Category Archives: Wales

Custom demised: Hanging St John’s wort above the door

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Hypericum perforatum - Wikipedia

It’s a very familiar plant, although the one generally grown in our gardens, is not strictly speaking the St John’s Wort of British tradition, its bright gold flowers beam out like the sun at midsummer. Across Britain its virtues were many but one seasonal application was that it once widespread was the placing of it across doorways. William Bingley in his 1800 Tour Bound North Wales records that:

“On the Eve of St. John the Baptist they fix sprigs of the plant called St. John’s-wort over their doors, and sometimes over their window’s, in order to purify their houses, and by that means drive away all fiends and evil spirits.”

In the 1972 Folklore of the Ulster People Sheila St Clair notes that there it protected against the evil eye. Tony Deane and Tony Shaw in their 1975 Folklore of Cornwall state that wreaths were placed at St. Cleer ‘to banish witches.’Maureen Sutton (1996) A Lincolnshire calendar a correspondent from Chapel Hill suggests that the custom was still remembered in the 1920s and 30s there:

“if you hang it up on St John’s Day it will keep away the Devil’.

Christine Hole in her 1977 Witchcraft in England writes of St. John’s Day:

“ the saint’s own golden flower, St. John’s wort-which is quite clearly a sun-symbol-was brought indoors to promote good fortune and protect the house from fires.”

However, the earliest reference shows how this was not just a country custom. In John Stow’s 1603 book on London he noted:

“On the vigil of St. John the Baptist, and on St. Peter and Paul the apostles, every man’s door being shadowed with ….. St. John’s wort.”

It was not alone and other plants were also stuck there creating ‘a goodly show, namely in New Fish street, Thames street’. Whilst it is not clear why they were doing so it would seem that there was some reason for it. It would appear to related to Ella Mary Leather records in her 1912 The Folklore of Herefordshire:

“Antiquatis records that the practise of making midsummer garlands was common in Herefordshire in the old days, ballads were sung while weaving the garlands and the foliage used in their construction were for divination. Those in request were the rose, St. John’s Wort”

In this case it is clear it was for divination rather than protection but one would thing one arose from the other. Fran and Geoff. Doel and Tony Deane 1995 Spring and Summer customs in Sussex, Kent and Surrey note that it was worn to warn away witches.

Why Midsummer? Midsummer was thought to be when the evil spirits were abouts. But why St John’s Wort It is probably likely that this was related to its medicinal properties of the plant which may have scientific background as it has been proven that it has positive effects on nervous disorders such as depression which was often linked to devilish activity. I have not read of anyone who still hangs St John up at Midsummer so I imagine it is not long extinct.

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 contrived: Chepstow Wassail and Mari Llwyd

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Each January the boarder town of Chepstow becomes home to a fascinating mix of Welsh and English customs – The Chepstow Wassail. A colourful picandmix custom.

On arrival it is very evident this has become a rallying place for all people who wish to celebrate the winter and as such Morris teams from a wide area attend. The town is awash with blacks, purples and the sounds of bells, cries and clashing of sticks.

Strictly speaking the custom is divided into two – the wassail an English luck giving custom previously described here and the Mari Lwyd – a Welsh house visiting good luck custom which has not been fully covered yet in this blog.

When I arrived there a large group had assembled around a rather raggedy looking tree below the grounds of the castle. Here some Border Morris were half way through an apple wassail, pouring ale over the roots whilst the congregation assembled singing a wassailing song, toast attached to trees and ribbons swaying.  Everyone despite the cold was enjoying themselves smiling and enjoying the special bond the custom had established.

A few metres away were some dancers and weaving in an out of the crowd were Kentish Hooden Oss making the children laugh and look bemused in equal measure. They were a fair way from home again indicating the countrywide popularity of the custom.

No room at the inn or stable!

