Category Archives: Lancashire

Custom survived: New Year’s Day First footing

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As what you do on the first day of the year determines the rest of the year, or so it is said, I was invited to speak on local radio about New Year Day customs – prominent in these is First Footing and I was interested to hear both the newsreader and the presenter recounted their own First footing.

First footing is an interesting piece of British folklore and one that is clearly spreading and as it has taking away local variants no doubt. Early accounts record that it was restricted to the north of England and Scotland but clearly has spread in the first place as the 1st of January was accepted in England as the first day of the year and as media has recorded it.

Indeed the earlier accounts record it as a Scottish custom as noted by Chamber’s 1856 Book of Days :

“There was in Scotland a first footing independent of the hot pint. It was a time for some youthful friend of the family to steal to the door, in the hope of meeting there the young maiden of his fancy, and obtaining the privilege of a kiss, as her first-foot. Great was the disappointment on his part, and great the joking among the family, if through accident or plan, some half-withered aunt or ancient grand-dame came to receive him instead of the blooming Jenny.”

A dark night?

Who should be the first footer was always important but there appears to have been virtually countrywide agreement. For example the standard description for the first footer is described in Lancashire:

“a light-haired man is as unlucky as a woman, and it became a custom for dark-haired males to hire themselves out to “take the New Year in.””

Paying someone to do it was not unusual and Maureen Sutton in her 1996 Lincolnshire calendar records an account from the city of Lincoln which recalls:

“We believed the first dark haired man to set foot over your threshold would bring with him good luck. He had also to bring in the silver, the coal, and the wood that you had put out the night before. My mother used to pay one of our neighbours to first foot she wanted to make sure that everything was done as it should be. Some women thought that first dark haired you saw on New Year’s day you would marry. A fair haired man would bring bad luck, a ginger one was even worse and a women was out of the question. I think she paid the neighbour a shilling.”

Christine Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire in 1936 records that:

“To avoid the risk of such disastrous visits. The master of the house, if he is dark, usually goes out just before midnight. As the clock strikes, he is admitted as First foot.”

In Northumbria according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria it was also desirable that they be unmarried, possibly recalling another tradition of marrying the first man on the new day.  However in Yorkshire although it was important that the First footer:

“always be a male who enters the house first, but his fairness is no objection.”

Tony Dean and Tony Shaw in their Folklore of Cornwall 2009 stressed how the presence of a man was important:

“A female must never be the first over the threshold on New Year’s Day and sometimes boys were main nominal sums to pass over the step before a lady.”

And in the 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather, she notes that:

“a women would not enter a house without first enquiring if a man had been there that day”

And a story is even told of a young Mansfield girl barred from the home on New Year’s day and subsequently picked up by the police in late 1800s because no man had visited the house yet. However equality was rightfully affecting this tradition. In Birmingham a Ted Baldwin recording back in the 1920s in Roy Palmer’s 1976 Folklore of Warwickshire that:

If the person had black hair he or she would be welcome to come in the front door and leave by the back, it was a sign of good luck for the coming year and anyone performing this generous act was awarded sixpence according to custom.

And in Worcestershire it is recorded that in Notes and Queries that:

A belief exists in this county, that if the carol singer who first comes to the door on New Year’s morning be admitted at the front door, conducted through the house, and let out at the back the inmates will have good luck during the year.”

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Bring in the coal

What was brought in and how is equally important and now it appears that in most cases the items have become standardised if sometimes difficult to obtain. Ted Baldwin’s:

Another tradition was to present neighbours with a piece of coal as a symbol to warn off want.”

According to Kingsley Palmer in the 1976 Folklore of Somerset:

“It was the man who first set foot inside the house on New Year’s Day who shaped the pattern of life for the coming months. He should be dark and carry a lump of coal….although the observance is generally practiced in the northern counties it is also a Somerset tradition and can still be found today. Needless to say, a dark man with a few small pieces of coal can visit his friends at this time of year and be rewarded for his efforts.”

