Category Archives: New Year

Custom demised: Calennig on New Year’s Day

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“Dydd calan yw hi heddiw, Rwy’n dyfod ar eich traws I ‘mofyn am y geiniog, Neu grwst, a bara a chaws. O dewch i’r drws yn siriol Heb newid dim o’ch gwedd; Cyn daw dydd calan eto Bydd llawer yn y bedd.”

Translated: “Today is the start of the New Year, and I have come to you to ask for coins, or a crust, and bread and cheese. O come to the door cheerfully without changing your appearance; Before the next arrival of the new year many will be dead.”

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On New Year’s morning the streets of parts of Wales, rural areas of Dyfed, Aberystwyth, Monmouthshire, Radnorshire, Glamorgan and Carmarthan, could be heard this curious rhyme which was associated with a strange gift. As a custom it only appears to have spread with slight variation to the boarder regions of England – Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean, Shropshire and Worcestershire. Although we associate Christmas Day as the traditional day for gifts, New Year’s Day was also often associated with gift giving. This was more often associated with the idea of First footing – which survives albeit in a weakened form across England – even this year I remembered my bread to bring in.

Yet as noted until fairly recently Wales had a unique house visiting custom one which involved children. They would visit their relatives by midday carrying skewered apples stuck with fruit and raisins – akin to pomander. Ronald Hutton in his Stations of the Sun describes them as follows:

“an apple or orange, resting on three sticks like a tripod, smeared with flour, stuck with nuts, oats or wheat, topped with thyme or another fragrant herb and held by a skewer.”

It was the fruit which was called the Calennig it appears rather than the custom. In the book 1944 book The Pleasant Land of Gwent, Fred Hando notes a report of his friend Arthur Machen who noted:

“When I was a boy in Caerleon-on-Usk, the town children got the biggest and bravest and gayest apple they could find in the loft, deep in the dry bracken. They put bits of gold leaf upon it. They stuck raisins into it. They inserted into the apple little sprigs of box, and they delicately slit the ends of hazel-nuts, and so worked that the nuts appeared to grow from the ends of the holly leaves … At last, three bits of stick were fixed into the base of the apple tripod-wise; and so it borne round from house to house; and the children got cakes and sweets, and-those were wild days, remember-small cups of ale.”

In Gentlemens magazine march 1919:

“Children to their inexpressibly journey will be drest in their best bibs and aprons, and may be seen handed along the streets, some beating Kentish pippins, others oranges stuck with cloves, in order to crave a blessing of their godfathers and god others”

Generally states as the Calennig had a basic design. As Jacqueline Simpson in Folklore of the Welsh boarder this was an apples mounted on three wooden legs (a tripod) and decorated with sprigs of box and hazel nuts.

It was not always restricted to apples either sometimes it was an orange in this case using holly, tinsel, raisins, gold and silver glitter being added.

The Opie’s in Lore of Schoolchildren (1955) notes of a Radnorshire girl

“I always go New Year gifting with my sister and friends, about four of us. I get up about 7 O’clock and call for my friends and go around the houses and farms:

“I wish you a merry Christmas,

A happy new year,

A pocket full of money and a cellar full of beer,

A good fat pig to last you all year,

Please give me a New Year’s gift for this New Year.”

She stated that sometimes she would get apples or mince pies. She stated that gifting must finish by midday otherwise people will shout ‘fool at you.’

The custom appeared similar in south-west Shropshire in Clun where the children recited:

“Happy New Year. Happy New Year, I’ve come to wish you happy New Year.

I’ve got a little pocket and it is very thin,

Please give me a penny to put the money in,,

If you haven’t got a penny, a half penny will do, if you haven’t got a half penny – God bless you.”

Interestingly in Glamorgan and Carmarthen they could extend it to the entire month. Whether we should include the English counties is unclear, as outside of Wales the decorated apple does not appear to be recorded. It was called The gift in Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. Interestingly, Simpson in Folklore of the Welsh boarder states they were still common in Monmouthshire and around St Briavels in 1900. In Chepstow she states before the First World War it was called a Monty and those who carried it chanted:

“Monty, Monty, Happy New Year,

A pocket full of money and cellar full of beer”

Origins of the custom

It is possible that the custom descended from adults for in Herefordshire, the 1822 Gentleman’s Magasine notes that the peasantry called with:

“a small pyramid made of leaves, apples, nuts etc,, gilt in hope of receiving gifts in exchange for the luck this conferred.”

Yet by 1880s it was only youngsters. Certainly in 17th and 18th references are made to a decorated orange with cloves being a gift for New Years in England. Brand (1900) in his Observations on popular antiquities makes note of a remark on the Christmas masque of Ben Jonson ‘he has an orange and rosemary, but not a clove to stick in it Hutton in his Stations of the Sun saw the three components as representing gifts of the Three Wise Men of sweetness, wealth and immortality. The author of The weird wonders of wales – the right way with Calennig from 12/12/1986 notes:

“This calennig apple clearly dates from ancient times, being a representation of the sun which was absent during winter.

Death of the custom?

Even by the early 20th century it was in decline as Donald Davis of Those were the days from 11/7/1936 notes:

“Lately the carrying of an apple has been discontinued and only the recitation of brief verses or greetings and the collection of new pennies mark the custom in those districts where it has survived.”             

