Tag Archives: Calendar custom

Custom survived: Harvest festivals

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As the autumn draws in, it is difficult to avoid piles of produce piling up at churches, community halls and schools, all of these being collected for annual harvest festivals which bring colour and poignancy to the drawing days.

Shine on harvest moon

For the medieval period the harvest was a major event. Every village would celebrate bringing in the harvest usually in some harvest home event and quite often a large harvest supper – with much feeding, drinking and associated activities. It was these associated activities which caused many within the church to look at supressing these events. However, others realising the need for a moment of reflection at this time looked for other alternatives.

Thus unlike other customs the origins of the custom is well recorded. It was in 1843 that the Reverend Robert Hawker established a special thanksgiving service at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall. The custom was firmly established as Christian event adopting Victorian hymns such as We plough the fields and scatter, come ye thankful people come and all things bright and beautiful. The church was decorated with home-grown produce for the Harvest Festival service a tradition which continues today. The service remained a local event until 1854 when the Revd Dr William Beal, Rector of Brooke Norfolk was the first to hold a Harvest Festival. He noted his aim was to:

to put a stop to the disgraceful scenes which too often characterise the close of harvest, and to the system of largess, which gives rise to cases of the grossest description.”   The Times at the time stated more politely that:  “The attempt to put an end to the system of public-house harvest feasts, in which neither wives nor children can join, appears in this instance to have been eminently successful.”   

Another early adopter of the custom was Rev Piers Claugton at Elton Huntingdonshire in or about 1854. By 1875 the Lincolnshire Chronicle recorded St Mary’s Church at Stamford indicating in 20 years how far it could spread.

Reap what you sow

An earlier account is recorded at Plumtree in 1880 in The Nottinghamshire Guardian where a new organ had been installed and attracted considerable interest:

“The service commenced with the harvest hymn, “Come, ye thankful people, come”, sung as a processional. Tallis’ Festal Responses were used in the service, the first part of which was intoned by the Rev. A. Marshall rector of Heythrop, Oxon, and formerly curate of Plumtree; the latter part being taken by the Rector. The first lesson was read by the Rev. F. Sutton, rector of Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire; and the second lesson by the Rev. H. Seymour, rector of Holme Pierrepont. The Proper Psalms, 144  and 147, and the Canticles were sung to Single Anglican Chants. The anthem was “Ye shall dwell in the land” (Stainer), the bass solo in which was sung by the Rev. A. Marshall, and the treble solo by Archibald White, of S. Werburgh’s Church, Derby.”

It continued with:

“A very eloquent and able sermon, which was listened to with marked attention by an appreciative congregation, was preached by the Rev. the Hon. Wm. Byron from the text “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace,” – Ephesians 4:3 – from which, connecting it with the events of the day, he delivered a most admirable and practical discourse on the beauty and necessity of harmony and concord in the parochial and domestic life.”

It was recorded that:

“The church was very tastefully decorated with the usual flowers, and fruits, and corn, and produce, which are so general at our Church Harvest Festivals. Plumtree is now amongst the most beautiful of our Notts. churches, and is well worthy of a visit by all who value a hearty service, and appreciate beauty of colouring and artistic design in ecclesiastical decoration.”

By the 1900s it had spread considerably both geographically and ecumenically being described in Horsham Sussex’s Congregation church:

“which was very tastefully decorated for the occasion with flowers, fruit and vegetables”

In the Sheffield it is recorded in Daily Telegraph Sheffield that it was already being described as the:

 “The harvest festival season in Sheffield is now in full swing. In churches and chapels all over the city preachers are drawing the old familiar themes.”

The Berwickshire News and General Advertiser recorded that Etal church:

“was beautifully decorated with fruit, flowers, corn, and vegetables, by Rev. R. and Mrs Simpson.”

Throughout the 20th century it had become firmly established as part of the church’s calendar across the various denominations. Today the focus may have moved from celebrating directly the village harvest to a general celebration of thanksgiving for ‘our daily bread’ to recognising the need of others beyond. So nowadays the displays of food with inedible gourds and sheaths of wheat is far more about ‘arrangements’ than providing food.

Customs revived: Sending Valentine’s Cards

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The origins of Valentine’s Day, and its associated love missives is obscure. For a day associated with a saint, little can be found about him and although some antiquarians have associated the tradition with the Roman Lupercalia, the evidence is lacking. I am concerned with the history of sending Valentine’s cards. Revived I hear you say surely this an unbroken tradition…well no!

The origin of Valentine’s cards

The earliest Valentine’s cards appear to have developed in the middle of the eighteenth century and by 1780 to 1800 it became more popular. In Devon a writer noted:

“Valentine letters containing Love Device or the supportive and frequently highly indecorous effusions of the rustic Muse’ were sent in large numbers.”

By 1825, the London Post Office was dealing with 200,000 letters and by 1820 stationers became to make special embossed paper and by 1840s, supported no doubt by the development of the penny post, more elaborate  structures were formed: the card.  By 1870s it was widespread everywhere with cheap versions and more expensive ones being available. By 1880 half a million had been delivered.

