Category Archives: New Year

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: Handsel Monday in Scotland

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“In their impatience to have the holiday commence, young people usually waken the villages by kicking old tin pans at unearthly hours of the morning through the quiet streets,”

Such was the popularity of this lost custom. William Walsh in his 1897 Curiosities of Popular Customs records that:

“Handsel Monday. The first Monday in the year. This is a great holiday among the peasantry and the children generally in Scotland, being especially devoted to the giving and receiving of presents, or, in the Scotch vocabulary, handsels. The young visit their seniors in expectation of some remembrance, and postmen, scavengers, and newspaper carriers look for the equivalent of what in England are known as Christmas boxes.”

Chambers Book of Days notes that:

“The first Monday of the year is a great holiday among the peasantry of Scotland, and children generally, as being the day peculiarly devoted in that country to the giving and receiving of presents. It is on this account called Handsel Monday, Handsel being in Scotland the equivalent of a Christmas box, but more specially inferring a gift at the commencement of a season or the induing of some new garment. The young people visit their seniors in expectation of tips (the word, but not the action, unknown in the north). Postmen, scavengers, and deliverers of newspapers look for their little annual guerdons.”

This lost custom a sort of Scottish Boxing Day survived the longest in Fife and Perthshire when despite Dundee and Glasgow moving to New Year’s Day as a holiday of choice rural areas still remembered it. in Auchterarder .It was marked with:

“much noise and boisterous mirths….Boys, carrying flambeans, began to perambulate the town shortly after 12 o’clock and from that hour till morning the streets resounded with their hideous noise…. “well fortified withing…A few fist blows were exchanged later in the evening, but this appeared to be the head and front of the offending,”

Its popularity deriving from it being a holiday for farm workers as report in the Dunfermline Press in 1890 states that:

“On farms, Auld Hansel-Monday, where it is kept, is the great winter holiday of the year. Outdoor and indoor servants have a complete escape from bondage for the day, and many a farmer will own that the hardest day’s work for him and his wife throughout the year occurs on Handsel Monday.”

To Handsel was then to give a gift and it is recorded that:

“Not only has he himself to fill their place, but he is expected to handsel them, from foreman to herd-boy; and part of the handsel almost invariably includes a gift of a little money.”

On January 6, 1870, the Perthshire Advertiser called the day the “holiday-in-chief” of the year

The death of the custom

What killed the custom off was the adoption of New Year’s Day as a holiday as reported from a public meeting held in Dunfermline to make this decision. Many argued in the November 1886 meeting that it was a much loved tradition. The former Provost Robert Robertson, who could not be parted from it ‘without a pang’ from his “old friend” stating that:

“In his younger days, Handsel Monday was the day of all days – the principal day of the year, and a day of much pleasure. Then it was that family circles met together. Grandfather and grandmother, father, mother and family, all met together, There were no strangers admitted to the family circle then. Children came many miles…and if there was one member of the family absent, there was a sad blank.There was no teetotalism then, but in decent families there was no hard drinking. It was a great day, and because of that it was long looked forward to.”

Despite the pleas Dumferline chose January 1st and Handsel was consigned to history.

Handy breakfast

The breakfast was one of the most popular parts of the custom. The farmers would treat their servants on that morning to:

“ a liberal breakfast of roast and boiled, with ale, whiskey, and cake, to their utmost contentment; after which the guests went about seeing their friends for the remainder of the day. It was also the day on which any disposed for change gave up their places, and when new servants were engaged.”

An interesting account of the healing powers of the custom and its associated victuals noted by Chambers from Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland, xv. 201:

“It is worth mentioning that one William Hunter, a collier (residing in the parish of Tillicoultry, in Clackmannanshire), was cured in the year 1738 of an inveterate rheumatism or gout, by drinking freely of new ale, full of harm or yeast. The poor man had been confined to his bed. for a year and a half, having almost entirely lost the use of his limbs. On the evening of Handsel Monday, as it is called, some of his neighbours came to make merry with him. Though he could not rise, yet he always took his share of the ale, as it passed round the company, and in the end he became much intoxicated. The consequence was that he had the use of his limbs next morning, and was able to walk about. He lived more than twenty years after this, and never had the smallest return of his old complaint.”

Now there is a reason to revive a custom!

