Category Archives: London

Custom survived: The Worshipful Company of Vintner’s Installation Day Procession, London

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It’s hardly one of the longest processions in fact my conversation to the wine porter as we awaited the assembled group was longer, but if you want to get a feel of medieval London, the Worshipful Company of Vintner’s procession to install their new Master, or Installation Day fits the bill.

The City of London has many livery companies and many processions but despite its shortness the Company of Vintner’s procession to the local parish church from their Livery Hall is certainly unusual .

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Making a clean sweep of it

The procession is to bless the inaugurated new Master of the Vintners and to ensure that the journey is both a safe and pleasant one two additions are required. Firstly, ahead of the procession is the Wine Porter who carries a broom with a top hat and white smock. This is ceremonially brushed from one side to another in front of the procession traditionally to remove any detritus from the Medieval world which lay in front of them. He uses a birch broom which would have been that available to his medieval forbearers rather than a flat headed modern broom which might have been a bit more successful removing the chewing gum and sweet wrappers. Originally there were two who were employed with:

‘full besoms…that the Master, wardens and his warden and brethren of the Court of Assistant step not on any foulness or litter in our streets’

No new broom sweeping clean

The history of the Company may go back to the Norman Conquest although as its first formal charter was signed in 1363 which gave them a monopoly of trade with Gascony. As wine was an important and valuable commodity in the medieval world the Vintners were a very important although its importance waned when like many companies their monopoly was removed in the Victorian period. The Wine porter has exclusive rights to handle wine in the Pool of London, as the Hall which doubled as a warehouse backing on to the Thames, but they were disbanded in 1963 as numbers dwindled as wine arrive by other means. Today it is more of a charitable organisation. Indeed Brian Shuel in his Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain noted that:

“Harry Darude, the last surviving Wine porter, was wielding his broom for the twenty-fifth time while a,l the other present were wondering who would be doing it if he passed on.”

However it was and despite their reduction in role the Wine porter survives if purely ceremonially. Behind the Wine Porter are the outgoing and incoming Master and three Wardens, Bargemaster, Beadle with their mace, Stavemens, members of Court of Assistants, Clerk and the vicar. Appearing like they had stepped out a Holbein painting they wear furred gown, Tudor caps and carry posies of flowers.

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A good nose for a wine

These posies or rather nosegays are not flowers to be laid at some grave or tomb at the church but had a functional purpose. In the medieval period the streets smelled bad, sewage line the footpath and fires filled the air. The posies made of strong smelling flowers and herbs were thought to keep the air fresh around the carrier and:

“their nostrils be not offended by any noxious flowers or other ill vapours.”

In those days thought to prevent diseases caused by bad air! Mind you it would have been made worse surely but the broom sweeping it up into the air! One wonders how good they are at covering car pollution!

When the time came the police appeared and stopped the traffic. Brian Shuel in his Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain noted that:

“It was in this year, 1982, that Harry was much disconnected to find his normal route barred by impenetrable roadworks, causing him to improvise a long diversion. Furthermore it was pouring with rain, necessitating the addition of large black umbrellas to the usual regalia.”

The weather was thankfully fine and despite a strange journey over a bridge it was uneventful as they arrived in good time at St. James Garlickhythe. Once the service was over it was repeat performance sweeping back to the Livery Hall. Hopefully for a celebratory glass of wine. It’s taken me longer to open some wine bottles to be honest. However, one cannot perhaps find a more accessible procession.

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Custom revived: Chestnut Sunday Bushy Park

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One of the great joys of Maytime is the blossom that abounds. Hedgerow, fields and parks. The simple desire to appreciate and experience such natural beauty was behind the most curious of London customs; Chestnut Sunday

In a sort of homage to the tradition concept behind the northern Spa Sunday perhaps, London developed the custom soon after Queen Victoria opened the Royal Park to the public. Soon people recognised the grandeur of the chestnut trees that lined the drive in.

