Category Archives: Cornwall

Custom demised: Dipping on May Day in Cornwall

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“The first of May is Dipping Day   The sixth of May is Looe Fair Day.”

 

In a previous blog post I discussed May Dew on Arthur’s Seat, in the other end of the country in Cornwall, a curious custom called dipping was associated with May Day and similarly thought to give good luck. R A Courtney is his 1886 article for Folklore on Cornish Feasts and Feasten customs records:

“In Cornwall May Day is hailed by the juveniles as ” dipping-day.” Early in the morning the children go out into the country and fetch home the flowering branches of the white-thorn, or boughs of the narrow- leaved elm, both of which are called ” May.” At a later hour all the boys of the village sally forth with their bucket, can, and syringe, and avail themselves of a licence to ” dip, or well-nigh drown, without regard to person or circumstances, the person who has not the protection of a piece of ” May ” in his hat or button-hole.”

Thomas Bond in his 1823 ‘Topographical and Historical Sketches of the Boroughs of East and West Looe, in the County of Cornwall notes:

“On May day the boys dress their hats with flowers and furnish themselves with bullocks horns in sticks of about two feet long are fixed and with those filled with water they parade the streets all day dip all persons who pass them if they have not what is May in their hats that is a sprig of hawthorn.”

Why did they do it? Perhaps Tony Dean and Tony Shaw’s 2003 Folklore of Cornwall has the answer:

“The importance of dew may have had some link with the May Day practice of sprinkling with water, ‘dipping’, to bring good luck. We have already noted that the Padstow Oss once visited Treator Pool for this purpose and all over Cornwall, dipping was a common custom.”

Dipping appears to be recorded nowhere else although it does have a similarity to customs seen in Poland associated with Easter Monday.

Custom demised: Lide Friday

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Wikipedia tin mine cornwallHere is a lost custom I am sure would welcome a revival to a wider range of industries. T. F.  Thiselton Dyer in his 1875 British Popular Customs Present and Past notes that the first Friday in March was called Lide, from the Anglo Saxon Hlyd for March. This is remembered in an old proverbs which states:

“Duck’s won’t lay ‘till they’ve drunk Lide water.”

Daffodils were also called Lide lilies/ T. F.  Thiselton Dyer notes that in Cornwall it was associated with a bizarre custom:

“This day is marked by a serio-comic custom of sending a young lad on the highest mound or hillock of the work, and allowing him to sleep there as long as he can ; the length of his siesta being the measure of the afternoon nap for the tinners throughout the ensuing twelve months.”

Thus the day was considered a sort of Cornish miner’s holiday although the weather which Thiselton Dyer again notes was:

“usually characterizes Friday in Lide is, it need scarcely be said, not very conducive to prolonged sleep.”

It is believed that during

“Li Saxon times labourers were generally allowed their mid-day sleep ; and it has been observation  that it is even now permitted to husbandmen in some parts of East Cornwall during a stated portion of the year.”

As the tinners disappeared from Cornwall so did the custom it would appear.

Custom survived: New Year’s Day First footing

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As what you do on the first day of the year determines the rest of the year, or so it is said, I was invited to speak on local radio about New Year Day customs – prominent in these is First Footing and I was interested to hear both the newsreader and the presenter recounted their own First footing.

First footing is an interesting piece of British folklore and one that is clearly spreading and as it has taking away local variants no doubt. Early accounts record that it was restricted to the north of England and Scotland but clearly has spread in the first place as the 1st of January was accepted in England as the first day of the year and as media has recorded it.

Indeed the earlier accounts record it as a Scottish custom as noted by Chamber’s 1856 Book of Days :

“There was in Scotland a first footing independent of the hot pint. It was a time for some youthful friend of the family to steal to the door, in the hope of meeting there the young maiden of his fancy, and obtaining the privilege of a kiss, as her first-foot. Great was the disappointment on his part, and great the joking among the family, if through accident or plan, some half-withered aunt or ancient grand-dame came to receive him instead of the blooming Jenny.”

A dark night?

Who should be the first footer was always important but there appears to have been virtually countrywide agreement. For example the standard description for the first footer is described in Lancashire:

“a light-haired man is as unlucky as a woman, and it became a custom for dark-haired males to hire themselves out to “take the New Year in.””

Paying someone to do it was not unusual and Maureen Sutton in her 1996 Lincolnshire calendar records an account from the city of Lincoln which recalls:

“We believed the first dark haired man to set foot over your threshold would bring with him good luck. He had also to bring in the silver, the coal, and the wood that you had put out the night before. My mother used to pay one of our neighbours to first foot she wanted to make sure that everything was done as it should be. Some women thought that first dark haired you saw on New Year’s day you would marry. A fair haired man would bring bad luck, a ginger one was even worse and a women was out of the question. I think she paid the neighbour a shilling.”