 

Custom survived: Curry Rivel Wassail and Ashen Faggot

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Curry Rivel Somerset

“Wassail O Wassail all over the town,                                                         

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown,                                                   

The cup it is made of the good old ashen tree.                                            

  And so’s the beer from the best barley,

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O here we take this door held fast by the ring,                                        

Hoping Master and Missus will let us all walk in And for to fill our wassail bowl and sail away again.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O Master and Missus have we done you any harm                                          

Pray hold fast this door and let us pass along                                         

And give us hearty thanks for the singing of our song.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail

Wassailing is becoming all the rage in folk circles and beyond. It seems that like Morris dancing in the 20th century, wassailing is the 21st century revival equivalent. However these revived wassails appear to be those associated with trees, the original surviving one of which I discussed here, there does not appear to be a similar revival in house visiting wassailing, which one could claim probably was the original approach. Therefore when given the chance to experience one of the few surviving wassails one jumps at the chance. Such happened last Twelfth Night at the small village of Curry Rivel in Somerset.

Wassail in

Arriving at the King William IV I found a group of men standing around. “Are you the wassailers?” I asked “Yes” they replied “Do you mind if I join you and take some photos?” They were a bit perplexed by my enquiry but the reply was positive‘Yes that’s okay as long as you don’t mind being shoved in the back of the van?!”

Next minute I noticed I was in the back of transit van with six strangers. We were off to pick up the oldest member of the group, a sprightly 93 year old Harry Richards, one of them joking that the thud was the van knocking him over! A joke of course and no disrespect was intended as these men whose ages ranged from 20s to 60s had a great pride in their venerable leader.

Soon as he was in thou, sitting at the front, not crammed in the back, we were off. I had no idea where we were going and indeed at one point we appeared to go off-road, but that’s Somerset roads for you. A large crowd had congregated at the first house and as they assembled with their venerable leader at the front. Then they opened their mouths and the wassail song came out.

Curry Rivel Somerset

I was impressed how forceful it sounded considering this was the first time they’d sung it together – they had small wordsheets to help them but only one member appeared to be struggling to remember and it didn’t really notice.

The door opened with a warm welcome and the wassails entered. Inside across the kitchen table was a fine spread of food and drink. The Wassail evokes a party atmosphere in the village and to be one of the houses chosen is a great honour especially as it is thought that the wassailers would bring good luck as emphasised by the toast given by their leader

“God bless Master and Missus and all the family. Hoping they’ve had a Merry Christmas and wishing them a Happy New Year.”

After satiating themselves at the first house it was off to the next. Back in the van. Hold on as we swerved a tight corner. A makeshift light being provided by a blinking torch or on occasions someone’s lighter. When we arrived at the next house, we leaped out into the gloom of a remote house. Here an even warmer welcome and spread was available. Then off the next and the next. At each more and more food, and more and more alcohol was being taken. This meant that the groups ability to hold on to the string and sides of the transits less easy and some thought it was best just to sit down. .

The food was indeed quite exquisite and it was obvious that the great honour of being a wassailed house asked for more than just supermarket fayre! At one of the houses an actual wassail bowl was provided which the members took a sip readily from. The wassail bowl being of course mentioned in their song but surprisingly absent I thought! Despite the amount of alcohol imbibed the song did not waver in its nature and indeed appeared to get stronger and song with more vigour! The final stop was one of the younger members of wassailer where again like in all the houses I was warmly welcomed and treated.

Ashen faces

Back at the William IV pub faces were squashed against the windows awaiting the wassails. They were late – I was glad I had attended the wassails and not waited at the pub – then a window was opened and their final wassail was song

Despite accounts to the contrary the Ashen Faggot is not carried around by the wassailers but awaited them at the bar. The Faggot is a fine construction, made traditionally by the same family in the valley below the village.

It consisted of ash logs tied together neatly with ash withies, nine in all, a magical number. Walker in her Old Somerset Customs tells us that it was once as long as five feet and four oxen were employed to drag it to the hearth…no wonder it wasn’t carried! Now it’s a more manageable foot or so to fit into the rather small fireplace at the pub.

Curry Rivel Somerset

It is evident that the Ashen Faggot is an older custom, possibly pre-Christian. This is especially evident in Curry Rivel when it is claimed that its burning has happened for at least 200 years but the Wassailers only date back to 1900.

The Ashen Faggot is a Somerset and Devon tradition and Curry Rivel is not the only village to have one. In a way it is the local version of the Yule log but were as this has died out in Britain, the Ashen Faggot survives and indeed in some places has been revived.

