Category Archives: North Yorkshire

Custom contrived: Marsden Imbolc, Yorkshire

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We have reported a number of fire festivals on this blog most of which have been associated with Guy Fawkes Day or New Years, but a relatively new fire festival has perhaps the country’s oldest credentials. Ask a person in the street when Imbolc is and they will doubtless look at you in confusion and state when is that? Spelling it out will not help either as its one of those words said differently to spoken! However, to those local to the town of Marsden in Yorkshire and they will know it for its celebration has been a major event in the town drawing 1000s of curious onlookers to witness this colourful custom.

Fire up a festival

How did this unique and remarkable event begin. In the Huddersfield Gazette Angie Boycott-Garnett the organiser records that it was the very cold winter of 1993 which made her think that:

“We wanted to put on an event in the cold winter time when people can feel down…The idea came from a group of us who were part of the now defunct Kirklees Countryside Volunteers and put on a lot of events together.”

Why might wonder why an ancient pagan festival was the event they came up with Boycott-Garnett explains that

“Duggs Carre came up with the idea for the Imbolc festival. He’d heard about the celebration, which takes place in-between two of the eight periods of the Pagan calendar year. Imbolc celebrates the end of winter and the first stirrings of spring, while encouraging the idea of regrowth and renewal.”

What started out as a local small event involving a walk through the woods with key entertainers: fire dancers and eaters and fire sculptures grew and grew. Originally they thought the event would be a one off. Angie talked about how they set up their first event.

“We thought it would be good to bring people together. The first was quite small and revolved around a walk through the woods near Stannedge Tunnel, where entertainers would be performing. We had things like fire sculptures, fire dancers and eaters. We originally thought it would be a one off but the event was very successful. So we decided to run it again but we wanted to make sure that the community involved to keep it going.”

The event has continued to go from strength to strength, although the cost of organising it, around £7000 meant that since 2014 it has been every two years.

Fire in the belly

Imbolc is an old Celtic tradition traditionally followed Candlemas and remembered the longest in Ireland. It was believed to remember the coming of spring and its etymology may refer to the pregnancy of ewes, washing oneself in a ritual cleanse or budding. Whichever the day has become an important one to neopagans and as such Marsden has developed into a major celebratory event for those in this community.

Baptism of fire

My first Marsden Imbolc I did not know what to expect except that it would be evocatively captivating and indeed it was. The event with an atmospheric procession from the Old Good’s Yard. To the sound of bagpipes and drums, hooded figures wearing animal and solar and lunar masks loom into view carrying torches.The most ominous being the large figure of a crow man who loomed over the watching crowds. Said to represent Druids and Celtic gods they certainly added an air of the mysterious. Following up these mysterious figures was a procession of lanterns made by local children and driven forward by a steel band. The crowds which watched this atmospheric entourage joined the end and we made our way to the site of the festival.

There to the rhythmic intoxicating sounds of the drums these masked figures with their torches stood in a formation and swirled around their torches in a spectacular mesmerizing pattern. Whilst they did this tableaux of Spring scenes where light and they blazed in their pure white light against the pitch black night.

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Fight fire with fire

The main event is the battle between Jack Frost and the Green Man. This symbolic battle is said to represent the fight between winter and spring. The towering figure of Jack Frost eerily comes into view covered in fireworks he sparkles and spits fire into the air accompanied by masked torch holding acolytes. After his display the Green man makes his appearance. He too is associated with masked and hooded figures carrying torches and accompanied by the sound of bagpipes which drifted through the cold icy air, he was ready to confront Jack Frost. They fronted onto each other whilst the hooded figures of each side swirl and throw their torches to symbolise conflict. The Green man stares into Jack Frost as they stand facing each other and then as the drum rhythm builds Jack turns and is defeated…to cheers, whistles and claps from the crowd. Winter is over and spring is here.

The evening ended with a riotous flash of white light as an array of fireworks launched into the air and overall a wonderful experience sadly one would have to wait two years to witness it again but well worth the wait!



 

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Custom demised: Visiting St. Helen’s Wells on St. Helen’s Feast Day

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After St. Mary or Our Lady, the greatest number of Holy wells across Britain are dedicated to St. Helen. St. Helen, the mother of the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity is a complex folklore figure and authorities have placed her birth at Colchester Essex where there is a well and chapel dedicated to her. It is reported that at Rushton Spencer in Staffordshire, processions were associated with the date 18th August, St. Helen’s Feast Day. Baines notes in his 1836 History of the County of Lancashire:

“Dr. Kuerden, in the middle of the seventeenth century, describing one in the parish of Brindle, says: ‘To it the vulgar neighbouring people of the Red Letter do much resort with pretended devotion, on each year upon St. Ellin’s Day, where and when, out of a foolish ceremony, they offer, or throw into the well, pins, which, there being left, may be seen a long time after by any visitor of that fountain.’”