In Llandysul, Carmarthanshire, an account on the BBCs Domesday Reloaded records:

The custom has rapidly declined over the years and this year, 1985, very few children came collecting because the children today get enough pocket money and food. Also, many children may not have been told about the custom by their parents.”

In other parts of the country it was still being recorded but it in a way the well-meaning anonymous author of The author of The weird wonders of wales – the right way with calennig from 12/12/1986 perhaps by begrudging gifts led to its decline:

“Soon it will be calennig time. That’s when youngsters come to the door asking for me years gifts. Over the last few years, those who have come to my door have been duly treated, but this year will be different. Why? Because they haven’t been doing it right! Shame on them. We shall put things right. The way it should be done….is for the children to knock day a proper calennig verse to the person who answers, and then receive the gift.

He also goes on to note he had seven such verses that the children should use.

“Os fyddech chi mor garedig, Ac agor drws y ty, Y flwyddyn fwyaf lucid a fyddo gyda chwi” ‘Blwyddyn newydd dda I chi, Ac I bawb sydd yn y ty, dyma yw’n dymuniad ni O ddechrau’r flwyddyn hon.’ If no one answers Blwyddyn newydd ddrwg, Llond y ty o fwg.’ A bad new year may your house fill with smoke and then run away like the clapper readers can help preserve the custom too by responding to those youngsters who ‘do it proper’, let’s see what we can do to keep our traditions alive”

I wonder if they heeded him. Certainly there is little reference I can find to the custom through the 90s. Today Calennig has become a name for civic New Year’s celebration, often for children, such as those held in Cardiff. Yet it is difficult to be sure with private and domestic customs. Does it still survive? Certainly it did in 2003 but by the sound of the article The custom of calennig on 16/1/03 it did not sound particularly healthy (with five children only)!:

“The old welsh tradition of calennig is still alive in Llanrhystud. At around 11 o’clock on New Year’s Day in the morning the joyful sound of children’s voices was heard at several homes in and around the village as five local children sang traditional New Year songs to wish all those they visited a happy new year. Some were rewarded sign gifts of money. In older times children would be given gifts of fruit, cakes or sweets. Calennig normally begins soon after the dawn of the New Year and continues until noon, the earliest callers are generously rewarded for their enthusiasm. It is good to see this ancient custom continuing well into the twenty first century.”

The fact that the custom survived into the 80s with no mention as a living custom by folklorists is astounding, survival into the 21st century even more amazing, but of course such customs can survive like the New Year’s Penny Scramble in Driffield which was then absent from books and sites like the excellent Calendercustoms. Certainly people are aware of it as the Youtube clip and Twitter feeds shows and guides how to make one exist. But does any child still go out properly house visiting with one? Has it died a death completely like other house visiting customs succumbed to the power of Hallowe’en! Does it still survive where you are? Please comment and perhaps add photos.

Custom revived: Harthill’s Derby Tup

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A surviving custom?

The Derby Tup or Owd Tup of all the traditions that are to be found along the eastern midlands is the most enigmatic and fascinating.

It is possible that in the Harthill area there is an unbroken tradition of Tupping. On the Sheffield Forum a member called Denise relates that:

“We lived in Renishaw, my Brother and his friends use to do the Derby Tup around Mosborough, Renishaw, Eckington, Barlborough etc through the 1970s. They used to borrow my mother’s Shirley Bassey Wig for my wife and came to our house to count up and share out the money (lots of it).”

This is interesting for two reasons. One because it is close to the village visited in Russell’s 1974 Derby Tup film and his Survey of traditional Drama in North–east Derbyshire 1970-78 and secondly, because it overlaps with the Harthill Morris revival which begun in 1974. Furthermore, the local school continue the tradition and indeed may have since the 1970s.

The Tup play differed according to the village and each village had a different type. A competitive element was introduced when groups of young boys would vie to be the first group in a certain pub to give a rendition and obviously earn the biggest pot. According to Derreck another forum member, who relates that this rivalry ended up in fighting.

What’s tup?

The Tup is a curious play half acted and half sung about a large sheep being seen and then slaughtered. The play starts with the following lines:

Here comes me an’ ar owd lass, Short o’ money an’ short o’ brass: Pay for a pint and let us sup, Then we’ll act the Derby ‘Tup’.

The ram then dances around as the following is recited:

“As I was going to Derby, Upon a market day, I met the finest ram, sir, That ever was fed on hay.

(Chorus repeated after every verse) Faily, faily, ready for haily day!

This ram was fat behind, sir, This ram was fat before, This ram was three yards high, sir, Indeed he was, or more!

The wool upon his back, sir, Reached up to the sky, The eagles built their nests there, For I heard the young ‘uns cry.

The wool upon his tail, sir, Was three yards and an ell, Of it they made a rope, sir, To pull the parish bell.

The space between his horns, sir, Was as far as a man could reach, And there they built a pulpit, But no man in it preached.

This ram had four legs to walk on, This ram had four legs to stand, And every leg he had, sir, Stood on an acre of land.

Now the man that fed the ram, sir, He fed him twice a day, And each time that he fed him, He ate a rick of hay.”

A piece of dialogue then is recited and the Tup is killed. He lays on the floor and the butcher with the knife stands over him:

“The man that killed the ram, sir, Was up to his knees in blood, And the lad that held the pail, sir, Was carried away by the flood.

Indeed, sir, it’s the truth, sir, For I never was taught to lie,And if you go to Derby, You may eat a piece of the pie.