In Durham a homeowner would check their larder was full and their coal and firewood stocks were high according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria. In Cornwall money would be left on the window sill. A correspondent from Boston in Sutton recorded stated:

“Silver meant meant you’d have money for the year; coal would give you light and heat; and if you take in wood, you wont take a coffin out in the year, y’er wont take wood out of the house”

Hence the expression recorded in Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire:

“Take in and then take out, Bad luck will begin, Take in and then take out, Good luck comes about”

She continues to record that:

“A curious adaptation of this idea was shown in a Manchester murder trial. During the New Yeae holiday there, one of the habitues of a public house asked for whiskey on credit. The publican refused on the grounds that it was unlucky to give it then. The infuriated customer drew a knife and stabbed the host who died.”

Hole also notes that:

“It was unlucky to give fire, or a light, out of the house on the 1st January. To do so might cause a death in the family within the year or bring some misfortune.”

In Sussex according to W. D. Parish a Dictionary of Sussex Dialect of 1875 that it was unlucky to bring mud into the house and it was called January butter and in Cornwall it is recorded that even dust was swept inwards. In Essex recorded at Colchester by Sylvia Kent’s 2005 Folklore of Essex was the following rhyme for the first footer:

“I wish you a happy new year, a pocketful of money, a cellar full of beer, a good fat pig to last all year. So please give a gift for New Year.”

Warwickshire the following must be said by boys or men:

“A good fat pig to serve you all year Open the door and let the New Year in, Open the door and let me in.”

A Birmingham correspondent recorded in 1966 when she was 40 states that it was:

“and a big fat goose to last you all year.

At this point that poke the fire, runs three times around the table and shouts ‘New air in with the door open and then runs out.”

In Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria children would beg as they first footing:

“Get up aad wife and shake your feathers, dinna think we are beggars, we are just bairns come out to play, get up and giv our hogemany.”

Wrong footed

Is this custom now dying out? Its one of the few private customs which is still undertaken despite no obvious benefits, indeed there is even has a wikihow webiste: https://www.wikihow.com/Celebrate-a-First-Footing. Having said that there has been concern over its survival. In Dundee it was reported in the Evening Telegraph in 2016 that:

“Dundonians are being urged to revive an age-old New Year’s tradition by giving a lump of coal as a first-footing gift. The Scottish custom of visiting neighbours after midnight on Hogmanay has become less common in recent years. Traditionally, visitors would have come with gifts, including coal, shortbread, whisky or salt. In a bid to restore the custom, supermarket Lidl will give out lumps of coal to customers in Dundee – the idea being it would have been placed on the host’s fire to keep it going. Paul McQuade, Head of Buying for Lidl in Scotland, hoped the giveaway would keep the encourage folk to keep the tradition going. He said: “Hogmanay and New Year’s Day is a time for eating and drinking with friends, neighbours and family. “It’s a special time around the world, but especially in Scotland.“This year, we want to give our customers something extra – a lump of coal to present to their neighbours and hopefully this will help revive the tradition of first-footing in the community.” The coal will be available at checkouts in all Lidl stores from today, while stocks last.”

Well I can record that it is still done as noted in my radio interview. So next year my bread, coal, silver will be sitting on the doorstep ready for the doors to open!

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Custom demised: Relic Sunday

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“Worshipfull frendis, on Sunday next commyng shall be the holy fest of all relykis (called Relike Sonday), which that be left here in erth to the grete magnificence, honour and worship of god and profite to man bothe bodily and gostily, for in as much as we be in sufficient to worship and reuerence singulerly all reuerent Relikis of all seyntis left here in erth, for it passith mannis power. Wherefore holy Chirch in especiall the Chirch of Yngelonde hathe ordeynd this holy Fest to be worshipped the next Sonday aftir the translacion of seint Thomas of Cauntirbery yerely to be hallowed and had in reuerence.”

So is written in a late 15th century sermon called In festo Reliquarum. Relic Sunday was a Catholic feast which was celebrated in either on the 1st Sunday in July or the third Sunday after Midsummer. The feast was designed to celebrate the relics of Christian saints and was perhaps cynically set up to focus pilgrimage to shrines in which either the saint’s feast day was unknown or else to encourage further devotion, certainly it was recognised by more offerings being given. By undertaking pilgrimage on Relic Sunday an indulgence could be gained. One did not have to go far, for example even when John Baylis’s wife went to her parish church in Rolvenden (Kent) on Relic Sunday in 1511 she stated that she was going on

‘pilgrimage at the relics’.