However in the pub nearby was a Mari Lwyd, one of a number in the town, which was about to go through the Pwnco, a rhyme/song full of riddles – a sort of old Welsh rap battle! The landlord was preventing the Mari Lwyd and his team from entering. From a casual observer one might agree for outside clad in a white sheet was a scene from perhaps from a horror film – a bleach white horses skull. The Mari Lwyd is a curious custom and one we will only briefly discuss here.

“The discussion was From inside the house

What, ho! Morganwg’s happy land
Is full of corn and barley
What, ho! is your request – demand?
Answer! We grant short parley

From the Mari Lwyd party outside

Honest men are we, who sue

Favours many, money due
To the Mari Llwyd from you!

From inside the house to end the contest

Come in, come in, and sit at ease

Ye merry sons of Cymru
Here’s sweet metheglin, here’s cream cheese
With milk, cream cakes and flummery!”

The Mari Lwyd is a strange mixture of macabre and marvellous. Its empty eye sockets filled with sparkling green glowing glass eyes, upon its head a crown of flowers with ribbons attached which flew in the cold winds. Its head shrouded to make it look even more mysterious – and hide the pole. Its jaw open and closing like a clapperboard.

Once inside it joined a whole throng of Mari Lwyds snapping and leaning over into people’s lunches and attempting to drink their lemonades! Those who expected them were very amused but there one or two who found it all a bit too weird.

Border Morris on the border

As darkness fell the main proceedings begun. At first the Mari Lwyds went to the bridge for the famed “Meeting Of English and Welsh at the border  Here a large crowd had assembled at the ‘border’ some carrying England flags on the English side and the others Welsh flags. The official start begun when a large rocket was sent into the air to tell the Mari Lwyd that the English wassailers had finished and that they were about to reach the bridge’s middle. With them the group carried lanterns, played music and carried a large apple cart carrying the symbol of their wassailing – a decorated apple tree. As a horn sounds, the sign of the English approach a which both them move slowly to the centre shouting and cheering carrying their flags. Warlike in a way if it wasn’t so surreally apparelled. Despite their menacing approach as soon as the middle is meet celebrations break out, hand shaking, flag exchanging and singing. Wassail to everyone and happy new year. If only every border was like. The Welsh invite the English over to join them in Chepstow. After then the Mari Lwyd descended upon the Chepstow Museum. Here the crowd once again got into good spirited boisterousness, name calling and ilk. Here the Pwnco continued until the Lord and Lady of the ceremony appeared at the museum door and offered a wassail cup full of mulled cider.

A meeting of skulls

Organised as event to revive local music dance and folk customs locally by the The Widders Welsh Border Morris and Tim Ryan of the Severn Princess ferry restoration since 2005 and has grown from strength to strength. As mentioned teams come from far afield across Wales and into the midlands and beyond. In 2019 there were 30 Mari Lwyds although this included some out of area versions such as Kimberley’s Owd Oss! For a custom once in decline it is clearly more and more popular. Indeed popularity has been an issue and in 2020 the custom went for a rest and a re-think due to its massive success. An article in a local newspaper stated that:

“It has grown so much in popularity since it began 15 years ago, to the extent that organisers have pulled the plug while they ponder how best to reorganise it. Mick Lewis, a member of the organising committee, said he is proud that they have built such a popular event, and confirmed the festival will return in 2021 after a period of “soul-searching”.”

One of the organisers stating:

“Fifteen years ago we started with just one Mari Lwyd, and now we get over 30 turn up, along with hundreds of people,”

Such can happen to customs, that their popularity outweighs their origin provision and thought. Bloggers like myself must be very aware of the impact our reviews can have. So I should state that the Chepstow Wassail is a great custom perhaps to reduce numbers not one to go to every year and spectate.

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: Llansteffan’s Mock Mayor, Carmarthenshire

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I get the feeling that Llansteffan is a bit of a little known treasure – a quintissential slice of Welsh, a village dominated by a mighty castle, boasts a secretive ancient holy well with itself having its own ritual, a lovely slice of sand and perhaps the less known a mock mayor.