And now our song is ended, We have no more to say, So please will you gi’e us a copper or two To see us on our way.”

At which point a collection is made.

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What’s tup with that?

Many of the older Tups were simple structures made from a broom or even a turnip. In Worksop it was common to use a preserved head – a rather gruesome but effective device. Some had moving jars and illuminated eyes. That of the Harthill Tuppers is the latter, a substantial beast covered in wool with glowing ball eyes, an articulated mouth and a very impressive flapping and rolling tongue.

I planned to see the Tuppers at the Phoenix Inn, Ridgeway. After eating a rather fine meal there, I nearly missed the team as they Introducer came bursting in with his bell, fast behind him came the characters-the Farmer, Old Sal, the fool, the butcher and of course the TupCo-incidentally it is to Ridgeway that Ian Russell in his 1974 documentary on the Derby Tup of which more in a moment.

A pagan ramemberance?

Some folklorists suggest that the theme of the story is pre-Christian in origin. It is easy to read into pagan motifs into the story. The enactment around the summer solstice and new year emphasising this even more. Of course the ram image is a very significant figure. The Devil is always portrayed as goat like, but this is a personification of a pagan god. By killing him as the year ends, perhaps his blood is said to fertilise the land and encourage farm beasts to breed, as a sacrifice.

As with similar customs such as the Poor Owd Oss, it is also tempting to link the custom with the view of the Archbishop of  Canterbury, Theodore in the 7th century Liber Poenitentialis . He complained about tribes dressing in animal skins at the Kalends of January (the 1st) stating:

“whoever at the calends of January goeth about as a stag or bull; that is, making a himself into a wild animal and dressing in the skin of a herd animal, putting on the heads of the beast, whose who in such wise transform themselves into the appearance of a wild animal, penance for three years because this is devilish.”

Indeed, evidence for its greater significance was given as the Tup left to be put in the car, a local lady said is this the Tup upon giving it a touch for good luck. It was interesting to see some traditions die hard!

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Tup and down

In 1974, folklorist Ian Russell toured and interviewed Tups around the Ridgeway. His film is a fascinating window into a custom which whilst in good health was perhaps in failing health. How did something which appears to have thrived die out in the intervening 30 years? But the film perhaps illustrates some reasons why the custom had begun to disappear. Let me discuss the reasons

Firstly, what is worth noting that in a scene in a pub, the death of the animal is greeted with boos! The early 70s was a period linked with greater awareness of such issues and as such younger people would have been less inclined to be involved in such a bloody thirsty custom. Interestingly, I think we’ve gone through the period of time which would seem ‘ritual slaughter’ offensive and now again children would enjoy this. A number of children watching the Tup with me were thoroughly enthralled.

We cannot discount apathy. Children today have many other enjoyments and this is evident in the film that many Tuppers may have been going through the motions. The first team shows this by the group of teenagers either not wanted to be filmed or not wanted to do it. However, the other scenes show more enthusiasm. Of course this lack of involvement combines with three other factors. One being increased affluence. Now that is a good thing of course, but children are less likely to find ways to raise their own money if they don’t need to. This combined with ‘Danger-Stranger’ probably sealed the fate of the original run of the custom – many people could not imagine their young children travelling around pubs to collect money and be concerned, rightly so, for their safety. The final important factor is society’s immunisation to begging. Collecting money for one self this way is frowned upon. I long to hear a Morris team or old custom which collects for itself rather than charity! As the prevailing culture was to collect for a worthy cause, other than themselves, this would be a factor to discourage the Tuppers. This is perhaps combined with ‘Charity lives at home’ attitude.

All these appear to have sadly caused the demise of the Derby or Owd Tup tradition as enacted by children, but fortunately this team excellent and energetically uphold the tradition and long may they continue. However one could not help feel that this was a dying tradition – and even from the words of one the main protagonists – they were not always welcome!

Custom transcribed: Leicester’s Diwali festival of lights

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Light idea

As the cold midlands skies are lit up with a wondrous array of lights in attendance of 60,000 people…it is remarkable how this custom transcribed from far away has established itself so firmly in Leicester. These celebrations, which stretch along the so called Golden Mile, are the biggest outside India started modestly enough. Decorations were first erected along the Belgrave Road in 1983. These were simple illuminated rings attached to columns between Dorset Street and Loughborough Road with illuminated festoon between the lamps. By 1986 it had extended to Olphin Street and the Belgrave Neighbourhood centre façade was included. Melton Road by 1989 and then 1995 extended to join the Belgrave Flyover until its recent removal. Over 4800 lamps being used over the years

The demolishing of the Flyover in 1994 and subsequent redevelopment of Belgrave Road gave the organisers the chance to extend. A report in 2015 noting:

“The display will now extend along the full length of Belgrave Road to Belgrave Circle, with column-mounted decorations on the 18 lamp columns around Belgrave Circle itself. More lights, illuminated signs and energy efficient bulbs will feature heavily in this year’s display. Our senior lighting technician Joe Clay outlined the plans in more detail. He said: “In the centre of Belgrave Circle there will be a 10 metre wide ‘Happy Diwali’ LED illuminated crossing, installed on two 12 metre high support poles. “The expansion of the display this year will add a further 1,200 multi coloured lamps. The lamps we have used from 2014 are LED lamps, which offer a dramatic reduction in energy usage. “On Belgrave Road there have traditionally been three different types of decoration fixed to lamp columns. For 2015 there will be a fourth design incorporated for variety and these will also be included around Belgrave Circle.”

