Category Archives: Private

Custom demised: Crabbing the Parson, Clent, Worcestershire

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A.M Protheroe and T. E. Jones in their Scraps of English folklore X in Folklore record in the Worcestershire village of Clent:

“The strange annual custom of ” crabbing the parson ” was followed on ” Wake Sunday ” at St. Kenelm’s, the wake being held on the first Sunday after July 28th, or St. Kenelm’s Day. The custom was discontinued more than a hundred years ago, and in the St. Kenelm’s of to-day seems to be quite forgotten.”

John Noake in his 1848 The Rambler in Worcestershire, or, Stray Notes on Churches and Congregations relates comically that:

“The last clergyman but one who was subjected to this process was a somewhat eccentric gentleman named Lee. He had been chaplain to a man-of-war, and was a jovial old fellow in his way, who could enter into the spirit of the thing. My informant well recollects the worthy divine, after partaking of dinner at the solitary house near the church, quietly quitting the table when the time for performing the service drew nigh, reconnoitering the angles of the building, and each “buttress and coign of vantage” behind which it was reasonable to suppose the enemy would be posted, and watching for a favourable opportunity, he would start forth at his best walking pace (he scorned to run) to reach the church. Around him, thick and fast, fell from ready hands a shower of crabs, not a few telling with fearful emphasis on his burly person, amid the intense merriment of the rustic assailants; but the distance is small; he reaches the old porch, and the storm is over.”

However, not always did the vicar join in the fun as Noake continues:

“Another informant, a man of Clent, states that he has seen the late incumbent, the Rev. John Todd, frequently run the gauntlet, and that on one occasion there were two sacks of crabs, each containing at least three bushels, emptied in the church field, besides large store of other missiles provided by other parties; and it also appears that some of the more wanton not unfrequently threw sticks, stakes, &c., which probably led to the suppression of the practice.”

Sadly, the author is probably correct and like many customs which tread the line between violence and fun it did disappear, but why did it exist. Noake again gives a reason:

“The custom of crabbing the parson is said to have arisen on this wise. ‘Long, long ago,’ an incumbent of Frankley, to which St. Kenelm’s was attached, was accustomed, through horrid, deep-rutted, miry roads, occasionally to wend his way to the sequestered depository of the remains of the murdered Saint King, to perform divine service. It was his wont to carry creature comforts with him, which he discussed at a lone farmhouse near the scene of his pastoral duties. On one occasion, whether the pastor’s wallet was badly furnished, or his stomach more than usually keen, tradition sayeth not, but having eat up his own provision, he was tempted (after he had donned his sacerdotal habit, and in the absence of the good dame) to pry into the secrets of a huge pot in which was simmering the savoury dinner the lady had provided for her household; among the rest, dumplings formed no inconsiderable portion of the contents; whether they were Norfolk or apple dumplings is not mentioned, but the story runs that our parson poached sundry of them, hissing hot, from the cauldron, and hearing the footsteps of his hostess, he, with great dexterity, deposited them in the ample sleeves of his surplice; she, however, was wide awake to her loss, and closely following the parson to the church, by her presence prevented him from disposing of them, and to avoid her accusation (‘a guilty conscience needs no accuser’) he forthwith entered the reading desk and began to read the service, John Clerk beneath making the responses. Ere long a dumpling slips out of the parson’s sleeve, and falls plump on sleek John’s head; he looks up with astonishment, but having ascertained that his reverence is not labouring under the effects of an emetic (‘vomits’ they called them in those days), John took the matter in good part, and proceeded with the service; by and bye, however, John’s pate receives a second visitation, to which he, with upturned eyes and ready tongue, responded, ‘Two can play at that, master!’ and suiting the action to the word, he forthwith began pelting the parson with crabs, a store of which he had gathered, intending to take them home in his pocket to foment the sprained leg of his jade of a horse; and so well did the clerk play his part that the parson soon decamped, amid the jeers of the old dame, and the laughter of the few persons who were in attendance; and in commemoration of this event (so saith the legend), ‘crabbing the parson’ has been practised on the wake Sunday from that time till a very recent period.”

