Category Archives: New Year

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.

Custom demised: Jack of Hilton and his curious tenure

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In the Ashmolean museum in Oxford is a very strange effigy called Jack of Hilton. It was once the property of the manor of Essington between Wolverhampton and Walsall was subject to a strange feudal service custom from the neighbouring Lord of Hilton. An account by topographer Plot (1686) describes it as:

“a hollow brass image, about a foot high, representing a man kneeling in an indecorous posture. …..There were two apertures, one very small at the mouth, another about two-thirds of an inch in diameter at the back..”

Why the holes? Well the structure is what is called an Æolipile, named after Aeolus the Greek God of air and wind, for such a device would spin when heated due to the force of pressure by water. In a way it was the precursor of the engine. An account of one describes it as:

“an instrument consisting of a hollow metallic ball, with a slender neck or pipe, arising from it. This being filled with water, and thus exposed to the fire, produces a vehement blast of wind.”

Jack of Hilton would hold more than four pints of water, of which the Plot notes:

“which when set to a strong fire, evaporates after the same manner as in an Aeolipile, and vents itself at the smaller hole at the mouth in a constant blast, blowing the fire so strongly that it is very audible, and makes a sensible impression on that part of the fire where the blast lights, as I found by experience”

Plot (1686) adds:

“Now the custom was this. An obligation lay upon the lord of the adjacent manor of Essington, every New-Year’s Day, to bring a goose to Hilton, and drive it three times round the hall fire, which Jack of Hilton was all the time blowing by the discharge of his steam. He was then to carry the bird into the kitchen and deliver it to the cook; and when it was dressed, he was further to carry it in a dish to the table of his lord paramount, the lord of Hilton, receiving in return a dish of meat for his own mess.”

Whatever this custom was about is unclear, and it is certainly unique in the country. It is possible that the figure is quite ancient although the museum dates it to 1300. An author in the Mirror of the 18th century notes:

“Besides Jack of Hilton, which had been an ancient Saxon, image, or idol, Mr. Weber shows, that Pluster, a celebrated German idol, is also of the Aeolipile kind, and in virtue thereof, could do noble feats: being filled with a fluid, and then set on the fire, it would be covered with sweat, and as the heat increased, would at length burst out into flames….Some late authors have discovered the extraordinary use to which the frauds of the heathen priesthood applied the Aeolipile, viz. the working of sham miracles.”

So perhaps the custom has very ancient origins. Sadly no-one appears to have investigated. Similarly I question why he is so positioned if the steam only leaves his mouth at force and no where else!

Custom contrived: Mapleton bridge jump

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Belated happy new year…this year I’ve decided to add another category, customs contrived…for all those bizarre newer customs like this one!

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New Years Eve is always a strange one. I think its best summed up by this quote by Briscoe (1874) neatly sums up New Year’s Eve even today:

“The close of the year brings along with it a mingled feeling of gladness and melancholy; of gladness in the anticipation of brighter days to come with the advent of the new year, and of melancholy in reflections on the fleeting nature of time, and the gradual approach to the inevitable goal in the race of life. That so interesting an occasion should be distinguished by some observance or ceremony appears but natural, and we accordingly find various customs prevail, some sportive, others serious, and others in which both the mirthful and pensive moods are intermingled. The most general of these is that of sitting up until midnight on New Year’s Eve..”

New Year’s Day 2013 was a delightful day and rather than stare at each other glumly over another gigantic repast which took three hours to prepare and less than half an hour to consume, we decided to go out.

There are very few traditional customs or ceremonies enacted on the day, especially within easy distance of me, but over the last decades a growing number of bizarre sports and activities have grown up to welcome in the New Year..Mappleton Bridge Jumping is one such.

The river Dove is said to the coldest in England and so naturally when told that the first think you want to do is jump in at one of the coldest times of the year…not you? Well there were plenty of volunteers. The day consists of two parts, the first is a mainly charity event where pairs compete a raft race, jump from the bridge and then run to the finishing line. The second part appears more informal, a turn up and jump.