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Out of darkness

The festival, principally a Hindu one, but also recognised by Sikhs, is a New Year celebration based on the lunar calendar and this falling between late October and early November. Significantly for this time of year, when clocks go back and the feeling of darkness is ever present, the festival celebrates good over evil – light over dark.

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The true origins of Diwali are lost in the mists, but the commonest legend tells of when the demon King Ravan was slayed by Hindu Lord Ram, crowned King of Ayodhya, after 14 years of exile. People celebrated by lighting lamps along the street. To Sikhs it was the time when in 1620, 52 Hindu princes were released by the sixth Guru, Hargobind Singh. Lights being lit at the Golden temple to welcome their return.

There is without doubt a feeling of expectation a joyous holiday atmosphere amongst the crowds awaiting the switch on. Cheers and fireworks fill the skies and dancing and music fills the spaces between the lights. The crowd can be a bit intimidating but that in a way is part of the event. Around in small areas small street displays of candles can be made…and as the town’s mayor steps up to turn on the lights with a great count down..everyone is waiting with great anticipation. Then the moment and the sky is lit up with wonderful lights. Then there’s the great aromas of food beckoning and the sounds of dancing and music filling the eye.

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In essence one couldn’t get a better foreign custom to establish itself in England than Diwali, despite its varied claimed origins (itself a trait shared with many British customs) its wanting to banish darkness from the skies in the cold autumn nights echoes native traditions of Bonfire night and Christmas…but its idea of sharing and celebration what many races and religions have in common is something quite central to the core of many British customs. A need for community to include everyone…indeed it is worth noting that:

“Once the Diwali celebrations are complete, parts of the display will be converted to display a festive message, as we take down the Diwali decorations to put up our Christmas lights.”

In a sense only really by changing the words only perhaps!

 

Custom transcribed: Chinese New Year

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“It is, we believe, important to record the arrival of such immigrant customs as the one described here. Whether it becomes an annual event or not remains to be seen, but such festivities certainly provide a day of colour and excitement at a somewhat grey and dull part of the occidental year.”

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Without doubt one of the most colourful and successful custom to transcribe and become established in Britain from foreign shores is that of Chinese New Year. The first place to have a recorded tradition is London, which has spilled out from its natural home of Chinatown in Soho to a splendid series of events which colourfully dominate Trafalgar Square. This could be a custom survived, yet despite burgeoning Chinese and East Asian communities through the 1800s, the public celebration of Chinese New Year only dates from the 1960s because as Tony Man, of the London Chinatown Chinese Association many families were arriving in this country from Hong Kong. However these were small family affairs. Fortunately, an excellent account is made by Roy and Monica Vickery in their Chinese New Year celebrations in London 1971-1973 in Folklore. They note that the first public display was held in what had effectively become London’s Chinatown Gerrard Street. This was recorded in 31st January 1973 and was a traditional Dragon dance. They note:

“A large number of Chinese, mostly men in sober dress of waiters and restaurant proprietors were present. The dragon consisted of a large multi-coloured, garishly decorated mask with a young man inside. To the back of the mask was attached a decorated cloth tail under which a small number of youths moved in an attempt at unison with the occupant of the mask. As the dancers became exhausted they were replaced by others from a group who, aided by long bamboo poles, usually succeeded in preparing a way for, and keeping the crowd from the dragon. Music was provided by a small gang of percussionists and the party was completed by a teaser whose main function seemed to be leading the dragon from one offering to the next. These offerings consisted of bank notes  both unwrapped and wrapped enclosed in red packets – lettuce and other vegetables, tied to long pieces of string which hung, like fishing-lines, from the windows of Chinese shops and restaurants. The dragon often succeeded only in reaching the lowest objects on each string, the remainder being eventually lowered to it. The celebrations were carefully watched over by an older man who was obviously responsible for ensuring that the youngsters performed with a suitable sense of tradition. After eating one offering the dragon proceeded to the next establishment. The incoming year being the Year of the Boar, metallic statuettes of this beast were placed in the windows of many restaurants.”

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However this could have been a one-off because they record that:

“January 1972, the Year of the Boar gave way to the Year of the Rat. No public celebrations appeared to be prepared and on enquiring of Chinese friends why this was so, the answer received was that in Britain it was difficult to obtain the necessary people and properties for the traditional celebrations. However, it seems that this reason was only partly true. The Year of the Rat is traditionally an ill-omened one during which it is inadvisable to start new projects. Hence it is easy to understand why such a year might not be welcomed.”

Yet fortunately, in 1973 it was back now attracting an equal number of non-Chinese, celebrating the year of the Ox. The Vickery’s again record:

“The festivities commenced at noon when a number of imported fire-crackers were exploded in a car park at the end of Gerrard Street. As the air cleared two small boys emerged from the car park carrying a large red banner which with considerable and frequent police assistance preceded the beast, on this occasion a lion, throughout the afternoon. Then the predominantly bright pink, multi-coloured lion danced out into the lantern-hung street accompanied by a small band of percussionists. The lion, an elaborate mask over one man’s head with a second man dancing in its tail, was soon led to its first offerings by a teaser. This grotesque individual who wore a globular pinkish red mask, and a stuffed blue tunic giving the appearance of pregnancy, guided the lion with a straw fan. One restaurant ostentatiously displayed its offerings, which consisted of four ten pound notes and an equal number of oranges, in a plastic bowl on the pavement, but most establishments hung offerings from their windows. From other windows isolated groups of Europeans occasionally showered the lion with rice. So dense was the crowd that the lion took all after- noon to devour all the offerings presented to it and it was not until late afternoon that the crowds began to thin.”