Curry Rivel Village

Muriel Walker in Old Somerset Customs tells us that the Ashen Faggot was said to have been first made by the shepherds to warm the baby Jesus, another version tells that Joseph had collected the bundles and Mary had lighted it to wash the baby Jesus.

Ashen faced?

At the allotted time, Mr. Richards was assisted carrying the Ashen Faggot to the fireplace and saying a few words placed it in the fireplace giving it a ceremonial kick into place.

Willey notes:

“after it has been burnt none of the remains are saved for the next year’s faggot. Free food and drink go around once the faggot is on the fire; the food is bread and cheese etc. and usually the brewery to which the inn is tied supplies a free firkin of ale. The landlord makes up a hot punch based on scrumpy (rough cider) and a scrumpy and wine mixture – home-made wheat wine and scrumpy is particularly potent and highly recommended by the locals. Each time a band on the faggot burned through the landlord was expected to drain a pint of beer or cider.”

Curry Rivel Somerset

Apparently the brewery ceased the free beer a few years back. Yet despite this there was a real party atmosphere and as the embers flickered and faded from the old faggot I made my goodbyes and left. As Willey notes:

“In a village where, during the same period, other traditions, for example the annual ploughing match, the Silver Band, have completely disappeared as casualties of suburbanization, the survival of wassailing in any form is perhaps both curious and heartening.”

Indeed it is and it is evident from the warm welcome and full spreads from the houses that there is no fear of wassailing dying out any time soon in Curry Rivel. A tradition grasped by the younger community as well and a great tradition with some great people as well.

Curry Rivel SomersetCurry Rivel Village

Custom revived: The Hinkley Plough Bullockers

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“The old custom of Plough Monday still prevails Like a great many other popular tales, Plough Bullocks dressed in ribbons, a gaudy show In a long procession shouting as they go—- ‘Higham on the Hill, Stoke in the Vale, Wykin for buttermilk Hinckley for ale!’”

Richard Fowlkes, Elmesthorpe, 1811

A load of ol’ bullockers?

Reviving a custom can be fraught with problems and issues. Claims can be made that its completely made up and bears no relevance to what went before. However Hinckley’s plough bullockers is a test case in how excellent research, forged with enthusiasm and improved by local knowledge coming to the fore as a result of the tradition, can produce a durable and worthy reproduction.

A full account of how the custom was revived is informatively covered by an article called The Hinckley Bullockers by Tony Ashley in The Morris Dancer Volume 5, Number 4 February 2016 who explored whether there were any customs associated with the villages around Hinckley.

In The History and Antiquities of Claybrook in the county of Leicester’ by Rev. A. Macaulay he notes that:

“On Plow [sic] Monday I have taken notice of an annual display of Morris-dancers at Claybrook who came from the neighbouring villages of Sapcote and Sharnford.”

A longer piece was to be found in 1930 ‘The History of Hinckley’ accounting ‘Pastimes and amusements of the people of Hinckley 1800 to 1850’ quoting from Sebastian Evan’s ‘Leicestershire words and Phrases’ which relates:

A number of men or youths (generally six or eight in number) dressed themselves in grotesque fashion – half their number being in female costume and half in male. One of the former as supposed to represent Maid Marion. The men wore top hats and were thoroughly bedecked with ribbons. One of the party portrayed Beelzebub; he carried a cow’s horn, on which he blew, and with it afterwards collected. He also had a tail and wore tight fitting stocks formed of coloured patchwork squares. He had a bell on a spring at his back, fastened to his body by means of a belt round his waist – hence, to the popular minds, the reason for his being called ‘bells e bub’. Sometimes he also carried a large rattle. Another performer impersonated the fool; he always carried the money box and had a bladder with peas in it fastened by a string to the end of a stick. They danced a sort of country dance to the music of a fiddle and hautboy.

This gave the group some considerable information to work with to reconstruct the custom in regards to appearance of the Plough Bullockers. Thus:

“The men dressed in dark clothes with sashes, rosettes, arm ribbons, lallygags and high hats with ribbons. There was even a very authentic Beelzebub in his rag coat and wearing his bell and tail. The one thing missing was a plough. This was simply because the first Tour was very much a case of suck it and see and it was not known if the revival would continue.”

A plough was finally secured from a local museum and then after concerns that it might get damaged as a result of the tour it was decided that the group should buy one. However, it is all very well identifying the custom occurred but no of the accounts really told them what exactly they were doing on Plough Monday in Hinckley? Elsewhere there had been Plough Plays (such as described here), and further north Sword Dancing (Plough Stots or Plough Jags) or Sword Dancing combined with Plough Plays tended to be limited to South Yorkshire (Goathland Plough Stots)There was no evidence this was what was done. There was no evidence it wasn’t however, one would have thought that if it an antiquarian would have described it.