Bushy plants

It was during the reign of William and Mary that the mile long avenue lined by horse chestnut trees was planted by Sir Christopher Wren (not personally of course). These trees reached their zenith in the Victorian period and people, including members of the Royal family, would descend on the park on the Sunday nearest to the 11th of May when the blossom was said to be at its greatest. Thousands attended, records show that one Chestnut Sunday in 1894 over 3500 tickets were collected at Hampton Court railway station alone. Over the time it was so popular that even bus companies would organise special excursions. Although it World War I suspended any formal organisation to see the chestnuts, advertising went overboard once peace had returned. The Transport for London museum has a number of evocative posters made during the hey day of the custom – the 1930s showing people picnicking, promenading and playing amongst the trees.

Load of old chestnuts

The coming of World War II and the use of the park as a military headquarters curtailed Chestnut Sunday and it slowly disappeared. However it was not completely forgotten for a revival was coming. In 1977. Colin and Mu Pain, Hampton Wick residents came across details of the custom doing research about the suburb. The year was a good one for a revival being the Silver Jubilee of the Queen and so together with the Hampton Wick Association a one off celebration again on the Sunday closest to the 11th of May was planned. From this it grew and grew.

From tiny chestnut…

That initial revival has developed and developed that it has become a festival. I visited in 2008 to be greeted by thousands of people lining the avenue to see a parade which went from Teddington Gate to the Diana Fountain. The procession was the usual mix of vintage cars, marching bands and cavaliers…but no Morris…except from Morris Minor that is. A nice distraction although the smell of the vehicles did rather overpower the natural beauty of the avenue. Indeed Roy Vickery in his excellent Plant Lore blog notes:

Today, and one assumes throughout most of the event’s recent history, very little, if any attention is paid to the trees, a small number of local charities have stalls, there are a small number of food stalls, and a small funfair, the main attraction being a parade which starts at 12.30 p.m.  But the event is very popular with families, many of whom bring picnics.  In 2019 the parade consisted mainly of veteran vehicles – military vehicles, cars, bicycles, scooters and motorbikes.”

With a fun fair, local stalls and re-enactments, there is plenty to entertain the Londoners who attend…although one wonders how many spend time to admire its principle asset!

Custom transcribed: The Easter Garden

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Visit virtually any church whether Anglican, Methodist or Catholic and you are more likely to come across an Easter Garden or Tomb. Like the Christmas crib scenes it is slowly becoming an Easter stable. However, unlike the crib whose origin can be traced back to St Francis Assisi, the Easter garden is less clear with its origin.

A precursor of the Easter garden was the Easter Sepulchre. However, this is an English tradition. Indeed in a number of churches in England can be still seen the remains of these Easter Sepulchre, where the host was placed before Easter and revealed on Easter Sunday. Such practices at the Reformation were treated as Popish and many were destroyed and the custom forgotten.

However, across the mainland of Europe it is thought since the medieval times, the church would make a temporary garden inside the church on Maundy Thursday which would last through Easter week to around Pentecost.

How does your garden grow?

Trying to trace the first appearance of the custom in Britain is difficult no-one appears to have recorded when first it happened. However, a clue can be found in Cecil Hunt’s 1954 British Customs and ceremonies when, where and why book who states that:

“The Easter Tomb and Easter Garden are to be found in an increasing number of churches, though not yet claiming the wide acceptance of the Christmas crib.”

The ‘increasing number’ statement suggests it was a fairly newish custom and the author goes on to record a notable example, possibly the oldest in the county. He notes:

“At Harbledown, near Canterbury, Kent, on the Pilgrim’s Way, the parish church of St. Michael has since 1939 presented an Easter Garden that brings thousands of pilgrims from afar. It depicts in miniature, on platforms occupying a large part of the east end of the church, the whole story of the Passion and the Resurrection. It is a custom of singular beauty and reverence, conceived and executed with remarkable artistry, by Mrs. John Allen, wife of the Rector.”

Christ Church at Church Crookham: Easter Garden

Christ Church at Church Crookham: Easter Garden © Copyright Basher Eyre

Sheila Macqueen, describe possibly the British Easter garden which influenced the other in her 1964  Flower Decoration in Churches: which set about the font in 1955 in west transect of St Paul’s Cathedral:

“The area around  was transformed into a little formal garden divided into sections, each one surrounded by a box hedge.”

It was designed:

“Against the background of tall cupressus, silver birch, and also rhododendron, forsythia, and other flowering shrubs, daffodils, hyacinths and polyanthuses were planted….The beds were planted with the little flowers which children like, such as daisies, forget-me-nots, and primroses.”