Image result for St Thomas becket shrine Victorian drawingSimilarly avoiding Relic Sunday would result in penalty. At the quarter sessions in Wigan (Lancashire) in 1592 it was noted that:

“Richard and William Buckley, of Charnock Richard, Laboureres and Richard Sharrock of Heath Charnock butcher on the day called Relic Sunday 1592 in time of divine service at Chorley played at bowls”

Of course the Reformation would have its final say and as the 1846 The Church of England as by law established being very doctrine and express words of homilies against popery noted:

“Concerning Popish Relics But in this they pass the folly and wickedness of the that they honour and worship the relics and of our saints which prove that they be mortal and dead and therefore no gods to be worshipped the Gentiles would never confess of their Gods very shame But the relics we must kiss and offer specially on relic Sunday And while we offer that we should not be weary or repent us of our the music and minstrelsy goeth merrily all the time with praising and calling upon those whose relics be then in presence Yea and water also wherein those relics have been must with great reverence be reserved as ve and effectual Is this agreeable to St Chrysostom writeth thus of relics Do not regard the ashes”

Relic Sunday then disappeared as the shrines became dismantled and the church moved away from Catholicism. It survived longest in Northamptonshire where Thistleton Dyer’s Popular Customs

“In some parts of this county the Sunday after St. Thomas a Becket’s Day goes by the name of Relic Sunday.”

But even here it was forgotten probably only remembered because of fairs associated with the day. The relics are forgotten and as far as I am aware it was never revived!

Custom contrived: Maundy Thursday Shoe Polishing

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“ It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…..he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”  Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”  For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone was clean. When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

John 13:1-17

Shine on!

Whilst the Queen (and every modern monarch since George v) will distribute maundy money on the day, those in the hierarchy of the church try to do something in keeping with the words of John…after trying washing feet, called Pedivallium (which is surely a bit too invasive or Catholic) and whilst the Archbishops of Canterbury and York appear to keep to the tradition, other high level Anglicans have settled upon polishing shoes as a good compromise. It can be encountered across the country from Birmingham to Leicester, Northampton to Nottinghamshire, Coventry to Cardiff.

Where this compromise came from is difficult to find but it is likely to be a transatlantic import. The earliest British example is that of Manchester which appears to have been done since 2008. An account reading:

The Cathedral Clergy shined the shoes of shoppers in Manchester Arndale on Maundy Thursday. The shoe shine idea has a serious message aiming to emulate Jesus washing the feet of his followers 2000 years ago and the subsequent tradition of the clergy washing parishioners feet on the Thursday before Easter for centuries.”

In some places it appears to be a one man team but according to the Peterborough Today:

“THE Bishop of Peterborough rolled up his sleeves to give shoppers a free, symbolic, shoe shine. The Rt Rev Ian Cundy and more than 10 other clergymen and women from across the city gave shoppers’ shoes a bit of spit and polish in Cathedral Square.”

Shopping centres appear to be the popular location but:

“Commuters from Abergavenny were give a free shoe polish at the train station to mark Maundy Thursday today. Modern-day monks living in the community offered the service to people travelling to work in a re-enactment of Christ’s act of washing the feet of his disciples.”

Now there’s a group of people surely in need of a shine although perhaps the business men and women probably had had a shine beforehand, although an extra re-buff doesn’t harm.

Shoe off!

My first encounter with this curious custom was a Maundy Thursday back in 2011, where the Bishop of Southwell called out to me – fancy a shoe shine? How could I refuse and I enjoyed the chance to say back at work that my shoes had been polished by a Bishop.

However, some people were quite wary. Others lacked shoes which could be shined. Some wondered what it was about the Right Reverend Chris Edmonson, Bishop of Bolton, explained to the Lancashire Telegraph:

“This is a modern twist on the tradition of foot washing, which in Jesus’ day was done by the lowest servant of all. Jesus challenged his disciples then, and all of us today, to treat each other with such love and respect. We hope to have lots of opportunities to explain this and the message of Easter, while we offer a practical service to people in the town. Shoe shining in the public space is a brilliant opportunity for Bishop Paul and myself to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ visible.”