 

What was the evidence? The group were pulling ploughs, covered in raddle (a red face colouring) collecting money from farms and large houses, playing music and dancing with comments like ‘country dance style dances with ad lib stamping and shuffling’, there were no specific descriptions of the dances performed. Ashby (2016) notes that

“In 1986 at the Forest of Dean Family Weekend there was a chance meeting with an elderly gentleman, who at that time was musician to Thaxted Morris. He described his experience of dancing Molly on Plough Monday and this description of events fitted perfectly with the information previously collected. Now it was believed that the dancing referred to in previously collected information was in fact Molly Dancing. References to Molly dancing were located in Folk magazines. Some evidence referred to Molly Dancing extending north into Leicestershire and even to Winster in Derbyshire.”

With this discovery it was decided to adopt Molly dancing into the group’s repertoire Ashby notes that.

“all of the men interested in being involved in the revival were all in full time employment so a decision was made to hold the Plough Monday celebration on the Saturday preceding Plough Monday….. We recruited three musicians, a concertina player and a melodeon player from Anstey Morris and a local fiddler who had seen the articles in the local papers.”

We plough and furrow

These resurrected Plough bullockers are very impressive indeed. Wearing black suits with top hats ribbons of different colours – yellow, reds, blue, they weave in and out of each other. Their pheasant feathers fluttering in the January winds. The raddle looks effective especially against the whites of their eyes and their white beards. There is even a slight menacing effect to them slightly let down by the melodious music and the molly dancing which looked most appropriate in its odd way arms in arms, circling around, normal Morris dancing wouldn’t perhaps, although I did notice a handkerchief appear. I was also impressed that there seamed as many musicians and members dressed up creating an impressive group on the roadside and one that certainly attracted a fair number of curious onlookers.

Ploughed up

Interestingly the revival harvested more information. A Mr Brown a local Sapcote resident and local historian informed the group that during his deceased mother’s childhood, suggesting the late 1890s, she remembered the Bullockers did visit the village, being blacked-up and wearing

“white shirts with cut outs of the plough sewn to the shirts, horse ribbons and rosettes, bells and brasses adorned their legs, arms and shoulders. Molly Dancers accompanied them with country music played on fiddles, such as The Farmer’s Boy etc. The leading fiddler was Punty Garratt and Old Chuter was the Fool who whacked everyone with his pig’s bladder. Their ceremonial plough was known as the White Plough and was pulled around the village by a length of rope encased in leather which was kept from year to year. They met at The Red Lion in the morning, toured the farms, large houses and pubs in the area before returning to The Red Lion where in the evening they dined and then held a “Country Dance”. At this event they danced the dances that had been performed during the day by the men as social dances.”

This news pleased the group as it vindicated their decisions in its resurrection. This is a faithful reconstruction now in its 31st year, as gaudy and vibrant as that described in 1811.

Custom survived: Mummers or Darkie Day in Padstow

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I was staying in Padstow over the 2000-2001 New year once (the real dawning of the Millennium but that’s another story!), after escaping some of the worst sounds of the party being held in a pub in the town I went to bed earlier so that I could greet the new dawn. The next day was a delightful one full of clear skies and promise, I got up early the next day to be greeted by the spectacle of local people with blackened faces playing traditional instruments of drums and accordions and singing with much gusto. A strange sight and one which in recent years has become much in contention beyond Cornwall. I’d written this post back in 2011 and did not post…perhaps I was a bit nervous of doing so…..and its only posted now as I have been ill and did not have time to do another post…..interestingly its more current than ever, what with news reports about banning black faced Morris in Birmingham so its worth examining a new.

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A black mark against the town?

Listening to the songs I became wary of their odd lyrics they appears to be minstrel songs, I admitted although I had been to May day in the town I had never heard of this tradition, it was absent from my books. Clearly local people and tourists enjoyed the spectacle. I thought little more of it and was glad I had witnessed the custom
A few days later driven by an article in the Daily Mail and the Guardian I believe a storm developed over the racist element of the day, with the usual subtext of ignorant yokels (in itself racist of course). Soon prominent black politicians understandably got involved and a media storm ensued this time involving the BBC with comments from the venerable late London MP Bernie Grant:

“I thought the days when white people dressed up as black people were well behind us”

Padstonians insist that this is not the case and deny both description and allegations and indeed as early back as the 1970s the content and conduct was apparently reviewed to avoid offence…although one must remember Love Thy Neighbour and The Black and White Minstrels were popular at that time!! That said the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary did get involved and saw no reason for arrest. The Padstonians showed obvious concern and renamed it Mummer’s day but the controversy continues.