Now the main Easter Garden is a much smaller affair but perhaps its fame has spread. The Easter Garden unlike the Christmas crib has perhaps grasped the zeitgeist more. It is a lot easier to make. Indeed, a quick search online shows many churches and church schools have introduced competitions to make them. I had in fact come across a small group of children happily carrying their handiwork into a church on the way to Rivington Pike. Another search online reveals websites instructing how to make them.

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Easter garden. In the porch at St. Martin’s church, Woolstone. © Copyright Jonathan Billinger

Oasis in the church

The Easter garden has three main components: a stone or stone structure to represent the empty tomb, a mound with three crosses and lots of flowers around it. However, this apparently limited features has not restricted the artistic flair of the creators. In some gardens the creator places the soldiers who look over the tomb, the last supper table and associated figures and Jesus They can consist of a small garden set in the base of a pot stand or cover part of a church. In Burwell church, Cambridgeshire, they had a happy and sad Easter gardens, a sort of before and after! Indeed some Easter Gardens are an opportunity for artistic excellence. In 2017 Worcester Cathedral had:

“As well as the traditional Easter Services, to which all are welcome, ‘Stations of the Cross: Via Dolorosa – Christ’s Sorrowful Way, an exhibition by Sara Hayward RCA is on display from 4 to 27 April 2017 in the Dean’s Chapel of the Cathedral. Worcester based artist Sara Hayward has created a dramatic exhibition this Easter time depicting Christ’s final hours before his death which is open daily from 9am to 4.30pm until 27 April. The exhibition of fifteen colourful oil paintings, and boxes containing contemporary artefacts to aid reflection for visitors, create a poignant sequence about Good Friday.”

Now that’s some garden

Custom contrived: Kew Gardens Clog and Apron Race

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Kew is a delightful retreat in west London. Its splendid glasshouses, incrediable arrays of perrenials and peaceful vistas. That is unless you happen to be there when the Clog and Apron race is on. For a few minutes only one of the main paths in the gardens thunders to the sound of wooden clogs and cheering!

Clogged up

But why clogs and aprons? Well clogs were traditionally the footwear of all gardens long before crocs and wellies appeared.They were better than leather boots to keep one’s feet dry Aprons being used for holding garden tools. Each year first year horticultural students are given a pair of wooden soled leather clogs and an apron in a ceremonial way as symbols of their profession. Whilst the aprons may be worn by these students, the clogs are purely symbolic most preferring those rubber shoes.

Runners (but not beans or strawberry)

The exact origins of the race are unclear as records have only been kept since the 1950s but it is thought to have started in the 1920s. It was one of a whole range of running events such as one which was between rival RHS Wisley and all around the garden race – must be all that propogating demanding some serious leg stretching.

The clog and apron race was a way of the older students to welcome the newer ones without any form of reward but glory.; more recently the Student Union has provided medals for first, second and third place.

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One of the earliest records in is the 1952 version of the Kew Journal where the extracts below are taken, which was the first after the interregnum that the second world war had enforced. The Clog and Apron Race was again held this year after a long interval, as the last race was run in 1939. Interesting it was held in the early summer:

“The race was held in fine weather on Friday, May 25th and the number of runners was so large that the field had to be divided into two heats. The first hear was run in the time of 59 seconds, being won by Mr P. Nutt ( -pixyledpublications honestly that was his name!) whilst the second heat, which like the first consisted of thirteen runners, was won by Mr. G Fuller. The first four from each heat lined up for the final and in this a very exciting race resulted. The ultimate winner, Mr Nutt, went into the lead very early, and despite all the efforts of the other runners, continued to gain until he ran hime an easy winner in a remarkable time of 49 seconds. Having regard to the fact that the course was from the Circle in the Broad Walk to No 3 Museum, measuring 375 yards and in view of the handicap of clogs and apron, the time is one which will be very difficult to beat in any future race.”

