Custom revived: The Hinkley Plough Bullockers

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“The old custom of Plough Monday still prevails Like a great many other popular tales, Plough Bullocks dressed in ribbons, a gaudy show In a long procession shouting as they go—- ‘Higham on the Hill, Stoke in the Vale, Wykin for buttermilk Hinckley for ale!’”

Richard Fowlkes, Elmesthorpe, 1811

A load of ol’ bullockers?

Reviving a custom can be fraught with problems and issues. Claims can be made that its completely made up and bears no relevance to what went before. However Hinckley’s plough bullockers is a test case in how excellent research, forged with enthusiasm and improved by local knowledge coming to the fore as a result of the tradition, can produce a durable and worthy reproduction.

A full account of how the custom was revived is informatively covered by an article called The Hinckley Bullockers by Tony Ashley in The Morris Dancer Volume 5, Number 4 February 2016 who explored whether there were any customs associated with the villages around Hinckley.

In The History and Antiquities of Claybrook in the county of Leicester’ by Rev. A. Macaulay he notes that:

“On Plow [sic] Monday I have taken notice of an annual display of Morris-dancers at Claybrook who came from the neighbouring villages of Sapcote and Sharnford.”

A longer piece was to be found in 1930 ‘The History of Hinckley’ accounting ‘Pastimes and amusements of the people of Hinckley 1800 to 1850’ quoting from Sebastian Evan’s ‘Leicestershire words and Phrases’ which relates:

A number of men or youths (generally six or eight in number) dressed themselves in grotesque fashion – half their number being in female costume and half in male. One of the former as supposed to represent Maid Marion. The men wore top hats and were thoroughly bedecked with ribbons. One of the party portrayed Beelzebub; he carried a cow’s horn, on which he blew, and with it afterwards collected. He also had a tail and wore tight fitting stocks formed of coloured patchwork squares. He had a bell on a spring at his back, fastened to his body by means of a belt round his waist – hence, to the popular minds, the reason for his being called ‘bells e bub’. Sometimes he also carried a large rattle. Another performer impersonated the fool; he always carried the money box and had a bladder with peas in it fastened by a string to the end of a stick. They danced a sort of country dance to the music of a fiddle and hautboy.

This gave the group some considerable information to work with to reconstruct the custom in regards to appearance of the Plough Bullockers. Thus:

“The men dressed in dark clothes with sashes, rosettes, arm ribbons, lallygags and high hats with ribbons. There was even a very authentic Beelzebub in his rag coat and wearing his bell and tail. The one thing missing was a plough. This was simply because the first Tour was very much a case of suck it and see and it was not known if the revival would continue.”

A plough was finally secured from a local museum and then after concerns that it might get damaged as a result of the tour it was decided that the group should buy one. However, it is all very well identifying the custom occurred but no of the accounts really told them what exactly they were doing on Plough Monday in Hinckley? Elsewhere there had been Plough Plays (such as described here), and further north Sword Dancing (Plough Stots or Plough Jags) or Sword Dancing combined with Plough Plays tended to be limited to South Yorkshire (Goathland Plough Stots)There was no evidence this was what was done. There was no evidence it wasn’t however, one would have thought that if it an antiquarian would have described it.

 

What was the evidence? The group were pulling ploughs, covered in raddle (a red face colouring) collecting money from farms and large houses, playing music and dancing with comments like ‘country dance style dances with ad lib stamping and shuffling’, there were no specific descriptions of the dances performed. Ashby (2016) notes that

“In 1986 at the Forest of Dean Family Weekend there was a chance meeting with an elderly gentleman, who at that time was musician to Thaxted Morris. He described his experience of dancing Molly on Plough Monday and this description of events fitted perfectly with the information previously collected. Now it was believed that the dancing referred to in previously collected information was in fact Molly Dancing. References to Molly dancing were located in Folk magazines. Some evidence referred to Molly Dancing extending north into Leicestershire and even to Winster in Derbyshire.”

With this discovery it was decided to adopt Molly dancing into the group’s repertoire Ashby notes that.

