Category Archives: Epiphany

Custom survived: Chalking on Epiphany Eve

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At the local catholic church I noticed at the mass before Twelfth night that they would be blessing chalk and handing it out to the congregation. Why is this you may ask? Well the church as does many across the Christian world – Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox continue a curious custom which has its roots deep within the superstitious world of the medieval mind.

At the chalk face

The custom appears to have originated in central Europe at the end of the middle ages and spread. When it first arrived in Britain is unclear and indeed it is equally unclear how long as a custom it has been undertaken but a cursory check online would suggest it is fairly widespread from Paisley to Plymouth.

When and actually what is done varies in some places it would be done on New Year’s Day, but more commonly it would be done on the more traditional Feast of the Epiphany. Indeed, as noted in the introduction it would take place after the Epiphany Mass when blessed chalk would be taken home for it to be done at home by either a priest or more often the father of the family.

Chalk and talk

The chalking the doors follows the following formula for the ritual; over a door would be written for 2020 for example:

20 + C+M + B + 20.

The numbers refer to the year but what do the letters refer to? Like many religious activities it has two meanings. Firstly C M and B are the initials of the first names of the Magi who visited Jesus on Twelfth Night, Caspar, Malchior, and Balthazar. But also they mean:

Christus mansionem benedicat

A Latin phrase meaning:

 “May Christ bless the house.”

The “+” signs represent the cross.

The purpose of the chalking those is to request the house is blessed by Christ and this good will is taken for the rest of the year and secondly that it shows those passing of the family’s faith and welcoming nature. Sometimes the custom is simply chalking but it some causes holy water is used and prayers said

Chalk it up

What is particularly interesting is that the custom is a widespread survival of a much more curious lost custom; that of making ‘witch marks’ or ‘apotropaic’ marks to protect the house and its occupants from evil forces. The carving of sunwheels, Marian symbols, pentagrams, etc can be found on entrances or exits of old houses across Britain. By doing so it prevented the evil spirits from entering and protect and bless the house. Chalking the door is the only survival as far as can be ascertained of this custom and as such is of considerable interest.

Traditionally the blessing is done by either a priest or the father of the family. This blessing can be performed simply by just writing the inscription and offering a short prayer, or more elaborately, including songs, prayers, processions, the burning of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water. An example below being given:

Prayer:

On entering the home,

Leader(Priest, if present, or father of the family) : Peace be to this house.
All: And to all who dwell herein.

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

All Pray: The Magnificat. During the Magnificat, the room is sprinkled with holy water and incensed. After this is completed,

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

Leader: Our Father. . .
And lead us not into temptation

All: But deliver us from evil.
Leader: All they from Saba shall come
All: Bringing gold and frankincense.
Leader: O Lord, hear my prayer.
All: And let my cry come to You.

Leader: Let us pray. O God, who by the guidance of a star didst on this day manifest Thine only-begotten Son to the Gentiles, mercifully grant that we who know Thee by faith may also attain the vision of Thy glorious majesty. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

Leader: Be enlightened, be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee—Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary.

All: And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light and kings in the splendor of thy rising, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon thee.

Leader: Let us pray.
Bless, + O Lord God almighty, this home, that in it there may be health, purity, the strength of victory, humility, goodness and mercy, the fulfillment of Thy law, the thanksgiving to God the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

After the prayers of the blessing are recited, each room of the home is sprinkled with Epiphany water and incensed. The initials of the Magi are inscribed upon the doors with the blessed chalk. (The initials, C, M, B, can also be interpreted as the Latin phrase “Christus mansionem benedicat” which means “Christ bless this house”.)

Example: 20 + C + M + B + 20 

Another possible prayer to say during your Chalking:

May all who come to our home this year rejoice to find Christ living among us; and may we seek and serve, in everyone we meet, that same Jesus who is your incarnate Word, now and forever. Amen.

God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only-begotten One to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Loving God, bless this household. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness, and abiding in your will. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.”

It appears that the custom is in some sort of revival of interest. It is described in St Asaphs, Wales,  St Paul’s Wokingham, St Giles Matlock and St Mary’s Hardwick, Derbyshire. An account from the COE website states how the custom can fall again into abeyance often to do with the views of the incumbent:

This used to be an annual feature of the Epiphany ceremonies conducted by the Revd Brian Brindley of Holy Trinity, Reading, who was something of a dramatist in liturgical matters.

