Category Archives: Customs contrived

Custom contrived: Thinking Day

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Thinking Day Fort Sheridan Girl Scouts Cumbria copyright Lake Country Discovery Museum

Thinking Day Fort Sheridan Girl Scouts Cumbria copyright Lake Country Discovery Museum

“Far greater than the financial success, however, is the spiritual impact of Thinking Day. A special message I broadcast some years ago gives my assessment of its value: “During the twenty-four hours of 22 February, these kindly, generous thoughts are being thrown out into the ether by Guides who care personally about the preaching of love and goodwill in the world, and these thoughts and prayers are concentrated thus as a live force for the developing of friendship and understanding, for which all peoples are longing.”

“Though you cannot visit sister Guides in France or Finland, in Austria or Australia, in Italy or Iceland, Canada or Chile, Ghana or Guatemala, U.S.A. or U.A.R., you can reach out to them there in your MIND. And in this unseen, spiritual way you can give them your uplifting sympathy and friendship. Thus do we Guides, of all kinds and of all ages and of all nations, go with the highest and the best towards the spreading of true peace and goodwill on earth.”

Right sort of thinking

Beyond those in the Scouts or Guides – and their associated groups- Thinking Day is little known. Celebrated every year since 1922, the 22nd of February, or nearest weekend, it’s central idea is that it was a day that members thought about their sisters and brothers originally in Britain but now globally, and the movement’s impact.

 Thinking about you

The date was chosen because it was rather coincidentally the birthday of both Lord Robert Baden-Powell and Lady Olave Baden-Powell the founders of the Scouts and Guides. Interestingly, according to Lady Baden-Powell that the origin for the idea was from overseas. In Window on my Heart she states

“It was in Poland [at the 7th World Guide Conference, held in Kattawice in 1932] that `Thinking Day’ had its origins. A Belgian Guider at the Conference suggested that there should be one day set apart in each year when all of us should think of each other in terms of love and friendship. All the students of Scout and Guide pray to the god could have as vital a power as the Women’s World Day of Prayer. There was also a practical suggestion that on `Thinking Day’, each Guide throughout the world should contribute `A Penny for Your Thoughts’ towards the World Association funds. The Conference paid Robin (her pet-name for her husband) and me the compliment of choosing our joint birthday, 22 February, as Thinking Day. At first the idea hung fire but, one by one, the nations began to promote the scheme. Money began to pour in for the World Association and the totals have risen steadily from £520 12s. 6d. in 1933 to £35,346 in 1970/71 — the last year for which I have the complete figures.”

Traditional thinking

Over the time various customs and traditions have arisen connected to the day. One tradition is that at dusk a candle should be placed in the window by every Scout or Guide, ex-Scout or ex-Guide,:

 “This is my little Guiding Light, I’m going to let it shine.”

Another tradition is sending letters or postcards to other Scout and Guides before Thinking Day and of course as this has grown globally the spread has been so that email, tweets and facebook posts have replaced this!

A tradition which was upheld in many schools, but appears slowly to be dying out is that members would come to school dressed in their uniform. This is still upheld in some schools, such as Emerson Valley School, Milton Keynes is and recent report stated on their website:

“Wednesday 22nd February is World Thinking Day.  It is a very important day for Beavers, Cubs, Scouts, Rainbows, Brownies and Guides as it is the birthday of  Lord and Lady Baden Powell, Founders of the movement. A number of Emerson Valley School children and staff followed the tradition of proudly  wearing their uniforms to school!

In 1999 at the 30th World Conference the name was changed from Thinking Day to World Thinking Day and themes were introduced. These ranged from 2005’s Thinking about food, 2008 Thinking about Water but more recently the Thinking prefix has been dropped and themes are just Connect and Grow.

In a way it is a shame that Thinking Day is restricted to the Scouting movement – it would be nice for us all to adopt it – we could all do some time to think about others and issues!

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 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 contrived: The Bluebell Service, Swithland Woods, Leicestershire

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“Strangers enjoying an afternoon stroll in Swithland Woods on Sunday might have been surprised to hear the strains of All Things Bright and Beautiful coming through the trees near the old slate quarry.”