Perhaps, but one cannot feel they may be a connection between the church’s association with the martyred king and perhaps it was done as a type of atonement or originally a scape goat was used transferring to the parson over time. We may never really know but rest assured the vicar is safe on the 28th July every year….unless one of us lies in wait!

 

 

Custom demised: Midsummer Fire Cartwheel rolling

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Cartwheeling Leusdon, Devon. From The Country Life book of old English customs. by Roy Christian

Rolling a flaming wheel into a stream or river down a hill may seem an oddly dangerous enterprise but it was one which was undertaken until recent times across Britain on the eve of St. John the Baptist otherwise known as Midsummer Eve. An account from the 1820s from South Glamorgan reported in 1909 by Marie Trevelyan in her Folklore and folk stories of Wales. It notes that:

People conveyed trusses of straw to the top of the hill, where men and youths waited for the contributions. Women and Girls were stationed at the bottom of the hill. Then a large cart wheel was thickly swathed with straw and not an inch of wood was left in sight. A pole was inserted through the centre of the wheel, so that the long ends extended about a yard on each side. If any straw remained, it was made up into torches at the top of tall sticks. At a given signal the wheel was lighted and set rolling downhill. If the fire-wheel went out before it reached the bottom of the hill, a very poor harvest was promised. If it kept lighted all the way down, and continued blazing for a long time, the harvest would be exceptionally abundant. Loud cheers and shouts accompanied the progress of the wheel.”

Ancient origins

In the fourth-century Acts of the Martyr St. Vincent there is a description how in Aquitane, south-western France pagans rolled a flaming wheel towards a river and the charred remains were reassembled in their Sky God temple.

Widespread custom

The custom was also undertaken in Devon. At Buckfastleigh in the mid 1850s, aptly Bonfire Hill was the location and the wheel was moved down the hill using sticks by the use of sticks. Like South Glamorgan, if it reached the stream the village would have a good year.  In the village of Leusdon it was done until recent. Eric Hemery in his 1983 High Dartmoor book records:

An old custom on Mil Tor was the ‘Rolling of the Wagon Wheels’ on Midsummer Day: discontinued in the war years, it was revised for a time during the late 1950s, since which it has again lapsed. The aim was that the wheels should reach the river, but so rock-strewn is the six-hundred foot slope that few ever did. In consequence, the old iron tyres of long-rotted wheels lie about Miltor Wood – some now encircling the trees.

At point this custom died out to be revived in 1962 but now streamers were added to give a flame effect. Without the added spectacle of fire danger it doubtless seemed even more pointless indeed Roy Christian notes in his Old English Customs

“Within the last few years the villagers of Leusdon, in Devon, have abandoned their ancient and apparently pointless practice of rolling a cartwheel down the slopes of Mel Tor on the eve of St. John the Baptists Day. Preservationists may deplore the end of his and other customs but artificial respiration will no keep them alive. A custom will only survive if a spontaneous desire by a  large body of folk to keep it going”

Yet, as the online

Minutes of Widdecombe on the Moor Parish council note:

Leusdon Church 150th Anniversary: We were informed that Leusdon Church will celebrate its 150th Anniversary of its dedication on 28th April 2013. It is understood that the church was dedicated in 1863 and its patron Saint is St John the Baptist. It was noted that historically on the Eve of St John the Baptist Day 24th June, there was held the ‘cartwheel rolling’ ceremony at Meltor. Will this be revived in 2013?”

I don’t think it was sadly

Custom survived: May Dew collection, Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

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“On May-day in a fairy ring We’ve seen them, round St. Anthon’s spring, Frae grass the caller dew-drops wring, To wet their ein, And water clear as crystal spring, To synd them clean.”

Poet Robert Fergusson

Go to bed or stay up all night?