59 seconds seemed to be the model average. Nine runners in 1951 with a D. Hubbard gaining that time. It seems a few years later this Hubbard, becoming Dr Hubbard who in 1955:

“who started the race, gave a bottle of sherry and also cider to the winners. It was an exciting finish. J Eaton just beating A Keevil in 57 secs with D. Coleman third. J. Eaton also received the Pearce Cup, presented for the first year by Mr Pearce for the winner of the Race. Cynthia Warner also received a bottle of cider for being the only girl brave enough to challeng the lads. Mr Pearce provided cider to revive all the competitors. “

Then in 1976, the race then being held in October recorded that:

“The race started in failing light and finished up in almost total darkness. A record time was established by a second year student, Miss Sally Vernon, who became the first female to win the face but also claims the honour of breaking P. Nutt’s record time which was 49.0 seconds in 1951, by a clear 4 seconds. Sally with the speed of a 8.30 Trident, zoomed in at 45.9 seconds. “

However there were some recriminations

“Paul Potter, who came second in 55.0 seconds a clear 10 seconds behind speedy Sall, says that the girls should have been given only two little bins start, instead of the four they were allowed this year. I think that Paul knows that Sally would have still burnt him out if she had not been given any start at all. “

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In 1979 the race for the first time was organised so that members of the public could experience it. The Press release read:

“The Clog and Apron Race Thursday 27th September 1979 for the first time ever, the annual Clog and Apron Race wil be staged whilst the Gardens are opens so that those members of the public who wish can witness the special occasion. The race is held on Thursday 27th September and will start at approximately 5.00 pm and the activities should be finished by 5.45pm”

It adds;

“The event recaptures some of the ancient apprenticeship traditions and colour of the former days. The Race competitors, all dressed in horticultural aprons and heavy clogs, pound the full length of Broadwalk a wide 375 yard long avenue (running from the Palm House Pond and Orangery)….Lady students are given a 50 yard start.”

Alan Titchmarsh in his Knave of Spades notes the event, failing to mention this was perhaps his sole sporting success:

“The clogs were used competitively each autumn in the Clog and Apron Race, which took place o the Broad Walk that runs from Kew’s Orangery to Palm House Pond, a distance of perhaps a hundred and fifty yards. Clad in this traditional apparel (both still worn by Kew students in the late 1960s) those who were rash enough to enter would clatter their way down he wide Tarmac path, sparks flying from their footwear and their denim aprons billowing like kites. The prize was a crate of beer, which was shared round anyway, so it mattered not who won or lost, but how they clattered down.”

Clogging on

It was a very fine evening with the warmth of the fading sun on my face, I awaited on the grass verge the runners. Running in clogs must be a strange experience. The weight of the wooden shoes suggesting the need for some strength in those gardening muscles. I don’t think it would be an event you would want to do every day. Fortunately it was quick for them for in less than a minute the first runner appeared. One could hear them approaching before seeing him or rather them as there was he was closely followed behind by the rest. The winner made a respectable timing and looks very happy to hold aloft the prize. Then it was back to the hard work of horticulture.

 

Custom revived: The May day Islington Milkmaid’s Garland dance

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“Many people must still remember the milk maids garland and dance now quite extinct The garland which was very splendid was at first carried by one of the milk maids but afterwards by men accompanied by the dancers and a fiddler In a scarce tract printed in 1623 eating cakes and cream at Islington and Hoxton is also mentioned as a custom on May morning To Islington and Hogsdon runnes the streame Of giddie people to eate cakes and creame.”

Hugh F. Martyndale 1831’s A familiar analysis of the calendar of the Church of England

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During my attempt to attend as many May Day customs over the weekend of 2015, details of which are available in an article for the Company of the Green Man, one firmly in my sites was the New Esperance Morris’s May Day Islington Milkmaid’s Garland. Why? One because the team, a women only one is historically important, secondly because this was no ordinary Morris dancing but a reconstructed milkmaid’s dance and third and finally it was only done on the 1st of May and as this time the 1st fell on Bank Holiday it was an ideal opportunity.

My milk dance brings…

The Milkmaid’s dance is quite well described by early writers. Thistleton Dwer (1900) Popular customs notes that the Milkmaid’s Dance. On the first day of May, was described in the Spectator (vol. v.):

“the ruddy milkmaid exerts herself in a most sprightly manner under a pyramid of silver tankards, and, like the virgin Tarpeia, oppressed by the costly ornaments which her benefactors lay upon her.”