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Keep mum?

How old the custom is, is difficult to say. It is known that in eastern Cornwall, such get-togethers were common in pubs and private homes in the 19th century but antiquarian interest and indeed national press coverage is lacking, which is surprising considering the acres of footage on the town’s famed May Day. Most reports are local, the Cornish Guardian certainly report it since 1901 as Carol singing. A copy of the Padstow Echo in 1967 notes in a diary entry where 15, 7 to 13 year old children travelled the town visiting the elderly. The three women are thanked for:

“keeping alive the Padstow Darkies by training the young Padstonians with the Darky Songs which have been traditionally sung here, with also the musical accompaniment.”

An online article using local informants recollects their involvement in the 1940s and then into the early 20th century when their parents were involved. On this basis it can be included as a surviving custom if it is a rather secretive one, but possibly a changeable one.

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Not all black and white
The origins of the day are confusing; the blackening of one’s face after all is very common in a wide range of folk customs from mummers to molly dancers. The overall theme being to disguise the face, so that in most cases the employers would not have recognised them, as the majority of the customs, including this one, were begging. This has probably been done for centuries long before English people ever had contact with our African relatives.
Whether confusion occurs is the claim that it stems from the town’s experience with slaves, emphasized by a tradition that slaves were allowed free time in the town and this would have naturally brought they into contact with the natives. This happened elsewhere and did not create a folk custom, which suggests that the Cornish were either more susceptible to the traditions the slaves had or in support of the non-racist origin had greater sympathy, a point I will explore later.
From what can be gathered is that the original tradition was closer to a mummer’s play and perhaps because it was undertaken mainly by children who I argue either had difficulty in remembering lines or else the play had unsuitable themes, someone changed it. Anyone who has children will know it’s easier to get to get them to sing carols than do the nativity!
In simple terms someone seems to fused minstrel songs to an older tradition and because these songs were probably better, more tuneful or memorable, this aspect dominated. This theory is supported by an article by…where one of the correspondents says:

“I believe that the mummers went from house to house performing their play and got fed up with the same old lines and tried out the new at that time Foster music hall songs. This was enjoyed and response probably favourable and the tradition took off in place of the mumming”.

Is it racist?

 

Anyone who’s been to Cornwall will know they can be a bit wary of anyone east of the Tamar, but I don’t think they are racist…indeed they are very friendly, just understandably protection of their traditions. From what I can gather there could be two reasons for the tradition. The simplest is that an adult in the 1920s when the minstrel songs were popular decided to build a repertoire of these songs for the children as they were easier to remember. The other theory is custom was established as albeit a rather ham-fisted attempt to show support for the American black people community or simpler a love of their music. Solidarity for them was often strong in Methodist areas and Cornwall is one of these. An example of this being the strike held in Manchester cotton mills where the pro-slavery confederate army uniforms were being made. Perhaps typically for the British we put our foot in it, and sadly what is seen as once support has naturally become offensive. A parody rather than show parity by dressing up – but again as blacking up is a common motif for begging is that a coincidence? Interestingly now the name is changed, perhaps the one thing which would stop the racist accusations would be to stop blackening their faces, costume aside which is although is claimed minstrel based is common to many folk groups. It was a sensible compromise. Now that this is done, would anyone really be offended after all we’ve all been singing Beyoncé and Michael Jackson songs and not been called racist..have we?

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Custom revived: Wassailing the Apple Trees Carhampton

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If there is one custom which appears to have defied reason with its reason – it is apple wassailing – 30 years ago the surviving wassail was on rocky ground – 100 years or so before nearly all of them had died out…fast forward to the 21st century..and it is in very good health indeed with a large number of ‘revivals’ across the country. Why is perhaps the difficult question considering what it involves..we shall explore that later. Carhampton, a small village, not far from the holiday metropolis of Minehead (with its colourful Hobby Horse), is the grandfather of all such modern revivals, where these upstarts take their lead, the oldest by 80 years.

Keeping my eyes peeled!