After experiencing the dizzy delights of Edinburgh’s Beltane I had to make a decision to wait a few hours or go to sleep and wake up early – the sunrise

Now the second decision how long does it take to get to the summit:

The usage of May Dew is a well-know custom across the country but the only place which appears to still entertain it is Edinburgh. An account in:

“At Edinburgh about four o’clock in the morning there is an unusual stir; and a hurrying of gay throngs through the King’s Park to Arthur’s Seat to collect the May-dew. In the course of half an hour the entire hill is a moving mass of all sorts of people. At the summit may be seen a company of bakers and other craftsmen, dressed in kilts, dancing round a maypole. On the more level part is usually an itinerant vendor of whisky, or mountain (not May) dew. These proceedings commence with the daybreak. About six o’clock the appearance of the gentry, toiling up the ascent, becomes the signal for servants to march home; for they know that they must have the house clean and everything in order earlier than usual on May-morning. About eight o’clock the fun is all over; and by nine or ten, were it not for the drunkards who are staggering towards the ‘gude town,’ no one would know that anything particular had taken place.”

Dew you know why?

Peter Opie in his 1964 article for Folklore, Proposals for a Dictionary, Arranged on Historical Principles, of English Traditional Lore did the sterling task of assembling all the information on May Dew and saw four principle themes develop:

“Used a medicament, cosmetic or telling the future. 1602 PLAT Delights for Ladies (1611 H 8 b). Some commend May-dew gathered from Fennell and Celandine, to be most excellent for sore eyes. c. 1691 AUBREY Nat. Hist. Wiltshire (1847, 73). May dewe is a very great dissolvent of many things with the sunne that will not be dissolved any other way: which putts me in mind of the rationality of the method  used by Wm. Gore, of Clapton, Esq., for his gout, which was to walke in the dewe with his shoes pounced; he found benefit by it. I told Mr. Wm. Mullens, of Shoe Lane, Chirurgion, this story, and he sayd this was the very method and way of curing that was used in Oliver Cromwell, Protectour. I808 JAMIESON Scottish Dict. Rude [Northern Scotland]. Great virtue is ascribed to May-dew. Some, who have tender children, particularly on Rude-day [3 May], spread out a cloth to catch the dew, and wet them in it. 1850 Notes & Queries Ist Ser. II 475. They say [Launceston, Corn wall] that a child who is weak in the back may be cured by drawing him over the grass wet with the morning dew. The experiment must be thrice performed, that is, on the mornings of the Ist, 2nd, and 3rd of May. 1883 BURNE Shropshire Folk-Lore 19o. I knew a little idiot boy whose mother (fancying it was weakness of the spine which prevented him from walking) took him into the fields ‘nine mornings running’ to rub his back with May-dew. She explained that the dew had in it all the ‘nature’ of the spring herbs and grasses, and that it was only to be ex pected that it should be wonderfully strengthening. 2. Used as a cosmetic. 1667 PEPYS Diary 28 May. After dinner my wife away down with Jane and W. Hewer to Woolwich, in order to a little ayre and to lie there to-night, and so to gather May-dew to-morrow morning, which Mrs. Turner hath taught her as the only thing in the world to wash her face with; and I am contented with it. 1791 Morning Post 2 May. Yesterday, being the first of May, ac cording to annual and superstitious custom, a number of persons went into the fields and bathed their faces with the dew on the grass, under the idea that it would render them beautiful. [Brand I, 1813, 184.] 1850 Notes & Queries Ist Ser. II 475. The common notion of im proving the complexion by washing the face with the early dew in the fields on the Ist of May extensively prevails in these parts [Launceston, Cornwall]. 1952 Opie Schoolchild MS (458/2/47) Girl 14 Kirkcaldy. On the first of May you wash your face in the dew and have a good complexion all year round. 3. Considered especially efficacious when gathered from hills and/ or before sunrise. 1626 BACON Sylva Sylvarum ? 781. I suppose that he who would  gather the best May-Deaw, for Medicine, should gather it from the Hills.. 4. The rite of gathering or ‘washing’ in May-dew considered auspicious….. c. 1900oo Maclagan MS (BANKS Cal. Cus. II 224). On the first day of May girls went to wash their faces in the dew and wish before sunrise while doing this they name some lad and wish in their own mind that he may become their sweetheart and they get their wish. 1952 Opie Schoolchild MS (476/9/16) Girl 14 Aberdeen. It is said to be lucky to wash your face in the early morning dew on the first of May. 1957 Opie Schoolchild MS (999a/6/3i) Girl ii Penrith. On the first of May you wash your face in the dew and you are supposed to marry the first man you meet.”