Certainly it was a good opportunity for the church to connect in a comical and non-preachy way with the community. Indeed, one man, clearly not a card carrying Christian had quite a deep conversation I observed. Was he convinced by the faith perhaps no, but he left more sympathetic. Indeed as Bishop Paul said:

“It’s all done with a light touch and plenty of banter, but it is very effective.”

The Rev Roger Morris, from Coventry went one further and set up for the three days of Easter he said in the local BBC web page:

“We want to bless the people of Coventry by offering them something for nothing. We’re not after money. We are not on a recruitment drive. We simply want people to associate the Church with the idea of good things, freely given – after all, that is at the heart of the Easter message.”

As Bishop Urquhart polishing shoes outside Birmingham cathedral noted in the Birmingham Mail:

“The shoeshine is just a small demonstration that people who follow Jesus are prepared to roll up their sleeves and serve their communities.”

In a world where those in power seem report a bit of humbleness is more than acceptable….picking up from the Bishops I did it myself this Maundy Thursday!

 

Custom transcribed: Christingle

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Around 20 years ago I started noticing reference to Christingle service back in the late 80s as a I travelled around visiting churches. There did not seem any pattern to when they were done. Some were done on the first Sunday in December, others at a random Sunday in the run up to Christmas, some Christmas eve. All of them in advent. So I tried to delve deeper. These were the days before internet and my searches failed. Unfortunately, I was not living near a church which had such a service at the right time.

Then finally I discovered that the Christingle was a curious structure used to represent Jesus consisting of an Orange as the base, a ribbon, sweets and most importantly a candle. But where did this custom come from?

The orangins of the custom

Marienborn, Germany, 20th December, 1747 is the birth date of the Christingle. The creator, the minister, John de Watteville. At a children’s service he explained to the children that Jesus was he:

“who has kindled in each little heart a flame which keeps burning to their joy and our happiness”.

To emphasis he gave them a little lighted wax candle, tied round with a red ribbon. He ended the service with a prayer:

“Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these children’s hearts, that theirs like Thine become”.

Interestingly it is recorded that Marienborn Diary stated:

“hereupon the children went full of joy with their lighted candles to their rooms and so went glad and happy to bed”.

This was of course just a candle and ribbon. Over the years it appears that the Christingle developed. Now the central object is the orange which represents the world, the lighted candle Christ, the Light of the World and the ribbon the blood he shed. The addition of nuts, raisins and sweets on cocktail sticks around the candle represent God’s bounty and goodness in providing the fruits of the earth. Red paper, forming a frill around the base of the candle, reminds us of the blood of Christ shed for all people on the cross at Calvary.

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The name itself is a curious one. According to the Moravians no one knows when it was first used or from where it is derived. Some believe it comes from German engle meaning angel, or the German for child, remembering the importance of the Christ child, ‘kindle’ or more likely perhaps the Saxon word ‘Ingle’ for fire!

A wide a-peel!

“The services are suitable for all the family. They include Advent hymns and carols, prayers for our work, and a purse presentation by children of the diocese. Children go forward to receive Christingle oranges and the Christingle hymn or carol is sung by the light of these alone.”

Gateway, Children’s society magazine 1970

So how did a custom associated with a fairly obscure Christian group get to be in so many churches? The reason comes back to The Children’s Society and a man called John Pensom. He saw in 1968 the Christingle as way to involve children and introduced it to the church of England. It soon grew, by 1969 seven churches adopted it, by 1970 around 18 were held. Then in 1989, Coventry Cathedral and York Minster had special Christingle services to celebrate 21 years of the adoption. A giant Christingle was lit and like the Olympic flame, this was used to light another and then another. I should add this giant Christingle did not use an orange. In 1997, Liverpool Cathedral was the place to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Christingle This prominence may have again helped its’ spread, for by the 1990s, thousands of such services were held. Today virtually every Anglican church has adopted it, from Cornwall to Northumberland and it has spread to the Church of Scotland and Catholic churches. Not bad for a custom whose membership is only just a million compared to the 85 million Anglicans!