One for me old China!

From this point onwards it would appear the celebration has grown from year to year, organised by the Chinese organisation, and with it becoming an all inclusive event. Helped by the formal recognition of Chinatown with red and gold bollards and other familiar motifs, London’s Chinese New Year is perhaps the best outside China. When I recently went the streets were thronged with all creeds and races, many tourists happily snapping away who had come especially to see the event – now the largest outside China. For although the streets of Chinatown that the celebration erupts with vibrancy and vigour, it has spread beyond into Trafalgar Square.

The first thing that greets you other than the numbers is the how one goes from the bland streets surrounding one enters a lively scene and a bizarre one-way system to control the crowds.  The typical high London premises are brought alive with banners, bunting and giant lanterns. Stalls line the streets selling food, Chinese gifts and even a stall called Labour for Chinese…surely being communists they all left wing?

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The sound is incredible. Every now and then small children can be seen secretly making older residents jump by throwing fire crackers on the ground with great enthusiasm. But it is the sound of the drums and symbols excitedly rattling its Lion which danced up and down entering local restaurants to bring good luck..attempting to eat pieces of cabbages, the green providing good luck, on the way and hoping to impress the audience, if the crowds give it room by its acrobatic action. Watching this splendid beast one can be reminded of other native house visiting customs and how similarities can be drawn.

There are other significant Chinese communities in the UK and other celebrations, however the oldest and surely most colourful is that of London. However not everyone feels the celebration is great. Venetia Newell in her article for Western Folklore, A Note on the Chinese New Year Celebration in London and Its Socio-Economic Background notes that Jabez Lam, of the Chinese Advice and Information Centre believed:

“What you’re seeing in Gerrard Street has nothing to do with New Year as the Chinese know it. All that celebration is artificial, a pantomime put on for tourists and English people by wealthy restaurateurs. In China it takes several days to celebrate New Year. There’s ritual cleaning of the house, shops are closed for 2-3 days; all business stops. Families get together, visit their elders, pay respects. It’s impossible to do those things here. 90% of Chinese people in Britain work in catering. They have to work flat-out on New Year’s Day. It’s no fun at all if you’re a waiter in a restaurant. On this day the restaurants are the busiest they ever get . . it’s hard for the workers who get no rest.”

Custom survived: Burning the Clavie

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Burghead is a remote place – both geographically and culturally – never is that more evident than on a cold and blustery evening in the bleak months of January. Never more obvious on a night which is unique to this small seaside town – the night of Burning the Clavie.

Followers of this blog will notice that accounts have yet not gone across the borders: but as this is about British calendar customs I feel it was about time! Timing of course is the key when it comes to Burning of the Clavie; getting the right timing particularly. Customs always undertaken on a set date can be problematic if you don’t live near and when like me, you are planning a 1000 mile round trip – the correct date is essential! The date quoted is the 11th of January – New Year’s Eve Old Style – but this meant that this year the burning fell on a Sunday. A search of the web said that the custom was always on the 11th, but I was more wary. Indeed 90% of entries said so except the excellent Calendar Customs and Wikipedia. So I decided to do some research, a phone call to nearby Elgin Tourist information by both myself and Calendar custom author Averil Shepherd threw up two different answers – yes and no! Finally I rang the Bothy, which was in Burghead – the confirmed it would be the Saturday – therefore the 10th….cannot help think there would be disappointed visitors on the Sunday night.

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Burning desire

I arrived early the town, the supposed 100 mile an hour winds and heavy snow reported to be battering Scotland in the news were not terribly apparent. It was windy yes, but it was also sunny! I have had a desire to visit the town for a number of years primarily for the Clavie but also to visit the unique Burghead well (more of which can be read on my sister blog)

Wandering around the town I bumped into a man carrying wood out of his workshop, seeing my camera he said ‘ we’ll be building the clavier from two, you’re welcome to come along and film if you like.’ Little did I know, this was the Clavie King – Dan Ralph the man charged with organising the building of the Clavie and whose family has had a very long association with the tradition.  This was a very welcome and unexpected piece of serendipity as the making of the Clavie is as significant a part of the custom as the burning.

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I turned up at the allotted time and found a crowded black smith’s shed. Inside were all the members of the Clavie Crew, a group ranging all ages and traditionally restricted to the same families over the generations. The venture started with the sawing of an old barrel into pieces. How little the production had changed as the account resembles that given by Chambers (1869):

A common fir prop, some four feet in length, called the “spoke,” being then procured, a hole is bored through the tub-like machine, that, as we have already said, is to form the basis of the unique structure, and a long nail, made for the purpose, and furnished gratuitously by the village black-smith, unites the two. Curiously enough, no hammer is allowed to drive this nail, which is “sent home” by a smooth stone. The herring-cask is next demolished, and the staves are soon under-going a diminution at both extremities, in order to fit them for their proper position. They are nailed, at intervals of about two inches all round, to the lower edge of the Clavie-barrel, while the other ends are firmly fastened to the spoke, an aperture being left sufficiently large to admit the head of a man.”

