Custom revived: Olney Pancake Race

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You might drive past or through Olney and not stop. It is one of countless small towns in the midlands, the backbone of Britain. However, some people will pass through and remember that Olney is famed for its annual pancake race – the town sign helps of course. Perhaps the most famous place to do a Pancake Race.

Flipping good time?

There certainly is a great atmosphere on Shrove Tuesday in Olney. Schools close, people crowd the streets around the Bull, and pans are ready. Of course there are many pancake races ran on this day up and down the country, but Olney has a unique feeling. Part of this is due to the dress of its female (the only people other than children) allowed to race – there is no equal opps here I think!

No pancakes provided but a pan is, as the message on their website reads:

“Things you need to bring with you on race morning ** You will need a skirt & a pancake Running t-shirt, headscarf, apron, frying pan will be provided”

And as a sign of the times:

“Please do not wear any sponsorship logos apart from those given to you by the race organisers, (charity runners are encouraged to promote their charitable cause).”

Such events need such sponsorship to survive…and there is nothing wrong with that! In 2016 I see unsurprisingly its DuPont™ Teflon® I’d be upset if they did not! Of course in the modern age we need to be enacting and again the website guidance states:

The Race: Once you are all lined up the churchwarden will ring the pancake bell and say ‘Toss your pancakes’…….., please then toss your pancake…..   He will then say; ‘Are you ready?…..on your marks……get set…….go!’ Once you have passed the finish line please toss your pancake again.”

No mid race tossing perhaps they are concerned an accident and the pan-ic that might ensue?

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Flipping good legend

A local legend is provided to explain the race. It is a common legend in other places. It is said that upon hearing the Shriving Bell, a local housewife too busy cooking rushed to the church carrying her frying pan.

Flipping not true?

The website states:

Run since 1445 whatever the weather – so turn up, have fun and good luck!!!”

Ask a resident of Olney and they’ll say that it was first run in 1445. Others claim that it even took place during the War of the Roses in the late 15th century. They claim that it has lapsed over a number of years….but sadly there is no evidence! Although the weather statement is!

What is fairly certain is that the Reverend Canon Ronald Collins in 1948 revived the custom after finding some old photos of the races from the 1920s and 30s. He appealed for volunteers and that year thirteen runners ran on Shrove Tuesday.  Going beyond this becomes more more and more difficult. Steve Roud (2006) in The English Year states that it is believed that the custom begun just before the First World War, then lost, then revived in the 1920s, then lost. An article in The Times from 1939 is apparently the first to describe the race and records it was revived 14 years previous. However, one cannot go back further than this and it is significant that no notable historical research writer on days gone make reference to it! What is more likely that like other villages and towns a pancake bell or shriving bell was indeed rung and people confused the tradition.

Flipping liberal

What also makes Olney unique is that every year since 1950 it has been an international event. As the website again notes:

The link with liberal (Kansas, USA) will take place in the Church Hall at 7.00 p.m. Please would the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd runners take part in this.”

A second race takes place at the same time as Liberal in the US. The race is run on how fast they are but I amazed in this day and age no-one has thought of a video link. Perhaps hologram race in the future.

Olney was one of the first such events I attended back in the 90s when I became interested in our curious customs. I haven’t unfortunately been back since but I’d imagine is everyway as flipping fun as it was back then and will forever.

Custom demised: Shrovetide Street Football, Dorking, Surrey

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1898: Shrove Tuesday football in Dorking: PS Campbell severely kicked in the struggle with the crowd and was incapacitated and forced to retire

Today it is the picture of a genteel Surrey town, bustling with shoppers in and out of shops. On Shrove Tuesday this year it will be much the same as it was the year before. However until the early 20th century each year the streets would be bustling with boisterous boys and blokes ready for a day of street football. Of course Shrovetide football survives still in a number of places of course, but each is subtly different and Dorking’s was no different.  The game much as any street football was a mixed game of kicking, throwing and scrumming which was curiously more formalized then others.

Original football chant?

Kick away both Whig and Tory/Wind and Water Dorking’s glory’.

So read an inscription on a frame carried by an old band. One unusual custom was that before the match there was a band. The Taffer Bolt’s Band disguised in back were the opening act for the match. They played pipes, drums and a triangle and were lead by one of them who carried three footballs, red and green, white and blue and gold leaf, attached to the said frame. Amusingly being genteel Surrey, the ‘organisers’ were keen to ensure everyone was provided for after the match and a collection was made before the match started.  It is worth noting that it was recorded that:

Wind and water is Dorking’s glory.” Mr. Charles Rose, in his Recollections of Old Dorking, 1878, suggests that “wind” refers to the inflation of the ball and “water” to the duckings in the mill pond and brook, at one time indulged in.”