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Despite claims that it died out in 1930, there has been reference to it since. For F. Marian McNeill in 1968 notes in ‘The Silver Bough Volume Four that:

“the May dew, in a word, was the ‘holy water’ of the Druids. Those on whom it was sprinkled were assured of health and happiness and, tradition has it, where young women were concerned, of beauty as well, throughout the ensuing year. To this day, all over Scotland numbers of young girls rise before dawn on the first of May and go out to the meadow or hillside to bathe their faces in the dew.”

McNeill (1968) highlights Arthur’s Seat stating that it:

“….is a favourite meeting place, and nearby is St. Anthony’s Well, to which many used to resort to “wish-a-wish” on this auspicious day. This picturesque survival of the old pagan rites, together with the Christian service on the summit of the hill, draws hundreds of people to the site. As dawn approaches, numbers of young girls dally on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, laughing and chattering as they perform the immemorial rite, and are regarded with amused tolerance by the majority of the arrivals as they climb to the summit to join in the Sunrise Service.”

By the 1940s a service had developed on the summit. The 1961 Glasgow Herald of the 2 May  recorded:

“About 1000 people climbed Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, yesterday to take part in the twenty-first May Day sunrise service, and to follow the old tradition of washing their faces in the morning dew.”

Certainly, several photos survive showing women washing their faces taken in the 1960s, in 1963 a 1000 climbed to reach there at 5.18 am and the Scotsman shows various photos in 1965 showing girls washing their face. By the late 80s it was still attracting reporters but numbers had dwindled to hundreds. Was it lost? Undoubtedly, there would be enough people turning up to warrant a commercial exploitation as the Scotsman added in 2008 in an article if you do one thing this week:

“Pop along to the car park near the foot of Arthur’s Seat, by the Palace of Holyroodhouse, at 10am on Thursday and you’ll find therapists from Serenity in the City spa uniting new and old beauty traditions. The first ten people to arrive will get a free ILA energy spray mist gift (worth 35) – and if having a wash in the dew isn’t for you, pop along to the spa for a facial.”

Dew going up?

It would appear that at least knowledge of it still survived. I had combined my visit with attendance to the Beltane fire festival on Carlton Hill which finished at 1! Working out on the map that it would take 1 or so to walk and that dawn was around 5.30 it I set my alarm clock at 3.30!

Arthur’s seat was cloaked in darkness when I arrived but I was not alone. On the way up I noticed St Anthony’s Well marked by a small round stone basin and a large stone.  This was the site also associated with May dew as in 1773 Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson and others later noted above. I peered inside it was dry. Once I had reached the top there was a small group of around 10 people of varying ages. The skies were cloudy but then at that moment the clouds cleared and a red orb could be seen.

Dew want to?

I kept making enquiries and was met by a blank stare. The majority of people on the seat appeared to be tourists of one sort or another me included. Perhaps the custom was extinct? However, a small group of local women I met on the way up, I asked were aware of it and one said I did it last year…but wouldn’t this year as I cannot be sure if it was dew or due to a dog. It seemed an odd rationale and maybe it was tinged with some degree of regret. Did it not work?

What dew looking for? 

Then I saw a lady and her husband walking down from the peak looking towards the floor. When she brushed her hand against some grass I knew what she was up to. I rushed down and she confirmed it…we looked together and there appeared a patch which she rubbed both hands over and then across her cheeks gleefully.

A few moments later I asked another lady and she said she was planning to. I offered to help. Strangely, like everything when you are looking for it you just cannot find it. We looked, inspected, crouched, brushed…no. To be honest there isn’t much grass at the summit. Walking down a bit there was a large patch of grass and mossy…she touched it and excitedly full of glees, said ‘yes here’s some’ then at that point she plunged her hands onto it rubbed it up and down and smiling applied. Her companion, her aunt also obliged. ‘I didn’t do it last year and felt ugly all year’ she said.