One could cynically easily see the adoption of the Christingle as a clever awe and wonder fun device to get families back to church but it is evident that it is beyond that. The Christingle in this world of abbreviations and acronyms is a clever metaphor and symbol, not too preachy but fun, a way to get the message across in this world of quick messages. Long may in spread and bright light to those cold December evenings.

 

Custom demised: Visiting St. Helen’s Wells on St. Helen’s Feast Day

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After St. Mary or Our Lady, the greatest number of Holy wells across Britain are dedicated to St. Helen. St. Helen, the mother of the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity is a complex folklore figure and authorities have placed her birth at Colchester Essex where there is a well and chapel dedicated to her. It is reported that at Rushton Spencer in Staffordshire, processions were associated with the date 18th August, St. Helen’s Feast Day. Baines notes in his 1836 History of the County of Lancashire:

“Dr. Kuerden, in the middle of the seventeenth century, describing one in the parish of Brindle, says: ‘To it the vulgar neighbouring people of the Red Letter do much resort with pretended devotion, on each year upon St. Ellin’s Day, where and when, out of a foolish ceremony, they offer, or throw into the well, pins, which, there being left, may be seen a long time after by any visitor of that fountain.’”

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The Med. Mvi Kalend notes a similar custom was he states:

“observed some years ago by the visitors of St. Helen’s well in Sefton, but more in accordance with an indent ractice than from any devotion to the saint”

At Walton, near Weatherby, Yorkshire, villagers would also visit their St. Helen’s well whose water was said to be effective as a cure for many ailments on this day. A story is told that once the infamous highwayman Swift Nick Nevison was on St. Helen’s Day, found having fallen asleep after drinking from the well, but still alluded capture after an ill attempted capture attempt by some local youths!

Hatfield’s St Helen’s well – rags tied after a service at the well although now not on St Helen’s day!

In Great Hatfield, Yorkshire, there St. Helen’s Well was restored on the 18th August in 1995 and since then on or near the feast day, a service is held at the well. Perhaps not the same as the times of old, and although no one betakes of the water it clearly has become an important part of the spiritual landscape of the community.

Custom survived: Visiting the Lewis Santa’s Grotto, Liverpool

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So reads the sign as we enter

Santa’s grotto. Seen in department stores, shopping malls, garden centres and indeed everywhere across the English speaking world from Australia to (New) York. A staple all through the 20th century.  Yet I bet you thought it was an American invention? But no! The first place ever to invite Father Christmas to enchant children was in Liverpool and what’s even less well known perhaps outside of the city is that the same grotto is still going strong 137 years on! At first it might seem a little unusual to consider this a custom but a custom it is – a calendar one – and possibly the most engaged in custom in Britain. And one which is truly English.

The story begins with David Lewis who upon visiting the world’s first department store, the Parisian Bon Marche, who brought the idea of a department store in 1877 back to Liverpool. What is interesting is that the store had an exhibition area, an idea Lewis also adopted – then in 1879 it decided to introduce a Christmas themed exhibition.

Santa Claus is coming to Town

Naturally in a city dominated by its maritime history, it was not surprising that Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, patron of seafarers as well as children would visit Liverpool first. Christmas Fairyland was the title of the world’s first Santa’s grotto. It was an instant success with the public attracting people from across the country who could finally meet Father Christmas in person and wonder at his grotto. The grotto covering 10,000 square feet became a popular seasonal sight for Liverpool. Its popularity caused other department stores to develop their own grottos of varying quality, including Blackler’s in Liverpool famed for its giant Father Christmas, again another seasonal staple, whose re-appearance at the Museum of Liverpool has been a welcome one for those who fondly remember it. By the end of the century the grotto had been established in the USA and Australia ensuring Santa would be very busy on the run up for the big day.

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Naughty or nice?