A new year’s water baptism

In a way this is a traditional observation reborn. Water is always seen as significant in the new year (see the Cream of the Well post last January) and so in way this is a new custom from the view of the purifying nature of water on the new year….or is it a bit of fun? You decide.

NOTE: This custom has now moved to Easter!!

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Custom demised: Observing the holy thorn

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A thorny subject

Just before Christmas in 2010 vandals inexplicably chopped down the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill, Glastonbury and a nation was shocked. Whatever the reason for this destruction it prevented anyone witnessing this tree blooming according to tradition. However, despite this being the most iconic and well known holy thorn, it was only one of a considerable number across the country which originates from the original tree which stood before the Parish church before being cut down by Cromwellian troops in the English civil war, the axe wielder is said to have lost an eye as a result which James Howell of odona’s grove noted:

“He was well serv’d for his blinde Zeale, who going to cut doune an ancient white Hauthorne-tree, which, because she budded before the others, might be an occasion of superstition had some of the prickles flew into his eye and made him Monoculor”

However this tree is not the holy thorn, not even in Glastonbury for its progeny is found in the churchyard and Abbey grounds. Records of other holy thorns occur not surprisingly at West Buckland, Woolmingston and Whitestaunton also in Somerset, Sutton Poyntz Dorset, but also at Houghton Le Spring, Durham, Brickendon, Hertfordshire and Shenley Church End and Quainton, Buckinghamshire. Herefordshire curiously had and has a number of examples. These listed by folklorist Leather included Wormsley, Rowlstone, Dorstone, Colwall, Stoke Edith, King’s Thorn, Tyberton with one at Bredwardine in Herefordshire. Palmer notes Alfrick, Hampton, Newland, Ripple and Tardebigge in Worcestershire.

A blossoming story

Despite being such a well known story, the thorn is only first mentioned in a 1520 work by Richard Pynson Lyfe of Joseph of Arimathea where the blooming in winter and spring are first recorded. Indeed, Joseph himself only appears in legend in the 9th century. What is interesting is that the plant, Crataegus monogyna biflora is not a native species. DNA of all known descendents match and experts in Kew have identified it from Levantine Palestine hawthorn…so there may be evidence.
To these trees it was customary for the devout to visit these bushes on Christmas Eve to see them bloom. In the 17th century Bishop Goodman of Gloucester noted:

“The white thorn of Glastonbury which usually blossoms on Christmas and Easter.”

The flowers were thought to bloom exactly on midnight, the hour Christ was born, on Christmas Eve, and then drop off an hour later. For example an account in the East Anglia Miscellany notes a thorn:

“near Parham Hall (Norfolk) is a white thorn bush which blossoms by Christmas Day, and the people of the neighbourhood flock to it in great companies upon Christmas Eve..”

Although the author does note that:

“I had some of the buds just blooming brought to me on Sunday, the 2nd of December, 1734”

But wait a minute this is January’s blog!

Yes and the date of the above account is significant, for only 22 years later it may not have bloomed. Why because in 1752, the calendar changed. Indeed, the blooming of the holy thorns was used by those critical of the date change as evidence that the new calendar was wrong. For when the calendar did change, these disbelievers of the new Calendar, waited to see when the tree would blossom the 25th December or the 6th January? The Gentleman’s magazine reported in 1753 in January:

“A Vast concourse of people attended the noted thorn on Christmas-day, new stile, but to their great disappointment, there was no appearance of its blowing,which made them watch it narrowly the 5th of January, the Christmas-day, old stile, when it blowed as usual.”

