Category Archives: Surviving

Custom survived: Chalking on Epiphany Eve

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At the local catholic church I noticed at the mass before Twelfth night that they would be blessing chalk and handing it out to the congregation. Why is this you may ask? Well the church as does many across the Christian world – Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox continue a curious custom which has its roots deep within the superstitious world of the medieval mind.

At the chalk face

The custom appears to have originated in central Europe at the end of the middle ages and spread. When it first arrived in Britain is unclear and indeed it is equally unclear how long as a custom it has been undertaken but a cursory check online would suggest it is fairly widespread from Paisley to Plymouth.

When and actually what is done varies in some places it would be done on New Year’s Day, but more commonly it would be done on the more traditional Feast of the Epiphany. Indeed, as noted in the introduction it would take place after the Epiphany Mass when blessed chalk would be taken home for it to be done at home by either a priest or more often the father of the family.

Chalk and talk

The chalking the doors follows the following formula for the ritual; over a door would be written for 2020 for example:

20 + C+M + B + 20.

The numbers refer to the year but what do the letters refer to? Like many religious activities it has two meanings. Firstly C M and B are the initials of the first names of the Magi who visited Jesus on Twelfth Night, Caspar, Malchior, and Balthazar. But also they mean:

Christus mansionem benedicat

A Latin phrase meaning:

 “May Christ bless the house.”

The “+” signs represent the cross.

The purpose of the chalking those is to request the house is blessed by Christ and this good will is taken for the rest of the year and secondly that it shows those passing of the family’s faith and welcoming nature. Sometimes the custom is simply chalking but it some causes holy water is used and prayers said

Chalk it up

What is particularly interesting is that the custom is a widespread survival of a much more curious lost custom; that of making ‘witch marks’ or ‘apotropaic’ marks to protect the house and its occupants from evil forces. The carving of sunwheels, Marian symbols, pentagrams, etc can be found on entrances or exits of old houses across Britain. By doing so it prevented the evil spirits from entering and protect and bless the house. Chalking the door is the only survival as far as can be ascertained of this custom and as such is of considerable interest.

Traditionally the blessing is done by either a priest or the father of the family. This blessing can be performed simply by just writing the inscription and offering a short prayer, or more elaborately, including songs, prayers, processions, the burning of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water. An example below being given:

Prayer:

On entering the home,

Leader(Priest, if present, or father of the family) : Peace be to this house.
All: And to all who dwell herein.

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

All Pray: The Magnificat. During the Magnificat, the room is sprinkled with holy water and incensed. After this is completed,

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

Leader: Our Father. . .
And lead us not into temptation

All: But deliver us from evil.
Leader: All they from Saba shall come
All: Bringing gold and frankincense.
Leader: O Lord, hear my prayer.
All: And let my cry come to You.

Leader: Let us pray. O God, who by the guidance of a star didst on this day manifest Thine only-begotten Son to the Gentiles, mercifully grant that we who know Thee by faith may also attain the vision of Thy glorious majesty. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

Leader: Be enlightened, be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee—Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary.

All: And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light and kings in the splendor of thy rising, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon thee.

Leader: Let us pray.
Bless, + O Lord God almighty, this home, that in it there may be health, purity, the strength of victory, humility, goodness and mercy, the fulfillment of Thy law, the thanksgiving to God the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

After the prayers of the blessing are recited, each room of the home is sprinkled with Epiphany water and incensed. The initials of the Magi are inscribed upon the doors with the blessed chalk. (The initials, C, M, B, can also be interpreted as the Latin phrase “Christus mansionem benedicat” which means “Christ bless this house”.)

Example: 20 + C + M + B + 20 

Another possible prayer to say during your Chalking:

May all who come to our home this year rejoice to find Christ living among us; and may we seek and serve, in everyone we meet, that same Jesus who is your incarnate Word, now and forever. Amen.

God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only-begotten One to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Loving God, bless this household. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness, and abiding in your will. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.”

It appears that the custom is in some sort of revival of interest. It is described in St Asaphs, Wales,  St Paul’s Wokingham, St Giles Matlock and St Mary’s Hardwick, Derbyshire. An account from the COE website states how the custom can fall again into abeyance often to do with the views of the incumbent:

This used to be an annual feature of the Epiphany ceremonies conducted by the Revd Brian Brindley of Holy Trinity, Reading, who was something of a dramatist in liturgical matters.

The idea was that the members of the congregation took home a blessed piece of chalk, and also a piece of black paper, on which they were asked to write the traditional names of the three Wise Men. This was taken home and attached to the front door of one’s house in order be identified with the aim of the pilgrimage of the kings.”

Interestingly, in the 1800s custom appears to have become secularised if this account is any suggestion:

“At Skipsea, in Holderness, Yorkshire, the young men gather together at twelve o’clock on New Year’s Eve, and, after blackening their faces and otherwise disguising them- selves, they pass through the village, each having a piece of chalk. With this chalk they mark the gates, doors, shutters, and waggons with the date of the new year. It is considered lucky to have one’s house so dated, and no attempt is ever made to disturb the youths in the execution of their frolic.”

Such secular exuberance appears to have died out but its religious observance continues.