“all of the men interested in being involved in the revival were all in full time employment so a decision was made to hold the Plough Monday celebration on the Saturday preceding Plough Monday….. We recruited three musicians, a concertina player and a melodeon player from Anstey Morris and a local fiddler who had seen the articles in the local papers.”

We plough and furrow

These resurrected Plough bullockers are very impressive indeed. Wearing black suits with top hats ribbons of different colours – yellow, reds, blue, they weave in and out of each other. Their pheasant feathers fluttering in the January winds. The raddle looks effective especially against the whites of their eyes and their white beards. There is even a slight menacing effect to them slightly let down by the melodious music and the molly dancing which looked most appropriate in its odd way arms in arms, circling around, normal Morris dancing wouldn’t perhaps, although I did notice a handkerchief appear. I was also impressed that there seamed as many musicians and members dressed up creating an impressive group on the roadside and one that certainly attracted a fair number of curious onlookers.

Ploughed up

Interestingly the revival harvested more information. A Mr Brown a local Sapcote resident and local historian informed the group that during his deceased mother’s childhood, suggesting the late 1890s, she remembered the Bullockers did visit the village, being blacked-up and wearing

“white shirts with cut outs of the plough sewn to the shirts, horse ribbons and rosettes, bells and brasses adorned their legs, arms and shoulders. Molly Dancers accompanied them with country music played on fiddles, such as The Farmer’s Boy etc. The leading fiddler was Punty Garratt and Old Chuter was the Fool who whacked everyone with his pig’s bladder. Their ceremonial plough was known as the White Plough and was pulled around the village by a length of rope encased in leather which was kept from year to year. They met at The Red Lion in the morning, toured the farms, large houses and pubs in the area before returning to The Red Lion where in the evening they dined and then held a “Country Dance”. At this event they danced the dances that had been performed during the day by the men as social dances.”

This news pleased the group as it vindicated their decisions in its resurrection. This is a faithful reconstruction now in its 31st year, as gaudy and vibrant as that described in 1811.

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Custom demised: Censing the loaf on Twelfth Night

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One lost custom, as far as one can discover for it may well be done in private homes, is recorded in xxx and was undertaken on Twelfth Night. Barnaby Googe’s a disused custom of censing a loaf and a preservative against illness and misfortune

“throughout the year sixe night’s then from they do count with diligence eche master in his doth hurne by franckensence on the able settes a loafs when night approcheth there the coles and be perfumed”

He then relates the method of administration:

“there bowing downe his heade he and nose and eares and eyes smokes and with his mouth fume that doth arise followeth straight his the same full solemly of their children everyone all their family doth preserue they say nose and eyes and ears eucry kind of maladie sicknesse all the ye are everyone recieved hath odour great and small one taken up the pan with franckensence and all other takes the loafe whom reast do follow here round about the house they torch or taper clere neither bread nor meat do witch with dreadful power to hurt their do their cattell harme There are that three nightes onely do perfourme this foolish geare this intent aad thinke themselves in safetie all the yeare.”

It would appear to have been a Catholic tradition which survived into the 18th century but when it died out is unclear.

Custom survived: Waltham Cross Bakers and Sweeps Flour and Soot Boxing Day Football Massacre

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numbers are a bit down this year we usually like to have all around the pitch covered. Its because Tottenham are playing at home. I tried to get Pochettino to make sure they weren’t but he could manage it.”

So spoke one of the organisers wryly as I surveyed the pitch at this most bizarre seasonal custom. Football is long associated with Boxing Day, more of which in a future blog post perhaps, but this was something else. The crowds were indeed down but this would stop the enthusiasm for this bonkers boxing day bonanza!

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Self raisin

The custom begun as an amusing way to raise money for Cheshunt Cottage hospital. Although there appears to be no record of when exactly begun or who thought to establish it; the earliest date being 1905, however it is generally agreed that it begun in 1909. It soon became established as a popular event and in 1910 a souvenir postcard was even produced with all the players named and the score sweeps 2 bakers 1. An early account appear no different from the normal sports fixtures it would appear suggesting the distinctive craziness had not yet developed on the pitch but had on the run up to it as recorded in Andrea Gilbey and Les Wells’ excellent and much recommended history of the custom The Bakers and Sweeps Flour Soot and Mayhem:

“Football charity match – Bakers vs Sweeps – The annual interesting encounter took place on Boxing Day morning at Cheshunt recreation ground. The respective teams dressed at the Falcon Hotel and marched to the field of battle with brushes (Sweeps) flying; headed by the Temperance Band. The Bakers in their spotless whites, were a distinct contrast to the sweeps, who were indeed a motley crowd, with their tattered and torn garments and dirty shoes….the popular captain of the Sweeps caused endless amounts of fun on the march to the ground.”