Such begun a January tradition For example on the 7th January 1878, the author Kilvert visited a farm at Dolfach where the blossoming was witnessed by a group of fifteen people and he was given a spray of blossom by the farmer’s daughter. Kilvert notes that he grafted this cutting onto his tree and reported that on the same date the next year it bloomed despite the severe frost. Attendance to see the thorns was still current in Sutton Poyntz Dorset until 1844, Woolmingston Somerset 1898 and Wormsley at least until 1908 when folklorist Ella Mary Leather recorded it in her Folklore of Herefordshire. She also noted one of the reasons for the popularity of the custom and its demise:

“A piece of thorn gathered at this hour brings luck, if kept for the rest of the year. Formerly crowds of people went to see the thorn blossom at this time. I myself went to Wormesely in 1908; about forty people were there, and as it was quite dark and the blossom could only be seen by candle light, it was probably the warmth of the candles which made some of the little white buds seem to expand. The tree had really been in bloom for several days, the season being extremely mild. Mr Powell of Peterchurch told me he could remember that on old Christmas Eve, people came for miles round to Kingstone Grange, where a holy thorn grew in the garden; they were liberally supplied with cake and cider.”

Blooming cheek – an unpopular custom

Leather noted that such rather impromptu perhaps gatherings were not always popular she notes:

“At Cleohanger, years ago a man was very much annoyed at the damage done to his garden by those coming to see the thorn blossom which grew there, so he began to cut it down. But blood flowed from the trunk of the tree and this so alarmed him he left off at once!”
Similarly at Acton Beauchamp, the local farmer so annoyed by the concourse of people who crossed his field to see the flowering, that he destroyed the thorn but so the story says he broke both arm and legs and his farm house burnt down!”

Nipped in the bud

Not always were the crowds able to witness a show. A 100 assembled in 1934 failed to see the Cleohanger thorn bloom. Yet in 1949, it was reported by the Times that the Orcop Thorn at the Stars Little Hill in the village was to be filmed by the BBC put there was nowhere to plug in their lamps! Indeed memory of visiting the thorns is still current if a correspondent to WW2 People’s War website is anything to judge:

“I used to visit my Grandparents over Christmas and there was a thorn tree that used to flower. They had a ladder to pick the bloom..If you picked the flower when it flowered, the next morning it would have died. Young men used to pick the flowers for their girl friends. There were lots of flowers in the tree-it used to be in full bloom. Everyone got excited about it-the adults would be chattering.”

Sadly this thorn was lost in a storm of 1980. However, the third reason for the decline had already had a significant effect. The predations of the pickers which came in coach loads had their impact and weakened it. Of the other holy thorns, I am unclear of what survives or still blooms and it would be useful to do further research. Many other sacred thorns lie forgotten and unheralded. Some have died such as that of Orcop above, Shenley Church End, and Quainton Buckinghamshire and Houghton Le spring (although a cutting survives) others survive such as that of Brickenden, Hertfordshire and Glastonbury of course, but whether they can escape the joint perils of ignorance and vandalism is yet to be seen.

Customs demised: The cream of the well

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Picture the scene, waiting at the church with fresh buckets in hand, a collection of faithful villagers. The clock strikes 12 O’clock, it’s New Year’s and the race is on….to get to the holy well to draw what was called the Cream of the Well….the most valuable water available at that time of the year…

In Northumberland, Birtley’s Crowfoot well was one such site and the water was to be kept in a bottle, and as well as giving good luck was believed to stay fresh throughout the year. Three wells at Wark on Tyne taking the first draft would allow a person to fly or pass through a keyhole! Mackinlay (1893) notes that the tradition in Scotland, where it may have been stronger, where there was considerable rivalry between farm girls and on their way they would chant:

The flower o’ the well to our houses gaes, An I’ll the bonniest lad get. (This term flower of the well I shall refer to in a moment.)

In Wales the lucky lady was called the Queen, and this may perhaps indicate some pagan association with the tradition. The Welsh had a similar tradition and the water best between 11 and 12 on New Year’s eve was sprinkled into houses. Here it was known as the crop of the well and often a box covered with mistletoe or holly was used to contain it. Unlike that of Northumberland, the water would lose its powers until the next New Years although in some sites it would turn to wine.