Entering the Lewis Grotto is still a magical experience. There is a whiff of exciting anticipation as one waits in the downstairs waiting room, ready for one’s number to be called, ascend the staircase and enter the magical world. Crossing the threshold one is confronted with a fairy tale fantasy world populated by a miniature world of elves and teddy bears. The grotto’s theme when I visited was nursery rhymes and famous children stories, Snow white, Pinocchio, Nutcracker, Peter Pan. Sleeping Beauty, Little Mermaid, Pocahontas and Aladdin are represented by a tableaux, some moving and many incorporating familiar Liverpool sites like the Rapid Tower and the Liver Building. Other displays in the past have been Alice in Wonderland set in Liverpool and Santa on the Moon. Figures move and sway, wave and enchant both young and old. The display comprises interestingly of both the Lewis Grotto with additions from that of Blackler’s which ran from 1957 until 1988 a youngest compared to Lewis of course, these polar bears guard the entrance to Santa.

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Finding a new ho-ho home!

After 130 years of enchanting children it looked like this iconic grotto was to see its last Christmas, when like many department stores, it closed. But all was not lost. Then then grotto manager, a Mr Mike Done purchased the stock of the grotto at a considerable expense. He was the natural choice to want it to continue as he had worked with it 27 years. After looking around all of Liverpool for a suitable place – size and geography wise – Mike settled on perhaps the slightly incongruous 4th floor Rapid Hardware store. The first theme of its new location was to be about how Santa lost his home and ended up at Rapid.

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So there on the top floor the grottos is set up. This setting up takes a number of months consisting of blocking out windows, painting the backgrounds, setting up the figures, the electricity and everything needed to make the site magical.

It is fantastic to still be able to visit the grotto that spawned such a popular countrywide custom and one which has kept to its own traditions. It is clear by the busy downstairs waiting room that it is still an essential part of a Liverpudlian’s Christmas. Indeed as I was told by Mr. Done one particular visitor has been an 103 year old who worked in the store for 80 years previous and ever misses a visit. He was quick to add that such events spur him to continue with the grotto. Furthermore, as Mr Done related, grottos such as this are a dying tradition. True that Father Christmas is a busy as ever but these are in and out enterprises with very little event to them. This is certainly not the case at the Lewis grotto it is all about the experience.

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Not a grotty grotto

After wandering through these delightful displays we await our moment to meet– the curtain pulls across and there in a Victorian styled drawing sitting on a wreath wrapped thrown – was Father Christmas – even the most cynical is swept along with the enchanting experience and the children certainly leave spellbound with a special glint in their eyes.

In this modern quick fix world of the rapid turnover visit to Santa this Lewis grotto is indeed from another era – one as much about the experience and the build up being as much a part as meeting the man himself. So if you are looking to find that special magical Christmas feeling make a pilgrimage to the oldest and perhaps the best Santa’s grotto,  make it to Lewis grotto now firmly ensconced at Rapid and hopefully continuing well into its second century. Long may Santa be visiting it too.

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Custom demised: The Vessel or Wassail Cup

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The demise of this custom shows how easily common traditions can be lost. So popular was the custom that it had a place in the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica:

“What is popularly known as wassailing was the custom of trimming with ribbons and sprigs of rosemary a bowl which was carried round the streets by young girls singing carols at Christmas and the New Year. This ancient custom still survives here and there, especially in Yorkshire, where the bowl is known as `the vessel cup,’ and is made of holly and evergreens, inside which are placed one or two dolls trimmed with ribbons. The cup is borne on a stick by children who go from house to house singing Christmas carols.”

In the 1800s up to around 1920s, local children around the midlands and northern England, County Durham, Lancashire, and particularly Yorkshire, would enact a curious custom like a mix between carol singing and May Dolls. The custom had many names, often localised Wesley Bob, a Wassail Bob, a Vessel Cup, a Pretty Box or a Milly Box. When the custom was done varied. Visitation days varied accounts recorded in Yorkshire emphasis this variation in Thorpe Hesley it began at Christmas Eve and went on for two to three days. Whereas Hoyland Common only on Christmas day morning. West Melton and Hemingfield it was Boxing Day and Rawmarsh it was New Year’s Day. Generally though the tradition would begin at Advent or more often St. Thomas’s Day, although in some areas it was November, suggesting there is nothing new in the early celebration of Christmas!

How the custom was organized differed from place to place. Sometimes it was a private form of begging and at others organized by the church. The basic approach was as follows: two girls would be the ‘vessel maids’ and they carried a box, decorated with evergreens, often fruit and spices, from home to home, covered in a white cloth. At the people’s homes, the girls would sing a carol and solicit the homeowner for some money, usually a penny, to reveal what was under the sheet. This was a scene of the Holy Family.