Indeed, special silver medals were made. One such in 1928 showed a football between the feet or a short, fat baker, holding a baker’s peel, who’s head and body are made from a cob loaf and a tall, skinny chimney sweep, holding a dustpan and brush and who’s body is made from a bundle of chimney rods and brush.

The band was a regular part of the procession and whilst a procession before the match still occurs when the team members collect money from local businesses, houses and passers by the band has gone.

So did the custom nearly as the second world war caused an unwanted hiatus and it did not return until 1951 however by then the comedy was fully developed:

“when the play begun the fun started in earnest. All the rules of soccer were discarded and the game developed into a free for all catch as you can encounter with a mixture of rugger, hockey and football. In fact it was one of the funniest slapstick encounters we have ever witnessed since the game was first conceived….there were of course interventions of course when the players set off a smokescreen on the field, while the bursting of fireworks gave one impression that the somehow Boxing Day had got mixed up with November 5th.”

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Flour up

Like all great sporting fixtures the two teams lined up for the traditional meet the dignitary, not a member of the royalty but the town’s mayor. However this was a meet the team with a difference as one by one soot and flour was deposited on the head of the mayor.

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Indeed, this barrage of soot and flour is as much a tradition as the game itself and the team members took great pride in getting the Mayor dirtier and dirtier with one of the team captains gently guiding her to each assailant. A great article in Gilbey and Wells book states:

“Gangs of black and white hooligans posing as footballers savagely attacked the mayor of Broxbourne Cllr Gerald Cookson and his Mayoress wife Sadie as they went for a boxing day stroll over Waltham Cross playing fields. They pelted the Mayor with soot and flour and smothered the Mayor with shaving cream but nobody came to the rescue.”

This was all tongue and cheek of course!

Sooty and Sweep

The teams was made up of a wide range of bizarre customs – a carrot, an elf and bizarrely a blind baker complete with white stick and glasses – no one said this was going to PC! It was worse in 1977 with Bunny girls being made available to provide half time drinks…

After the line-up, the game appeared to start without even a ball, the participants simply enjoying covering each over with flour and soot. Then a rugby ball was tossed in, to0 much confusion considering this was supposedly a football game, but it was kicked causing it to spin around uncontrollably and at one point the ball disappeared under a scrum of every single member baker and sweep and a few bystanders as well by the look of it too!

But of course one ball wasn’t enough and soon two, three, four, five, six and seven balls of differing sizes were thrown onto the pitch, causing considerable confusion. But soon some goals were scored and cheers came from the crowd.

At one point cling film being wrapped around one goal to add comedy value as one if the participants surged into it and bounced back, but still scored a goal. At one point there appeared to be a foul and one of the bakers was then taken to the stocks, although for pedantry sake it was really a pillory. He was then ceremonially covered with as much soot and flour as remained.

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Half baked ideas

At some point the tricks and pranks became one of the central tenants of the custom. Over the years Gilbey and Wells tell us that they ranged from exploding tanks, cannons, Daleks to a Pantomime horse scoring a penalty. Finally in a concern that the game was becoming a bit too unruly (never) and attempt to orchestrate came about, especially as there might have been some concern, especially as fireworks might be used, that it might become unsafe and the pranks derail the game as such a script was written! Whether this idea stuck is unclear, but in 1983 a list of pranks was made including:

“smelly loo, Andrew Clayden running amok with an emu, A guillotine to cut off players heads and this to be used as a football (!)..obtain a grocer’s bike to ride the length of the pitch and score a goal.”