Custom survived: Penny for the Guy

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A few years back I was in discussion with someone and the topic of Penny for the Guy arose. At that moment we both realised that we had not seen this once very common customs for decades. Indeed, it was so common perhaps it was less commonly reported by folklorists being so ubiquitous. There are a wide range of accounts. In the 1974 Folklore of Staffordshire by Jon Raven records:

“During the nineteenth century the children made their collection for the Guy and would sing the following ditty:

“Pray a hapenny for a taper

An a hapenny for a match,

An a happeny for a faggot

An another for a match

Pray gee us for some money

For crackers and powder

To charge all our canons

An mack them sound louder

Pray gee us a jacket

To dress Guy the infernal

Of a fire eternal.”

In the 1976 Folklore of the Welsh borders Jacqueline Simpson records:

“Gangs of children roaming the streets demanding pennies”.

The decline is also hinted by Doris Barker in her 1977 Folklore of Hertfordshire states:

“Groups of children – no longer just the poor – many with paper mache masks instead of the soot blacken faces customary in many places until the middle of this century, still go from door to door in villages and towns with traditional Guys asking ‘Penny for the Guy’ – with inflation expecting more -for money to buy fireworks and sometimes for charities.”

The decline is perhaps first noted by Enid Porter in their 1974 Folklore of East Anglia:

“Still celebrated with bonfires fireworks and making of Guys, though the children who take round their guys or stand with them on street corners, seldom chant the old rhymes.”

In the 1976 Folklore of Warwickshire Roy Palmer notes:

“By the 1920s the groups of children going around wealthier homes were usually asking for pennies to buy commercially produced fireworks.”

I personally remember it in the late 70s and through the 80s but cannot recollect it after that but apparently the tradition was surviving.  For example records of it still continuing in some areas can be found, as a Dave (Notts Breamer) notes in a angler’s forum:

“… I saw 2 kids outside Asda today, they had a tin full of money, its a dying game, but those that do bother to do it, earn a fortune.”

This suggested a siting in Nottinghamshire well at least in 2011 and as an ASDA but which one? Looking for a custom such as this is without the preverbal ‘needle in a haystack’. Where? What time? What day? Etc Etc?

Penny for your thoughts

The difficulty of finding such a custom combined with a desire to discover whether it was still extant somewhere made me turn to the 21st century solution. The internet and a blog. Therefore I set up the PennyfortheGuy sighting page to solicit from members of the public.

The site went live in 2013 and the first reports came in. They asked for a description, where it happened, the age of the children and response of the public. It started with a rather positive one!

In early Nov 2012 or 2013 I was with my dad and we saw some kids with a “Penny for the Guy” near the local Co-Op store in York Parade shops in north Tonbridge. My Dad remarked he’d not seen this type of thing for years. Cant remember the exact details exactly – jeans and jumper+hat?
Geographical location: York Parade, Tonbridge, Kent, TN10
Age of children: 12-13?
Response of public: none
Date and time: afternoon, early Nov
Length of time observed: just in passing”

And one rather negative one:

Description of Guy: unfortunately not a good story! we went to local pub Saturday night and around 10 pm 2 girls came in and the barman asked what they were doing “toilet” one said “OK be quick” said barman. But instead of going to the toilet they went round pub asking for Penny for the Guy but all they had was a normal baby type Doll. The barman asked them to leave and also asked where their parents were but all he got was abuse, the girl with the doll was around 12 years the other around 10 years. Is this a sign of the times???
Geographical location:Nottingham Old Basford
Age of children: 12 years & 10 years
Response of public: horrified
Date and time: 10pm Saturday 19th October 2013
Length of time observed: 10-15 minutes

Time: October 23, 2013 at 11:05 am

Then the following year a report from Bristol, Stockport, Stoke on Trent, Wigan and Manchester the later suggesting that it was not a dying custom at all if anything is to go by from the less than enthusiastic entry

“Geographical location I.e where in the UK?: Manchester
Description of Guy: Countless crap ones, usually in wheelbarrows being wheeled to my front door or dumped outside shops and petrol stations, with accompanying urchin children begging for loose change.It’s not a dying tradition. It’s annoying.
Age of children: 7-15
Response of public: usually abusive
Date and time: later than they should be out
Length of time observed: anytime between halloween and bonfire night”

Then in 2018 I received a report from fellow folklorist and author Richard Bradley. His report reading:

“Geographical location I.e where in the UK?: Morrisons Supermarket, Hillsborough, Sheffield Description of Guy: Consisted of a stuffed black child’s hoodie and grey trousers with tied-off arms and legs, its face being a mass-produced Halloween mask (a skull wearing shades and red teeth). Asked makers if they were going to burn it on a bonfire and they said they were. Age of children: 3 young lads, would estimate around 9 or 10 Response of public: Indifference from majority; great excitement from me! Date and time: 30th October 2018 12:50pm. I asked if they knew of any other Penny for the Guys and they said outside Southey [Green] Co-Op there was one where the makers had used a large teddy bear for the body and dressed and stuffed it.”

Dying of Guying

It was clear that from the reports the custom was still alive but in decline. A series of theories have been put forward or could be suggested for its decline and disappearance some mine some others.