The idea was that the members of the congregation took home a blessed piece of chalk, and also a piece of black paper, on which they were asked to write the traditional names of the three Wise Men. This was taken home and attached to the front door of one’s house in order be identified with the aim of the pilgrimage of the kings.”

Interestingly, in the 1800s custom appears to have become secularised if this account is any suggestion:

“At Skipsea, in Holderness, Yorkshire, the young men gather together at twelve o’clock on New Year’s Eve, and, after blackening their faces and otherwise disguising them- selves, they pass through the village, each having a piece of chalk. With this chalk they mark the gates, doors, shutters, and waggons with the date of the new year. It is considered lucky to have one’s house so dated, and no attempt is ever made to disturb the youths in the execution of their frolic.”

Such secular exuberance appears to have died out but its religious observance continues.

Customs revived: Nottinghamshire plough Monday plays

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Folk plays are an interesting area for folklorists. They appear to instil within them traditions and actions from a dark distance part that has been a good source for academics to discover their meanings and origin.

Once it appeared in the early-mid 20th century that they would be a thing of the past as everywhere it appeared they were dying out. However, nothing could be further from the truth at the start of the 21st century as they appear to be in rude health, with at least six renditions across Nottinghamshire over the week of Plough Monday in 2012 by five different groups.

Playing around

I spent the second week of the new year experiencing three different Plough Monday plays in the area and I have detailed my thoughts on them as well as rough copies of the plays as according to traditionally recorded scripts(The scripts are copied from the excellent Mastermummers website in which far more information can be found)

All three plays are versions of what are called Recruiting sergeant play and follow a common theme. Generally a character called Tom Fool is the first in and introduces the play sometimes as in the case of the Calverton play to the sound of a fiddle or a drum. Then the scene moves to a discussion between the recruiting sergeant, a farmer’s man and a ‘female’ character (dressed in drag and called Lady bright and gay). In this scene the farmer leaves his sweet heart to join the army and so spurned the ‘female’ character marries the fool and often a dance ensues. In the next scene in comes another ‘female’ character (again in drag and this time called Dame Jane) who then argues with the Fool that he has a baby with her out of wedlock. They too and fro until Beelzebub turns up and has an altercation with Dame Jane to which she falls down to the ground dead. A doctor is called (usually the fool who is happy to see the character dead…less alimony, offers more money for the doctor to go away) who through various quackery brings the character back to life. A song basically wishing everyone good health and wealth is sung as a plea to then extract money from the audience. Traditionally this money was ‘begged’ after all being plough men they weren’t very busy in the winter, but now days goes to charity or beer money!

The Calverton Plough Play

The final play I watched was in the rather busy environs of the Admiral Rodney in Calverton. The Calverton Play enacted by the CRAPPPs since 1978 is the oldest of the revival plays with only a 20 year or so gap. It was excellently performed and the 13 piece team clearly enjoyed their roles. Their script followed the Cropwell play script with again some adlibs and for those that got involved in watching were thoroughly entertained. Sadly I was unable to follow the team as they went of their three night 19 venue tour but clearly they took their responsibility with great enjoyment and with it so does the often confused onlookers.

The script in 2012

I have transcripted the script of the Calverton Play as heard in the Admiral Rodney. It gives an idea of the nature of all the plays, although variations exist between them and later posts will have more details on these.

Tom Fool: In comes I, Bold Tom Good evening ladies, gentlemen all. We have just come to taste your beer and ale. That the tell me is so ripe and so mellow. Good evening Ladies and gentlemen all

CROWD: Good evening

Tom Fool:. Good evening Ladies and gentlemen all

CROWD: Good evening

Tom Fool:. Plough Monday has just past which makes Tom Fool so bold as to call. But don’t take all I have to say, there’s plenty of more lads and lassies on the way. Some can dance, some can sing. So by your leave they shall come in Okum, Pokum, France and Spain, the Recruiting Sergeant just the same

Recruiting Sergeant: In comes I the Recruiting Sergeant. I have arrived here now. I have orders from the King. Enlist all jolly men that follow horses, cart, waggon or plough, Tinkers, tailors, peddlers, nailers. All the more to my advance. The more I hear the fiddle play. The better I can dance.

TOM FOOL and RECRUITING SERGEANT DANCE

Tom Fool: What, can you dance? I can either dance, sing or say. If you can either dance, sing or say. I shall swiftly march away.