Shaken not stirred

Timings were working well so far on the day. I had attended the May Day morning at Oxford, came into to London and made my way to north-east of the city where their guide suggested they would be present. This is not always the best guide as Morris groups can often be late or else early on a tour and missed. I placed my luck on the former being true. However on arrival at the allotted pub I found the group mid-dance at the side of a pub with a group of bemused on lookers. Light hit off their buckles and bows and made them look majestic in their dance. However, when I arrived the first I noticed was the decorated milk pail, it was a faithful reproduction of what Thistleton Dwer in his 1900 Popular customs notes:

“These decorations of silver cups, tankards, and salvers were borrowed for the purpose, and hung round the milk-pails, with the addition of flowers and ribbons, which the maidens carried upon their heads when they went to the houses of their customers, and danced in order to obtain a small gratuity from each of them. Of late years the plate, with the other decorations, was placed in a pyramidical form, and carried by two chairmen upon a wooden horse. The maidens walked before it, and performed the dance without any incumbrance.”

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Pail into insignificant

Strutt in his 1801 Sports and Past times notes:

“Sometimes in place of the silver tankards and salvers they substituted a cow. The animal had her horns gilt, and was nearly covered with ribbons of various colours, formed into bows and roses, and interspersed with green oaken leaves and bunches of flowers.”

In a set of prints called the Tempest Cryes of London, one is called the Merry Milkmaid, whose proper name was Kate Smith. She is dancing with her milk-pail on her head, .decorated with silver cups, tankards, and salvers borrowed for the purpose, and tied together with ribbons, and ornamented with flowers. Misson, too, in his Observations on My Travels in England, alludes to this custom, lie says:

“On the 1st of May, and the five and six days following, all the pretty young country girls that serve the town with milk dress themselves up very neatly, and borrow abundance of silver plate, whereof they make a pyramid, which they adorn with ribbons and flowers, and carry upon their heads instead of their common milk-pails. In this equipage, accompanied by some of their fellow milkmaids and a bag-pipe or fiddle, they go from door to door, dancing before the houses of their customers, in the midst of boys and girls that follow them in troops, and everybody gives them something.”

Of course these women are no milkmaids and are not dressed like milkmaids but traditional Morris and the group espoused the carrying of these pails on their heads. However they do carry on a platform a splendid pail adorned with cutlery.

In Head’s Weekly Times, May 5th, 1733, occurs the following :

“On May-day the milk-maids who serve the Court danced minuets and rigadoons before the Royal family, at St. James’s House, with great applause.”

Pepys in his Diary, May 1st, 1667, says,

“To Westminster; on the way meeting many milkmaids, with their garlands upon their pails, dancing with a fiddler before them, and saw pretty Nelly [Nell Gwynne] standing at her lodgings’ door in Drury Lane in her smock sleeves and bodice, looking upon one; she seemed a mighty pretty creature.”

Milk gone sour

Hone accounts for their demise in his Every Day Book of thirty years ago. He described them then as :

“ Themselves in comely colours dressed, Their shining garland in the middle, A pipe and tabor on before, Or else the foot-inspiring fiddle. They stopt at houses where it was ‘I’heir custom to cry ‘ milk below ! And, with the music play’d, with smiles join’d hands and pointed toe to toe. Thus they tripp’d on, till —from door to door The hop’d-for annual present sent — A signal came, to courtsey low, And at that door cease merriment. Such scenes and sounds once blest my eyes.”

He then notes:

“And charm’d my ears ; but all have vanished. On May-day now no garlands go, For milkmaids and their dance are banish’d.”

Why? I am not sure they were banished in the real sense but I would imagine changes in London’s urbanisation slowly pushed out this rural pursuit and as such it lay lost for over a hundred years.

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Someone else’s churn

The revival of this old custom is intrinsically linked with the development of female Morris dancing. Unfortunately Morris dancing and women are not something which is linked in most peoples mind when Morris dancing is mentioned. Yet early accounts do mention women Morris indeed some of the earliest mentions of Morris involve women. Will Kemp, a Shakespearian actor danced the Morris from London to Norwich in 1600 states that:.