Loughborough Echo 14th May 1993

Indeed, almost hidden in a natural amphitheatre beside a great water filled hollow can be found around two hundred worshipers – why are they there? What are they waiting for? A service which is possibly unique in England yet surprisingly still little known – the annual Bluebell service.

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If you go down to the woods today

Arriving at the north car park to the wood, the existence of the event, one follows the small blue signs. I must admit during my half hour or so walk, I did not see a single blue flower. This was despite seeing great swaths of them on the way, particularly in Stoneywell Wood. This might not have been a one off. S. R. Meadows in the 1965 Swithland noted that in an early ceremony an early spring had meant there were no flowers in the woods and the Vicar had to:

admit the bluebells had already come and departed. Whereupon a Salvation army lady, who had attended the corps band stepped boldly forward and presented him with a single bloom, which appropriately she had saved for him.”

All things bright and beautiful

The custom begun soon after the estate was given to the public in the 1920s. The area had long been known as a beauty spot, where bluebells proliferated in great number and so the Rotary Club decided to instigate an annual event. It was a Walter Kilby and a Mr Harry Gimson who conceived the idea of the service with Reverend Frederick Oliver, then vicar of Swithland in 1928 and it has been going ever since then. Indeed until recently, the daughter and the daughter in law of the founders still attended. A search of copies of the Leicestershire mercury or Loughborough Echo recording such regular annual devotion. In 1997 14th May the Leicester Mercury, noted that a Mrs Gweneth Gimson:

“has been present at every single Bluebell service.”

The Leicester Mercury reported on the 6th May 1998 adding next year:

“Swithland churchwarden, Mrs Gweneth Gimson 85 first attended as a 13 year old girl when the service begun in 1927.”

Although the Loughborough Echo of 13th May 1994, suggests that:

“played the harmonium for the service at the age of 10!”

The paper claims that she had been present at every one forget that in 1993 it was noted that:

“Mrs Gweneth Gimson, who has supervised the event for many years, was missing as she suffered an accident at home.”

Fortunately, as it was later testament she did regularly attend thereafter. I did not enquire whether she still attended, she’d be 101, but I am sure she would be there in spirit. Regular attendance is clearly an important aspect of any custom and especially this one. Even when there is a clear threat of rain or in the 1990s murder as the paper stated:

“The worship is expected to go ahead as planned despite the inquiry into the fatal stabbing of Leicester man Esmail Hassan whose body was discovered in the woods just over a week ago.”

Coming up smelling of…bluebells!

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In the small amphitheatre I found the congregation, some were in rows of seats, many with their dogs sat on the hill behind them. In front of them was an outside altar, a table covered with a cloth with a sizeable silver crucifix upon it. There was the vicar of Swithland church, the Mayor and Lady Mayoress and a brass band from Welbeck College. The service which was pleasantly succinct and under an hour long – perhaps they feared the rain – was very focused on giving homage to nature. Guest preachers have varied over the time and in I1997, The Bishop of Leicester, the right Rev. Dr. Thomas Butler was the preacher. The year I attended, the guest was xxxx. The sermon, short and focusing on amongst other things Leicester City’s triumphant Premier League win…a link to the blue of the bluebells! The knowledgeable sermon drew reference to some of the wonderful plants and animals around the woods. The sermon underlined the reason for the service perhaps as a correspondent recorded:

“It’s a country service for those who enjoy the countryside. In a way it’s a celebration of the Creation.”

An earlier Leicester Mercury reference also agreeing to consider that:

“As the sun shone through the delicate green leaves of late spring on the bluebells of Swithland wood on Sunday afternoon, it was not difficult to respond to the invitation from the preacher to ‘consider the flowers of the field’ which more wondrous than Soloman in his glory.”

Swithland (8)Swithland (9)I was particularly impressed by the volume of the singing from the congregation, albeit supported by an excellent choir and especially impressive considering the congregation was seated. Understandably All Things Bright and Beautiful was sung with great gusto. The service ended with a rousing rendition of the National anthem and it was easy to agree with the sentiment again of the Leicester Mercury which recorded:

“as singing the National Anthem to enjoy the bluebells in the afternoon sun, it was obvious that this event in Swithland had lost none of its appeal for visitors to the area.”