Over the years the event became formalized. It begun at the gates of St. Martin church at 2 o’clock and was played until 6pm a meal was even organized at the Sun Inn afterwards.

 Kicked in to the long grass

Shrovetide football across the country has always had a fragile relationship with their communities and the police. In Dorking the combined concerns of the damage caused and the lost of trade for shop keepers lead for its abolishment. However the local council liked it. In the end Surrey County Council banned it. In 1897 the following account appears:

“Shrove Tuesday football in Dorking: Traders in West and South Streets in Dorking asked the Standing Joint Committee to adopt measures to end the nuisance. Superintendent Page was in charge and reported that he met with Superintendents Alexander and Bryce and with a force of sixty constables did their best to prevent the playing of football.

The ball was kicked off by a member of the Town Council and was then seized by the police. More balls were produced all of which were taken into the possession of the police after a severe struggle. By 5 and 6 o’clock the crowd was increased by a great number of people leaving work, joined in and added to the general confusion.

There was no riot or damage to property. Later in the year fifty two defendants were all convicted of the offence of playing football on Shrove Tuesday to the annoyance of passengers. Eventually they were fined five shillings being unable to produce the charter said to give them the right to play.”

Interestingly, the defence of the participants was supported not only by Dorking Urban District Council who passed a resolution criticising the action of the Surrey Standing Joint Committee but local important people amongst them Mr. Henry Attlee (father of the ex Prime Minister Clement).

However. despite this support the more powerful Surrey Council continued to penalize participants, 60 people in 1898 including Dorking councillor had been fined. An account reads above:

“PS Campbell severely kicked in the struggle with the crowd and was incapacitated and forced to retire.”

With such incidents, Surrey County Council were more strenuous in their attempt to supress and in 1907 the streets were silent on Shrove Tuesday. The custom had given up the ghost. It was extinct and was never revived.

Sadly, such street football events by their very nature I doubt will ever be revived. So today a walk down the streets of Dorking on Shrove Tuesday will not see scrums of people fighting over their ball…buts let us hope somewhere there might be a small group kicking some ball about!

Custom survived: Mummers or Darkie Day in Padstow

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

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A black mark against the town?

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

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

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

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Keep mum?

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

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

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

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

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

Is it racist?

 

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

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Custom contrived: Twelfth Night celebrations at Geffrye Museum

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London always has the ability to surprise you and the Geffrye Museum on any day is a surprising find in this the most urban parts of the city. A green oasis in the centre of Hoxton. A museum celebrating the interior. Interesting it must have realised how the demographic would have changed over those years – now with its trendy middle class hipsters abounding – its ‘bang of trend’ as they would say. Similarly it spearheaded another growing trend – celebrating Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night was once a big religious event which begun to lose its popularity after the Reformation slipping into a secular celebration. Celebration of it too largely died out in the 19th century as the joint disappearance of the large estate and the move away from agricultural communities to urban ones desired the need for workers to return earlier and much more sober!  The Geffrye museum’s Farewell to Christmas, as they call their Twelfth Night celebrations have been running for 25 years now.

Cake night!

I arrived as the light was failing and a persistent rain was building up. However, the rather inclement weather had not put off the crowds, who snaked around the edge of the grounds of the museum in an orderly queue. What were they lining up for? Free cake and mulled wine.

The cake was a delicious fruit cake. The uninitiated may have called it Christmas Cake but no, this rich fruit laden confectionary was Twelfth Night cake and as such reviving a tradition which would have been common across the country on this night. In the medieval and Tudor periods the cake was a yeast based one, latterly becoming egg based plum cake which was decorated by almond and sugar pastes. This has many surviving relatives across Europe but died out in the UK or rather was replaced by the Christmas cake and Plum pudding!

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Fire up the party

In the centre of the museum courtyard was a large square box. Warm red and yellow flames lapped around it and the crowd instinctively gathered around it as they consumed their cake and wine. I was amused by a sign on the way in which read:

“Due to health and safety reasons, we regret that we are unable to burn visitors’ Christmas trees and greenery.”