“In Chelmsford he met “ a Mayde not passing 14 yeares of age… made request … that she might dance the Morrice with me in a large great roome. …I was soone wonne to fit her with bels… and to our jumps we fell. A whole houre she held out…”

Later on in Sudbury he came across:

“a lusty country lass …saying “If I had begun to dance, I would haue held out one myle though it had cost me my life. … if the Dauncer will lend me a leash of his belles,  ile venter to tread one mile with him my selfe. (sic)”

Fast forward several hundred years to a pioneer named Mary Neal who set up the first women’s Morris, Esperance Club, which was a social club for London’s working-class in 1896. Encouraged by Cecil Sharp the great collector of Morris and other traditional dances in 1905 who provided dances he had recorded from his notebook. The Esperance girls were soon displaying at schools and other places up and down the country and to teach the dances in schools and other places. However, differences in ideas and a fear that Neal’s views on the dances will taint the traditional aspects of the dance, Sharp and Neal parted company. Neal became involved with the suffrage movement and the group disbanded around the First World War. Morris fostered and developed by the Morris Ring became a male preserve and everything died down on the women’s front.

However, the 70s folk revival saw the birth of new women’s Morris and then finally in 1975 a London group named after that founding group the New Esperance – named for the original women’s team and practicing in the same area (of which I was proud to with them came the revived milkmaid’s dance which has continued ever since. And so they do a great effort to keep Morris in the city and raise the profile of the women’s essential role in the development of Morris and it is good to hear in this celebration of the Suffragette movement and consideration all things equality that finally the Morris ring has allowed women teams to join. Long long overdue!

Custom contrived: Waitangi Day Pub Crawl, London

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Its horrible February weather. Cold, made colder by a sharp wind and every now and again they is a flurry of snow…down in New Zealand its Summer of course ; perfect al fresco drinking weather…but that doesn’t stop the New Zealander’s enthusiasm for the day. I’m wrapped up in a coat, scarf and hat and there a group of men in shorts!

What is Waitangi Day?

This is the national day of New Zealand commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – the founding document of New Zealand on the 6th February 1840. New Zealand citizens across the two islands celebrate and naturally where so ever the diaspora end up….in Britain it appears to around Paddington

I turned up at the Pride of Paddington Pub at 10. Yes the aim of the day is a fancy dress pub crawl basically using the Circle line as the template. It is understandable that having the largest expatriate community London would have a big event. The ‘official’ events are a church service at St Lawrence Jewry and a posh event is the Waitangi Day Ball with cultural entertainment from Maori groups and fine food and wine..

However since 1986 on the nearest Saturday to 6th February a mighty pub crawl has evolved from a small gathering to a mighty fancy dress parade – of sorts! The event is almost at risk of being closed down by the want of its own publicity. After all fancy dress, drinking alcohol and large numbers do not make for a hassle free event necessarily. Indeed, it would be evident from the organisers plea on his the website that often this undesirable elements are overblown because it is easier to comment on what goes on over seas than at home:

“We’re trying to avoid having overexcited NZ TV crews beam us back home as looking disrespectful.  Considering we have had no arrests in years and only 1 complaint in 2014, our pub crawl is nothing compared to something like to what it was like at the Wellington 7’s and a night out in any big Kiwi city.”

Tiki Tour

The most impressive were the Kiwi fancy dressed individuals who when bent over looked quick convincing; well as convincing as a person dressed as a one foot bird can be! Outside one train station a group of men dressed in Cricketing whites proved or perhaps not how the country was famed for its sport. Nearby Gandolf – Lord of the Rings was filmed there – chatted with a giant beer can! At a later stop there was a large group of bare chested men…this was early February remember!!

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Hangi over

There were some sore heads on the next day and it was clear that by the end some of the bravado seen at the beginning was waning. Having said this enough enthusiasm was recovered from the traditional ending – the Hakka in Trafalgar Square.

It is interesting to note that Waitangi day means different things to different people. In an online article when the attendees were asked the views were different.

“I think it’s really great that we celebrate how the English invaders made a great peaceful treaty with the indigenous people of New Zealand,” said one.

“It’s not like a ‘yeah New Zealand’ kind of day, but it is a reflective kind of day,” said another.

Others said it simply meant a day off.”