All in all an uplifting pause to consider the wonderful world around us and give thanks for it.

 

Custom contrived: The Carshalton Straw Man

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Carshalton can be seen as typical London suburbia. Neat gardens, green spaces, libraries, busy shops and popular pubs. It’s an area usually devoid of anything cultural or traditional. Full of commuters, tired after a long week of work..yet you would be wrong. For come the second week of September a curious and unique event takes over this sleepy slice of commuter land…Carshalton’s Straw Jack

Man of Straw

I attended on a gloriously warm and bright day and I soon found the Jack and its fantastically dressed entourage at the Fox and Hounds – a suitably countryside named pub perhaps. The Jack was certainly impressive, a 10 metre high creature, certainly one of the tallest Jack figures seen on our streets.  It is made in the same way as its Maytime, equivalent being a wooden frame like a May Jack but of course then covered in straw, decorated with flowers.  The entourage was just as beautifully crafted being in the main dressed in a sort of Victorian Gothic Punk…they were certainly much better dressed than the usual Saturday clients at the pub.

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A Straw in the wind

The Carshalton Straw Jack is not a particularly old tradition, only 10 years old, but one which has all the ingredients to make it seem old. A celebration of the harvest, the passing of the seasons, a straw Jack in a nod to the Summer’s Jack in the Green. One can be struck by the names of its attendees the Squire, The Rat Catcher, The Scarecrow, The Reaper Man, The Corn Dollies, The Cider Man all sound suitably harvest related and traditional…as well as comically phrased with a wink in the eye.

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The last straw

I followed the Straw Jack around the streets and through the park as it and its follows writhed in and out, enchanted by the music by the delightfully named drumming band RumpleDrumskin. The assembled onlookers were the usual mix of bemusement and amusement, although I was interested to see an elderly lady reach over to touch the straw covered creature for luck it appeared! Towards the end of the day celebration ends at its final pub, The Hope and here the Jack sees its end. Here a ritual burning of the Jack occurs as its followers scramble to catch pieces of it for good luck…and its over for another year.

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Perhaps it seems highly appropriate that this celebration of the harvest, a harvest long gone for these places, but once so immediately essential, is celebrated here. It is a pub crawl…aren’t they all…but one with a message perhaps to celebrate the harvest. One that may remind even our most urban areas need to celebrate the harvest that has filled their convenience stores and super markets. Long may it continue!

Custom contrived: Bonsall Hen Race

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You have to admire the creativity of many English pubs. Looking for a clever angle, amidst the special Happy Hours and inventive menus there are pubs which go beyond the obvious. The Barley Mow a small village pub tucked down a narrow country lane in a delightful Derbyshire village perhaps has developed one of the craziest – Hen Race Championships. Or did it?

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Fowl Play

Although, landlord David Wragg of the Barley Mow did start the current races 25 years ago, locals will tell you it was an old tradition at least dating back to the 1800s although details are scant. This was probably because the old tradition involved gambling. The main location was the event remoter hamlet of Ible, where the races focused around the Hope and Anchor. When this ceased, if indeed it has, is unclear but it was certainly in fine form back in 1986 when it was captured in jocular fashion the below video. This custom was done unsurprisingly perhaps on the 1st of April.

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Chicken Run

Arriving at the Barley Mow one quickly encounters the area a track 15 metres long. Being August, the organisers were struggling with erecting a tent, not for the spectators, but for the chickens…this is serious stuff..it was needed as well…it rained loads!

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All around the arena are competitors, sitting in cages, cat carriers and even cardboard boxes..their heads popping out and giving a cluck every now and then. Apparently these were any old fowls but many had been subjected to months of training and the landlord often takes his prize winner ‘Flo Jo’ for training across the moors. Not only that but this is a world championship with entries from as far away as Norway..I would be interested to hear their reasons at passport control.