Then it was half time. No oranges (from the bottom of the stocking or not) this time but beers. It was a brief break and soon the game was on again. This second half being dominated by a space hopper used as the ball, which was kicked and rose into the air some considerable height considerably, but rather than being kicked was hopped over the line! At one point a member of the Sweeps caused the goalie to fall over and so this was a good enough excuse to have him gunged! Sadly the giant ball much beloved of the game did not appear. Apparently despite sitting deflated at the touchline it was so beaten and broken that it could now no longer be inflated I was told.

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A clean sweep

At the end the two teams were invited to a traditional tug of war which ended up with a rather uneven Bakers side loosing and being dragged across the mud. Then it was over for another year. This year it was a draw – not by my reckoning it was but I don’t anyone was really taking score.

 

With the sounds of Yakety sax blaring out the speaker appropriately I did feel I’d been dragged back to a more innocent time the 1970s; this was a very Tiswaz like event resplendent with gunge tanks and its mirth making mess makers. However, despite its 20th century nature it is difficult not to think that this has an even older origin. It is possibly that the custom was a resurrected earlier one which had been forgotten, a type of mob football often seen on holidays such as Boxing Day, which may have existed in the area and not been recorded by any local antiquarians. Indeed, even the procession beforehand has the feel of a mummers tour for largess. Whatever the true origins of the custom it is one to be cherished in this day of overproduced fare. Simple knockabout humour and great fundraising too. A local event indeed, but one which deserves to be better known.

Custom demised: Cattle kneeling on Christmas Eve

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“The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”

Isaiah Chapter 1, verse 3

It was once believed that at the bells rang at midnight, the cattle in their barns would kneel in honour of the occasion. The belief would appear to be an extrapolation of the account in Isaiah as neither St Matthew’s and St Luke’s gospel mention it and from this slight on how the people of Israel disregard Christ compared to the animals, grew into the belief immortalized in paints and illustrations. It became such a widespread belief that Thomas Hardy’s 1895 Tess of the d’Urbervilles:

 “Well, then he called to mind how he’d seen the cattle kneel o’ Christmas Eves in the dead o’ night. It was not Christmas Eve then, but it came into his head to play a trick upon the bull. So he broke into the ‘Tivity Hymm, just as at Christmas carol-singing; when, lo and behold, down went the bull on his bended knees, in his ignorance, just as if ’twere the true ‘Tivity night and hour. As soon as his horned friend were down, William turned, clinked off like a long-dog, and jumped safe over hedge, before the praying bull had got on his feet again to take after him. William used to say that he’d seen a man look a fool a good many times, but never such a fool as that bull looked when he found his pious feelings had been played upon, and ’twas not Christmas Eve. …”

Indeed, Hardy was so interested in the custom that he celebrated it again in poetry in 1915 for The Times on Christmas Eve:

“Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock. ‘Now they are all on their knees,’ An elder said as we sat in a flock By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where They dwelt in their strawy pen; Nor did it occur to one of us there To doubt they were kneeling then. 

So fair a fancy few would weave  In these years! Yet, I feel, If someone said on Christmas Eve, ‘Come; see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb, Our childhood used to know,’ I should go with him in the gloom,  Hoping it might be so.”

 John Brand in his 1849 Observations of popular antiquities of Great Britain was the first to record the folk custom, although as Steve Roud in his 2008 The English year states that it was extremely well-known in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Brand states:

“An honest countryman, living on the edge of St. Stephen’s Down, near Launceston, Cornwall informed me, October 28th 1790, that he once, with some others, made trial of the truth of the above and watching several oxen in the stalls at the above time, at twelve midnight, they observed the two eldest oxen only fall on their knees, and as he expressed it, in the idiom of the country, make ‘a cruel moan like Christian creatures’

Testing the belief

Of course, the first test of this belief would come when in 1752 the calendar was changed from Julian to Gregorian, but a contributor to Bentley’s Magazine in 1847 had a way of explaining it:

“It is said as the morning of the day on which Christ was born, the cattle in the stalls kneel down; and I have heard it confidently asserted that when the new style came in, the younger cattle only knelt on December 25th while the older bullocks preserved their genuflections fir old Christmas Day, January 6th

Despite this explanation many thought the event implausible, even Brand himself:

“I could not but with great difficulty keep my countenance; he saw this, and seemed angry that I gave so little credit to his tale, and walking off in a pettish humour seemed to marvel at my unbelief.”