Theory 1: The inability to buy fireworks – This is seen as one of the commonest reasons for the decline mainly because this is cited as a reason children did so. Although there is no firm evidence that this was exclusively all that the money was used for and it does seem unlikely that it would stop the custom. Certainly the children interviewed had no concern over how to use their money and one could argue it could still be given to parents to buy fireworks

Theory 2: The rise of Hallowe’en trick or treat. This is often seen as the main reason for the decline. Why would children make something and spend hours collecting money when they can get free sweets and sometimes money by dressing up and going around houses on one night? However, versions of trick or treat have existed side by side with making Penny for the Guy and indeed in a way they both involve for the diligent student effort. Indeed one could argue that putting a mask on some newspaper filled clothes involves less effort than dressing up or sourcing a costume. Similarly, the collection is different – sweets versus money – Money could be considered more useful especially when potentially large volumes can be collected.

Theory 3: Stranger danger. Increasing concerns from the 1970s onwards of the risk of children from members of the public has influenced the custom no doubt, with rightfully concerned parents preventing children in having the freedom previous generations enjoyed. This has combined with an increasing toxification of children as ‘gangs’. However, children still assembly in groups from aged 11 onwards – ages which have been reported as doing Penny for the Guy – so this in itself in some areas cannot be a major factor

Theory 4: Anti-begging – any cursory examination of a parental forum post on this subject such as Mumsnet would indicate that many see it as begging and this being now not acceptable. Of course the custom is, but this cannot be seen as a major influence in areas of low incomes and in a way this is a class driven view which probably always existed and indeed was espoused by parents when I was younger.

Theory 5: Rise in affluence. The general rise in average income and in particular its effect on pocket money would certainly have reduced the impetus for students and thus the number that would entertain the idea of Penny for the Guy

Theory 6: Other entertainments. With all manner of games have kept children indoors in and in many cases have replaced face to face communication

Theory 7: Lack of back garden bonfires and street fires. The smallness of new estates, increasing lack of waste ground and a push to encourage families to attend civic firework ceremonies means less domestic ones and less demand for Guys.

To summarise I feel that the rise in general affluence, lack of private bonfires (giving the Guy a raison d’etre), stranger danger and distraction of other entertainments has had an effect. Therefore the custom should survive I areas where there are low incomes and large areas as well as a close knit community.

Looking for a Guy

It would seem that from this research (as of 2019) via the PennyfortheGuysightings site that Guy strongholds could possibly be are Sheffield, Cheadle/Manchester and Stoke on Trent. The Sheffield report by fellow folklorist Richard Bradley suggested multiple Guys but the city was the only place where academic research had been undertaken by Ervin Beck in 1984 in Children’s Guy Fawkes Customs in Sheffield in Folklore 95:

“Among the schoolchildren sampled, about 23% made Guy Fawkes figures in 1981, with eleven-year-olds showing the most involvement (32% active). Thirteen-year-olds at Bradfield and eight-year-olds at Wisewood were the most active (52%). Hallam- Tapton students showed least involvement at 17%-a figure that would be even lower had fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds been included in the sample there. In both the Wisewood-Wisewood and Bolsterstone-Bradfield systems, interest remains surprisingly steady from early years until the Sixth Form, when participation in the custom falls off entirely. In 1981 children made their guys as early as October 10 and as late as the morning of November 5. Many made them a few days before Hallowe’en. Tracy, 12, made hers two weeks before November 5 and continued to improve it during the days leading up to Bonfire Night.”

Therefore it seemed to be a good place to try and search out these surviving Penny for the Guy. I decided to pick a weekday in the school holidays which fortunately was close to Guy Fawkes Night, close enough I feel for any Guy makers to make good of the potential. My first arrival at Hillsborough Morrisons was unsuccessful there was no sign of a Guy as people busily went around their shopping. It looked an ideal location however. I then travelled to Southey Green a smaller settlement but again no luck. However, I was not put off so I decided to travel around the area. Then passing a small shopping strip I did a doubletake. There was a Penny for the Guy attended by four children. After all this time I could not believe it. I quickly went over to them. I could not believe it after 20 plus years there were some children doing Penny for the Guy. This was no folk revival but genuine folk custom naturally undertaken as had done so for a generations.

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The group appeared to be loosely organised with an older boy around 12 being in charge. The Guy was laid against the wall of the post office outside where the boys were situated, and had a white V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes Mask suggesting the boys knew their heritage! I spoke with them at length and they explained why they were doing it and that they intended to throw it on one of their parents backyard bonfires.