Pecking order

Around 50 birds entered the races in a series of heats. Soon the races begun and hens were lined up at the starting line…and they were off..or rather not. It wasn’t exactly a speedy event with many of the birds looking quite bemused by it all. Some were more interested in going back to the start and pandemonium ensued when one managed to break through the fencing and enter the crowd! Some were content just to peck the ground beneath them..Despite their trainers were at the other end banging tins of sweetcorn and mealworms. Although the birds were pretty standard…their trainers were not – one being a capped crusader and another had a suit made of cartoon strips…great British eccentricity!

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Some hens were more proactive and one was particularly keen to show its abilities…after a few also rans it was clear that there is either natural variation in the survival instinct of the birds or the training worked. The overall winner was one called Road Runner and a very pleased young man called Harvey and his father Oliver looked as pretty pleased. I could say they were cocky….although I chickened out on that joke!

Custom contrived: Pride

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I am planning to be controversial here! What decided what we call a custom? I wonder why folklorists happily describe the Leek Club parade as a custom and not say Pride, or once Gay Pride…yet Pagan Pride, a modern custom clearly based upon it is happily recorded in sites such as Calendar Customs…it is after all underlined by the same idea, a need to recognise the importance of the group and make everyone aware of it…the same reason behind the Club Walks as well of course. Furthermore it is a commemoration of an event another common custom theme. The dictionary definition supports the view:

“a traditional and widely accepted way of behaving or doing something that is specific to a particular society, place, or time.”

So I would reason that Pride (by the way no longer Gay Pride apparently as it includes such a range of sexualities and genders that that name is largely redundant) has a rightly place in a calendar of customs as it has many similarities – it is commemorates, it recognises…and like many customs it is colourful….very colourful in fact! Plus you might add that one of the themes, transvestism has already been largely covered by this blog!

So in a year which has seen some big legal changes in marriage equalities it worth considering this parade, which has gone from militant march to a crazy colourful carnival which has spread beyond its London confines to the provincial town of Manchester, Derby, Nottingham and beyond.

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Pride in the name of love

The first Pride was undertaken in 1972 on the 1st July. This date was chosen as the nearest Saturday to the date of the 1969 Stonewall Riots of Greenwich Village New York. This was a different time of course, in the wake of the more liberated swinging sixties…only in 1967 had the country seen legal changes and as Peter Tatchell, long-time activist notes:

We got mixed reactions from the public – some hostility but predominantly curiosity and bewilderment. Most had never knowingly seen a gay person, let alone hundreds of queers marching to demand human rights.”

Yet despite these reservations 2000 people attended the march continued, year after year. Through the 1980s when the Government introduced Section 28, when it became more militant…and on to the 1990s it was augmented by a large festival like party full of music.

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This is the most interesting thing about it, how Pride has changed over that relatively short time. Some may lament the change from Political to Party and the development of the Pink Pound with it! So it is clear that the Pride has turned from a march to a parade to carnival. Gone it appears have many of the political problems that created it perhaps – Section 28, equal rights, the need for acceptance, even the dread of AIDs once the all-conquering ‘Gay Plague’ as the media termed it, has become manageable. So gone have many of the militant banners and in its place more a celebration.

Pride no prejudice

One of the first things you notice are the hawkers – they appear to be a regular feature of many a custom these days – whether it is flashing lights at Guy Fawkes,  Flower garlands at Hastings Jack in the Green and here Rainbow flags, whistles and garlands…I do wonder whether these people turn up at Neo-Nazi rallies and what they bring!? After much honking and whistling and a cheer when the Fire brigade came by…the parade formed.

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Amongst the parade is the ultimate juxtaposition of characters: some rather amusing drag acts, vicars, police and football fans. The flying of the rainbow flags, blowing of whistles and the sound of pounding drums. The parade is clearly there to be seen! People line the route and fly their flag, laugh, smile and cheer it on – how things have changed from the 1970s!

Indeed as the parade passes the obvious thing that should strike the observer is that amongst the drag acts, colour and flag waving, is the obvious ordinary nature of the people…after all there is no real difference and if that’s the message we get that can surely be a good thing.