Arriving on a fine and remarkably mild 17th January it looked like the Wassail was about to just get on its way. I asked in the pub the Butchers’ Arms and they directed me a few yards away to an orchard. This did not fit the description of the location I had read. However, at the orchard I was greeted by a large friendly number of adults and children off all ages. Some were handing out free food and hot drinks, the others wrapped up warm, but all congregated in the large orchard around a large central tree. It had not started yet, which was great I was lucky but I also thought had the guides been wrong..it was about an hour too early!

Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (64)Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (47)

he Wassail had all the features I had heard about. Pieces of cider soaked toast – although it looked pretty sturdy if it was – were placed in the trees by eager children. The roots were fueled by a libation of cider and all circled around to sing songs with the fine accompaniment of the squeezebox and the fine rich voice of the leader. A few metres away for obvious safety reasons were a row of riflemen poised to fire…ready for the signal…they fired their rounds, not as more traditionally read into the branches, but into the air…much safer! The event ended and the congregation quickly dispersed some to their cars, homes and some to the pub. I was informed that this was not the original wassailing of the apple tree but a younger upstart…the original was still to occur.

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That’s Wass-al

I returned to the Butchers Arms to be told the original orchard was tucked behind it, although not accessible from the pub, a small walk down the footway and then up a small lane, through some old farm buildings led me there. Here the first thing to hit you was the heat. A large bonfire sparked away just behind the pub where a small collection of ancient old apples resided. The orchard was small, much smaller than the community one, an old relic. Indeed, the custom was once close to extinction when almost all orchard was almost purchased for houses. At the time the pub’s landlord wisely stepped in and purchased it. Today the other houses loom over.

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A 1970s Wassail?

Getting to the core

But is the Wassail? Starting simply Wassail is said to derive from a Saxon word ‘was hael’ meaning ‘good health’ and it applied to two related by separate customs. The first involves a custom akin to carol singing usually involving house visiting and a cup called the Wassail bowl (this is different from the extinct Vessel or Wassail cup which was a box holding the nativity) and this which involves ‘toasting’ trees with song and libating them with cider. The first records of the custom show how widespread it is, perhaps indicating an older origin, are St Albans in 1486 and 1585 in Fordwich Kent and by 1630s Robert Herrick writes about Devon orchards wassailing to ensure good yields. John Aubrey is the first to record it in the West Country noting that the men on Twelfth Night:

“go with the Wassail bowl into the orchard and go about the trees to bless them, and put a piece of toast upon the roots in order to it.”

Little has changed remarkably though now the 1752 calender change has meant the date is now firmly the 17th January – old Twelfth Night – unless it is a Sunday. By the 1700s the custom appears to be proliferating, or is better recorded being recorded as far apart as Worcestershire and Sussex. Yet by the 1800s it was in decline so much that as the 20th dawned only one –Carhampton- had survived. In the West country the custom was the work of the farm workers, supposedly necessary to ensure a good harvest in autumn. Recent revivals wisely organised by breweries! In an article called West Country raises a glass to Wassailing in The Telegraph the then Butcher’s Arms, Kevin Nicholls noted:

Wassailing has been going on in Carhampton for 150 years…I used to come out here as a kid and watch it. When I took over the pub 10 years ago the local wassail was dying so I helped to bring it back. It’s a special occasion: I make a cider and then mull it using a recipe that has been handed down from landlord to landlord. It’s good for the village, especially in changing times when so many people move into an area and don’t know its traditions.”

Although an 150 year old history at least can be claimed it did slip for a few years being revived around the 1930s, and then in the 1980s but perhaps not long enough to be a real revival, just a reboot in today’s language to attract more people.

Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (108)Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (53)

To toast the tree

Soon the chief wassailer, Gordon Holt (for what of another term) looking around for the oldest tree and upon recognizing it beckoned the assembled around. To be honest this original wassail appeared a bit rough and ready – the chief did not have a torch – I lent him mine! However, it followed the classic formula. Again pieces of toast were distributed amongst the tree. He was also holding the pub’s noted cider in a yellow bucket and he distributed it around and poured it over the roots of the plant. A small crowd gathered around him and three men stood close by with their shot guns. It was bizarrely a smaller affair than that at the community orchard. He said a few words of welcome and soon we sung the wassailing song:

“Old apple tree, we wassail thee,                                                               

And hoping thou wilt bear                                                                         

For the Lord doth know where we shall be                                                

Till apples come another year.                                                                   

For to bear well, and to bloom well,                                                          

So merry let us be,                                                                                      

Let every man take off his hat,                                                                           

And shout to the old apple tree!                                                                           

Old apple tree, we wassail thee,                                                                        

And hoping thou wilt bear,                                                                    

Hatfuls, capfuls and three bushel bagsful                                                         

And a little heap under the stairs,                                                             

Hip, Hip, Hooray!”