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So why had it survived in this area of Sheffield? I spoke to a women who was curious why I was interested in the boys. She was naturally suspicious but once I had allayed her fears that I was not a risk to the boys she discussed why. She said that it was a close knit community everyone knew everyone in this area of Sheffield despite being pure urban city it had a village mentality. This certainly benefited its survival. No one would be annoyed by the custom as they knew the kids and the kids would be polite as they knew they were known by the community. I spoke to the children again and they said that the previous year they had made £60 which they spent on games for their Playstations. Thus destroying the theory that the belief that Hallowe’en giving free sweets trumped the Penny for the Guy monetarily. Even whilst I was there one of the group was speculating to accumulate by one of the boys who was taking some of his cash to buy another mask to set up another group. Indeed, the women who spoke to me said the groups increased after dark and there were at least three groups on this small area of five or six groups. Indeed, another boy turned up whilst I was there interested what I was doing and when he found out took to some bins behind the arcades were he had his retired Guy and another he was working on. Three Guys after 20 years! The general descriptions of the Guys was that they were made of tracksuits sown together and filled with newspaper. The arms and legs tied closed with tape, the top had a hoddie which enabled it to be filled with newspaper and a mask stuck inside it or over it – both I was informed had been used for Hallowe’en beforehand or in the past . They were not as varied as described again by Ervin Beck in 1984 in Children’s Guy Fawkes Customs in Sheffield in Folklore 95:

The simplest guy constructed by children in the 1981 survey belonged to Rachel, 9, who put a cardboard box with the figure of a man painted on it on top of her bonfire. But the typical guy was built around a pair of Mum’s discarded tights, stuffed with paper, clothed in someone’s tattered trousers and jumper and topped with a head made of a paper or plastic bag with a face drawn on it with a felt-tip pen. Depending on whose old clothes were used, the figure was either adult- or child-sized, with the smaller size apparently predominating. On top often sat an old bowler, top hat, ‘crash’ hat, ‘pompom’ hat, safari hat or paper party hat. Only two wigs were reported, one made of a dishcloth, the other of cassette tape in all its tangled, unwound glory. Masks sometimes replaced felt-tip pen in supplying features on the bag heads. Discarded footballs were also favourite materials to use for the guy’s head, as were turnips (Whistler’s ‘mangel-wurzel’). Penelope, 16, painted her turnip with felt-tip pen; Nicola, 12, stuck a carrot nose on her turnip head. Carl, 13, used the pumpkin lantern he had earlier used for Hallowe’en trick-or-treat.”

The boys said of another group they knew of but there was not anyone there however it showed this was indeed a thriving area for the custom. Indeed, it was pretty clear these kids were not doing for tradition although generous passers by did recall that they had done so themselves in the area – they were doing it for cash. When money is involved folk customs can suffer but when they make money they obviously can survive. So it is clear that in areas with a strong community and dare I say it economically less well off Penny for the Guy will survive as my theory beforehand suggested. I am sure it will survive for a long period in these areas with its only threat being the fabric of those communities. Change may come and it may survive. But until then on the streets of some parts of Sheffield can still be heard:.

“Penny for the Guy”

Inflation had not yet hit it I add!

Custom survived: Halloween Apple bobbin

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Long before we were seeing hoards of children traipsing the street dressed up as ghosts, goblins and ghouls, children would be found inside with their heads down in water. Why? For many people apple bobbing was Hallowe’en and indeed for many it still is a fun part.

At first glance these parties appear to be influenced by American popular culture and certainly have been growing in popularity since the 1970s and 80s. Indeed Enid Porter in their 1974 Folklore of East Anglia suggests so by stating:

“East Anglia has no long-established customs observed at Hallowe’en, 31 October. Of recent years, however, probably due to the ever increasing interest in witchcraft, parties are often held in private homes and clubs and societies in which some old Halloween games such as bobbing for apples in a pail of water are played.” 

This would appear in line with the growth of Trick or Treat however this would be wrong.  For in Nella Last’s wartime diary she records parties in the 1920s and 30s, pre-war family:

“Hallowe’en 31 October 1939…my towels all in a drawer and not in a wet heaps in the garage where everybody would have been ducking for apples.”

Indeed in Stamford, a correspondent in Maureen Sutton’s 1996 A Lincolnshire Calendar records in 1940:

“At school we would stop lessons. A large bowl would be filled with cold water in which the teacher would float the apples. We’d have to have our hands behind our backs. Three or four of us would get round the bowl and we’d try to bite and retrieve the apple floating in the water, while at the same time the teacher would gleefully dunk our heads in it.”

  1. S Burne records that an extract from an old notebook records:

“Malvern, Ist November, 1888. Colonel C.- G.- tells me that when he was a boy, I suppose about 1845-48, he stayed in a Denbighshire farmhouse, where the sons (young men) stripped to the waist and ‘bobbed’ for apples in a tub of water on All Saints Eve. They urged him to join them, in the presence of the full family circle, and laughed at his modest scruples.”

In fact Owen’s Account of the Bards, preserved in Sir R. Hoare’s Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales (vol. ii. p. 315), provides more evidence of the ancient origin of the custom:

“The autumnal tire kindled in North Wales on the eve of the 1st of November is attended by many ceremonies, such as running through the fire and smoke, each casting a stone into the fire, and all running off at the conclusion, to escape from the black short-tailed sow ; then supping upon parsnips, nuts, and apples ; catching at an apple suspended by a string, -with the mouth alone, and the same by an apple in a tub of water.”