All this bizarreness was overlooked by some American tourists fresh over from Utah. I explained to them and they too become eager to find some. First they tried a small patch below the trig point…one said she couldn’t be sure it was wet might be just cold. I said about the patch I’d found and quickly they popped down and jumped into the crevice where the mossy grass lay. ‘This is it…it’s wet’ and duly or should I say dewly did it all over again. Laughing and finding the whole thing amusing and who wouldn’t.

Dew drop!

On the way down I meet a fair number of people going up – most of them attendees of the Carlton Hill event – perhaps it was more tradition just to come up rather than see the dawn!

More bizarrely my eye cast to St. Anthony’s Well it was now full of water. Dew? Mysterious source? Or something emptying the water bottle? Perhaps that had become a tradition in its own right?

So if you are on Arthur’s Seat on May Morning worth a go…it might even work!

Custom demised: May Goslings

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May Gosling’s dead and gone You’re the fool for thinking on

We all know of April Fool’s day but in many places, especially in the North, it was the first of May which was associated with pranks. The receivers of which were called May Goslings.

According to a contributor to the Gentleman’s magazine of 1791:

“A May gosling on the 1st of May is made with as much eagerness in the North of England, as an April noddy (noodle) or fool, on the first of April.”

Despite the unlikeliness of needing two fool’s days back to back it was apparently still current in the 1950s in Cumbria and north Yorkshire according to Opie in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959)

Indeed Nicholas Rhea’s diary, a blog site records:

“One very popular May Day game when I was a child in Eskdale was May Gosling. It was rather like April Fool pranks played on April 1 because children played jokes upon each other. Anyone who fell victim was known as a May Gosling. Just like April Fool jokes, the pranks had to be perpetrated before noon.”

He notes he has not heard any reference to it recently suggesting its demise.  Like April Fool’s Day, as noted above one must do all the pranks by none otherwise you would be taunted with:

May Gosling’s dead and gone, You’re the fool for thinking on.”

Even TV celebrity and gardener Alan Titchmarsh notes in his 2012 Complete Countrymen illuminates and suggests it did indeed survive longest in Yorkshire:

“As a Yorkshire lad, born on 2 May, my Yorkshire grandmother would ask me ‘Have you been christened a May Gosling?” I wondered what she meant then I discovered there had been a Northern custom, akin to April Fooling, which took place on 1 May. Tricks were played and successful perpetrators would cry ‘May Gosling!’ presumably implying the victim was a silly as a young goose. The response would be: ‘May Gosling past and gone. You’re the fool for making me one!”

John Brand in his 1810 Observations on Popular antiquities noted a ritual associated with it:

“The following shews a custom of making fools on the first of May, like that on the first of April “U.P.K spells May Goslings” is an expression used by boys at play, as an insult to the losing party. U.P.K is up pick that is up with your pin or peg, the mark of the goal. An additional punishment was thus: the winner made a hole in the ground with his heel, into which a peg about three inches long was driven, its top being below the surface; the loser with his hands tied behind him, was to pull it up with his teeth, the boys buffeting with their hats and calling out “Up pick you May Gosling” or “U.P.K Goslings in May.”

Robert Chambers in 1843’s Everyday Book noted also that:

“There was also a practice of making fools on May-day, similar to what obtains on the first of the preceding month. The deluded were called May-goslings.”

Perhaps it is due for a revival for in response to the above’s Nicholas Rhea’s article a commenter notes:

May gosling mischief

Having been born and bred in Yorkshire, but lived all my married life in the Vale of Evesham, I could hardly believe my eyes on reading Nicholas Rhea’s tale in the May edition – someone actually knew of May Gosling! Fifty or so years ago when I tried to describe May Gosling Day to my husband, I got some very strange looks. I gave up in the end! Had you been caught out on April Fool’s Day, it was such a joy to get your own back on May Gosling Day. Thank you, Nicholas Rhea. Mrs E B Palfrey, Pershore”

What with Yorkshire’s continuation of Mischief Night perhaps another day of pranks might not be needed!

