Category Archives: Costumed

Custom revived: May Garland, Lewes, Sussex

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“The first of day is garland day, so please remember the garland; we don’t come here but once a year, so please remember the garland.”

May garlands were made across the country, but Sussex at the time appeared to be a stronghold as noted by Henry Burstow in Horsham in his 1911 Reminiscences of Horsham:

May Day, or Garland Day, was a very jolly time for us youngsters, not only because it was a holiday, but also because we used to pick up what seemed to us quite a lot of money. Early in the morning we would get up our best nosegays and garlands, some mounted on poles, and visit the private residents and tradespeople. We represented a well-recognised institution, and invariably got well received and patronised. People all seemed pleased to see us, and we were all pleased to see one another, especially if the day was fine, as it now seems to me it always was. At Manor House special arrangements were made for our reception, and quite a delightful old-time ceremony took place. Boys and girls gaily decked out for the occasion, a few at a time used to approach the front door, where a temporary railed platform was erected, and there old Mrs. Tredcroft, a nice-looking, good-hearted old lady used to stand and deal out to each and every one of us kind words and a few pence, everyone curtseying upon approach and upon leaving. Old Mrs. Smallwood, who lived in a quaint old cottage in the Bishopric, always used to go round on May Day with an immense garland drawn on a trolley by two or three boys. On the top of her little model cow, indicative of her trade — milk selling. Gaily dressed up herself in bows and ribbons, she used to take her garland round the town, call upon all the principal residents and tradespeople, to whom she was well known, and get well patronised.”

Lewes too had a strong tradition of May Garlands and an account by Lilian Candlin recalled her mother that her mother born in 1870 to Simpson that:

“Went early to the Daisy Bank a grassy slope opposite the old Fox inn at southernmost on the 1st of May to gather wild flowers…the flowers were made into a garland which she took around the neighbours who gave her a penny or a cake for the site of it.”

However, not everyone was happy to entertain children going around houses and what was tantamount to begging. It is said that to prevent the children begging a Mayor of the town J. F. Verrall established a tradition in 1874 instigated a competition with cash prizes. It became a more respectable outlet for the children’s enterprise as well as encouraging a love and knowledge of wild flowers. Jacqueline Simpson (1972) in her Folklore of Sussex thus records that:

“In Lewes around 1875-85 children used to go to Castle bank, where their garlands would be judged by a panel of ladies, and the best rewarded a shilling and the children had a half day holiday for the occasion.”

However, it may have been a short lived competition or else the begging was too attractive for Simpson (1973) records that as late as the 1920s children went door to door in Lewes the old way!

When the custom died out is unclear but it was clearly an extinct custom by the time Simpson writes about it in her book. Around the same time Lewes dance troop, Knots in May were being established and fast forward to 1980 and the group had revived the custom.

May rain?

I experience Lewes May Garland on my attempt to visit as many May customs over the May bank holiday in 2016. That may bank holiday a heavy mist laid in the air, then becoming a humid swell which deposited a fair amount of rain. I arrived there is good time and made my way up to the castle, where a mother and her little girl were awaiting with a small garland. I thought that the rain would quite literally put a dampener on it, but soon one by one, more and more elaborate May Garlands appeared – one even being carried by two masked Green Man (or rather Boys). The organisers are to be congratulated for bringing back the real feeling of May Day and over 30 garlands, one of which was I thought was a Jack in the Green, but might have been a fish instead! Some had figures in them recalling the dolls, said to be the Virgin Mary, put into the traditional garland.

May the best garland win

Once all the children and their garlands had arrived they were lined up in the shadow of the castle where the Mayor surveyed them. Broad smiles and anticipation were evident in the faces of the children including the two rather non-plused boys. There was some whispering from the Mayor and soon a decision was made, a decision as had been done back in those first May Garland awards.

Of course the other spectacle here are the Knots in May dancing troop. Holding up their own hoop garlands they weave in and out of each in a hypnotic fashion. Then came the Long Man Morris who gave a sturdy performance. At this point I checked my watch…I had to be off to Rye for the Hot Penny Scramble, for another post.

A delightful revival and one it would be nice to see encouraged elsewhere attached to Morris dancing out at May Day. A real opportunity of encouraging both community involvement and making children understand the heritage of the day off from school!

When is it on?

http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/lewes-garland-day/

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