The presence of the names for Hallowe’en as Duck in Newcastle or Apple or Dookie Apple Night in Swansea, ‘Apple and candle night’ in Pontypool, ‘Bob apple’ or ‘crab apple Night’ in Durham. Opie and Opie (1956) Folklore of Children record that:

“like most British games the games on Hallowe’en give the onlookers splendid entertainment, but demand fortitude on the part of the players.”

Image may contain: one or more people and foodThey describe the method as follows:

“Duck Apple. A large bowl or tub is filled with cold water (sometimes soapy water) and a number of apples floated in it. One or two players a time get down on their knees and, with their hands behind their backs (not infrequently tied behind their backs) try to get hold of one of the apples with their teeth ‘when they have done this they must lift the apple out of the basin. If they do this they may eat it.” In Monmouthshire, as the game begins the children shout gleefully: Crab Apple Night is my delight. If you take a bite of the apple nothing will happen to you, but, exults the 11 year old ‘if you miss, your head goes into the water with a splash’ ”

Variants of the game exist with Forking for apples, using a fork or Bob Apple or Snap Apple being on the line.

Silver RavenWolf  in his 1999 Hallowe’en links the custom to the Roman invasion of Britain where she states that they brought with them their deity Pomona and her sacred apple tree. It is said that during the annual celebration, young unmarried people would use it as a way to determine who was next to marry and indeed it is recorded in the 1800s a maiden would place the apple under a pillow to dream of this future husband. However, the first custom is mentioned by Charles Vallencey in his 1789 book Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis as occurring in Ireland. An Irish origin seems more likely than a Roman one

Whether Roman or Irish it is good to see amongst all the pointless plastic and pumpkins it remains and is even features amongst the Youtube influencer generation.

Custom survived: South Ronaldsay Festival of the Horse and Boy ploughing, Orkney

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St Margaret at Hope is a settlement which sweeps along its harbour, an important port for the ferry too and from mainland Scotland. I wonder how many passengers are aware of the village’s unique custom – the festival of the horse and boy’s ploughing – really in essence two customs.

Plough a deep furrow

As I arrived boys and their parents were arriving clutching their tiny ploughs. Inside the school other parents feverishly dressed their children to resemble shire horses, perhaps one of the county’s most curious of customs. Outside a crowd gathered entertained by a local band doing their own rendition of ‘Road to’ in a Phoenix Nightseque fashion. At first the boys existed proudly holding their ploughs and sat down on a bench. Then the sound of a piper could be heard flowing out of the school and then sparkling and clanking lined up in front of the ploughboys, ready to be judged.

The aim of the costume is to represent the shire horses which would drive the plough in their ceremonial dress. As such the dress would include a large collar, blinkers and feet decorations. Around their neck was a large heart which would indicate symbolically their name. The costumes are a mixture of old and new, some of the oldest being handed down through generations having real horse red white and blue pompoms and horse hair dating back 50 years ago. The basis of the dress would be the Sunday suit which could be easily adapted to do the job. In a report Moira Budge chairperson of the South Ronaldsay Ploughing Match in The Scotsman :

“We have known of a baker’s family who used cake frills around the feet to look like the feathers of a heavy horse. There was also a newsagent who used the trinkets and brooches that sometimes came with magazines…People just used what they had and the adornments were sewn onto the Sunday suit. In the past it was very basic as it had to be sewn on and taken off again before Sunday…Once people had more money, they could keep a suit aside and the decorations became more fancy. Next year, they would add a bit more.”

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Just horseplay

To ensure the costumes were ready and in their finest condition work would begun back in April I was told, often old broaches and personalised jewellery would be added. Despite their apparent complexity many parts of the costume would be easily made. For example the collar would be made first from cardboard with foam laid on it and them covered in fabric. The backs are almost as decorated as the fronts with gold braiding, necklaces, broaches, tiny mirrors and shining bells perhaps to ‘reflect away’ bad luck. The costumes themselves have a sort of Scandinavian feel about them – perhaps not surprising as Orkney was Norse until the 1400s.

Brian Shuel (1985) National Trust guide to Traditional customs describes it well:

“All the items are profusely decorated literally like the most overloaded Christmas tree, with bells, baubles,, tinsel, beads, rosettes, ribbons, tassles, plastic flowers, cracker novelties and anything else which may come to hand during the several generations it took to being hem to their present advanced state. You could hardly see the girls underneath it all.”

The array of costume differences is quite amazing considering the limited pallet of what this costume could consist of. Some incorporated real horse harness and I was amused to watch one participant chewing on their bit. Girls with long hair would have it platted to mimic that done to the shire horses and fake tails would also be added.

The parade did not last long, soon a massive cloud appeared from nowhere and the brightness which bounced off the bangles and bits disappeared and everyone ran inside. Here dutifully the ‘horses’ stood on their podium and the judging continued. Amusingly like horses, parents administered cold drinks by holding them up to them with draws or feeding their sweets as the ‘horses’ could not hold them themselves as they had fake hooves in some cases. I was very impressed with the stoic nature of the ‘horses’ standing so still under what must be very heavy and hot clothing and conditions. Even the youngest were patient and keen to smile when the cameras looked in their direction. Only one after around an hour of standing decided to have a break. On the announcement of the best dressed and best harness, the winners dutifully stood forward. I spoke to the two judges, who had just that week come from a judging of real horses, said it was difficult to judge the best dressed as it was subjective, but as the harness had to have specific pieces – eg bit, blinkers etc, this was easier as some had forgotten to include some items – no doubt out of comfort!