Custom revived: Beltane Fires, Port Meadow, Oxford

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INVITE YOUR ENTIRE FRIENDS LIST PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: This is the last year May Day falls on a weekend or Bank Holiday until 2021. This is the last massive May Day for the next four years. I suggest you go large. CALLING ALL LOSERS, HARD BOOZERS, QUEEN BEES, WANNABES, FULL TIME PUNKS, SHIPS THAT SUNK, MONKS, TIGERS, RAVERS, LIFE SAVERS, MAYBES AND CRY BABIES, MISFITS AND WOTSITS, DAILY FAILURES, DAILY MAILERS, HEATHENS AND FIRE BREATHERS, NORMS, TEACUP STORMS, OLD TIMELYS AND ACID CASUALTIES, THE TUNELESS, TONEDEAF AND ALL THE OTHER DISCORDANT OR OTHERWISE ARE ALL WELCOME!!! ALL WHO FEEL THEY CAN ADD TO THE ATMOSPHERE, WHATEVER YOUR SKILL, POET, JUGGLER, POI, MUSICION, SPEED DRINKER, JOKER, PROFFESIONAL…”

So reads the Facebook invite to Beltane 2017

Last year I started my mammoth quest to visit as a many May Day customs as I could. I started my journey begun with planning to experience May Day at Oxford. The well renowned University town is noted for its unique May Day morning;  a strange smorgasbord of customs. However, I had read a small note of something rather unique and low key the night before and after checking into my accommodation I decided to investigate.

May it be on?

This supplementary custom occurred on the common at the edge of Oxford, so I decided to venture in the darkness of the wide open space. It was an all or nothing venture. This was something not official nor confirmed – I couldn’t find anything online particularly on Facebook. But nevertheless I decided it was worth exploring.

It was pitch black and I walked a few yards along the causeway looking for evidence of any activity. I felt quite unnerved to be honest. The common was a black void, lonely and forbidding. After an hour I couldn’t see anything and was about to turn back when I saw a flickering light in the distance. Was this it? I walked nearer and could hear music. Closer and it revealed itself to be a small group of twenty somethings around a fire listening to music. They were quite bemused by my appearance and said ‘They is a much larger bonfire around the corner’.

May it be a survival?

Of course, folklorists will be intrigued by these fires, being lit as they are on the eve of May Day, or Beltane. In parts of Northern Britain and Ireland the lighting of such fires has a long possibly pre-Christian origin, dating back to our dark Celtic times. Indeed the first written evidence comes from a 900 CE Irish glossary called the Sanus Chormaic which states:

“Beltaine. May Day i.e bil-tene i.e lucky fire i.e two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle against disease of each year to those fires they used to drive cattle between them.”

Interesting until recently cattle were being pushed through such fires in Ireland and Scotland until the 19th century. As a form of purification for the new year. A survival in the Celtic homelands is plausible – but in genteel Oxfordshire unlikely. Despite the link between Port Meadow and grazing thereabouts!

Beltaine and braces!

Well I decided to explore with some degree of trepidation! After a fair walk, I thought it was a wind up. But then I could again hear sounds and see flickering flames in a small opening in the woody area. Making my way through the foliage I found a larger group of people surrounding a larger bonfire. In their little arbour surrounded by fairy lights tangled through the undergrowth there was much chatting and laughter as they listened to the music and drank. Nearby was a reveler spinning around some flaming balls to great effect. All in all ,a typical rave akin to those of the 1990s, but this one being tied to a date made it of interest to the folklorist.

I asked about the history of the custom. One of the organisers said that their parents used to do it and they would attend as children. It was more a town event than the May morning after was most definitely gown event and had been going at least 40 years. She then said that a few years back they as adults went out looking for the fires one May Day Eve and being disappointed in not finding any decided to get organised the year after and do their own. Ten or so years later they were still doing it. This was a big one of course as May Eve was on the weekend without any work restrictions. She was unaware of its significance of the fires, but her name ‘Stardust’ I think explained its origins! A new age custom taken up and brought back to life by the neo-pagan parents, but now strangely like many ancient customs its significance not known to the current celebrants. This in a way indicates how quickly the meaning behind customs is forgotten.