Farmer’s man: Knock knock, in come I, that lost my mate, dripping tears are down my face. Try again. Pity my condition

CROWD: Ahh!

Farmer’s man: Aside: Come on we do this every bloody year! I say pity my condition and you give me a bit more sympathy that that… Pity my condition

CROWD: Ahh!

Farmer’s man: That’s sympathy. For I declare for a false young girl and I am in despair.

Lady: Behold the lady bright and gay. Good fortune and sweet charms.

Farmer’s man: Surely I have been tricked and broke PUSHES LADY TO THE GROUND THEN GETS UP

Lady: How scornfully I have been thrown from true love’s arms. He says as I won’t to him wed with him. He’ll let me understand. He will list all for a soldier. And go off t some foreign land.

Recruiting Sergeant: Come all you lads that have a mind for listening. List and do not be afraid. You shall have all kinds of liquors. Likewise kiss this fair pretty maid. If you’re not afraid and go with me you’ll go for we shall make a gallant show. Are you free hearted

Farmer’s Man: I am free hearted?

Others: Of he’s free hearted..

Recruiting Sergeant: Are you willing?

Farmer’s man: I am willing!

Recruiting Sergeant: In your hat I place a ribbon and in your hand a shilling.

Lady: No don’t take that shilling!

Farmer’s Man: Thank your sergeant for your offer before I stay longer…ASIDE where’s he gone! Oi! You’ve got my ribbon! If I stay longer I may fair worse, and dash you’re old wig (to Lady) ASIDE: Oh no my god it’s Paul Howard. If I stay long for this brown and saucy lady-boy

Lady: ASIDE Four years at Radar!

Lady: since my love has listed and entered volunteers. I neither mean to sigh for him or yet to shed one tear. CRIES. Aside to Tom Fool: come on!

Tom Fool: Do thou love me my pretty fair maid?

Lady: Oh Yes Tommy, to my sorrow

Tom Fool: And when shall be our wedding day

Lady: Tomorrow lad tomorrow

[All Four] And we’ll shake hands and we’ll make banns. And we’ll get wed tomorrow.

Threshing Blade: In come I old Threshing Blade. As all you people know. My old dad learnt me this trade some 90 years ago. I thrashed this part of the country and thrash that part too! And I will thrash you, Tommy lad, before I go

ASIDE: Cherry Tree drinker!

Sanky Benny: In come I. I can plough, sow, reap or go and I hope you masters will bestow all you can afford in my hopper-o. But not only that for I am Sanky Benny

ALL: Sanky .

Sanky Benny: And I have one and half yard of black and white tape that I will seeelllll you (to Tom Fool) for a penny

Tom Fool: Oh Sanky my old lad me old marrow. Now what have we got in the old line, anything soft and…hang on they’re sticking DRAWING UP SOME UNDERWEAR ON A STRING

ASIDE: That’s rude

Tom Fool: It’s only rude if someone’s in ‘em!These are hankies

Farmer’s man: In comes I, the Farmer’s Man,
Don’t you see my capping hand?
I go forth and plough the master’s land,
And turn it upside down.
How I straight I go from end to end.
I scarcely make a baulk or bend;
And to my horses I attend
As they go marching round the end.
Hov-ve, gee, wo! {cracks his whip.}

Dame Jane: In comes I, old Dame Jane, With a neck as long as a crane ; Dib-dab over the meadow. Once I was a blooming maid, Now I am a downright old widow. Long time I have sought thee, And now I have caught thee. Tommy, take the child.

Tom Fool: Jane!it’s none of mine. Who told you bring it here?

Dame Jane: Well the overseer of the parish told me to bring it to the biggest fool I could find, and I think you be him,for its eyes, nose, cheeks and chin, is as much like you as ever it can grin.

Tom Fool: Is it a boy or a girl?

Dame Jane: It is a girl.

Tom Fool: Ah ha well mine is all boys. Take it and swear it to the village pump, old rag-bag.

{Enter Beelzebub.}

Beelzebub: In comes I, Beelzebub, On my shoulder I carry my club,In my hand a wet leather frying pan ;Don’t you think I’m a funny old man? Is there any old woman that can stand afore me?