The last three lines were spiritedly repeated with the small but vocal crowd who joined in the chant. Guns were fired and the event was over! Although the event continued with further folk songs. I notice that Kingsley Palmer and Robert Pattern in their 1971 Some notes on Wassailing and ashen faggots in south and west Somerset notes a three handed wassail cup. They note:

“is inscribed: International Wassail Bowl 1960 Yakima USA-Carhampton England….a visiting American saw the wassail and took the idea back to Yakima whi ch is in a large apple growing area, where it was used as publicity. Each year a young lady from Yakima attends…to act as an ambassador.”

With no sign of the vessel, although similar ones can be seen in early 20th century photos, one wonders if the ambassador turns up still.

Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (105)Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (93)

Wass al it about?

The actions of the Wassailers appear rather curious. Why toast? Why fire guns? Why pouring cider? Well there are as always two reasons – one deep and meaningful, the other more prosaic. The folklorist believed that the toast placated folk creatures who looked after the tree and preserved the crop. More functionally it attracted song birds, especially robins who after eating it would eat any pest on the tree – but of course Robins have a spiritual significance themselves. The firing over the trees is said to ward away evil spirits, it could equally scare away mice and especially deer who nibble the developing buds. Certainly it is noted that sometimes when no shotgun is available, pots and pans are used to make as much noise as possible. Perhaps even the provision of cider provided antiseptic antifungal solution to the infections that rested in the roots of the trees? The song of course – unless you believe the power of sound in helping plant developments – is slightly harder to explain scientifically, but of course you have got to have a reason for a get together and a song which ties hopes together. The age is difficult to say..is it pagan? Well despite claims and the real pagan feel about a ritual regarding fertility, there is no pre1400 record.

Wass-al the rage

I noticed Wikipedia states that the traditional one is preceded by a smaller affair at the community orchard. This appears to have flipped over and the traditional event is the more modest one. What was particularly odd was that there did not appear to be much overlap. Why was this? Was it that the community orchard’s wassail was more functional, more relevant to the community? It would be very ironic if the grandfather of these wassails finally died out due to indifference. It’s nearly happened at least a couple of times, in the 1970s when the orchard was nearly lost and not so long ago in the 1990s and whilst apple wassailing is all the range from Bedfordshire to Yorkshire, the unique nature of this event is slipping away. Clearly, apple wassailing is in no fear of dying out…but Carhampton’s on and off 150 year old tradition I cannot be so certain.

 

Custom contrived: Grenoside Traipse

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“The team would go for many miles on foot to perform for the local gentry, calling at all the public houses on the way. Even if they arrived home at 2 or 3 in the morning, they still insisted on their white trousers being washed and pressed for the next day’s outing.”

Harrington Housely 1973 after 51 years of dancing!

Grenoside Sword Dancers are the other surviving Sheffield team, its earliest reference being in 1750. Sheffield was a stronghold of the custom which appears to have arisen as a means to make money for workers in the city’s cutlery industry who were often layed off over Christmas when the companies did their stock taking. This was a means to raise so much needed cash.

Walk this way

Like Wentworth Boxing Day is the famed outing for the Grenoside Sword Dancers, but this is a fairly recent invention for many years the main outing was the traipse – a walking tour of nearby houses. An account of the team visiting one of these houses is recorded in visitation is made by Lady Tweedsmuir of Wortley Hall in her The Lilac and the Rose:

“Before I leave the subject of Wortley, I would like to recall a strange little episode. We children were told that mummers were coming one evening to sing and dance. What that meant we had of course no idea, but we were allowed to sit up later than usual when they came, and that in itself gave us keen pleasure. We assembled in a room with a stone floor. In came a party of men dressed entrancingly in short coats with bright coloured patterns on them, and long dark trousers. Their leader wore a large rabbit-skin cap with a small rabbit’s head in front.

The songs and dances were charming, and the men’s faces interesting and serious. These mummers were the real thing, and their dances were not inscribed on any printed page, but had come down to them from their forebears. Harry Gust, who was married to our cousin, Nina Welby, was there, and he took down songs and stories from one of the mummers. The man was surprised and reluctant, but eventually told him in scraps and fragments something of his own and his friends’ mumming activities.       One of the songs began pleasantly with,

Tantiro Tantiro, the drums they do beat, The trumpets they do sound upon call, Methinks music’s here, some bold captain’s near, March on, my brave soldiers, away!

