Category Archives: Food

Custom revived: Beltane Fires, Port Meadow, Oxford

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INVITE YOUR ENTIRE FRIENDS LIST PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: This is the last year May Day falls on a weekend or Bank Holiday until 2021. This is the last massive May Day for the next four years. I suggest you go large. CALLING ALL LOSERS, HARD BOOZERS, QUEEN BEES, WANNABES, FULL TIME PUNKS, SHIPS THAT SUNK, MONKS, TIGERS, RAVERS, LIFE SAVERS, MAYBES AND CRY BABIES, MISFITS AND WOTSITS, DAILY FAILURES, DAILY MAILERS, HEATHENS AND FIRE BREATHERS, NORMS, TEACUP STORMS, OLD TIMELYS AND ACID CASUALTIES, THE TUNELESS, TONEDEAF AND ALL THE OTHER DISCORDANT OR OTHERWISE ARE ALL WELCOME!!! ALL WHO FEEL THEY CAN ADD TO THE ATMOSPHERE, WHATEVER YOUR SKILL, POET, JUGGLER, POI, MUSICION, SPEED DRINKER, JOKER, PROFFESIONAL…”

So reads the Facebook invite to Beltane 2017

Last year I started my mammoth quest to visit as a many May Day customs as I could. I started my journey begun with planning to experience May Day at Oxford. The well renowned University town is noted for its unique May Day morning;  a strange smorgasbord of customs. However, I had read a small note of something rather unique and low key the night before and after checking into my accommodation I decided to investigate.

May it be on?

This supplementary custom occurred on the common at the edge of Oxford, so I decided to venture in the darkness of the wide open space. It was an all or nothing venture. This was something not official nor confirmed – I couldn’t find anything online particularly on Facebook. But nevertheless I decided it was worth exploring.

It was pitch black and I walked a few yards along the causeway looking for evidence of any activity. I felt quite unnerved to be honest. The common was a black void, lonely and forbidding. After an hour I couldn’t see anything and was about to turn back when I saw a flickering light in the distance. Was this it? I walked nearer and could hear music. Closer and it revealed itself to be a small group of twenty somethings around a fire listening to music. They were quite bemused by my appearance and said ‘They is a much larger bonfire around the corner’.

May it be a survival?

Of course, folklorists will be intrigued by these fires, being lit as they are on the eve of May Day, or Beltane. In parts of Northern Britain and Ireland the lighting of such fires has a long possibly pre-Christian origin, dating back to our dark Celtic times. Indeed the first written evidence comes from a 900 CE Irish glossary called the Sanus Chormaic which states:

“Beltaine. May Day i.e bil-tene i.e lucky fire i.e two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle against disease of each year to those fires they used to drive cattle between them.”

Interesting until recently cattle were being pushed through such fires in Ireland and Scotland until the 19th century. As a form of purification for the new year. A survival in the Celtic homelands is plausible – but in genteel Oxfordshire unlikely. Despite the link between Port Meadow and grazing thereabouts!

Beltaine and braces!

Well I decided to explore with some degree of trepidation! After a fair walk, I thought it was a wind up. But then I could again hear sounds and see flickering flames in a small opening in the woody area. Making my way through the foliage I found a larger group of people surrounding a larger bonfire. In their little arbour surrounded by fairy lights tangled through the undergrowth there was much chatting and laughter as they listened to the music and drank. Nearby was a reveler spinning around some flaming balls to great effect. All in all ,a typical rave akin to those of the 1990s, but this one being tied to a date made it of interest to the folklorist.

I asked about the history of the custom. One of the organisers said that their parents used to do it and they would attend as children. It was more a town event than the May morning after was most definitely gown event and had been going at least 40 years. She then said that a few years back they as adults went out looking for the fires one May Day Eve and being disappointed in not finding any decided to get organised the year after and do their own. Ten or so years later they were still doing it. This was a big one of course as May Eve was on the weekend without any work restrictions. She was unaware of its significance of the fires, but her name ‘Stardust’ I think explained its origins! A new age custom taken up and brought back to life by the neo-pagan parents, but now strangely like many ancient customs its significance not known to the current celebrants. This in a way indicates how quickly the meaning behind customs is forgotten.

Which in a way is good as its celebrated as deemed fit. The whole affair was very convivial and relaxed; so much that I wish I had stayed longer and not booked somewhere to stay, especially as it was such a fine evening.