Plough on

Not only would the horses be judged but careful consideration was made of the ploughs. These ploughs being often family heirlooms and could be nearing 100 years old. The judge carefully examined each running their hand gently along the side, feeling the balance and examining carefully the blades. Then there would write careful notes in their notepad considering the best wooden and metal ploughs. Originally they pretended with a stick with an Ox hoof tied to it. Then a local blacksmith called Bill Hourston made a replica plough in 1920 which clearly caught on and subsequently all the participants had miniature ploughs.

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Ploughed up

When does the custom come from? I have heard it claimed that the dressing of the children as horses has pre-Christian origins being linked to the horse whispering tradition. However, as in many other counties the farmers of the settlement would have ploughing matches, where their skills would be tested and ploughs and horses inspected. Uniquely, however in this part of Orkney perhaps the children looked on and wanted to copy or some farmer worried about the lack of youth uptake in ploughing established it to encourage both the development of ploughing skills and foster a community spirit and good old fashioned competition. Early records of the custom are hard to locate and everyone I spoke to their stated it probably started in the late 1800s. The ploughing match has a common sense origin it was for the ploughmen to teach their sons the technique.

Perhaps as one could not breed miniature horses, the girls would have to get involved and pretend to be the horses. A far more sensible explanation, and so much for the pagan origins claimed by some reporters! Apparently there were similar events held at Burray and Stronsay. That of South Ronaldsay almost died out and the second world war being revived after a ten year hiatus by a local bank manager Norman Williamson and it has continued ever since. It is thought that the girls became involved after World War II, beforehand the horses were younger boys and indeed despite it being stated that the horses were girls there was one boy in attendance which in a way is probably more traditional and less likely to be highlighted as sexist! Always aware of the potential of how bad weather and tourism can stall and feed a custom, in the 1960s it was moved from the children’s Easter holidays to the summer in hope of better weather and more tourists!

God speed the plough

As soon as the ‘horses’ were judged and the dark clouds disappeared everyone jumped into their cars and off to the Sand O’Wright for the ploughing. Originally done inland, at Hope Kailyard, and at some point it was noticed that judging would be easier on the sand. Here earlier two ploughing veterans select an area of sand with minimal stones and the right moisture – too wet nor too dry. They then scrapped off seaweed, measuring the area out with a wooden set to square off the flats. Soon small groups of plough boys were practicing, listening to the sage advice of the adult, themselves retired boy ploughman.

Each boys selects a four square area called a flat each which are numbered and compete for the three categories Champion, Ordinary and under 8s. As the Boys ploughing began to start there was a real look of concentration on the faces of all the boys and a nervous look on their helpers. The boys had 45 minutes to do the plough their lines. I asked what the judges would be looking for. One told me it was for straight and consistent lines in the upward and both downward plough, equal spacing neat and evenness being particularly valued. Indeed, I was impressed how neat they were and it was clear considerable pride was taken in them.

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It was difficult not to be impressed and the way in which children from 5 to 15 got involved with intensity and enthusiasm. I spoke with one of last years’ champion class who was nervous at winning this year and remarked that he was not as neat with his handwriting as he was with the plough.

Sadly the ferry prevented me for attending the whole session and seeing who obtained the best finish and start, the straightest and the evenest. However, as a custom it is without doubt the most successful in providing both a community spirit and a colourful and unusual spectacle.

 

 

Custom survived: The Worshipful Company of Vintner’s Installation Day Procession, London

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It’s hardly one of the longest processions in fact my conversation to the wine porter as we awaited the assembled group was longer, but if you want to get a feel of medieval London, the Worshipful Company of Vintner’s procession to install their new Master, or Installation Day fits the bill.

The City of London has many livery companies and many processions but despite its shortness the Company of Vintner’s procession to the local parish church from their Livery Hall is certainly unusual .

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Making a clean sweep of it

The procession is to bless the inaugurated new Master of the Vintners and to ensure that the journey is both a safe and pleasant one two additions are required. Firstly, ahead of the procession is the Wine Porter who carries a broom with a top hat and white smock. This is ceremonially brushed from one side to another in front of the procession traditionally to remove any detritus from the Medieval world which lay in front of them. He uses a birch broom which would have been that available to his medieval forbearers rather than a flat headed modern broom which might have been a bit more successful removing the chewing gum and sweet wrappers. Originally there were two who were employed with:

‘full besoms…that the Master, wardens and his warden and brethren of the Court of Assistant step not on any foulness or litter in our streets’

No new broom sweeping clean

The history of the Company may go back to the Norman Conquest although as its first formal charter was signed in 1363 which gave them a monopoly of trade with Gascony. As wine was an important and valuable commodity in the medieval world the Vintners were a very important although its importance waned when like many companies their monopoly was removed in the Victorian period. The Wine porter has exclusive rights to handle wine in the Pool of London, as the Hall which doubled as a warehouse backing on to the Thames, but they were disbanded in 1963 as numbers dwindled as wine arrive by other means. Today it is more of a charitable organisation. Indeed Brian Shuel in his Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain noted that:

“Harry Darude, the last surviving Wine porter, was wielding his broom for the twenty-fifth time while a,l the other present were wondering who would be doing it if he passed on.”