Now followers of this blog will know that I have an especial interest in this curious form of custom which is more prevalent that is first known, often because, it is essentially a local custom for local people – Llansteffan was no exception

With this in mind I felt rather daunted attending this custom. It certainly was a popular one held in a large marquee on the cricket field – more of later – everyone in the village appeared to be there! My first thought was would I understand it. Now in this case this did not just mean would I get the references but was it in Welsh!?

Said to start at 7 – it didn’t – the organiser spoke – in English. First hurdle passed. Now would I understand the references?

Mock-up

Llansteffan’s Mock Mayor is held on the Friday before the village’s big Fiesta Week. Like many mock mayors finding concrete details are difficult. The custom is unrecorded in any folk custom book I am aware of. Locally it is said to have at least dated back to the 19th Century being first recorded by William Waters his History of Llanstephan. He notes that the Mayor was:

“carried on chiefly by Glamorganshire visitors … on or about August 8 … The so-called mayor is drawn by his friends in a carriage for some distance, the procession generally terminating in the wood near the beach, when his representative announces to the audience that the “newly elected mayor”

Yet others have claimed it goes back to King John in the 13th Century. This is not unlikely because Llansteffan’s status as a borough was confirmed by King John in 1200 meaning two fairs a year could be held, Ffair Fawr and Ffair Fach. However, that may have resulted in the position of the Mayor, it does not explain the mock part!

It is recorded that the village tenants would meet regularly to give taxes to the local landowners and that this evolved into a social occasion relieving the effort of paying tax, those congregating would elect one of their member as a Mock Mayor and would then parade him around on a cart perhaps to make a mockery of their landowners!

This would be slightly different from other origins which are often in response of a nearby village becoming a town and adopting a Mayoral system despite the nearby town being older or bigger see Woodstock

To begin with the crowd warmly welcomed the current Mock Mayor Roger Penycoed , he was accompanied by a mini Mock Mayor, his grandson. Both wore bright red and white fur lined and gold ribbon robes with tricorn hats resembling old medieval mayoral garments. Then the County counselor was called on stage who then went to ceremonially disrobe him so that the election could begin.

A Mayor go round!

Then the hustings begun. Of course recent international politics meant there was a rich harvest to parody. It was evident that this was an event which allowed local characters and show people to entertain the group, the first up had apparently stood four times before (and lost) and styled himself Lord Cutglass. Amongst his many election pledges he suggested bringing back the Court Leet from the 13th century. where only men over 30 with an acre of land could vote, boos could be heard – no women county councilors- a dig at their current councilor. However his main thrust was the ‘corruption’ of the current Mock Mayor and his balcony to cries of ‘drain the swamp’ stolen from the Trump presidential campaign. The Ferry was a particular sore point, claiming that it allowed those from St Ishmaels and Landyfaelog to ravage our women, steal our cockles and talk with a Landyfaelog accent! It a direct parody of the ongoing EU Brexit situation. A suggestion of a wall between Llansteffan and nearby Llanbryn again neatly parodying recent political events. But he said the village need not worry as he had made trade agreements with the King of Lundy for pickled It was all in jest but one could see that the ferry was a bit of a sore point!

Then came the second candidate which in fact was two Watcyn and Hugh and with a routine based on a vox pox of local people roars and cries of laughter came when people were recognised. The audience were in tears from the performance. I did not know any of the background but there were common themes…a local man who is obsessed with exercise portrayed with his swimming cap on and glasses, another who kept repeating ‘100 %’ (and who doesn’t know someone whose response is always the same), a traditional welsh lady and another…well I all I can say it appeared Northampton was a popular source of derision….all done in that confused quick changing that would not have been out of place in a Tommy Cooper sketch! Despite these being local jokes the characterisations meant it was easy to work out who they were parodying from the audience and it was remarkable how similar characters are. Even in 1875 the tongue was already firmly in the cheek!:

“will soon effect great improvements in the ancient “maritime borough” at his own expense; such as erecting an iron bridge from the Castle Hill to St Ishmael’s, purchasing a large number of bathing machines, and establishing coffee taverns on the sands!’”