Christine Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire in 1936 records that:

“To avoid the risk of such disastrous visits. The master of the house, if he is dark, usually goes out just before midnight. As the clock strikes, he is admitted as First foot.”

In Northumbria according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria it was also desirable that they be unmarried, possibly recalling another tradition of marrying the first man on the new day.  However in Yorkshire although it was important that the First footer:

“always be a male who enters the house first, but his fairness is no objection.”

Tony Dean and Tony Shaw in their Folklore of Cornwall 2009 stressed how the presence of a man was important:

“A female must never be the first over the threshold on New Year’s Day and sometimes boys were main nominal sums to pass over the step before a lady.”

And in the 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather, she notes that:

“a women would not enter a house without first enquiring if a man had been there that day”

And a story is even told of a young Mansfield girl barred from the home on New Year’s day and subsequently picked up by the police in late 1800s because no man had visited the house yet. However equality was rightfully affecting this tradition. In Birmingham a Ted Baldwin recording back in the 1920s in Roy Palmer’s 1976 Folklore of Warwickshire that:

If the person had black hair he or she would be welcome to come in the front door and leave by the back, it was a sign of good luck for the coming year and anyone performing this generous act was awarded sixpence according to custom.

And in Worcestershire it is recorded that in Notes and Queries that:

A belief exists in this county, that if the carol singer who first comes to the door on New Year’s morning be admitted at the front door, conducted through the house, and let out at the back the inmates will have good luck during the year.”

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Bring in the coal

What was brought in and how is equally important and now it appears that in most cases the items have become standardised if sometimes difficult to obtain. Ted Baldwin’s:

Another tradition was to present neighbours with a piece of coal as a symbol to warn off want.”

According to Kingsley Palmer in the 1976 Folklore of Somerset:

“It was the man who first set foot inside the house on New Year’s Day who shaped the pattern of life for the coming months. He should be dark and carry a lump of coal….although the observance is generally practiced in the northern counties it is also a Somerset tradition and can still be found today. Needless to say, a dark man with a few small pieces of coal can visit his friends at this time of year and be rewarded for his efforts.”

In Durham a homeowner would check their larder was full and their coal and firewood stocks were high according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria. In Cornwall money would be left on the window sill. A correspondent from Boston in Sutton recorded stated:

“Silver meant meant you’d have money for the year; coal would give you light and heat; and if you take in wood, you wont take a coffin out in the year, y’er wont take wood out of the house”

Hence the expression recorded in Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire:

“Take in and then take out, Bad luck will begin, Take in and then take out, Good luck comes about”

She continues to record that:

“A curious adaptation of this idea was shown in a Manchester murder trial. During the New Yeae holiday there, one of the habitues of a public house asked for whiskey on credit. The publican refused on the grounds that it was unlucky to give it then. The infuriated customer drew a knife and stabbed the host who died.”

Hole also notes that:

“It was unlucky to give fire, or a light, out of the house on the 1st January. To do so might cause a death in the family within the year or bring some misfortune.”

In Sussex according to W. D. Parish a Dictionary of Sussex Dialect of 1875 that it was unlucky to bring mud into the house and it was called January butter and in Cornwall it is recorded that even dust was swept inwards. In Essex recorded at Colchester by Sylvia Kent’s 2005 Folklore of Essex was the following rhyme for the first footer:

“I wish you a happy new year, a pocketful of money, a cellar full of beer, a good fat pig to last all year. So please give a gift for New Year.”

Warwickshire the following must be said by boys or men:

“A good fat pig to serve you all year Open the door and let the New Year in, Open the door and let me in.”

A Birmingham correspondent recorded in 1966 when she was 40 states that it was:

“and a big fat goose to last you all year.

At this point that poke the fire, runs three times around the table and shouts ‘New air in with the door open and then runs out.”

In Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria children would beg as they first footing:

“Get up aad wife and shake your feathers, dinna think we are beggars, we are just bairns come out to play, get up and giv our hogemany.”

Wrong footed

Is this custom now dying out? Its one of the few private customs which is still undertaken despite no obvious benefits, indeed there is even has a wikihow webiste: https://www.wikihow.com/Celebrate-a-First-Footing. Having said that there has been concern over its survival. In Dundee it was reported in the Evening Telegraph in 2016 that:

“Dundonians are being urged to revive an age-old New Year’s tradition by giving a lump of coal as a first-footing gift. The Scottish custom of visiting neighbours after midnight on Hogmanay has become less common in recent years. Traditionally, visitors would have come with gifts, including coal, shortbread, whisky or salt. In a bid to restore the custom, supermarket Lidl will give out lumps of coal to customers in Dundee – the idea being it would have been placed on the host’s fire to keep it going. Paul McQuade, Head of Buying for Lidl in Scotland, hoped the giveaway would keep the encourage folk to keep the tradition going. He said: “Hogmanay and New Year’s Day is a time for eating and drinking with friends, neighbours and family. “It’s a special time around the world, but especially in Scotland.“This year, we want to give our customers something extra – a lump of coal to present to their neighbours and hopefully this will help revive the tradition of first-footing in the community.” The coal will be available at checkouts in all Lidl stores from today, while stocks last.”

