Category Archives: Hertfordshire

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 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: 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!

Custom revived: Old Man’s Day, Braughing

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There are many picturesque Hertfordshire villages, but few have many surviving traditions and none have a custom as peculiar and nonsensical as Old Man’s Day. A tour of village churches will reveal the frequency of benefactor and charity boards…and indeed I have catalogued a few in this blog…but whilst doles and gifts are pleasantly quaint and common place..none have survived with such a strange stipulation.

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My Old Man’s a dead man!

Why is it so odd? Well that is due to the legend of the titular benefactor, real name Mathew Wall. The local legend tells that when he died in 1571 it was not the end. For as the pall bearers carried his coffin down Fleece Lane on its way to burial the church, a leaf got in the way. A bearer slipped. Bang. The coffin was dropped. Everyone was apparently aghast in horror…but the level of horror was about to rise. For once the shock of dropping the coffin was got over there was a knock. An audible rap on the coffin. The undead? A zombie? No Matthew had woken up…he was alive! The account does not attest the response of the villagers then but Matthew was released from his coffin alive. Indeed he lived for another 24 years!

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Dying to be remembered

When he did die in 1595, it is said that a thankful Wall then gave money to the village and stipulated that the 2nd of October the event should be remembered. Of course the church would not be reluctant to remember a story of a dead man resurrected! Local people often frightened of premature burial – the diagnosis of comas not being particularly successful back in the 16th century, would be happy to oblige too.

A clean sweep

One of the most curious aspect of the custom, the nonsensical aspect, is the most colourful. As the church bells toll the Death knell – a Will stipulation, children from the local school are prepared. Armed with brooms…they sweep Fleece lane. Now whilst one would expect them to sweep leaves onto the path…they sweep them off. It doesn’t make sense…if someone had done that the day of his ‘funeral’ it would have remained that his funeral…no legend no custom. Did he regret his survival? Did he become a bitter old man? Did he want to be the only one resurrected? Or did some busy-body moan that sweeping leaves onto the path would be problematic and pointless!? As the present enactment arises from the mid-20th century perhaps it was changed then by mistake? Whichever the children relish the job and the path is thoroughly swept and very few see it as an opportunity to play fight..with 50 odd students that’s quite an achievement.

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Death duties

Of course money is involved. Although the sums have changed over time. Wall’s Will is a typical one in many respects and amongst the ‘eighteen pence for the crier of Bishop’s Stortford for announcing on Ascension and Michaelmas Day in the market place that as long as the world shall be endure be it known that the Testator left his Estate to one Matthew Wall.’ records:

One shilling and eight pence each to the vicar and both churchwardens; a small sum of money to 20 virtuous poor children and 10 aged and poor parisoners, that all might bless his memory; two shillings and 10d to the sexton to keep his grave in order and another shilling to ring the bells on October 2nd, the anniversary of his remarkable escape from death; one shilling to a poor man to sweep the path from Wall’s house to the church gate….and finally eight pence to either Matthew or William Wall.”

One can see there have been a few changes over the years. The twenty poor children are clearly the school children…although they don’t get paid (well not exactly) and they replace the poor man to sweep the path – poor men being difficult to define and unlikely to turn up – children are numerous and willing of course. It is interesting that the owner of a house on the main road called Quilters is asked to contribute £1. Why? The house is apparently where Wall lived. However it does not appear to be mentioned in the Will. Perhaps the money goes to pay the vicar who traditionally gets the same money for organising the event. Perhaps the Will contained little money.

Once the lane is sweep, the children gather around Wall’s grave. A simple earth mound, well it was in the 1500s. Here prayers are said and the children sign a song, the words being held up, so they don’t forget. As soon as the song is sung, the church rings a joyous wedding peel. A celebration of his survival. Only one thing remains to thank the children with sweets…surely a modern twist to keep the children on board. Then the children return to the classes or go home accordingly…and Matthew is forgotten for another year. I am sure he would be very pleased to see his tradition has survived where many have been lost – surviving in memory through Reformation, War and Charity commissioners…a clear device considering how many 16th century commoners graves survive today to be seen. Setting up a custom has certainly allowed his name to continue..and with such a curious and comical custom I am sure it will continue.