The smooth stone of Chambers has indeed survived the 100 years or more since his account and continues to provide it role.  The oldest member was responsible for fusing the barrel to its spike and soon everyone was hammering in the staves through which the carrier placed his head. One of the most charming aspects of the custom being the contributions by all ages of the Clavie Crew; the youngest only a few years old being urged to have ‘a shot’ and indeed one boy was certainly a better hammering than the adults. I was particularly amused when having difficulty securing a nail into the barrel’s metal hoop one of the Clavie crew was ready to use an electric drill..a move quickly prevented with a  face of panic and dismay by the Clavie King and a ‘no, no, no.’ There certainly was a jolly party atmosphere to making the structure, which itself of course was rather perfunctory.

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Fired up

A few hours later the quiet streets of the town were full of people, the pubs bustling and the Bothy open late. Chambers (1869) aptly again notes:

‘By this time the shades of evening have begun to descend, and soon the subdued murmur of the crowd breaks forth into one loud, prolonged cheer, as the youth who was despatched for the fiery peat (for custom says no sulphurous lucifer, no patent congreve dare approach ‘within the sacred precincts of the Clavie) arrives with his glowing charge. The master-builder relieving him of his precious trust, places it within the opening already noticed, where, revived by a hot blast from his powerful lungs, it ignites the surrounding wood and tar, which quickly bursts into a flame….then Clavie-bearer number one, popping his head between the staves, is away with his flaming burden.”

The night begins with the Clavie propped against the wall with a crowd surrounding it waiting in anticipation for the origin of the peat. Traditionally a piece of lit peat taken from the hearth of the oldest house is used. With cries of ‘make way for the peat’ It duly arrived and soon the flame was flickering. The crew added extra pieces of wood to the barrel. Whilst this was going on a member of the crew was getting the crowd excited. Several round of ‘hip hip hooray’ could be heard. Soon the flame had become quite substantial and the Clavie held upon one of the crew’s shoulders was off.

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Ashes to ashes

The Burghead Clavie Burning appears to be the only survival of perhaps a wider spread custom. Fire and New Year is intrinsically linked with a number of locations such as Stonehaven and other boarder locations having fiery celebrations. Despite the earlier origin suggested it appears that the earliest reference was when it was being banned! On 20 January 1689, the church admonished the locals for:

“having made a burning clavie, paying it superstitious worship, and blessing the boats after the old heathen custom”

In 1665 ministers of Duffus district censured fishermen who ‘superstitiously carried fir torches about their boats’ on New Year’s Eve. This clearly did not have the impact it required for an act against clavies was imposed by a 1714 Kirk Session at Inveravon in Banffshire:

“superstitious, idolatrous and sinfule, an abominable heathenish practice”.

MacKinlay in Scottish Lochs and Springs (1893) notes:

“The antiquity of the custom may be inferred from the fact, that two hundred years ago it was called old. At that time lights were carried round the boats in the harbour, and certain other ceremonies were performed, all pointing to a pagan origin. Formerly the custom was in vogue, not only at Burghead, but at most of the fishing villages along the Morayshire coast. The object in every case was the same, viz., the blessing of the boats to ensure a good fishing season.”

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Chambers (1869) notes:

“Formerly, the Clavie was carried in triumph round every vessel in the harbour, and a handful of grain thrown into each, in order to insure success for the coming year; but as this part of the ceremony came to be tedious, it was dropped, and the procession confined to the boundaries of the town.”

Burning question

What is the origin of the name? That has been the great unanswered question. Some believe it comes from Gaelic cliabh for a basket, others clavus a Latin term for huge nail refering to the nail which attached the basket to its post. This Latin origin has been used as a suggestion for its pre-Christian origin but I feel that itself is not evidence. Firstly, that the Romans never got as far and secondly Latin was of course a language used by the Norman court and ecclesiastical communities, although why that would be chosen is unclear unless the church at first sanctioned it…More problematic is the fact that Burghead is not an ancient town – much of it established early 19th century – but clearly translated from elsewhere probably by the fishing communities as suggested above. Furthermore there are some archaic touches since at least the eighteenth century only a stone hammer is used based on a Highland belief that metal should not be used in lighting a sacred fire. Chambers (1869) again gives a lengthy discussion of its possible origin refering to Doorie Hill where the Clavie finishes its journey:

As well might these wild speculators have remarked that Doorie, which may be spelled Durie, sprang from durus, cruel, on account of the bloody ceremony celebrated on its summit. Another opinion has been boldly advanced by one party, to the effect that the Clavie is Scandinavian in origin, being introduced by the Norwegian Vikings, during the short time they held the promontory in the beginning of the eleventh century….Unfortunately, all external evidence being lost, we are compelled to rely entirely on the internal, which we have little hesitation, however, in saying points in an unmistakable manner down through the long vistas of our national history to where the mists of obscurity hang around the Druid worship of our forefathers. It is well known that the elements of fire were often present in Druidical orgies and customs (as witness their cran-tara); while it is universally admitted that the bonfires of May-day and Mid-summer eve, still kept up in different parts of the country, are vestiges of these rites. And why should not the Clavie be so too, seeing that it bears throughout the stamp of a like parentage? The carrying home of the embers, as a protection from the ills of life, as well as other parts of the ceremony, finds a counterpart in the customs of the Druids; and though the time of observance be somewhat different, yet may not the same causes (now unknown ones) that have so greatly modified the Clavie have likewise operated in altering the date, which, after all, occurs at the most solemn part of the Druidical year?”