However it was and despite their reduction in role the Wine porter survives if purely ceremonially. Behind the Wine Porter are the outgoing and incoming Master and three Wardens, Bargemaster, Beadle with their mace, Stavemens, members of Court of Assistants, Clerk and the vicar. Appearing like they had stepped out a Holbein painting they wear furred gown, Tudor caps and carry posies of flowers.

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A good nose for a wine

These posies or rather nosegays are not flowers to be laid at some grave or tomb at the church but had a functional purpose. In the medieval period the streets smelled bad, sewage line the footpath and fires filled the air. The posies made of strong smelling flowers and herbs were thought to keep the air fresh around the carrier and:

“their nostrils be not offended by any noxious flowers or other ill vapours.”

In those days thought to prevent diseases caused by bad air! Mind you it would have been made worse surely but the broom sweeping it up into the air! One wonders how good they are at covering car pollution!

When the time came the police appeared and stopped the traffic. Brian Shuel in his Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain noted that:

“It was in this year, 1982, that Harry was much disconnected to find his normal route barred by impenetrable roadworks, causing him to improvise a long diversion. Furthermore it was pouring with rain, necessitating the addition of large black umbrellas to the usual regalia.”

The weather was thankfully fine and despite a strange journey over a bridge it was uneventful as they arrived in good time at St. James Garlickhythe. Once the service was over it was repeat performance sweeping back to the Livery Hall. Hopefully for a celebratory glass of wine. It’s taken me longer to open some wine bottles to be honest. However, one cannot perhaps find a more accessible procession.

Custom survived: Reach Fair and Penny Scramble Cambridgeshire

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Regular readers of posts will have noticed fairs have been covered quite a bit this year. This will probably be the last one for a bit but it certainly is an unusual one to end with. It has the attributes of the other fairs covered here – rides, fast food and an opening from the Mayor. But the opening by the Mayor is more dramatic plus bizarrely it is a Mayor from the nearby city not the village it is in.

Within Reach

There is something ancient about Reach and its fair. I decided to travel to the fair via the Devil’s Dyke path following this ancient Anglo-Saxon entrenchment which ended at the village and one part of the fair even lay along it. Reach itself is a small settlement, a picturesque village, nestled around a green called Fair Green. Officially, it received charter in 1201 it is probably much older and likely dates back to the Saxon period. Over the years like many fairs it has changed. Despite being a small village, it was economically important to East Anglia, even nationally possibly internationally important being noted for selling ponies. These would fill the village and the auction would be held at the Hythe where a large stone still stands called the Auction Stone, the bids being struct for the third time. Over time like nearly every fair in the UK it moved from trade to fun.

Reaching out

I arrived a few minutes before the official opening of the fair. Making my way to the centre of the village, to Fair Green, where in this small area were crammed an array of whirling and buzzing rides; a big wheel, dodgems and a Maypole! It was May day after all!

Then at midday, the Cambridge Corporation and the Mayor party arrived. The Mayor being attended by the Aldermen and women in top hats and sergeant at Mace and various dignitaries from the University who processed to the bank and their assembled. They were given flower posies made by the local children, originally to keep the smells away! Below them the whole of the fair assembled waiting for the proclamation and more importantly for the hundreds of children – the penny scramble!

The Sergeant-at-Mace stood forward rang his bell, or rather dropped his clanger as it didnt work, and gave the proclamation:

“The King, by a charter dated at Geddington, the 8th of January, in the 2nd year of his reign, and tested by Roger bishop of St. Andrew’s, Geoffery Fitzpeter earl of Essex, Robert earl of Leicester, William earl of Sarum, and others, granted to the burgesses of Cambridge the following privileges :

  1. That they should have a gild of merchants.
  2. That no burgess should plead without the walls of the borough of any plea, save pleas of exterior tenure (except the King’s moneyers and servants).

III. That no burgess should make duel; and that with regard to pleas of the Crown, the burgesses might defend themselves according to the ancient custom of the borough.

  1. That all burgesses of the merchant’s gild should be free of toll, passage, lastage, pontage, and stallage, in the fair, and without, and throughout the ports of the English sea, and in all the King’s lands on this side of the sea, and beyond the sea, (saving in all things the liberties of the City of London).
  2. That no burgess should be judged by arbitrary amerciaments, except according to the ancient late of the borough existing in the time of the King’s ancestors.

  3. That the burgesses should have justly all their lands and tenures, wages and debts whatsoever, to them due, and that right should be done to them of their lands and tenures within the borough, according to the custom thereof.

VII. That of all the debts of burgesses which should be contracted at Cambridge and of the appearances there to be made, the pleas should be holden at Cambridge.

VIII. That if anyone in all the King’s dominions, should take toll or custom from the men of Cambridge of the merchant’s gild, and should not make satisfaction, the Sheriff of Cambridgeshire, or the Bailiff of Cambridge, should take therefore a distress at Cambridge, (saving in all things the liberties of the City of London).