Like many ex-pats, views differ at home and abroad: clearly it’s better to celebrate being a New Zealander when not in New Zealand, as a study suggested on 38% where proud of their country! As one attendee notes:

“Maybe back home it’s different, but definitely when you go overseas you realise how special New Zealand and being a Kiwi is.”

Hence the enthusiasm for this grand Kiwi pub crawl. But, of course such a custom can survive only when those involved are there. Numbers have dropped from in 2005 over 12,000 visas were granted dropping to 6,940 visas in 2016. Political motivations have a reputation for ruining customs and it would shame that changes to the visa rules kill of this joyous national celebration.

Custom contrived: Oxford Street Christmas Light Switch Ons

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Christmas is starting earlier! The shops, the adverts and the lights…ah yes the lights. For many its forget Christmas Eve, forget Advent, forget your first Christmas card it is the switching on the lights in their nearest town or even in the village which signifies the start of the festive period whether it is Oldham or Oxford Street….the most famous of all being lit up from late November to Twelfth night

It is difficult to find out the earliest British public lights but to begin with and like many other Christmas customs it appears that the US got into to it first. The most famous in the UK is perhaps Oxford Street. However, it did not start in Oxford Street. Despite being synonymous with Christmas lights it was Regent’s street which had the first one in 1954. In particular one of the most amazing being gas filled balloons in 1957 It was not until 1959 that Oxford street got in on the act!

Lights on, lights off!

Over the years the lights have varied and sometimes not been on. Indeed in 1976 and 1977 due to the combination of the Winter of discontent and the stressing of the need to be concerned about wasting fuel, there were not any lights. However by 1978 they came back being fanfared by a laser display to mixed feelings. Cheaper it might have been but Christmassy not! Since then corporate sponsorship has been involved with various big name firms, often London centric, such as a French themed one in 1992 to celebrate Les Miserables. Sometimes the lights can be a little underwhelming especially when they are mainly just white!

Coming to light early

Now just before you moan about this being in November’s blog….the first lights were up by the 30th November in the 1950s! However in 2016 the Independent ran an article when the lights were up and shinning in October. They stated:

“It’s early October and in London the countdown to Christmas is apparently underway as the festive lights have already been strung up over Oxford Street. The enormous baubles that adorn Europe’s busiest shopping street were seen being set up on October 2, a full 84 days before The Big Day itself, prompting mild incredulity among Londoners.

The installation of the lights comes well ahead of other significant annual celebrations, including Halloween, Diwali, St Andrew’s Day, Bonfire Night, and the Winter Solstice. The timing of the set-up means on Oxford Street at least, visitors can revel in the Christmas spirit for over a quarter of the year, every year. This is evidently brilliant news for Christmas enthusiasts and for those who just love the beginning of October.”

It wasn’t popular with many coming to Twitter amongst other formats to complain one wryly noting.

“Did they have any Halloween lights?

The lights have moved with the time, now they use 750,000 LED bulbs which use 75% less energy than conventional bulbs.

Lighting up

Part of the custom is to have the lights ceremonially switched on usually by some celebrity. If ever there was a list which grasps the zeitgeist it’s the list of celebrities which turned on the lights. How many could you remember? Certainly the 1981 Pilin Leon is not a name you’ll know…she was Miss World that year…quite you can see what I mean! Since then with had sports men, such as Daley Thompson and Linford Christie, pop stars ranging from The Spice Girls to Cliff Richard, actors such as Lenny Henry and Emma Watson. But occasionally ordinary people get a chance in 1991 it was Westminster Children’s hospital and Children from kid’s company….the stage must have been large for the cast of Coronation street in 1995. The crowds are enormous for the switch on, even more so when it’s a big star, not sure how Derek Jameson might have faired against Westlife.

In 2017 it was Rita Ora who was joined by the Mayor and ITV’s X-Factor 2016 winner Matt Terry and boy band 5 After Midnight. The countdown was enthusiastic as usual and at 0 the air filled with snow flakes. According to the Mirror:

Rita Ora, 26, said: “It’s such an honour. Once we’ve done this, it’s actually Christmas.” She joked: “If I get this wrong it can’t be Christmas!”

Love them or loathe them to many Londoner’s the switching on of the Oxford lights whenever they are is the sign for the countdown to the biggest custom of them all!