Well I can record that it is still done as noted in my radio interview. So next year my bread, coal, silver will be sitting on the doorstep ready for the doors to open!

Custom demised: Holy Innocent’s Day or Childermas

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History of Childermas: Feast of the Holy Innocents

Holy Innocent’s Day or Childermas is a forgotten date in the calendar but in Britain it was recorded. The day still remembered beyond the British Isles records the slaughter by Herod of the boy children born in Bethlehem in his attempt to remove the Christ child. As these the first murdered associated with the burgeoning faith, they became the first martyrs and as such became marked in the church calendar.

Generally the day was thought to be unlucky and nothing would be organised on this day, Richard Carew noted on 17th century Cornwall:

“that proves as ominous to the fisherman as beginning a voyage on the day when Childermas day fell doth to the mariner.”

Similarly in Shropshire Charlotte Burne in her 1883 book of Shropshire folklore recorded:

“Innocent’s Day sometimes called Cross day is a day of ill omen. The ancient people of Pulverbach applied this name not only to Innocent’s day but throughout the year to the day of the week on which it had last fallen, such day of the week being believed to be an unlucky day for commencing any work or undertaking. A popular saying about any unfortunate enterprise was ‘It must have been begun on a cross day.”

As children were the forefront of the custom it was important to remember them. In some parts of the country the youngest child “rules the day.” It was the youngest who decides the day’s foods, drinks, music, entertainments. In Rutland, according to Leicestershire notes and queries:

“Playing in Church – When living in the Parish of Exton, Rutland, some 15 years ago. I was told by an old lady that in her girlhood, in the very early years of this century, it was custom for children to be allowed to play in the church on ‘Innocent’s day.’”

Still today, Boy or Youth Bishops, rule until Holy Innocent’s day and often a mass is held to commemorate their hand over. In the 17th century, Gregorie’s Works of 1684 noted a contrary custom:

“It was at one time customary on this day to whip the juvenile members of a family. Gregory remarks that ” it hath been a custom, and yet is elsewhere, to whip up the children upon Innocents’ Day morning, that the memory of this murder might stick the closer ; and, in a moderate proportion, to act over the cruelty again in kind.”

According to Thistleton-Dwyer’s 1900 British Popular customs past and present Gregory was informed of another custom told to him by his friend, Dr. Gerard Langbain, the Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford, from which it appears that, at the church of Oseney, associated with the old abbey. He notes:

“They were wont to bring out, upon this day, the foot of a child prepared after their fashion, and put upon with red and black colour, as to signify the dismal part of the day. They put this up in a chest in the vestry, ready to be produced at the time, and to be solemnly carried about the church to be adored by the people.”

This too has been forgotten and perhaps what with Christmas’s secular approach more and more skewed to children it appear unlikely that any customs are going to be revived

Custom transcribed: Christingle

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Around 20 years ago I started noticing reference to Christingle service back in the late 80s as a I travelled around visiting churches. There did not seem any pattern to when they were done. Some were done on the first Sunday in December, others at a random Sunday in the run up to Christmas, some Christmas eve. All of them in advent. So I tried to delve deeper. These were the days before internet and my searches failed. Unfortunately, I was not living near a church which had such a service at the right time.

Then finally I discovered that the Christingle was a curious structure used to represent Jesus consisting of an Orange as the base, a ribbon, sweets and most importantly a candle. But where did this custom come from?

The orangins of the custom

Marienborn, Germany, 20th December, 1747 is the birth date of the Christingle. The creator, the minister, John de Watteville. At a children’s service he explained to the children that Jesus was he:

“who has kindled in each little heart a flame which keeps burning to their joy and our happiness”.

To emphasis he gave them a little lighted wax candle, tied round with a red ribbon. He ended the service with a prayer:

“Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these children’s hearts, that theirs like Thine become”.

Interestingly it is recorded that Marienborn Diary stated:

“hereupon the children went full of joy with their lighted candles to their rooms and so went glad and happy to bed”.

This was of course just a candle and ribbon. Over the years it appears that the Christingle developed. Now the central object is the orange which represents the world, the lighted candle Christ, the Light of the World and the ribbon the blood he shed. The addition of nuts, raisins and sweets on cocktail sticks around the candle represent God’s bounty and goodness in providing the fruits of the earth. Red paper, forming a frill around the base of the candle, reminds us of the blood of Christ shed for all people on the cross at Calvary.