  1. That for the amendment of the borough, the burgesses should have a fair in Rogation week, with all its liberties as they had been accustomed to have.
  2. That all the burgesses of Cambridge might be free of yereshyve and of scotale, if the King’s sheriff or any other bailiff had made scotale.

  3. That the burgesses might have all other liberties and free customs which they had in the time of the King’s ancestors, when they had them better or more freely.

XII. That if any customs should be unlawfully levied in war, they should be broken.

XIII. That whosoever should come to the borough of Cambridge with his merchandise, of whatever place, whether stranger or otherwise, might come, tarry, and return in safety, and without disturbance, rendering the right customs.

XIV. That any one causing injury, loss or trouble, to the burgesses, should forfeit a £10 to the King.

  1. That the burgesses and their heirs, might have and hold the foregoing liberties, of the King and his heirs, peaceably, freely, quietly, entirely, and honourably in all things.”

Much of the proclamation being largely incomprehensible to the crowd of course but of course everyone was waiting for the penny scramble. It is worth noting that the fair was originally on Rogation Monday later being moved to May Day Bank holiday for the convenience of the attendees. Like many fairs it was a time for homecoming. The second worth noting is that the charter allowed the development of a Pie Powder court to deal with trade offences and civil disobedience. This later point was of importance because it was said that it was the time when local people would fight with their neighbours and the nearby Upware men would make it the day the fought with Reach and got their hair cut! Indeed, in 1852 the local newspaper reported that a serious fire was caused by:

“Dissolute characters… attracted by the Annual Horse Fair”

Charles Lucas records in his 1930 Fenman’s world:

“Between ten and eleven o’clock things begin to get a bit lively as Upware and boxing, or rather free fighting, seemed to be the order of the day…the Wicken and Swaffham police were dealt with summarily, one being pitched into the Lode and the other into the Fen drain…at this time a crank Cambridge, a from Jesus graduate, Richard Ramsey Fielden MA, gave out that he was King and champion of Upware and he spent his time there arguing and fighting the bargees…it was though that he was the originator of the proceedings

Reach for the pennies!

Then after the proclamation the members of the corporation called Colts and Fillies apparent reached into their pockets for their bags of coins and then with very little fanfare we were off. Coins flew through the air. At one point coins fell from the sky like bullets. Below the children were prostrate on the ground, searching every blade of grass for the golden pieces, glinting in the light. I looked down and saw some children making large bundles of coins clutched in his hand beaming widely.

The barrage was constant and just when I thought it had stopped more coins appeared. The children were hungry for it and then it stopped. The crowd disappeared and the sound of the fair cranked up and it was open. Morris dancers appeared and danced. Young children did Maypole dancing – and sadly got tangled up and burgers were sold. Reach fair an obscure oddity and a great day to spend the May Day. Certainly much of the surrounding area agreed people were walking the roads for miles from nearby villages.

Custom survived: Lichfield’s Pancake Toss

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I’ve decided to do sometime a bit different for this month’s post which is to divide two customs into its traditional part and its contrived form.

Lichfield as I said before is justly proud of its customs and I have had the pleasure of attending all of them (and it is only the Bower and Court of Array I have yet to record in this blog). The last Lichfield custom I had yet to attend was the Pancake Toss and Shrovetide Fair

This blog post as the page records is about the Pancake Toss. After the civic opening of the Shrovetide Fair the Mayor and Town cryer returned to see the pancake race.

Trying to find how long this race had been done is difficult. It is not mentioned by any folklorists  and everyone I asked at the event suggesting that it probably arose in the 1980s. Of course it is a clever addition to the probably receding custom of the Shrovetide discussed above and ensures a fair crowd around for that..ahem…fair.

I arrived when Shrove Tuesday was at its earliest it seemed a very cold and snowy early February day, this year it was a very pleasant and warm March. Despite the wet and wintry nature, people were there to race and watch. Those in fancy dress were certainly better off!

It was a well organised event, there were the ‘traditional’ steel barricades down the side of bore street and some very clear guidelines:

“Runners will line up at the start and the Starter will declare: – “Are you ready?”  And then give the starting signal, at which point runners MUST TOSS THE PANCAKE ONCE BEFORE SETTING OFF.  

Runners will run down Bore Street, with the pancake in the frying pan; flip the pancake once at the designated point before sprinting to the finishing line.

At the finish the first runner across the line will be declared the winner.

In the event of a tie, the 2 runners will enter the final heat until one overall winner is declared.

In the event of a dispute, the Mayor’s decision is final.”

Despite the sleet and snow, it didn’t dampen the onlookers enthusiasm as they cheered on the runners. If I am to be honest I wasn’t 100% sure they all tossed as well as each other -but as I remembered ‘the Mayor’s decision is final’ – but their enjoyment was clear to see.

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There a plenty of pancake races of course and it appears to be a growing trend but I think this maybe the only one where the finishing line tape is held up by two beadles in full regalia who still manage to keep the tape tort and hold onto their maces! The prizes were particularly impressive with a frying pan attached to a plinth!