On the Isle Of Man, it is reported by Roeder (1904) of the quarrel between neighbours over the Cream of the well:

 “Such as were envious of their neighbour’s success, and wished to draw away their prosperity, creamed the well they drew water from. This act was believed to be particularly cacious in ensuring a rich supply of milk and butter to the one who had cows, and performed the act on the well of those who also owned cows. All the utensils used in the dairy were washed with part of the cream of the well, and the cows received the remainder to drink. It was gone through in some districts on the last night of the year.”

The tradition was also undertaken in fishing communities where a handful of grass was plucked and thrown into the pail containing the water. This appears to be related to the related custom of Flower of the well, where it is said that by throwing a flower or grass on the spring to tell others that you had got their first. The furthest south example appears to be a Alconbury in Herefordshire where the St Ann’s Well, although the date has slipped. Here it was thought to be more effective in curing eye problems in the water being drawn from the well after midnight on Twelfth Night. The spring was said to produce blue smoke on this date

The tradition does not appear to be noted further south than the Herefordshire example above and mainly in areas affected by neighbouring Celtic areas such as Wales and Scotland. Similar traditions occur at Beltaine/May day further south indicating that the 1st of January was a rather unEnglish tradition. New year was more often celebrated in the spring in the South, although even in Scotland at some wells, the cream of the well could be obtained on the first Sunday of May..however this is another tradition to discuss at a later date.

 

Customs survived: The Haxey Hood game

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Hoose agen Hoose, Toon agen Toon, if a man meets a man knock  ‘ I’m doon, but d’ont `urt’ im”,

364 days a year, one imagines people passes through the quiet village of Haxey (more correctly Westwoodside and Haxey and hence the town) quite unaware of its great day of celebration; a day which puts itself apart from early other village in the land, a day which is full of the strange and wonderful features that this blog is all about: the Hood game. The great event always falls on the 6th January (unless this is a Sunday and then it falls on the Saturday)

<b>Hood wink!<b/>

The basic premise of the event is a scrum, Rugby like, for the hood, a two-foot length of stout leather, rather than a ball, with the goal one of the village’s pubs  As such, the Hood game can be seen as a type of ‘street football’ as seen in other villages but it is much more than that, especially in colour and ceremony. Unlike any other ‘street football’ game it has obvious ‘organisers’ The Lord of the Hood and his Boggins and the Fool with his face blackenedin their red jackets and jumper s and hats festooned with feathers they make a striking sight…especially on the drab and colourless landscape of the fens in January.

Arriving around midday, the village looks strangely deserted..but if you enter one of the village’s four pubs you will find this Lord of the Hood and his Boggins  accompanied by another figure called the Fool in full song and sway and it is an evocative scene. The pub is so full it is almost impossible to move and the group sway in unison singing traditional folk songs:, Farmers Boy, John Barleycorn and Drink Old England dry as they psych themselves up with a mixture of machismo, beer and patriotism. Often the songs would end with the chant:

“Hoose agen Hoose, Toon agen Toon, if a man meets a man knock  ‘ I’m doon, but d’ont `urt’ im”,

Which means

“House against House, Town against Town, if you meet a man, knock him down but don’t hurt him.”

After feeling suitably fortified the group then proceed to an old stone, what appears to be the base of a cross or mounting block outside St Nicholas parish Church (called the Mowbray stone). Here is perhaps the strangest part of the ceremony and therefore the most evocative of the day perhaps. From the stone, from the stone Fool with his tassled custom and face blackened, makes a speech of welcome holding the Hood ahigh. He states that running and throwing with the hood are disallowed. Nothing unusual about that perhaps, but whilst giving this oration damp straw is placed beneath him and he is smoked! As the speech continues a considerable amount of smoke is generated and this  `Smoking the Fool’, is believed to be a safer version of an older ritual of  watered down version of suspending the fool over a bonfire of smoking straw. The ‘newer’ method is said to be safer, although the flames were very real in 2009 when I am sure I saw the fool burn! Clearly the fool is aware of the danger and traditionally runs away before the talk and ceremonially captured…although he still gets to kiss every girl on the way to his sacrifice.