The thought of a large throng of well meaning public dragging their Christmas trees to throw into the pyre amused me…shame sounded like a good idea. However, into this crucible were thrown holy, yew and rosemary – the flames lapped large and a strong smell hit the nostrils – I did notice a few people throw their own things in – despite the notice to some stern telling off from the ground staff!

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After a small period of time the focus changed as the brass band struck up and an actor appeared dressed as the museum’s founder Sir Robert Geffrye who informed us about the history of Twelfth Night and behind the carols sung – proving once and for all if you get a large number of the public together – even then no-one knows the order and numbers of the 12 days of Christmas! The crowd were better with the first Nowell though!

Then a revelation was made that some where in the cake was hidden a bean and a pea. This is explained in the 1923 Dennison’s Christmas Book who states that:

“There should be a King and a Queen, chosen by cutting a cake with a paper crown, a sceptre and if possible full regalia.”

The bean and pea were replaced by silver charms and it is clear that the silver sixpence of the Christmas plum pudding arose from this. Whosoever had the bean or pea became the rulers, the bean the King and the pea the Queen and in the big households of old this was a great opportunity of table turning and considerable hilarity! The custom has also be revived at the Bankside Wassail

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‘Sir Robert Geffrye’ introduced the notion that a chocolate buttons had been hidden in the cake. A hush went around the audience as we awaited two people who would reveal themselves as their finders…but nothing….had someone eaten by mistake? Had they melted? Finally a young girl did reveal herself reluctantly but as the crown was placed upon her head it was clear she wasn’t interested in being a Lady of misrule…and was let back into the audience slightly perplexed by the whole adventure!

The evening ended with some more rousing carols and the crowd once again circled around the flames lapping into the air. It is clear that this is becoming a popular and important event for the Hoxton community and it is great to see that people can return back to celebrating Twelfth Night perhaps it might spearhead a countrywide revival and we’ll all be celebrating twelfth night not begrudgingly removing the decorations and clambering up into the attic! Leave it until the 2nd of February

Custom demised: Holly Day, Brough, Cumbria

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

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

William Hone in his 1827 Everyday book added:

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

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

Custom survived: Visiting the Lewis Santa’s Grotto, Liverpool

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So reads the sign as we enter

Santa’s grotto. Seen in department stores, shopping malls, garden centres and indeed everywhere across the English speaking world from Australia to (New) York. A staple all through the 20th century.  Yet I bet you thought it was an American invention? But no! The first place ever to invite Father Christmas to enchant children was in Liverpool and what’s even less well known perhaps outside of the city is that the same grotto is still going strong 137 years on! At first it might seem a little unusual to consider this a custom but a custom it is – a calendar one – and possibly the most engaged in custom in Britain. And one which is truly English.

The story begins with David Lewis who upon visiting the world’s first department store, the Parisian Bon Marche, who brought the idea of a department store in 1877 back to Liverpool. What is interesting is that the store had an exhibition area, an idea Lewis also adopted – then in 1879 it decided to introduce a Christmas themed exhibition.

Santa Claus is coming to Town

Naturally in a city dominated by its maritime history, it was not surprising that Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, patron of seafarers as well as children would visit Liverpool first. Christmas Fairyland was the title of the world’s first Santa’s grotto. It was an instant success with the public attracting people from across the country who could finally meet Father Christmas in person and wonder at his grotto. The grotto covering 10,000 square feet became a popular seasonal sight for Liverpool. Its popularity caused other department stores to develop their own grottos of varying quality, including Blackler’s in Liverpool famed for its giant Father Christmas, again another seasonal staple, whose re-appearance at the Museum of Liverpool has been a welcome one for those who fondly remember it. By the end of the century the grotto had been established in the USA and Australia ensuring Santa would be very busy on the run up for the big day.

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Naughty or nice?

Entering the Lewis Grotto is still a magical experience. There is a whiff of exciting anticipation as one waits in the downstairs waiting room, ready for one’s number to be called, ascend the staircase and enter the magical world. Crossing the threshold one is confronted with a fairy tale fantasy world populated by a miniature world of elves and teddy bears. The grotto’s theme when I visited was nursery rhymes and famous children stories, Snow white, Pinocchio, Nutcracker, Peter Pan. Sleeping Beauty, Little Mermaid, Pocahontas and Aladdin are represented by a tableaux, some moving and many incorporating familiar Liverpool sites like the Rapid Tower and the Liver Building. Other displays in the past have been Alice in Wonderland set in Liverpool and Santa on the Moon. Figures move and sway, wave and enchant both young and old. The display comprises interestingly of both the Lewis Grotto with additions from that of Blackler’s which ran from 1957 until 1988 a youngest compared to Lewis of course, these polar bears guard the entrance to Santa.

