isle of Wight. Further back and we get an answer of where this custom arose from – festivals over 24 years are firmly US based. But why start them?

Deep roots

It seems curious that the modern church, protestant and Catholic could be combined with celebrating such a pagan thing as a dressed tree – a tradition linked to pagan tribes from the Romans to the Celts. They appeared soon to be Christinanised being adorned by fruits and nuts such that by the 1500s they were being brought into the house, popularised by Martin Luther who encouraged fir trees to be brought into the house and lighted by candles on the branches. By 1800 it had become popularised in the UK, its famed being cemented by Victoria’s Prince Albert. Since then the Christmas essential for every house, shop, mall, restaurant and everything in between, was the fir tree -real or fake!

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From tiny acorns

It is quite remarkable how quickly both this custom has spread and how popular the customs have become locally. The best example of this can be seen at Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. In 2016 it topped 1378 different trees and thus became the largest collection in the country. A good tourist attraction for the town in a time of year in which tourists may well be thin on the ground. Of course, churches are constantly looking for something to reconnect what is slowly becoming a secular celebration to its Christian original message (leaving aside for a moment its hijacking of the pagan one!) The Christmas tree is a focal point. Everyone likes a colourful Christmas trees, being establishing such a festival not only brings communities together, after all everyone can dress a tree and there is no set way to do it, but brings people in. Walking into a church there is something indeed magical about the array of trees glistening and sparkling in the gloom. One is reminded of the magic of the season and the creativity of the people responsible. A new custom yes, but one based in an old tradition and one which is very welcome to add to the custom list.

Custom demised: Stephening at Drayton Beauchamp

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Drayton Beauchamp rectory where locals would apply for Stephening

Christmastide was a period in which begging was common, however in the majority of counties, this was focused on St Thomas’s Day, the 21st. However, in Drayton Beauchamp a custom called Stephening, named after St. Stephen’s Day, was established. It was noted by Chambers’ 1869 The Book of Days who states:

“On St. Stephen’s Day, all the inhabitants used to pay a visit to the rectory, and practically assert their right to partake of as much bread and cheese and ale as they chose at the rector’s expense.”

The custom was not popular with everyone and the account notes:

“the then rector, being a penurious old bachelor, determined to put a stop, if possible, to this rather expensive and unceremonious visit from his parishioners. Accordingly, when St. Stephen’s Day arrived, he ordered his housekeeper not to open the window-shutters, or unlock the doors of the house, and to remain perfectly silent and motionless whenever any person was heard approaching. At the usual time the parishioners began to cluster about the house. They knocked first at one door, then at the other, then tried to open them, and on finding them fastened, they called aloud for admittance. No voice replied. No movement was heard within. ‘Surely the rector and his house-keeper must both be dead!’ exclaimed several voices at once, and a general awe pervaded the whole group. Eyes were then applied to the key-holes, and to every crevice in the window-shutters, when the rector was seen beckoning his old terrified housekeeper to sit still and silent. A simultaneous shout convinced him that his design was under-stood. Still he consoled himself with the hope that his larder and his cellar were secure, as the house could not be entered. But his hope was speedily dissipated. Ladders were reared against the roof, tiles were hastily thrown off, half-a-dozen sturdy young men entered, rushed down the stairs, and threw open both the outer-doors. In a trice, a hundred or more unwelcome visitors rushed into the house, and began unceremoniously to help themselves to such fare as the larder and cellar afforded; for no special stores having been provided for the occasion, there was not half enough bread and cheese for such a multitude. To the rector and his housekeeper, that festival was converted into the most rigid fast-day they had ever observed.”

It was understandably that providing food and drink would cause issues, mainly of drunkenness and rioting, and so in the 1800s, the Reverend Basil Wood rather than getting away with it converted it into an annual sum of money. This was the final death kneel for as the population of the population grew he felt it was more difficult to uphold. Thus in 1827 he abolished it although for many years people would still try to attempt to gain food. In Chambers’ 1869 The Book of Days again he notes:

“In the year 1834, the commissioners appointed to inquire concerning charities, made an investigation into this custom, and several of the inhabitants of Drayton gave evidence on the occasion, but nothing was elicited to shew its origin or duration, nor was any legal proof advanced skewing that the rector was bound to comply with such a demand.”