Once the speech is over and the fool smoked the  crowd begins its chant of:

 “Hoose agen Hoose, Toon agen Toon, if a man meets a man knock  ‘ I’m doon, but d’ont `urt’ im”,

This tells everyone that the game is about to begin and a field on Upperthorpe Hill is the destination. Here any crops in the field appeared to be trampled indiscriminately although I was careful to gingerly tread over it. One wonders why this hill is chosen as it has a fantastic view across the fens to the Humber and it may have had some earlier significance.

To begin with the Lord of the Hood and his boggins doing some practice, mainly for children where the sacking versions of the hood are thrown and caught in the field for £2.

Then the leather hood is thrown up and the scum or rather sway begins….like a giant amoeba, this sway moves one way and then another but ultimately in the direction of the village and its four pubs, either of which is a goal. Along the way,as darkness sets, the sway becomes a large mass of steaming humanity guarded by the Boggins whose purpose is to prevent any property such as parked cars being enveloped and damaged in the ensuing madness. As there is no teams as such, indeed anyone visiting can join in and frequently do, it is difficult to see the motivation to get it into a said pub, but perhaps the teams do exist as bar regulars or else the glory is in being the one which gets it to the front steps. This event after much pushing and shoving, a great clouds of steam , is the ending of the game and once the landlord takes the Hood they will proudly display it until the following year. .

But what is it all about?

There are two origins of the custom, indeed both may be true…..

The ‘official story’

The official story dates from the 14th Century, is that the John and his wife Lady de Mowbray ( the Mowbray family held lands here ) whilst riding across Upperthorpe Hill when a gust of wind hit her silk riding hood. Nearby, there were thirteen farm workers working nearby who rushed to catch the hat. However, the one who caught it apparently was too shy to hand it back directly and thus gave it to a braver co-worker. Lady de Mowbray remarked that by doing so the man who caught it was behaving like a fool and the man who returned it a Lord. She appeared to like the idea and gave thirteen acres to the parish with the only stipulation being that the chase for the hood was re-enacted each year.

The pagan origin theory…

This story may have some origin in the truth but it appears to be a too convenient back story to explain some of the aspects of the story. It clearly has an older origin. Indeed, folklorists recognise some pagan traditions. Taking certain aspects…

Smoking the fool….is perhaps a vestige of a sacrifice. Certainly the kissing of girls on the way and escape are indications of this.

The Hood itself is said to be the hide of a sacrificed bull…but surely it’s the skin of the sacrificed fool! Perhaps the blackened face either a remembrance of the burnt evidence or to disguise who was the victim

Roasting the hood…..Certainly the tradition of roasting the hood soaked in ale in a spit in the fire has also has indications of sacrifice. The fact the ale is drunk by the people there .

Thirteen Boggins…witches covens are comprised of thirteen!

Link with plough Monday

The character of the fool is interesting. He is a character seen in the Plough Monday plays enacted in the midlands, and was particularly well recorded from the Gainsborough area where they were called Plough jags. Of course the main theme of these plays is resurrection and although the fool is not the one to die in these plays, but it may be significant. It is possible that at some point the plough play perhaps got amalgamated with a shrove tide football game or perhaps all plough plays were distilled from sacrifices.

Whatever its origin if you happen to be around in this region come the 6th; the Haxey Hood game is a must.

Remember

“Hoose agen Hoose, Toon agen Toon, if a man meets a man knock  ‘ I’m doon, but d’ont `urt’ im”,

Image and text copyright Pixyled publications