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No smoke without fire.

Keeping up with the Clavie was a challenge, the crew with its carrier moved at rapid speed…partly due to the belief it was bad luck to drop it. Bad luck and extremely dangerous I would add. As it parade through the crowds, heat bellowing out of it and sparks flying through the crowd. At certain points it did stop however. Here long pieces of charred wood held in the main basket were carefully removed and handed to individuals. These individuals either ran local properties, mainly pubs or were family members of the Clavie Crew. These pieces are thought to be lucky and are kept all year as good luck charms, extra luck being when the Clavie was brought to the doorway.. Reassuringly, little has changed since Chambers (1869) account below:

“As fast as his heavy load will permit him, the bearer hurries along the well-known route, followed by the shouting Burgheadians, the boiling tar meanwhile trickling down in dark sluggish streams all over his back. Nor is the danger of scalding the only one he who essays to carry the Clavie has to confront, since the least stumble is sufficient to destroy his equilibrium. Indeed, this untoward event, at one time looked on as a dire calamity, foretelling disaster to the place, and certain death to the bearer in the course of next year, not unfrequently occurs. Having reached the junction of two streets, the carrier of the Clavie is relieved; and while the change is being effected, firebrands plucked from the barrel are thrown among the crowd, who eagerly scramble for the tarry treasure, the possession of which was of old deemed a sure safeguard against all unlucky contingencies.”

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Chisholm (1911) in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes:

“a lighted piece with which to kindle the New Year’s fire on their cottage hearth. The charcoal of the clavie is collected and is put in pieces up the cottage chimneys, to keep spirits and witches from coming down.”

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After about an hour or so, the Clavie reaches an odd hill, called Doorie Hill, on the edge of the town, which was probably part of the Pictish fort. As I was following closely the Clavie at this point I was fortunate to get close to it being carried up and following watched as they mounted it to a small stone altar:

“Being now firmly seated on its throne, fresh fuel is heaped on the Clavie, while, to make the fire burn the brighter, a barrel with the ends knocked out is placed on the top. Cheer after cheer rises from the crowd below, as the efforts made to increase the blaze are crowned with success.”

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Again very little has changed. Despite the ferocious winds which had developed the Clavie Crew took great delight in dousing the Clavie with bottle after bottle of petrol. The Clavie would belch out a great orange flame in anger and the crowd would indeed cheer. I was told that because of the wind, they were being cautious. As I looked at the ground a few feet away engulfed in flame..and me a few paces from the petrol supply, I thought what was it like on a quiet night.

After about 40 minutes of feeding this flame, the Clavie King with his distinctive flame proof fisherman’s like hat climbed it to break bits off to distribute amongst the crowd. Upon seeing me I was happy to say I was given a piece which I quickly wrapped in my damp cloth, dampened in the cold waters of the Burghead well earlier..I thought it appropriate..However, it wasn’t damp enough and I soon noticed it was smouldering and glowing, and it was hot! I dropped it sadly it broke a little. Would that now provide bad luck?

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Soon after this the Clavie creaked and fell to the ground, much of its body broken apart and distributed or else turn to ashes. As it fell the assembled crowd turned to each other and wished ‘happy new year’ for this as I stress was really the start of their year.

This new year atmosphere continued for much of the night in the pubs and the Bothy, as the thousands who assembled to see the Clavie found respite from the cold and snow in their celebrations. They’d be some sore heads the next day. Good job it would be Sunday.

As I left Burghead on my homeward journey I realised how privileged I had been to witness this unique custom in this remote part of Britain..and my Clavie piece? It already managed to save me money…I turned up to go around Elgin Catherdral and was let in for free!!

Custom demised: Paul Pitcher Day

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Two men wearing mining attire look at one-another in this black line drawing. Both wear dark clothing and mining helmets. The man on the right holds a long tool.In Cornwall the January 24th  the Eve of the Conversion of St. Paul was celebrated as a holiday for miners. It is noted in Notes and queries from 1874:

“There is a curious custom prevalent in some parts of Cornwall of throwing broken pitchers and other earthen vessels against the doors of dwelling-houses on the eve of the conversion of St. Paul, thence locally called Paul pitcher-night. On that evening parties of young people perambulate the parishes in which the custom is retained, exclaiming as they throw the sherds, ‘St. Paul’s-eve, and here’s a heave.’”

According to John Brand’s Popular Antiquities (1870) he states that:

“The boys of Bodmin parade the town with broken pitchers, and other earthenware vessels, and into every house, where the door can be opened, or has been inadvertently left so, they hurl a ” Paul’s pitcher,”  exclaiming, “Paul’s Eve, And here’s a heave.” According to custom, the first “heave” cannot be objected to; but upon its repetition the offender, if caught, may be punished.”

This would suggest that the custom had an element of boundary perambulation possibly mixed with begging, although no money appears to have been extorted, but likely to be related to the luck giving akin to first footing. The folklore journal of 1886 notes that these pots were often filled with broken sherds and rubbish and after it was destroyed a new one would be purchased and thence filled with beer!