Clement Miles in his Christmas in Ritual and Tradition notes that:

“At Gilmorton, Leicestershire, a friend of the present writer remembers that the children used to carry round what they called a “Christmas Vase,” an open box without lid in which lay three dolls side by side, with oranges and sprigs of evergreen. Some people regarded these as images of the Virgin the Christ Child and Joseph.”

Wassail song

As Wright, in their A Yorkshire Wassail Box in Folklore (1906) notes the song sung varied. Sometimes it was the familiar ‘God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen’ followed by:

God bless the master of this house,

Likewise the mistress too,

And all your pretty children

Around your table go.

For it is the time of year

When we travel far nad near;

So God bless you and send you

A Happy New Year.

We have a little purse,

It is made of leather skin,

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Our boots are very old,

And our clothes are very thin;

We’re tired out with wandering around,

And if we cannot sing,

If you only spare a copper

To line the purse within.

So God prosper you and I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

At Normanton the following could be heard:

“Here we come a–wessailing (sic), among the leaves so green.

And here we come a—wandering, so fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,

And to you your wassail too,

And God send you a Happy New Year, a New Year!

And God send you a Happy New Year!

“We are not daily beggars, that beg from door to door,

But we are neighbour’s children, that you have seen before.

Love and joy come to you

I have a little purse lined with stretching leather skin,

And I want a little of your money to link it well within.

Love and joy come come to you.”

Then the box contents were revealed!

A description of the box from the Yorkshire village of Wheatcroft described it as follows:

“The dolls in it have been carried round for twenty–five years.  The box measures 111/4 in. x 7 1/2 in. by 3 in. deep.  It has a lid, but this is not always the case, though the contents of a box are always covered. The box contains besides the two dolls (the large of which is dressed in red), paper flowers, a lemon, holly and mistletoe, a purse, and an artificial orange and an artificial apple, both the artificial fruits containing sweets.  If all the fruits are real, it is necessary to put in a bag of sweets.  The purse should have a hole in it… S.A.’s mother says that the dolls represent the Virgin and Child, and that the box should be made of “parch–board” and lined with moss and ivy. 

Curious origins

Bad luck was associated with the vessel cup if the householder denied it or if it did not arrive. Duncan (1925) in his Second book of carols notes a saying:

“As unhappy as the man who has seen no Advent Images.”

Thistleton Dyer in his British Popular Customs,

“The household visited by the party were allowed to take from these decorations a leaf or flower, which was carefully preserved as a sovereign remedy for toothache.”

All these associations perhaps link it to a possible pagan origin. Certainly, Wright (1906) believed it was associated with pre-Christian deity Dionysius. For as a baby he was placed in a cradle and surrounded by flowers, although it is more likely the biblical crib story derives from that. He also notes that the name vessel came from ship and that the effigy was the boy Sceaf (afterwards changed to Jesus) as a representation of the birth of a new year. Support for this comes from author such as Chaucer who does record the belief that New Year “like a child, came over the sea in a ship.” However it is more likely that it comes from wassail as in was hael ‘good health’.

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Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren

Death of the custom

When the custom died out is unclear but certainly by the 19th century it was coming under some criticism being described as ‘impious,’ being celebrated by ‘the lowest dregs of humanity,’ and ‘the singing so wretched caterwauling.’

Interesting like many customs it appears in the early 20th century to have gone through a transformation. Dunstan in his West Riding Vessel Cup or Wassail Song states the song is:

“as now generally sung by children decked and carrying evergreens and sometimes having blackened faces.”

And no actual cup! Thomas et al (1926) in their Advent Images and Lucy Green, continues on the theme, the Lucy green is a small child dressed in evergreen branches and called it “Lucy Green.” And another called “Turkey Claw Chori” where a turkey claw as a badge of office for those soliciting money. Even the song changed ‘Seven Joys of Mary’ but sung to the tune of ‘God rest you merry.’ However, a search on the internet shows people are keen to revive and presenting some stateside Catholics have revived it…will it ever return here…time will tell.

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Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren