Category Archives: Procession

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 survived: Mummers or Darkie Day in Padstow

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

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A black mark against the town?

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

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

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

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Keep mum?

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

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

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

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

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

Is it racist?

 

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

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Custom demised: Holly Day, Brough, Cumbria

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In the Cumbrian town of Brough, once in Westmorland was an unusual Twelfth night custom which appeared to be the extension of the usual burning of the greenery on Twelfth night as now enacted at London’s Geffrey Museum. An account by Reuben Percy and John Timbs in their 1828 The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction which states:

“Holly Tree At Brough it is called night because it was customary at time of the year to decorate the altars holly There are two head inns in town at which the holly is provided alternately Early in the morning send out a body of husbandmen to fell large ash tree for although it is called night yet holly being a scarcity ash substituted They then affix torches of greased reeds to each bough tree and then take it into the inn to remain till seven o clock in At that hour a gun or pistol is fired the tree is taken out into a convenient part of the town where it is lighted after huzzaing for about half an hour is carried up and down the town on shoulders followed by the and stopping every time they the cross at the top of the town again salute the holly and fireworks are discharged It is taken town again and so on till it is The person who carries the his shoulders is named Ling who it is extinguished carries it to of the town and after throws it among the crowd eagerly watch the opportunity of away with it for I should observe two separate contending parties to whichever inn it is carried the to spend the evening in drinking very often it terminates with a name given to all their The origin of the custom as I observed from the offerings to the altars at of the year which is the by the name given to it WHH”

William Hone in his 1827 Everyday book added:

“Twelfth Night, or Holly Night, was formerly celebrated at Brough, by carrying through the town a holly-tree with torches attached to its branches. The procession set out at 8 o’clock in the evening preceded by music, and stopped at the town-bridge, and again at the cross, where it was greeted each time with shouts of applause. Many of the inhabitants carried lighted branches as flambeaux; and rockets, squibs, &c, were discharged on the joyful occasion. After the tree had been carried about, and the torches were sufficiently burnt, it was placed in the middle of the town, when it was again cheered by the surrounding crowd, and then was thrown among them. The spectators at once divided into two parties, one of which endeavoured to take the tree to one of the inns, and the other to a rival inn. The innkeeper whose party triumphed was expected to treat his partisans liberally.”

A curious custom which appears to be a mixture of burning out bad spirits into the new year with some survival of a pagan tradition mixed up with wassailing. What is more curious is that in some form we have not seen it restored.

Custom survived: Bridgwater Illuminated Carnival

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Nights draw in, there’s that smell of rotten leaves, the smell of autumn, a tinge of coldness – Bonfire night approaches. Whilst many towns prepare their communal bonfires and select their fireworks for their annual community celebrations – down in the west country they do it differently.

All fired up

Bridgwater’s original celebration were much as elsewhere – the large bonfire stacked up with just about anything flammable, guys atop, except due to its association with the sea and river, a large wooden boat was used. Apparently, the over-enthusiastic desire to stack as many boats on the fire, whether seaworthy or not, stopped this custom as the town ran out of them and local fishermen got a bit angry no doubt!

Then Bonfire gangs started to develop processions which became more and more elaborate – with costumes, the participants becoming Masqueraders, a term unique to them and to get them going loud music. Then in 1913 a pivotal moment happened with made this west country carnival became unique.

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Illuminating

In 1913 electric lights were introduced. And what a result! The current carnival is a riot of sound and light (quite literally) and its extremely impressive. Around 22,000 lightbulbs on average light the floats. These floats resemble portable fairground rides in their garish and intoxicating nature.

On such a cold windy evening, the energy produced by these floats is palpable. 22,000 lightbulbs produce a huge amount of heat. Good considering the parade lasts around two hours or so.

In 200xx the parade was remarkable 40 100ft long vehicles snaked around the 2 and half mile route, crowds heaving on the pavement to see the spectacle.

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No damp squib!

Bridgwater take their Bonfire celebrations seriously. Even when WWII came a small group known as the Kilties kept the tradition, fortunately post war it was back to bonfire business.

Fortunately, one thing that has survived, despite demands to remove it are the squibs, although they have changed as insurance pressures have prevented the big bangs which culminated at the end. The squibs are large fireworks held on a cosh, long wooden handle. A hundred squibbers stand in a line in the centre of the town sending out a shower of light.

The squibbers start assembling once the illuminated carnival finishes. There is an air of anticipation, even danger in the air. The mood appears to change from family fun to something a bit darker. Some members of the crowd disappear perhaps aware of this perhaps fearing its dangerous,…but nothing happens. Its well organised and safe! A line of petrol or something similar is ran along by the squibbers and this is lit to remarkable impact! Then as the shower of lights finish; it’s all over!

Now attracting over 150,000 people and responsible for a whole West country season of illuminated carnivals across the region, Bridgwater’s spectacle is not to be missed!

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Custom demised: Queene’s or Queen Elizabeth’s Day

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“Vouchsafe, dread sovereign”

Robert Deveraux 17th November

 

It is common place now for villages, towns and cities to celebrate the succession of the monarch but until Queen Elizabeth accession it was not celebrated. Early in her reign the 17th of November became a time to celebrate the country’s powerful monarch.

However, it was not until the 10th anniversary in 1568, that the event was commemorate by the ringing of bells and slowly this became a more established event, hyped up no doubt by those who wanted it to be seen as a day of Protestant victory of the threat of Catholicism.

Long live the Queen…she’s dead

The death of the queen, unlike other accession celebrations since, did not cause the end of the custom. Fed by anti-Catholic fervour, the observations became more established. They changed from a ‘form of prayer and thanksgiving’ to out and out orgy of triumphalism. Soon the event consisted of triumphal parades, processions, sermons and burning of the Pope – sound familiar? However, they were not terribly popular by all, especially understandably the subsequent monarchs. In particular Catholic leaning Charles I was reportedly upset why his or his wife’s birthday and accession days were not recognised. His son’s reign obviously saw the Great Fire of London and it is reported that afterwards:

“these rejoicings were converted into a satirical saturnalia of the most turbulent kind.”

Chambers in his Book of Days records:

“Violent political and religious excitement characterised the close of the reign of King Charles II. The unconstitutional acts of that sovereign, and the avowed tendency of his brother toward the Church of Rome, made thoughtful men uneasy for the future peace of the country, and excited the populace to the utmost degree. It had been usual to observe the anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth with rejoicings; and hence the 17th of November was popularly known as ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Day;’ but after the great fire, these rejoicings were converted into a satirical saturnalia of the most turbulent kind.”

By the 1680s the events became more and more elaborate founded by protestant political groups keen to keep her memory fresh under the threat of Catholic insurgence under the reign of James II and calculated to whip up popular excitement and inflame the minds of peaceable citizens as Chambers puts it. The Earl of Shaftesbury as part of a group called the Green Ribbon Group, from a ribbon in their head, were the organisers and were very well connected. A pamphlet called London’s Defiance to Rome recorded how:

“the magnificent procession and solemn burning of the pope at Temple Bar, November 17, 1679.”

It was described as:

“the bells generally about the town began to ring about three o’clock in the morning;’ but the great procession was deferred till night, when ‘ the whole was attended with one hundred and fifty flambeaus and lights, by order; but so many more came in volunteers, as made up some thousands At the approach of evening (all things being in readiness), the solemn procession began, setting forth from Moorgate, and so passing first to Aldgate, and thence through Leadenhall Street, by the Royal Exchange through Cheapside, and so to Temple Bar. Never were the balconies, windows, and houses more numerously lined, or the streets closer thronged, with multitudes of people, all expressing their abhorrence of popery with continued shouts and exclamations, so that ’tis modestly computed that, in the whole progress, there could not be fewer than two hundred thousand spectators.”

In the Letters to and from the Earl of Derby, he recounts his visit to this pope-burning, in company with a French gentleman who had a curiosity to see it. The earl says:

“I carried him within Temple Bar to a friend’s house of mine, where he saw the show and the great concourse of people, which was very great at that time, to his great amazement. At my return, he seemed frighted that somebody that had been in the room had known him, for then he might have been in some danger, for had the mob had the least intimation of him, they had torn him to pieces. He wondered when I told him no manner of mischief was done, not so much as a head broke; but in three or four hours were all quiet as at other times.”

Although largely pro-establishment, it was feared that serious riots could result and in 1682 there was a call for the Lord Mayor to stop it but the civic magnates declined to interfere. In 1683, pageantry was reported to have grander than ever but the Mayor finally suppressed the display and their patrols through the streets to ensure order.  Under the reign of Queen Anne concerns over the Pretender were rife and so pageants were organised. A describe of it read:

“It was intended to open the procession with twenty watchmen, and as many more link-boys; to be followed by bag-pipers playing Lilliburlero, drummers with the pope’s arms in mourning, ‘a figure representing Cardinal Gualteri, lately made by the Pretender Protector of the English nation, looking down on the ground in a sorrowful posture.’ Then came burlesque representatives of the Romish officials; standard-bearers ‘with the pictures of the seven bishops who were sent to the Tower; twelve monks representing the Fellows who were put into Magdalen College, Oxford, on the expulsion of the Protestants by James II’ These were succeeded by a number of friars, Jesuits, and cardinals; lastly came ‘the pope under a magnificent canopy, with a silver fringe, accompanied by the Chevalier St. George on the left, and his counsellor the Devil on the right. The whole procession clos’d by twenty men bearing streamers, on each of which was wrought these words: “God bless Queen Anne, the nation’s great defender! Keep out the French, the Pope, and the Pretender.” After the proper ditties were sung, the Pretender was to have been committed to the flames, being first absolved by the Cardinal Gualteri. After that, the said cardinal was to have been absolved by the Pope, and burned. And then the devil was to jump into the flames with his holiness in his arms.”                          

However, this time the secretary of state interfered and seized the stuffed figures, and prevented the display. The very proper suppression of all this absurd profanity was construed into a ministerial plot against the Hanoverian succession.  With the stability which came with the Hanovians, the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Day began to subside and slowly disappear.

Looking back at the custom it is clear how it disappeared. In the wake of the attempt on James and his parliament, the government would be keen to re-focus this anti-Catholic feeling into a new custom – Guy Fawkes. Yet you cannot keep an old custom down, surprisingly in 2005, the Devon village of Berry Pomeroy resurrected it. This consisted of a service in the parish church finished with the burning of Satan on a giant bonfire! However I have been unable to confirm whether this still continues otherwise it will be a revived custom!

Custom demised: Huntingdon Freeman’s Boundary Walk

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Sometimes old customs and ceremonies are very bizarre, confusing and mixed. An account written in the Pall Mall Gazette, September 16th 1892 records a custom was enacted every 15th September.  The custom begun with the whole of the freeman of the borough assembling in the market place in the morning. The paper reports:

“The freeman of the borough of Huntingdon have this week been engaged in the observance of a curious and ancient local custom…The skull of an ox borne on two poles was placed at the head of a procession, and then came the freemen and their sons, a certain number of them bearing spades and other sticks. Three cheers having been given, the procession moves out of the town, and proceeds to the nearest point of the borough boundary, where the skull is lowered. The procession then moved along the boundary line of the borough, the skull being dragged along the line as if it were a plough. The boundary holes were dug afresh, and a boy thrown into each hole and struck with a spade. At a particular point, called Blackstone Leys, refreshments were provided, and the boys competed for prizes.”

In the book by P. H. Ditchfield 1896 Old English Customs still extant notes that:

The skull is then raised aloft, and the procession returns to the market-place, and then disperses after three more cheers have been given. There are no allusions to this strange custom in any of the topographical books of reference, and it is an instance of the strange and curious customs which linger on in the obscure corners of our land.”

Clearly the event was a confused beating of the bounds, especially with the beating of the children and giving of gifts to encourage remembering the boundaries. The skulls suggest a possible older origin when the skull had a more sacred origin perhaps. The Freeman of Huntingdon still exist but this curious and bizarre event no longer exists.

 

Custom transcribed: Notting Hill Carnival

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What a custom! Vibrant, splendid, colourful, joyful, loud, proud and every superlative you can think of. A custom which is British terms is 50 years young (or so). A custom which draws at least a million visitors, something that many other customs would love to achieve. A custom which despite its firm fixture in London’s event calendar is one which has had a turbulent history and continues to attract problems, although considering nearly a million people attend statistically this is likely.

Notting like it

Arriving just before the 10 o’clock starting point the first observation is that it does not look like it will start on time! Indeed, the large numbers of police I was expecting them to form a procession – a police procession now there’s a thought- soon though one can hear the pounding sounds and a swirl of colour – mainly the bright green of the stewards – a mix a wash of gold.

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Soon the Carnival begins with this first procession, dancers wrapped in gold and holding aloft huge hands with 50. Celebrating 50 years (young) of the carnival, although this was also celebrated in 2014 and 2015. Then there was a big gap – which seemed like 30 mins – the next float. This is the first of 60 floats and countless colourful costumes, it will be a long day if you wait for it all to pass by. Many of course eschew the parade and stick to the 38 static sound systems dotted around this small enclave of west London.

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These floats are not like your usual float crammed full of themed participants, there would not be room, much of it is full of booming bass and tweaking speakers. Surrounding each float are some of the most wonderful costumes to be seen outside of the Rio Carnival. Massive tableaux of faces, feathers, bright vibrant colours. Samba dancers brightly adorned in their feathers and revealing costumes weave in and out dancing to whip up the crowds. Sounds of calypso, soca and reggae boom from the floats and bounce around the street.

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Notting allowed!

Sadly for what should be a great outburst of sounds and sights, its origins have been fraught. Born as a response of racial tension and the need for a unifying social identity. Although its official ‘birth date’ is 1964 this event was a descendent of a rather less impacting event, in was January and indoors, a Caribbean Carnival on the 30th January 1959 in Pancras Town Hall. This fused with a more hippie inspired street party organised in the mid-1960s to encourage cultural unity. This street party consisted of a procession of neighbourhood kids and a steel band. Roll forward to 1970 and it was described as:

the Notting Hill Carnival consisted of 2 music bands, the Russell Henderson Combo and Selwyn Baptiste’s Notting Hill Adventure Playground Steelband and 500 dancing spectators”

By the early 70s greater sponsorship thanks to an enterprising local teacher by the name of Leslie Palmer, resulted in an increase in steel bands, reggae groups and sound systems. The event begun to develop into two strands, a masquerade procession with floats and the establishment of stationary islands with their own sound systems.

From what clearly appears to be a very valid celebration of Caribbean culture was not popular with the authorities to begin with. The riots did not help in 1976 when disaffected youths battled with police and as a result for a long period of time this became the unfortunate media representation of the colourful event. However, such action could have been a result of heavy handed approaches of the police and the constant attempt to ban the event. It would not be until 1987 that the Carnival was officially allowed to take place. This has not prevented trouble (five deaths in the years since) or the need for high levels of police, but it has certainly reduced and fallen away to the fringes. Troubles and occasional serious crimes still arise from time to time – with around a million people swarming the narrow streets it’s not difficult to understand why something could boil over – but the media is much more favourable and is seen by the authorities as a celebration of London’s multicultural society.

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In a way, the Notting Hill Carnival typifies how customs become hybridised. Carnival is of course a Roman Catholic tradition brought over from France and Spanish colonisation. Through in the displaced masses of the African slave and brought back to Europe to be enjoyed by all races. All human life is here, of all ages, sexes and races. Despite the problems which create a sometimes poor reputation I would recommend the sounds and sights (and smells…of diesel and other intoxicants) to anyone. If you want to miss the crowds get there for the start and near the start and you’ll find it a pleasant experience. Go on experience it..