At this point a swingometer was brought on and demonstrated. Was this the way it was decided?

The final contestant again two entered to the jangling sounds of Turning Japanese in came the next candidates, The Japanese unified globe party; or JUGS, (!Insert joke there!) two locals dressed as Sumo Wrestlers, excusing their Welsh accents for being educated in a local college. They aimed to bring Macron, May and Merkle over for an economic summit in the village but despite their combined economic powers they could not book the village hall. They mentioned Hollywood coming Dame Judy Dench and Eddie Izard, but the big surprise they were allowed to park outside someone’s house. They claimed that two big Hollywood stars file for bankruptcy after buying around in a local pub! Which received cheers and claps from the audience as a clear response of some gentrification of their local for the tourist no doubt!

Mayored up

It is stated that the influx of tourists gave the Mock Mayor tradition a new lease of life being a popular event for the holiday makers coinciding with Miners Fortnight a holiday for Rhondda miners. This resulted in anyone being able to stand as the Mock Mayor and as such many holidays were crowned! Canvassing became important and candidates even had agents. The election followed national trends when in 1916 women were allowed to vote and women could become mock mayors. One of the most notable being in 1954 a Madam Lloyd George, no relation! In those days it was held close to y Gegin Fach were there are remains of a stage used for elections. During the early part of the 20th century the summer season encouraged by a local Carmarthen to Llansteffan bus meant that the custom remained as popular as ever. A notable Mock Mayor, top hatted wearing W.H. ‘Bonny’ Lewis, his election promise included a daily air service from Llanstephan to Llansaint and another for `a huge Observatory to be erected on the Castle Grounds to publish weather conditions for farmers and shoemakers. As such he was voted Mock Mayor in 1932 and 1953. Another `Paddy’  Trench suggested that mermaids could be employed in the bay to attract bachelors and gold plate all cockles raising their value. Such characters created great pre-election crowds to hear them speak.

De-Mocked

Despite the considerable popularity of the Mock Mayor ceremony times were changing. Tastes were changing. Holiday tastes were changing. The 60s and 70s saw the custom nearly completely disappear but it did not completely die out and was revived thanks to the Llansteffan Football Club who continue to organise it. The tourist numbers had perhaps fallen, attracted to the exotic beaches of the Med not doubt but this did mean that the Mock Mayors would return to local people. A custom like this lives or dies with both the enthusiasm of those involved and the ‘characters’ involved. The 80s saw these characters return and even the TV when to coincide with the 1987 General Election local character Des Cridland was to be unseated by the so called Morality candidate Peter Jones, only to have him disgraced by the appearance of a pregnant women who claimed Jones was the father. The TV cameras distilled all these dirty tricks and outrageous electoral pledges which may have been not far off from what was really going on at Westminster! The TV attracted more interest and clearly pride in their unique custom and since then the custom has been in very rude health. From the laughter cheers and effort made by the unsuccessful candidates it does not appear in any danger of disappearing!

Mayor have a word?

After the new candidates spoke it was time for the present incumbent to speak accompanied by his robed grandson with a placard vote Roger. With much lose he gave an impressive if slightly Bacchus sponsored one drawing on some more serious points peppered by the grandson chanting vote Roger. It was clear that there was warmth for him from the congregation and it soon became evident that this was more pantomime than politics.

Then after the outgoing Mock Mayor spoke it was over to the results and despite no phone numbers being released or time given to vote, a tally was given as the candidates waited feverishly on the stage. The vote gave Lord Cutglass the lead but then in rushed a postal vote from Patagonia (Patagonia? There is a large ex-Pat Welsh community there)…the postal vote sent it over the edge and the old Mock Mayor was voted in Roger Penycoed cheered and went to the front of the stage. The county councilor came back up on stage and put back his insignia, robe and tricorn hat he thanks everyone assembled and said ‘Please please last time never again!’