I remember now Harry Gust’s face alight with interest as he talked to the captain of the mummers. He wrote an article about them in the Pall Mall Gazette, which he was then editing for Waldorf Astor. I do not know if it interested people. It should have, because it was brilliantly written, but the cult of English folk lore had not dawned then on the horizon of the intelligentsia.

I remember in a childish way being interested in the mummers, realising dimly that they came from an alien world, quite different to the ordered and staid mode of life in that staid and orderly household of Wortley Hall, and that they represented something historical, rough, and elemental.”

A large area, well beyond the Parish would be covered on foot. The intention that between Christmas Eve and the end of January, all of the large manor houses and stately homes, like Wortley Hall would be visited, entertained and money would be given. Indeed the largess was considerable an article in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1895 notes each team member could accrue 30 to 35 shillings over the period (which would be a staggering £530 in modern money). One notable visit to Wentworth Woodhouse managed to collect a staggering £25 at Earl Fitzwilliam’s Christmas party – around  a £1000 worth today!!.

After the Great War, the length and duration of the walking tours were less ambitious year by year until in 1937 the outing was restricted to a Boxing Day tour of the large houses of the Parish Whitley Hall, Greno Lodge, Chapeltown Club and the house of a Dr Moles at Ecclesfield, now the Boxing Day event is associated with only one pub – the Harrow! Then after 57 years a walking tour returned in a way, a custom more contrived to give an idea than a true revival – and it’s not surprising considering the distances! On the 8th of January 1994. A much shorter tour around the Parish’s pubs and some private houses but a homage to those great walks of yore.

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (92) Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (193)

At the sharp end

I first found them finishing a set at the ….well they were getting in their cars – not really a walking tour after all I thought. A bit of a shame but then again the members were not spring chickens!! At Stone house farm despite the remote location attracted quite a crowd of curious onlookers all enraptured and perhaps hypnotised by the ins and outs of the dance. Indeed, there was something quite evocative and magical watching and hearing the dancers, especially when their clogs tapped on the stone floor. Douglas Kennedy in his 1949 England’s Dancers records a scene that has little changed:

“…the dance is performed by six men wearing clogs and carrying straight swords. Associated with it is a certain amount of dialogue and a song ‘calling on’ the dancers, sung by the leader, who brandishes a curved sabre and wears a cap of rabbit’s skin, with the head of the animal set in front. The dancers tie the ‘lock’ at the beginning of their performance, the leader (or Captain as he is called) kneels down in the centre, and afterwards the ‘Lock’ has been placed around his neck the swords are drawn. His cap of skin is knocked off in the process and rolls on the ground, looking like a decapitated head.”

Interesting unlike 1949’s observation where:

“the captain himself does not fall down to become the centre of a dramatic resurrection but just slips away from the dance, which continues its course.”

Now a special sheet is laid and the captain comically falls dead and lays in a foetus position as if dead…although his resurrection still does not occur!

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (86)

What does the dance mean? One of the commonest explanations is that it has a pagan origin, a celebration of the turning year as this evocative account below recalls:

“The Captain sings a song of bravery and love and the dance proceeds with his symbolic beheading and death. The main part of the dance then starts and immediately the Captain revives and “rises from the dead” to lead the dancers in reviving the spirit of the New Year. The six dancers weave intricate patterns with their swords and equally complicated rhythms with their steel-shod clogs. The dance reaches its climax as the fiddler increases the tempo of the dance whilst the dancers perform a rolling figure. The dancers finally form a tight circle and perform a fervent tattoo on the floor before raising their swords, pointing upwards to the sky and, one hopes, a mid-winter sun.”

However convenient this would be the evidence is difficult to find. But do we need a reason?

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (89)

At the farm I finally met up with fellow folklorist Richard Bradley, we walked back to the Harrow to see the final dance talking of folk customs. As we arrived at the pub the Sword dancers began to arrive – they looked up as the drizzle became to form and become heavier – not sure if we’ll be doing it inside or out one remarked. We retreated inside for a cup of tea, at the other end of the bar the Sword dancers too rested…however we were so engrossed in our conversation that we did not notice that the dancers had gone. Rushing outside we just saw them finish their dance! Oh dear!