The only relics of the custom are the rectory and three 17th century pewter plates with a pewter flagon with lid said to have been used for the ceremony. Despite the quote at the start, the sun might be still shining but Stephening has gone! The question is did it happen any where else?

 

Custom transcribed: American Thanksgiving

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“Thanksgiving would never work in Britain, because it is the day that self-deprecation forgot. Is it a holiday commemorating the Anglo-Saxon invasion of a country that already belonged to someone else? Yes. And what must have been an incredibly awkward dinner party between invader and invadee? Right again.”

Speaks a correspondent to Telegraph

Thanksgiving is a quintessential stateside custom, that it may surprise you to read that it is celebrated in the UK. It is not that surprising considering there are near 200,000 ex-pat statesiders in the country not to add those tourists who may be here for a holiday.

Thankful for what?

The folklore tells that in 1620 the harvest failed at the Plymouth Foundation and half of the Pilgrim fathers died. Understandably when in 1621 there was a better harvest and so understandably they wanted to celebrate a particularly good harvest with their local first nation groups the Wampanoag. Indeed, it had not been for them they would not have survived, for they taught them how to grow corn, beans and squash – future staples of Thanksgiving. You’ll notice no turkey reports suggest the three-day feast included lobster, cod, deer and goose!

Fast forward to the first President George Washington, who in 1789 proclaimed the inaugural national Thanksgiving Day. Yet despite it becoming an annual holiday in 1863 when it was set as the last Thursday in November, it too Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 to finalise the holiday setting it as the fourth Thursday in the month.

Thankful in the UK

It is unclear when Thanksgiving was first being celebrated in the UK, but I would imagine those World War II servicemen would have been privately having a toast in the dark days of the war. Indeed an account Similarly, from a young boy who happened to be visiting a base in the 1940s remarked:

 “I was invited into the dining room, and was amazed at the food that was there. It was Thanksgiving, and I thought Christmas had come early. I’d never seen so much food, as we were all living on rations. I was even lucky enough to taste some.”

And there is a comical photograph in Norfolk  which account how after being given permission by the farmer servicemen attempted to capture a turkey for their dinner – it was not clear whether they granted any of them a pardon! Similarly, the American students studying in the UK and their societies would have promoted the event and indeed it is one of the first places to look for it today.

However, ever eyeful on the commercial opportunity the main place you can find Thanksgiving in the many restaurants, often USA themed, dotted across the country and particularly in London which court American tourists. There can be found imaginative takes on the turkey, corn, pumpkin pie and other staples. Some are more than happy to spread it out to three days meaning they get lucrative weekend trade.

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Unsurprisingly one place where something more substantial is done is Plymouth. With its connection with the first pioneers, those Pilgrim fathers, Plymouth has commemorated their Mayflower and Transatlantic heritage for a number of years and in recent years it has been celebrated with some enthusiasm. The custom consists of the reading of speeches by the Lord Mayor and other figures on the Mayflower steps where those Pilgrim fathers sailed from followed by a poetry, choir. An illuminated carrying lanterns group representing the Wampanoag process from there to the Guildhall to tell the tale of Moshup the giant, a supernatural figure of the tribe. It’s the closest the UK has got yet to New York’s Macey’s parade.

The other significant event is understandably a thanksgiving to God and this is where the US Ambassador speaks at a special service at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where America the Beautiful is also sung. The audience being again made up of ex-pats. However, the main stay of the celebration is the feast and now from Aberdeen to Wales, restaurants and University clubs will be serving up their feasts and providing kinship a necessary thing for those so far away.

Thankful this year?

Will it ever establish itself here in the mainstream? It seems unlikely, we already have our Harvest festivals, although the semi-secular nature and not to say the facts it’s a holiday may be an attraction. Thanksgiving is far too personal and unique to the UK and like Guy Fawkes Night, which has largely died out as the British diaspora lost their Britishness, it would be rather soulless. Sadly, perhaps many reading this would rather have this opportunity for a brief respite before the Christmas rush, a moment for family, friends, good food and company. Instead, the commercial side of the custom, Black Friday, has since 2012 been slowly establishing itself here, albeit devoid of its actual reason and purely a money-making venture. I personally think I’d rather have Thanksgiving given a choice than this buying bun fight! So to those who sit down to their turkey, pork and cornbread or sup on three sisters soup, finishing off with their Pecan pie this year – have a good one, you may be more thankful you are overseas than ever for this Thanksgiving!?