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The Med. Mvi Kalend notes a similar custom was he states:

“observed some years ago by the visitors of St. Helen’s well in Sefton, but more in accordance with an indent ractice than from any devotion to the saint”

At Walton, near Weatherby, Yorkshire, villagers would also visit their St. Helen’s well whose water was said to be effective as a cure for many ailments on this day. A story is told that once the infamous highwayman Swift Nick Nevison was on St. Helen’s Day, found having fallen asleep after drinking from the well, but still alluded capture after an ill attempted capture attempt by some local youths!

Hatfield’s St Helen’s well – rags tied after a service at the well although now not on St Helen’s day!

In Great Hatfield, Yorkshire, there St. Helen’s Well was restored on the 18th August in 1995 and since then on or near the feast day, a service is held at the well. Perhaps not the same as the times of old, and although no one betakes of the water it clearly has become an important part of the spiritual landscape of the community.

Custom revived: Ripon’s Candlemas Festival of Lights

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“having visited Harrowgate for his health a few years before, he resided for some time at that pleasant market town Ripon, where, on the Sunday before Candlemas day, he observed that the collegiate church, a fine ancient building, was one continued blaze of light all the afternoon from an immense number of candles.”

So wrote a 1790 account in the Gentlemen’s magasine. Yet despite this note reference to this rare survival is no existent. Candlemas is a curious feast which went through a revival in the mid-20th century in a number of churches. The feast celebrates the Presentation of the Infant Christ to the Temple, and traditionally marked the end of the Christmas season (and when the Christmas decoration could be removed). As a custom it is a very curious hybrid of Hebrew – in the remembrance of the tradition of presenting children to the temple and pagan sitting as it does upon the old pre-Christian Imbolc, the coming of spring. The name Candlemas is of course itself rather odd. Most other masses relate to saints or biblical events – this does not.

En-lightening origin

In those dark days of winter, the lighting of candles marked the beginning of the days getting lighter and the rise of spring and the strength of the sun. All pure paganism. At some point the Christians adopted this ancient event and looking at the timing associated it with presentation, a facet still remembered in Blidworth with its unique cradle rocking. The association with candles was convenient as Christ was seen as ‘the way and the light’ and as candles were such a valuable commodity against the evils of darkness the needed to be blessed and be thankful – hence a mass for candles. As the tide turned against such curious Catholic practices at the Reformation, many died out. It survived Henry VIIIth’s purge, but was reformed the blessing of candles was thrown out and so was the Mary’s role focusing on Jesus solely. The custom continued until the late 1700s and as Hutton notes had died out by the 1800s. It is not surprising the North clung onto Catholic traditions longer than elsewhere finally dying out and being revived in the 20th century.

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Candle in the wind

A description by Dean John of the church records on the church website sums it up perfectly:

“Many of you will know that here at Ripon Cathedral the Candlemas Sung Eucharist has long been established as one of the most spectacular services of the year. The light from five thousand candles, the glorious music, and several hundred people gathering from across the region all combine, with the grace of God, to make this a great occasion of celebration and spiritual encounter.”

5000 candles surely that must be a record? Where as many churches and cathedrals now mark Candlemas none do it in a way as spectacular and uplifting as Ripon. As one enters the cathedral on the night one’s senses are assailed. Cathedrals in the night are dark, gloomy, foreboding places. The chill runs down the spine…especially on those cold snow laden February nights. As one enters from the crisp air, one enters a glowing magical place of warm both physical and spiritual. There’s the smell of wax and the hushed sounds which only can be heard in some august edifices.

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The full wax

A few years ago when the 2nd arose on the weekend I made my way to the service to see this great festival of lights. Throughout the service all modern forms of lighting are vanquished and only that of the flickering candle. Throughout the whole building there appear to be candles, hither and thither, placed feverishly earlier by the church’s vergers and lit equally efficiently no doubt.

The triumph of their work is a giant cross arranged in the chancel with the date arranged in candles, fortunately roped off though but easily observed. The service is of course a traditional one of Evensong, but during it the congregation is invited to process around the Cathedral holding their candles lead by the Bishop. This was a magical moment as we processed around remembering the importance of this great building to the spiritual needs of its community and how it had sat as safe refuge from Saxon times and beyond. There also is something quite magical about the sound of evensong sung under the dimness of a candle. Indeed, Ripon’s Candlemas service can give us a real insight into what the pre-Reformation church would have been like. A mysterious evocative dark world lit only by the candle.