Dame Jane: I fear I can. My head is made of iron,My body made of steel,
My hands and feet of knuckle-bone,I think nobody can make me feel.Crack one

Beelzebub: If your head is made of iron,Your body made of steel,
Your hands and feet of knuckle-bone,I think I can make me feel, old girl! {knocks Dame Jane down.}

ASIDE: It’s like the cherry tree

Tom Fool: Oh, Beelzey! oh, Beelzey! what hast thou done? Thou hast kilt the old woman and limted [lamed] her son. Five pounds for a doctor, Ten to stop away, Fifteen to come in. {Enter Doctor.}

Doctor: I’m not coming in for less!

Tom Fool :You the doctor?

Doctor: Yes, me the doctor!

Tom Fool : How came you to be the doctor?

Doctor: By my travels.

Tom Fool: Where have you travelled?

Doctor: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales; back again to doctor old England ;
fireside, bedside, by my old grandmother’s cupboard-side, where I have had many a pound of pork pie in my time. Makes me so stout and my face to shine

Tom Fool: Very impressive but what diseases can you cure?

Doctor: Ah ha I can cure the ipsy-pipsy, palsy, and the gout,
Aches within, aches without,
Draw a leg, set a tooth,
And almost raise the dead to life again.

Tom Fool: Oh You do seem a very clever young man,
Perhaps then you should try your skill.

Doctor: Eh Right then

Doctor: Thank you, kind sir, and so I will. But first I must a feel  of the young lady’s pulse Her pulse beats exceeding fast ;
nineteen times to the tick of my watch once.
She is in a very low way; she will not get a deal lower without there is a hole dug for her.

Tom Fool: It’s his only joke.

Doctor: Give some of my whiff whaff and a tap on the head with my tiff taff. And one of my pills. Would you like to take one madam. Big round white one She’s to take one in the morning, one in the evening and swallow the box at dinner time. This will do her the power of good, cleanse her bones and clean her blood. But wait she is not dead

ALL: Not dead

No merely in a trance

ALL: Merely in a trance

So raise her up and let her dance; If she can’t dance we can sing,
So raise her up and let’s begin.

All dance a country dance, and sing various solo songs; then all sing together -}

[All]

ALL: Good Master and good Mistress, As you sit round your fire, Remember us poor plough boys, That plough through mud and mire. The mire has been so very deep, We travel far and near, We thank you for a Christmas box,
And a pint of your best beer

Bleasby Plough Play

The Rattlejag Morris organised an excellent series of events associated with a Plough Sunday blessing at Morton church. Sadly I missed this part of the custom but arrived in time to see the celebrations at Bleasby where a number of sword dancers, clog dancers and even a rhythm band assembled in this pleasantly mellow Sunday afternoon. The play enacted by Rattlejag Morris was performed in the street outside the Waggon and Horses pub. It was based on the Farnsfield play with an introducer, who had been drafted in from the Sword dancers and had to read much of it from a script (however it did not detract from the spectacle). It is worth noting that the character wore a jersey based on that once preserved in Nottingham costume museum.

Tollerton Plough Play

Tollerton’s Plough Play was last performed in 1952 and it was not until 2002 that it was restored. The basic script for what is called the Tollerton Play is as follows, with characters, the fool, recruiting sergeant, farmer’s man, lady, Dame Jane, Belezebub, Doctor and nurse (who was the prompt)  It differs by having an introducer who quietens the crowd and was an obvious good idea in noisy pubs. However, here I felt was the best atmosphere and the closest perhaps to that which would have accompanied that when done in the dark distant past. Although the pub was packed, everyone was there to see the play! The script was resonant of local in-jokes including a comment on a fire which burnt one of the character’s barn leaving one chicken (a plastic chicken in the play) and the Lady’s attempt to grab any man ‘he’ could for maximum embarrassment.

Ploughing a familiar furrow – What are these plays about?

Obviously at one time all these plays would have had the same characters and script and it is possible that the script became separated from the actions in the Puritan when they may have forgotten the words but remembered the mime of it probably adding verses to it at a later date. Some antiquarians saw that the play with its scene of death and resurrection had clear pagan overtones and represented the triumph of spring over winter, although why the recruiting aspect is in it is unclear. More recently this view has been discarded due to lack of evidence. It is possible that the original ‘play’ was simply the death of Beelzebub and his resurrection as this does rather sit as a discrete scene within the scene of the fool and his mistress and recruitment. Perhaps these last two were later cemented onto it to add familiarity and bawdy humour perhaps post Commonwealth, the recruiting section aping the Civil War and the bawdiness as a relief from the puritan’s restriction of it. However this is mere supposition..in the end we may never really know…

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