Oxford’s May Eve celebrations are the very best of our British customs – an event special to its community, secretive but not exclusive.

Custom demised: Fig Sunday

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Palm Sunday known locally as Fig Sunday was a minor hamlet festival. Sprays of soft gold and silver willow catkins called ‘palm’ in that part of the country, were brought indoors to decorate the houses and worn as buttonholes for churchgoing. The children of the house loved fetching in the palm …..better still they loved the old custom of eating figs on Palm Sunday. Some of the more expert cooks among the women would use these to make fig puddings for dinner.’

Flora Thompson Lark Rise to Candleford

Fig Sunday was an alternative name for Palm Sunday and it appears to have been observed as a custom across the country. It is noted that at one point it was observed in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Northampton and North Wales. In Hertfordshire it is recorded in the village of Kempton:

“It has long been the custom for the people to eat figs – keep warsel! – and make merry with their friends on Palm Sunday. More figs are sold in the shops on the few days previous to the festival than in all the year beside.”

In Buckinghamshire it is noted that:

“At Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire, the children procure figs and nearly every house has a fig- pudding.”

In Dunstable, Bedfordshire:

“For some days beforehand the shop windows of the neighbouring town are full of figs and on Palm Sunday crowds go to the top of Dunstable Downs, one of the highest points of the neighbourhood, and eat figs.”  

In the 1912 Byways in British Archaeology by Walter Johnson he observes that a:

 “Ceremony was carried out on Palm Sunday by the villagers of Avebury, Wiltshire, who mounted the famous Silbury Hill, there to eat fig cakes and drink sugar and water. The water was procured from the spring below, known as the Swallow Head.”

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The author observes that real figs were often replaced by raisins as they were in the west of England and Wessex.

Why figs?

“when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.”

The Gospel of St Mark

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Palm Sunday is so called from the custom of eating figs on that day but why them? The main claim is that on Christ’s entrance to city on Palm Sunday he cursed a fig tree for not having any fruit, a barren tree, being hungry he then cursed it. Another claim is that the practice arose from the Bible story of Zaccheus, who climbed up into a fig-tree to see Jesus.

Sadly although a few food bloggers might promote fig pudding making on the day, Fig Sunday as a community custom has long ceased.

Custom revived: Olney Pancake Race

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You might drive past or through Olney and not stop. It is one of countless small towns in the midlands, the backbone of Britain. However, some people will pass through and remember that Olney is famed for its annual pancake race – the town sign helps of course. Perhaps the most famous place to do a Pancake Race.

Flipping good time?

There certainly is a great atmosphere on Shrove Tuesday in Olney. Schools close, people crowd the streets around the Bull, and pans are ready. Of course there are many pancake races ran on this day up and down the country, but Olney has a unique feeling. Part of this is due to the dress of its female (the only people other than children) allowed to race – there is no equal opps here I think!

No pancakes provided but a pan is, as the message on their website reads:

“Things you need to bring with you on race morning ** You will need a skirt & a pancake Running t-shirt, headscarf, apron, frying pan will be provided”

And as a sign of the times:

“Please do not wear any sponsorship logos apart from those given to you by the race organisers, (charity runners are encouraged to promote their charitable cause).”

Such events need such sponsorship to survive…and there is nothing wrong with that! In 2016 I see unsurprisingly its DuPont™ Teflon® I’d be upset if they did not! Of course in the modern age we need to be enacting and again the website guidance states:

The Race: Once you are all lined up the churchwarden will ring the pancake bell and say ‘Toss your pancakes’…….., please then toss your pancake…..   He will then say; ‘Are you ready?…..on your marks……get set…….go!’ Once you have passed the finish line please toss your pancake again.”

No mid race tossing perhaps they are concerned an accident and the pan-ic that might ensue?

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Flipping good legend

A local legend is provided to explain the race. It is a common legend in other places. It is said that upon hearing the Shriving Bell, a local housewife too busy cooking rushed to the church carrying her frying pan.

Flipping not true?

The website states:

Run since 1445 whatever the weather – so turn up, have fun and good luck!!!”

Ask a resident of Olney and they’ll say that it was first run in 1445. Others claim that it even took place during the War of the Roses in the late 15th century. They claim that it has lapsed over a number of years….but sadly there is no evidence! Although the weather statement is!