Llansteffan Mock Mayor’s ceremony is something I believe many communities need a lighthearted irreverent knock about where local people can identify what really annoys them in a typically British way. It is evident the lack of Cricket, empty houses in the town and the cost of drinks in a local pub are matters that do matter and so in typically British way comedy is used to identify them.

Custom contrived: Maundy Thursday Shoe Polishing

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“ It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…..he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”  Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”  For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone was clean. When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

John 13:1-17

Shine on!

Whilst the Queen (and every modern monarch since George v) will distribute maundy money on the day, those in the hierarchy of the church try to do something in keeping with the words of John…after trying washing feet, called Pedivallium (which is surely a bit too invasive or Catholic) and whilst the Archbishops of Canterbury and York appear to keep to the tradition, other high level Anglicans have settled upon polishing shoes as a good compromise. It can be encountered across the country from Birmingham to Leicester, Northampton to Nottinghamshire, Coventry to Cardiff.

Where this compromise came from is difficult to find but it is likely to be a transatlantic import. The earliest British example is that of Manchester which appears to have been done since 2008. An account reading:

The Cathedral Clergy shined the shoes of shoppers in Manchester Arndale on Maundy Thursday. The shoe shine idea has a serious message aiming to emulate Jesus washing the feet of his followers 2000 years ago and the subsequent tradition of the clergy washing parishioners feet on the Thursday before Easter for centuries.”

In some places it appears to be a one man team but according to the Peterborough Today:

“THE Bishop of Peterborough rolled up his sleeves to give shoppers a free, symbolic, shoe shine. The Rt Rev Ian Cundy and more than 10 other clergymen and women from across the city gave shoppers’ shoes a bit of spit and polish in Cathedral Square.”

Shopping centres appear to be the popular location but:

“Commuters from Abergavenny were give a free shoe polish at the train station to mark Maundy Thursday today. Modern-day monks living in the community offered the service to people travelling to work in a re-enactment of Christ’s act of washing the feet of his disciples.”

Now there’s a group of people surely in need of a shine although perhaps the business men and women probably had had a shine beforehand, although an extra re-buff doesn’t harm.

Shoe off!

My first encounter with this curious custom was a Maundy Thursday back in 2011, where the Bishop of Southwell called out to me – fancy a shoe shine? How could I refuse and I enjoyed the chance to say back at work that my shoes had been polished by a Bishop.

However, some people were quite wary. Others lacked shoes which could be shined. Some wondered what it was about the Right Reverend Chris Edmonson, Bishop of Bolton, explained to the Lancashire Telegraph:

“This is a modern twist on the tradition of foot washing, which in Jesus’ day was done by the lowest servant of all. Jesus challenged his disciples then, and all of us today, to treat each other with such love and respect. We hope to have lots of opportunities to explain this and the message of Easter, while we offer a practical service to people in the town. Shoe shining in the public space is a brilliant opportunity for Bishop Paul and myself to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ visible.”

Certainly it was a good opportunity for the church to connect in a comical and non-preachy way with the community. Indeed, one man, clearly not a card carrying Christian had quite a deep conversation I observed. Was he convinced by the faith perhaps no, but he left more sympathetic. Indeed as Bishop Paul said:

“It’s all done with a light touch and plenty of banter, but it is very effective.”

The Rev Roger Morris, from Coventry went one further and set up for the three days of Easter he said in the local BBC web page:

“We want to bless the people of Coventry by offering them something for nothing. We’re not after money. We are not on a recruitment drive. We simply want people to associate the Church with the idea of good things, freely given – after all, that is at the heart of the Easter message.”

As Bishop Urquhart polishing shoes outside Birmingham cathedral noted in the Birmingham Mail:

“The shoeshine is just a small demonstration that people who follow Jesus are prepared to roll up their sleeves and serve their communities.”