Which in a way is good as its celebrated as deemed fit. The whole affair was very convivial and relaxed; so much that I wish I had stayed longer and not booked somewhere to stay, especially as it was such a fine evening.

Oxford’s May Eve celebrations are the very best of our British customs – an event special to its community, secretive but not exclusive.

Custom demised: Fig Sunday

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Palm Sunday known locally as Fig Sunday was a minor hamlet festival. Sprays of soft gold and silver willow catkins called ‘palm’ in that part of the country, were brought indoors to decorate the houses and worn as buttonholes for churchgoing. The children of the house loved fetching in the palm …..better still they loved the old custom of eating figs on Palm Sunday. Some of the more expert cooks among the women would use these to make fig puddings for dinner.’

Flora Thompson Lark Rise to Candleford

Fig Sunday was an alternative name for Palm Sunday and it appears to have been observed as a custom across the country. It is noted that at one point it was observed in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Northampton and North Wales. In Hertfordshire it is recorded in the village of Kempton:

“It has long been the custom for the people to eat figs – keep warsel! – and make merry with their friends on Palm Sunday. More figs are sold in the shops on the few days previous to the festival than in all the year beside.”

In Buckinghamshire it is noted that:

“At Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire, the children procure figs and nearly every house has a fig- pudding.”

In Dunstable, Bedfordshire:

“For some days beforehand the shop windows of the neighbouring town are full of figs and on Palm Sunday crowds go to the top of Dunstable Downs, one of the highest points of the neighbourhood, and eat figs.”  

In the 1912 Byways in British Archaeology by Walter Johnson he observes that a:

 “Ceremony was carried out on Palm Sunday by the villagers of Avebury, Wiltshire, who mounted the famous Silbury Hill, there to eat fig cakes and drink sugar and water. The water was procured from the spring below, known as the Swallow Head.”

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The author observes that real figs were often replaced by raisins as they were in the west of England and Wessex.

Why figs?

“when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.”

The Gospel of St Mark

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Palm Sunday is so called from the custom of eating figs on that day but why them? The main claim is that on Christ’s entrance to city on Palm Sunday he cursed a fig tree for not having any fruit, a barren tree, being hungry he then cursed it. Another claim is that the practice arose from the Bible story of Zaccheus, who climbed up into a fig-tree to see Jesus.

Sadly although a few food bloggers might promote fig pudding making on the day, Fig Sunday as a community custom has long ceased.

Custom transcribed: Stamford Hill Purim, London

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“Why isnt this better known? After all Chinese New Year is a big event and we are the only photographers here.”

So said a fellow photographer as we watched a man in tradition black and white Hasidic or Haredi dress (typified by long black coat and large fur hat) escort three bears on scooters, who were trying to dodge another dressed as a blue wolf! This was Purim, or rather its most public tradition associated with the Jewish festival.

Really considering there has been a Hebrew community possibly continually from the 1780s when Italian Jew Moses Vita Montefiore famously settled there. This notwithstanding the wholesale influx of the Hasidic community was not established until the 1940s. From then on the curious custom has become more and more evident and now over 30,000 Jews reside in around 19 streets which for 24 hours or so become a focus of so much attention.

I was first made aware of the custom in Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan’s 1994 Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem and had always been keen to track it down. The authors state:

“Purim takes place mainly behind closed doors. But because part of the ritual involves dressing in outlandish attire, celebrants can be seen doing the shopping or nipping to the Post Office dressed as clowns, Godzilla or Bambi”

It has took me over 20 years to track it down, probably put off by the ‘behind closed doors’ ( the authors state attending could be tricky) making me think it would be unlikely to see the curious ritual…however I was wrong. Within arriving at Stamford Hill darting across the road in front of me were two clowns and panda!

It’s in the book…

Book of Esther that is. That tells us that a man called Haman in Persia can convinced the King Ahasuerus to murder the Empire’s Jewish community. Fortunately, the King who was married to a Jewish woman by the name of Esther foiled the plot and Haman was hung. The name itself being derived from the word for lots, relating to the lots drawn in preparation of the planned massacre.