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Finding a new ho-ho home!

After 130 years of enchanting children it looked like this iconic grotto was to see its last Christmas, when like many department stores, it closed. But all was not lost. Then then grotto manager, a Mr Mike Done purchased the stock of the grotto at a considerable expense. He was the natural choice to want it to continue as he had worked with it 27 years. After looking around all of Liverpool for a suitable place – size and geography wise – Mike settled on perhaps the slightly incongruous 4th floor Rapid Hardware store. The first theme of its new location was to be about how Santa lost his home and ended up at Rapid.

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So there on the top floor the grottos is set up. This setting up takes a number of months consisting of blocking out windows, painting the backgrounds, setting up the figures, the electricity and everything needed to make the site magical.

It is fantastic to still be able to visit the grotto that spawned such a popular countrywide custom and one which has kept to its own traditions. It is clear by the busy downstairs waiting room that it is still an essential part of a Liverpudlian’s Christmas. Indeed as I was told by Mr. Done one particular visitor has been an 103 year old who worked in the store for 80 years previous and ever misses a visit. He was quick to add that such events spur him to continue with the grotto. Furthermore, as Mr Done related, grottos such as this are a dying tradition. True that Father Christmas is a busy as ever but these are in and out enterprises with very little event to them. This is certainly not the case at the Lewis grotto it is all about the experience.

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Not a grotty grotto

After wandering through these delightful displays we await our moment to meet– the curtain pulls across and there in a Victorian styled drawing sitting on a wreath wrapped thrown – was Father Christmas – even the most cynical is swept along with the enchanting experience and the children certainly leave spellbound with a special glint in their eyes.

In this modern quick fix world of the rapid turnover visit to Santa this Lewis grotto is indeed from another era – one as much about the experience and the build up being as much a part as meeting the man himself. So if you are looking to find that special magical Christmas feeling make a pilgrimage to the oldest and perhaps the best Santa’s grotto,  make it to Lewis grotto now firmly ensconced at Rapid and hopefully continuing well into its second century. Long may Santa be visiting it too.

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Custom transcribed: Christmas Tree Festivals

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I was recently asked how long does something have to go for, for it to be considered a tradition. I answered ten years because once you’ve gone past the decade there’s a feeling of ‘let’s keep it going’. Christmas Tree festivals appear to be the fad new fashion of the 21st century…last century I had never heard of them…now search for them on-line and you’ll find one in virtually all the counties of Great Britain! The website http://www.christmastreefestivals.org/ has 176 of them recorded.

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Branching out!

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of this modern custom. The oldest I can find go back to the mid 1990s such as those of Hitchin, Hertfordshire and Brighstone on the Isle of Wight. Further back and we get an answer of where this custom arose from – festivals over 24 years are firmly US based. But why start them?

Deep roots

It seems curious that the modern church, protestant and Catholic could be combined with celebrating such a pagan thing as a dressed tree – a tradition linked to pagan tribes from the Romans to the Celts. They appeared soon to be Christinanised being adorned by fruits and nuts such that by the 1500s they were being brought into the house, popularised by Martin Luther who encouraged fir trees to be brought into the house and lighted by candles on the branches. By 1800 it had become popularised in the UK, its famed being cemented by Victoria’s Prince Albert. Since then the Christmas essential for every house, shop, mall, restaurant and everything in between, was the fir tree -real or fake!

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From tiny acorns

It is quite remarkable how quickly both this custom has spread and how popular the customs have become locally. The best example of this can be seen at Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. In 2016 it topped 1378 different trees and thus became the largest collection in the country. A good tourist attraction for the town in a time of year in which tourists may well be thin on the ground. Of course, churches are constantly looking for something to reconnect what is slowly becoming a secular celebration to its Christian original message (leaving aside for a moment its hijacking of the pagan one!) The Christmas tree is a focal point. Everyone likes a colourful Christmas trees, being establishing such a festival not only brings communities together, after all everyone can dress a tree and there is no set way to do it, but brings people in. Walking into a church there is something indeed magical about the array of trees glistening and sparkling in the gloom. One is reminded of the magic of the season and the creativity of the people responsible. A new custom yes, but one based in an old tradition and one which is very welcome to add to the custom list.