Robert Hunt (1903) in his Popular Romances of the West of England notes that St Paul’s had an association with tin miners. He notes that he possibly came over with the Phoenicians. Gwennap claims that St Paul preached there and obtained tin from Creekbraws mine, a belief supported by the local Methodists. He is also said to have preached to Dartmoor miners where a cross now sits on the road to Plympton to Princes-Town. Of course was noted for his persecution of Christians and in particular St Steven’s stoning. By stoning pots on the Eve of his Conversion, were they symbolising his bad deed before redemption?

 

 

 

Custom demised: Taking down Christmas decorations on Candlemas Eve

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What? Surely it’s Twelfth Night or Twelfth Day. Indeed, whilst that debate rages about….and some people take them down on Boxing Day I hear. But the real debate is Twelfth Night or Candlemas?.

This debate certainly is quite germane with me, who sits here, composing this post on the 25th January in the shadow of a fully decorated Christmas tree! Why I’ll explain in a minute. However, when discussing the fact I still had the tree up on Plough Monday, Frank a folklorist and local Historian said ‘You’ll get back luck then’ to which I replied with the following fact from what I had discovered researching customs, that Christmas decorations were to be burnt at Candlemas north of the Trent of Nottingham, where it is said that candles must be thrown away.

He was apparently unaware of the custom, but delving into an array of customs it appears that the Northerners were not the only ones exempt! Further research suggests that it is a custom which has waxed and then waned over the centuries to such a point that no-one would be aware of it largely. Certainly in the 17th century the custom prevailed as noted by the poem ‘Ceremony upon Christmas Eve’ written by Robert Herrick in 1648. He records:

“Down with the rosemary, and so,

Down with the baies, and mistletoe

Down with the holly, ivie and all,

Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall,

That so the superstitious find

No one least branch there left behind;

For look, how many leaves there be

Neglected, there (maids trust to me)

So many goblins you shall see.”

 

The poem was adapted by Edgar Pittman into Candlemas Eve Carol and similarly the carol Farewell to Christmas notes:

“Here have I dwelled with more & less
From Hallowtide till Candlemas,
And now must I from your hens pass;
Now have good day”

Herrick in his Upon Candlemas Day poem also wrote:

“End now the white loaf and the pie, and let all sports with Christmas die.”

Despite this the custom is largely forgot. This is surprising considering how widespread the observance was.  Raven (1977) records it in Staffordshire:

“in the mid-nineteenth century, the Christmas decorations used at Stone Mill were taken to the cowsheds and fed to the cattle to prevent them ‘casting’ their calves.”

Palmer (1976) noted that this was the tradition too in Warwickshire, as was it in Worcestershire:

“It is unlucky to keep Christmas holly about the house after Candlemas Day, as the Evil One will then come himself and pull it down.”

The custom would indeed appear to be commonly encountered in the west far more than in the North.  In Burne’s () Shropshire, she was told by a servant that holly and ivy was taken down on Candlemas Eve so as to put snow-drops in their place.  In 1864 it is also recorded in Suffolk:

“If every scrap of Christmas decoration is not removed from the church before Candlemas-day there will be a death within a year in the family occupying the pew where a leaf or berry is left.”

This latter belief still associates with our modern date. Udal (1922) in his Dorsetshire folklore records too:

 “Candlemas Day or Eve – was the great occasion in Dorsetshire, as in other counties, when all Christmas decorations, such as holy, mistletoe, and evergreens, should be taken down…but care should be taken not to throw away as ordinary rubbish, but should entirely destroyed in the fire. If otherwise, it portends death or misfortune to some one of the household before another year is out.”

Yet despite this Hardy’s poem Burning the Holly still favours Twelfth Night but its date of 1898 agrees with Roud (2004) that opinion was changing by the turn of the 20th century. However even in the United States, in Williamsburg,  a 18th century poem records:

“When New Year’s Day is past and gone;
Christmas is with some people done;
But further some will it extend,
And at Twelfth Day their Christmas end.
Some people stretch it further yet,
At Candlemas they finish it.
The gentry carry it further still
And finish it just when they will;
They drink good wine and eat good cheer
And keep their Christmas all the year.”

 It makes good sense as Candlemas was the Feast of the Purification, the last feast which signified the baby Jesus’s acceptance at the Temple. Being no longer a baby in a Manger but a baptised child. Furthermore as this was a lean time of the year agriculturally it would have little impact. It may also be significant to note that Candlemas Eve was and is Imbolc, the old Pagan celebration and perhaps taking down before may have been a way of distancing from the pagan past.

 Why the change of date?

Is it possible that the authorities wanting to discourage the festivities which associated with the date, especially the Lord of Misrule, established this date as the one when Christmas officially finished and everyone went back to work, especially as in the 1800s communities moved from largely agricultural to industrial.

 Burn the lot!

The majority of correspondent’s state that these decorations should then be burnt and if not bad luck would befall anyone who did not. Roud (2004) notes that there is no geographical spread of the custom and that there was more likely to be disagreement due to changing attitudes over time. He refers to records burning the decorations recorded as far back as the eleventh century but the earliest anti-burning being from 1866.  I’m quite sure the family would want me to burn the decorations though, especially the large ‘plastic’ tree. Burning would bring more than bad luck….but a deadly cocktail of chemicals

Well perhaps it’s not quite a demised custom, I inadvertently have done so and so I gather do some churches, mainly Catholic, although I have not heard of any from Britain.