Despite these early scoffs there may well indeed be people who believe this happens as Roud (2008) states and it is interesting to note perhaps that the belief was strongest in the USA.

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.

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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 survived: Loughborough’s November Fair

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“The People of Loughborough are very proud of their ancient Fair, dating back to the thirteenth century and held in the streets and squares of the town.”

World Fair 1949

Fairly old

There are many seasonal fairs but few are as old and as visually imposing as Loughborough’s November fair. It has survived in its town centre location fighting against all attempts over the years to marginalise and send it to some park or outskirts of the town despite the complaints of ‘as a Fair with a mile of caravans’

Loughborough famous for its University, Ladybird books, bell making and the first package tour in that order; is perhaps not the first location for an ancient fair yet it is the fourth oldest in the country. The fair was granted back in 1229 by Henry III and has been continuing albeit in the format now of a fun fair ever since. The record stating:

“Of the Market Of Loughborough The lord the King grants to Hugh Dispenser that He have ,until his (Lawful ) age ,one market every Week, on Thursday, at his manor of Loughborough. Unless that market and the Sheriff of Leicestershire Is ordered to cause him to have that market. Of the Fair of Loughborough. The lord the King grants to Hugh le Dispenser that He have until the (lawful) age of the lord the King One fair at his manor of Loughborough every year In the vigil and in the day of St Peter ad Vincula And the Sheriff of Leicestershire is ordered to cause him To have that fair. Witness as above by the same(at Westminster,xxviith day of January in the fifth year of our reign).”

This was the third Charter fair for the town, given to Hugh Le Despenser Lord of the Manor of Loughborough. The fair was associated with the Feast of All Souls, perhaps an unusual date for a fair. However, when the calendar was changed in 1752 it moved to the 13th of November. Then finally local authorities in 1881 made it fall on second Thursday in November.

Open it fairly

Opening ceremony is itself a custom in itself, It is open like other fairs by the Town’s mayor but unlike other fairs where they are called to order by the ringing of the bell by a town crier, Loughborough does something fairly unique.

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The local Grammar School itself a mere youngster compared, starting in 1595, provides three or four, smartly dressed trumpeters in suits and red ties. First they announce the Mayoral party outside the town hall and then go to the steps of the Waltzer where the Mayor of Charnwood officially calls the fair open. It is a decidedly medieval feel to the opening and quite fitting.

A fair change

Originally a cloth fair and wool. Then horses, cow and sheep. By the late Victorian period the invention of steam powered amusements meant that these were slowly taking over the trading fair until today they dominate it.

Interesting shows over the years have been the Phantoscope, a sort of cinema, a boxing booth and a lion show. Making today’s dodgems, ghost trains and spinners sound rather boring!

By the 1920s after a spell when the November streets were quiet due to WWI the fair saw the arrival exciting spectacles such as the Wall of Death. Indeed, the 1929 Leicester Mail romantically reported:

“That most ancient form of diversion, the fair, is still attractive because it appeals to the people’s robust sense of fun … Thousands of people are attracted to the town to participate, much to their own and other people’s enjoyment … if they remove it from the centre of the town it would dwindle and decay as so many other fairs have done, and an old age channel that has brought grist to the town would be permanently closed. So Loughborough as a whole, is not only disposed to grin and bear it, but to welcome it somewhat in the spirit of the song that bids us `Come to the fair.”

By the 1940s the side attractions which once were the main attractions were gone and the establishment of Ghost trains and dodgems and the establishment of families such as Collins’, Proctor’s and Holland which gave the fair a real feel of an annual reunion. In 2014 according to the Loughborough Echo the fair:

The Star Flyer will be one of 20 massive rides brought along by the more than 100 show people along with other attractions, games, novelty stalls and refreshment stands. The fair, which spreads throughout the town centre, is organised by Charnwood Borough Council and attracts thousands of families. Pleasure rides this year include fairground favourites such as the Waltzers, Loop Fighter, Dodgems and Galloping Horses as well as more spectacular rides such as the Dominator and Extreme Ride. There is the ‘Kiddies’ Corner’ and perhaps one or two surprise attractions.”