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The name itself is a curious one. According to the Moravians no one knows when it was first used or from where it is derived. Some believe it comes from German engle meaning angel, or the German for child, remembering the importance of the Christ child, ‘kindle’ or more likely perhaps the Saxon word ‘Ingle’ for fire!

A wide a-peel!

“The services are suitable for all the family. They include Advent hymns and carols, prayers for our work, and a purse presentation by children of the diocese. Children go forward to receive Christingle oranges and the Christingle hymn or carol is sung by the light of these alone.”

Gateway, Children’s society magazine 1970

So how did a custom associated with a fairly obscure Christian group get to be in so many churches? The reason comes back to The Children’s Society and a man called John Pensom. He saw in 1968 the Christingle as way to involve children and introduced it to the church of England. It soon grew, by 1969 seven churches adopted it, by 1970 around 18 were held. Then in 1989, Coventry Cathedral and York Minster had special Christingle services to celebrate 21 years of the adoption. A giant Christingle was lit and like the Olympic flame, this was used to light another and then another. I should add this giant Christingle did not use an orange. In 1997, Liverpool Cathedral was the place to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Christingle This prominence may have again helped its’ spread, for by the 1990s, thousands of such services were held. Today virtually every Anglican church has adopted it, from Cornwall to Northumberland and it has spread to the Church of Scotland and Catholic churches. Not bad for a custom whose membership is only just a million compared to the 85 million Anglicans!

One could cynically easily see the adoption of the Christingle as a clever awe and wonder fun device to get families back to church but it is evident that it is beyond that. The Christingle in this world of abbreviations and acronyms is a clever metaphor and symbol, not too preachy but fun, a way to get the message across in this world of quick messages. Long may in spread and bright light to those cold December evenings.

 

Custom revived: Marhamchurch Revel, Cornwall

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One minute I was sitting on the beach at Bude, sun was shining, waves crashing and the next minute I had realized in about 15 minutes Marhamchurch’s unique revel was about to begin. Fortunately, it is only 6 or so minutes away…but a world away from the seaside delights of Bude.

Here having taken various revivals is the Marhamchurch Revel, a local feast with decidedly curious additions. Here the quiet village celebrates their native said who is said to formed a cell on the location of the church and whose feast day was conveniently perhaps close to the ancient pagan celebration of the harvest, Lughnasadh!

A revel-ation

The revel has its origins in the medieval period, and possibly beyond, and records in the Cornish Record Office show that it was a rowdy and drunken affair and after many concerns over the behaviour of those who attended it died out.

It is recorded however that:

“On the 12th of August 1912 the Marhamchurch Revel was revived in a quiet style in the garden of Col. English’s house, Elm Cottage”.

This revival looked at one point to have died out before it started! During the first world war, the revel was only remembered by local children taking flowers to the church for the saint.

It took until 1931 for the revival to be established with more vigour again. This time taking a decidedly Lammas flavour being associated with the first harvest of August.

I arrived just as the main street was being lined with onlookers and further down the street I could see a procession moving in the general direction. This consisted of flower girls, dances, St Morwenna, a marshal and a page boy. Boys boys carried green boughs said to represent the first harvest in the early part of August. There was even a stiltwalker with a puppet monkey very traditional!

Standing on a platform was the character of Father time, wrapped in a dark hooded clock and wearing a grey beard like a waylaid Santa, it is a role undertaken in upmost secrecy. He carries a hourglass and scythe – possibly borrowed from the grim reaper and reputed stands on the site of that original saintly shrine.  That was rather spoilt by someone in the crowd shouting out ‘That’s Dave isnt it”…fortunately I didn’t know of Dave was!

Once the Queen stands on the podium Father time proclaimed raising the crown above the girl’s head:

“Now look! That this is all be seen, I here do crown thee, of this year, the Queen!”

The crowning of the Queen is said to represent the Christianization of a pagan deity but to my mind it was just like any other May queen!…but then again what’s she? I particularly enjoyed the impact our safety conscious world had had on the ceremony – the crown was a riding helmet – great idea but it did not exactly fit well on the new Queen’s head!

Go about our Revels.

There is much formality in this custom. The Queen most be selected by the pupils of the local Church of England school, thus be a native of the village. The blue clock by tradition is passed from Queen to Queen and the Queen most always wear white! One can hearing those early 20th planners setting the ideas out to make it as Merry England as possible.

After the ceremony the Queen on her horse leads the visitors to the Revel field a small patch of ground behind the houses. Here we were able to experience the typical fair of such a feast – dog show, bouncy castle, coconut shy and plate throwing and breaking and some local kids were certainly good at that! Added to the fun around the village scarecrows and a fancy dress party. All good fun. Marchamchurch is rightfully proud of its revel and come rain or shine a great welcome will be received there.

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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