In a world where those in power seem report a bit of humbleness is more than acceptable….picking up from the Bishops I did it myself this Maundy Thursday!

 

Custom transcribed: Christingle

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Around 20 years ago I started noticing reference to Christingle service back in the late 80s as a I travelled around visiting churches. There did not seem any pattern to when they were done. Some were done on the first Sunday in December, others at a random Sunday in the run up to Christmas, some Christmas eve. All of them in advent. So I tried to delve deeper. These were the days before internet and my searches failed. Unfortunately, I was not living near a church which had such a service at the right time.

Then finally I discovered that the Christingle was a curious structure used to represent Jesus consisting of an Orange as the base, a ribbon, sweets and most importantly a candle. But where did this custom come from?

The orangins of the custom

Marienborn, Germany, 20th December, 1747 is the birth date of the Christingle. The creator, the minister, John de Watteville. At a children’s service he explained to the children that Jesus was he:

“who has kindled in each little heart a flame which keeps burning to their joy and our happiness”.

To emphasis he gave them a little lighted wax candle, tied round with a red ribbon. He ended the service with a prayer:

“Lord Jesus, kindle a flame in these children’s hearts, that theirs like Thine become”.

Interestingly it is recorded that Marienborn Diary stated:

“hereupon the children went full of joy with their lighted candles to their rooms and so went glad and happy to bed”.

This was of course just a candle and ribbon. Over the years it appears that the Christingle developed. Now the central object is the orange which represents the world, the lighted candle Christ, the Light of the World and the ribbon the blood he shed. The addition of nuts, raisins and sweets on cocktail sticks around the candle represent God’s bounty and goodness in providing the fruits of the earth. Red paper, forming a frill around the base of the candle, reminds us of the blood of Christ shed for all people on the cross at Calvary.

Image result for christingle service

The name itself is a curious one. According to the Moravians no one knows when it was first used or from where it is derived. Some believe it comes from German engle meaning angel, or the German for child, remembering the importance of the Christ child, ‘kindle’ or more likely perhaps the Saxon word ‘Ingle’ for fire!

A wide a-peel!

“The services are suitable for all the family. They include Advent hymns and carols, prayers for our work, and a purse presentation by children of the diocese. Children go forward to receive Christingle oranges and the Christingle hymn or carol is sung by the light of these alone.”

Gateway, Children’s society magazine 1970

So how did a custom associated with a fairly obscure Christian group get to be in so many churches? The reason comes back to The Children’s Society and a man called John Pensom. He saw in 1968 the Christingle as way to involve children and introduced it to the church of England. It soon grew, by 1969 seven churches adopted it, by 1970 around 18 were held. Then in 1989, Coventry Cathedral and York Minster had special Christingle services to celebrate 21 years of the adoption. A giant Christingle was lit and like the Olympic flame, this was used to light another and then another. I should add this giant Christingle did not use an orange. In 1997, Liverpool Cathedral was the place to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Christingle This prominence may have again helped its’ spread, for by the 1990s, thousands of such services were held. Today virtually every Anglican church has adopted it, from Cornwall to Northumberland and it has spread to the Church of Scotland and Catholic churches. Not bad for a custom whose membership is only just a million compared to the 85 million Anglicans!

One could cynically easily see the adoption of the Christingle as a clever awe and wonder fun device to get families back to church but it is evident that it is beyond that. The Christingle in this world of abbreviations and acronyms is a clever metaphor and symbol, not too preachy but fun, a way to get the message across in this world of quick messages. Long may in spread and bright light to those cold December evenings.

 

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 demised: Calennig on New Year’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Gentlemens magazine march 1919:

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

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

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

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

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

“I wish you a merry Christmas,

A happy new year,

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

A good fat pig to last you all year,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Monty, Monty, Happy New Year,

A pocket full of money and cellar full of beer”

Origins of the custom

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

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

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

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

Death of the custom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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