And so it continues. The roads may have been closed off permanently now by pedestrianisation but this does not distract from the amazing site of these huge metal leviathans sitting cheek by jowl to the shop fronts. Every space is filled. Every side street. Like a maze and a cacophony of sound and blaze of light. The food. The lure of hook a duck, with a prize cheaper than that in the pound shop perhaps, but we still keep trying. All the fun of the fair is so true at Loughborough

Custom contrived: Oxford Street Christmas Light Switch Ons

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Christmas is starting earlier! The shops, the adverts and the lights…ah yes the lights. For many its forget Christmas Eve, forget Advent, forget your first Christmas card it is the switching on the lights in their nearest town or even in the village which signifies the start of the festive period whether it is Oldham or Oxford Street….the most famous of all being lit up from late November to Twelfth night

It is difficult to find out the earliest British public lights but to begin with and like many other Christmas customs it appears that the US got into to it first. The most famous in the UK is perhaps Oxford Street. However, it did not start in Oxford Street. Despite being synonymous with Christmas lights it was Regent’s street which had the first one in 1954. In particular one of the most amazing being gas filled balloons in 1957 It was not until 1959 that Oxford street got in on the act!

Lights on, lights off!

Over the years the lights have varied and sometimes not been on. Indeed in 1976 and 1977 due to the combination of the Winter of discontent and the stressing of the need to be concerned about wasting fuel, there were not any lights. However by 1978 they came back being fanfared by a laser display to mixed feelings. Cheaper it might have been but Christmassy not! Since then corporate sponsorship has been involved with various big name firms, often London centric, such as a French themed one in 1992 to celebrate Les Miserables. Sometimes the lights can be a little underwhelming especially when they are mainly just white!

Coming to light early

Now just before you moan about this being in November’s blog….the first lights were up by the 30th November in the 1950s! However in 2016 the Independent ran an article when the lights were up and shinning in October. They stated:

“It’s early October and in London the countdown to Christmas is apparently underway as the festive lights have already been strung up over Oxford Street. The enormous baubles that adorn Europe’s busiest shopping street were seen being set up on October 2, a full 84 days before The Big Day itself, prompting mild incredulity among Londoners.

The installation of the lights comes well ahead of other significant annual celebrations, including Halloween, Diwali, St Andrew’s Day, Bonfire Night, and the Winter Solstice. The timing of the set-up means on Oxford Street at least, visitors can revel in the Christmas spirit for over a quarter of the year, every year. This is evidently brilliant news for Christmas enthusiasts and for those who just love the beginning of October.”

It wasn’t popular with many coming to Twitter amongst other formats to complain one wryly noting.

“Did they have any Halloween lights?

The lights have moved with the time, now they use 750,000 LED bulbs which use 75% less energy than conventional bulbs.

Lighting up

Part of the custom is to have the lights ceremonially switched on usually by some celebrity. If ever there was a list which grasps the zeitgeist it’s the list of celebrities which turned on the lights. How many could you remember? Certainly the 1981 Pilin Leon is not a name you’ll know…she was Miss World that year…quite you can see what I mean! Since then with had sports men, such as Daley Thompson and Linford Christie, pop stars ranging from The Spice Girls to Cliff Richard, actors such as Lenny Henry and Emma Watson. But occasionally ordinary people get a chance in 1991 it was Westminster Children’s hospital and Children from kid’s company….the stage must have been large for the cast of Coronation street in 1995. The crowds are enormous for the switch on, even more so when it’s a big star, not sure how Derek Jameson might have faired against Westlife.

In 2017 it was Rita Ora who was joined by the Mayor and ITV’s X-Factor 2016 winner Matt Terry and boy band 5 After Midnight. The countdown was enthusiastic as usual and at 0 the air filled with snow flakes. According to the Mirror:

Rita Ora, 26, said: “It’s such an honour. Once we’ve done this, it’s actually Christmas.” She joked: “If I get this wrong it can’t be Christmas!”

Love them or loathe them to many Londoner’s the switching on of the Oxford lights whenever they are is the sign for the countdown to the biggest custom of them all!