There are a number of different customs and traditions associated the day, the exploration of which would warrant another blog post, after all I’ve never done one just on ‘Christmas’ or ‘Easter’ Purim is one of those multifaceted traditions. No it’s the fancy dress I am interested in here.

But why the fancy dress? Purim also falls in the Jewish month of Adar, usually March but sometimes February, who is traditionally it is said “when Adar begins, joy should be increased’. How this fits into fancy dress I still don’t understand unless the persecuted Jews hid from their oppressor by disguise.

One cannot help draw comparisons to other Christian and possibly pre-Christian traditions of disguising especially at the turning of the year. Did Purim originate as a spring festival, a recognised turning of the world when spirit were abroad and disguise helped prevent them dragging you back?

Purim down!

Even the weather could not discourage the attendees. As the rain beat down this Purim, umbrellas were out but colourful costumes were not. In the spate of an hour wandering around I saw

The costumes could be divided into a number of categories:

Traditional – there were girls dressed as Esther, boys as Arabs some on Camels, some even smoking fake Camel cigarettes.

Work related – a number of girls dressed as air hostesses, some with trolleys which helped in the delivery of manot xxx. Soldiers, Doctors.

Comical – Clowns were the most common, but bears and animals common, one was dressed as a drink carton (!) and one in a retro Tony Blair mask!

Parody – What was interesting is the way in which these younger members are allowed to mock their elders. Amongst the costumes were girls dressed a cliché Jewish grandmas, army members, miniature versions of their fathers in full Hasidic dress and rabbis.  The latter were particularly common and they were proud to introduce themselves as such and encourage deference for them. Their costumes particularly looked well made and I would say professional.  Cooper and Sullivan (1994) state that mock-Rabbis were elected over Purim in a move parallel to mock-mayors in secular culture.

Comparing to Hallowe’en is an easy comparison but this is something more artful and clearly more wholesome. There’s no blood and guts.

Purim it about

This is really a community letting its communal hair down. At one point a bombing and pulsing could be heard, a beat a sound of music. Then around the corner, came a large red open top bus. On top it was throng with young Hasidic Jews wearing fezs and looking very jolly. They stopped tumbled out of the bus, looking a little worse for wear, some streamed into houses, others decided to let loose to the music and started twirling around in the road. At one point one grabbed me and putting his hat upon me, we spent a surreal moment dancing around each other, arm in arm, a Purim dance off. Then they were off!

Turn the corner and there are two students dressed head to toe in a white traditional dress, smiling singing and shaking hands. Their infectious enthusiasm and addictive beat even reaches an elderly member of the community who mounting the steps of a nearby house,  twists and turns, hands raised up singing along, perhaps remembering younger days.

The intoxicating joy and celebration is difficult to miss…but this is a busy day, cars rush by driven by super heroes who toss their charity contributions in awaiting collectors, one dressed as a golf course!

Purim and out

Indeed as an observer, the whole event appears to be a frenetic flash of colour, as parents escort their fancy dressed charges in and out of houses to deliver their Mishloach manot gifts. Many of these are an art form in themselves, luxury chocolates tiered into pyramids, other expensive bottles of alcohol – for this is the one time of the year the community can drink!

Doors are opened. Every door is open. Children stand and sit of steps in fancy dress! Children their faces full of anticipation sit there waiting…and waiting…sometimes with wistful places… is it me next. Closed doors have Mishloach manot awaiting – one had five bottles of wine awaiting for its owner!

After a while it all becomes a bit too dazzling and you are looking for the next more bizarre costume. At one point I was swamped by a large group of children dressed as soldiers, knights, rabbis, arabs and what in intents and purposes looked like a character off the side of Robinson’s marmalade smoking a cigarette – some costumes were perhaps a little over the right side of PC! They were keen to have their photos taken…all upon doing so they asked for a donation! Upon seeing a girl dressed as a giant fish I think I might have reached the apex!

Purim, its public face, is a crazy festival, but a great one of giving, charity itself is important on the day, but above all celebration. It is said when the Messiah does come all Jewish festivals will cease bar Purim…let the party continue