What is fairly certain is that the Reverend Canon Ronald Collins in 1948 revived the custom after finding some old photos of the races from the 1920s and 30s. He appealed for volunteers and that year thirteen runners ran on Shrove Tuesday.  Going beyond this becomes more more and more difficult. Steve Roud (2006) in The English Year states that it is believed that the custom begun just before the First World War, then lost, then revived in the 1920s, then lost. An article in The Times from 1939 is apparently the first to describe the race and records it was revived 14 years previous. However, one cannot go back further than this and it is significant that no notable historical research writer on days gone make reference to it! What is more likely that like other villages and towns a pancake bell or shriving bell was indeed rung and people confused the tradition.

Flipping liberal

What also makes Olney unique is that every year since 1950 it has been an international event. As the website again notes:

The link with liberal (Kansas, USA) will take place in the Church Hall at 7.00 p.m. Please would the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd runners take part in this.”

A second race takes place at the same time as Liberal in the US. The race is run on how fast they are but I amazed in this day and age no-one has thought of a video link. Perhaps hologram race in the future.

Olney was one of the first such events I attended back in the 90s when I became interested in our curious customs. I haven’t unfortunately been back since but I’d imagine is everyway as flipping fun as it was back then and will forever.

Custom contrived: Twelfth Night celebrations at Geffrye Museum

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

Cake night!

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

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

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Fire up the party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custom demised: Stephening at Drayton Beauchamp

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Drayton Beauchamp rectory where locals would apply for Stephening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Custom transcribed: American Thanksgiving

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

Speaks a correspondent to Telegraph

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

Thankful for what?

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

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

Thankful in the UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thankful this year?

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

Custom contrived: Apple Day

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An Apple a Day

Apples and the British. We do love an apple! Whether its plucked from the tree, in a sauce for pork or fermented in a cider, there’s something quintessential about apples and the British. We’ve sung to give good crops and bobbed at Halloween so it is about time they had their own custom.

National Apple Day is a contrived custom which has spread remarkably quickly. Started in 1990 on the 21st October. Like the trees themselves they have grown and grown! Its unusual compared to some contrived customs because firstly it has spread and secondly it was the establishment on one organisation, Common Group, an ecological group established in 1983

The rationale by the initiators the Common Ground was to celebrate the richness and variety of the apples grown in the UK and by raising awareness hopefully preserve some of the lesser known types, hopefully preserving old orchards and the wildlife associated with them

Apple of your eye

The Common Ground website describes how by reviving the old apple market in London’s covent garden the first apple day was celebrated:

The first Apple Day celebrations, in the old Apple Market in London’s Covent Garden, brought fruit to the market after 16 years’ absence. Forty stalls were taken. Fruit growers and nurseries producing and selling a wide variety of apples and trees rubbed shoulders with juice-and cider-makers, as well as writers and illustrators with their apple books.

Representatives of the WI came laden with chutneys, jellies and pies. Mallorees School from North London demonstrated its orchard classroom, while the Hertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust explained how it manages its orchard for wildlife. Marks & Spencer helped to start a trend by offering tastings of some of the 12 ‘old varieties’ they had on sale that autumn. Organic growers were cheek by jowl with beekeepers, amidst demonstrations of traditional and modern juice presses, a calvados still and a cider bar run by the Campaign for Real Ale. Experts such as Joan Morgan identified apples and offered advice, while apple jugglers and magicians entertained the thousands of visitors – far more than we had expected – who came on the day.”

From the seeds…

From that first Apple Day, it has spread. By 1991 there were 60 events, growing to 300 in 1997 and now 1000s official and unofficial events, mainly but not wholly focusing on traditional apple growing regions such as Herefordshire. It has grown to incorporate a whole range of people to include healthy eating campaigns, poetry readings, games and even electing an Apple King and Queen in some places festooned with fruity crown. In Warwickshire the Brandon Marsh Nature reserve stated in 2016:

Mid Shires Orchard Group are leading a day celebrating the wonders of English apples. Learn about different varieties, taste fresh apple juice and have a go at pressing (you can even bring your own apples to have turned into juice for a donation).

Things to do on the day:

  • Play apple games •Learn about local orchards •Discover orchard wildlife •Enjoy the exhibitions •Explore the Apple Display • Buy heritage apple trees.”

Whilst a Borough Market, London, a blessing is even involved:

“Borough Market’s neighbour Southwark Cathedral will also celebrate the day with a short act of harvest worship in the Market, accompanied by the Market’s choir.”

Apple Day shows us that however urban our environment we can still celebrate our rural connections and with the growing number of events it is clear Apple Day is here to stay!