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A real arrow for a Valentine

What caused the decline and loss of the custom was its degradation. Instead of sending pleasant love messages, anti-Valentines evolved. First these may have been saucy cards much like those still available at the seaside. However soon more unpleasant ones arose, which would insult or mock, such as that described by Hutton (1996). This would appear to be a normal card which one would one and inside would be a long paper snake with the message:

“You are a snake in the grass.”

It was sending of unpleasant messages that overtook the sending of the more romantic types. Soon after the rise in card sending, it was recorded in 1890s that:

“St Valentine’s Day…attracts very little attention nowadays in England, but across the Atlantic the saint is still honoured”

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Ludgate Illustrated News similarly in 1896 stated:

“Take the undeniable fact that St. Valentine’s Day is a day of usages almost wholly neglected.”

By 1914 it had died out as a custom.

Cards on the table…it’s the American’s fault

The first seeds of a revival appeared in the 1920s. However, a more full scale revival of sending cards came in the 1940s, thanks to the yanks so to speak. They had brought with them their custom which like Hallowe’en had survived, probably not being as degraded and soon it became very common place. Now every year we send one billion cards worldwide and the card sellers rub their hands together.

Custom demised: Newcastle Under Lyme’s Mock Mayor

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Mock mayors appear to be a common feature in English towns, indicating perhaps the joint characteristics of the English people a disregard for authority and a good sense of humour. In Staffordshire there were a number, of which that of Newcastle is the best known.

The custom was centred on the real mayor making ceremony, for as soon As soon as this had finished, the free man of the town, those not involved in government, gathered in the Market cross and chose a Mock mayor in a ceremony which resembled that which had gone on to select the real one!

Described by Joseph Mayer in 1850-1 in Proceedings of the Historical Society of Lancashire and Cheshire:

“His Mock Worship was, with all the gravity befitting such an occasion, summoned by the shrill sound of a Nanny goat’s horn, to appear before his brother town’s men and show cause why – always provided if he had any objection to that most devoutedly to be desired and that most glorious and honourable elevation to the state of Mayor of the Borough, with all the customary privileges of getting drunk, and finding himself publically as an example, &c,. Then with great stateliness of step, and severe magisterial countenance some well beloved fellow townsmen was conducted to top step, and there invested with those most  becoming and costly robes of state and that magic wand of office so capable of doing justice, on the person whose head it knocked.

The Mayor then introduces his wife to the gathering and commanded silence and the Town crier read after calling all to order with the ringing of his bell:

“O Yes, O Yes O Yes! This is to give Notice, First that by the advice of my Beadle, Mace bearers and Bum Bailiffs, I do hereby declare and proclaim that it shall be lawful for any man or set of men to put their hands into their breeches pockets if there be their purses and give and pay over to our exchequer any sum less than one hundred guineas, that shall deem to him or them fit in order that we may drink his or their jolly health in a quart of ale a –piece for which we as well our part as on yours promise him or them the distinguished honour of three huzzas, and may they live to do the like again next year.

Secondly- That we, after mature consideration, do allow any grocer – so he do it handsomely and pleasantly to his own feelings the never-to-be-appreciated and valuable privilege (which must be thought a sufficient reward unto him and his children for ever) of giving unto our revenue collectors, as much tobacco as he pleases; provided always and it is hereby declared, that the amount must not exceeded one hundredweight, but shall, at the same time be enough to serve all the old women, as well as our worthy selves.

Thirdly-that Morgan, the pipe maker, as his hereditary right, which he hereby acklodge may if he likes furnish us with saggar pipes to smoke the aforementioned tobacco with, in consideration whereof, we pledge our honour (here two squeaks from the nanny goat horn) that nobody else shall.

Fourthly-Our worthy Mayor giveth notice and commandeth that all canting, gin-drinking women he brought before him, that he may punish them with the bridle, kept by him for that purpose; and he recommendeth his brother freemen to eat plenteously of roast beef and plum pudding, to gain which they must work more and drink less; and further, that all persons found drunk in the streets after this notice will be put in the stocks for one hour and thirteen minutes.

Fifthly- and lastly- We do hereby say, as commanded by our beloved wife, for the benefit of all young maidens (after painful experience on our own part), that it is better to be married than single; and in proof of our firm conviction of the same, we do thus publically declare sign, and seal this our proclamation with a kiss. ‘

A long flourish on the Nanny-goat’s horn at the close of his performance, after which the procession had formed, and with her ladyship enthroned on a donkey, his Worship and the ‘goodlie companie’ marched through the principle streets of the town, collecting the revenue with jollification at the market cross in the evening.”

The nature of the proclamations clearly being aimed to ridicule the self importance of the Corporation, caused irritation which lead not only to the banning of the custom in 1830s but the putting of the mock mayor in the stocks.

However, the day was a big event and very popular with local school children, who would bar out their teachers or those in work claim a holiday. However, in 1833 the ceremony was revived, and in that year they were described by Mayer (1850-1) as:

“His worship is arrayed in a calf-skin tunic, fastened with a skewer around the neck, a black Staffordshire bull’s hide for a gown, and a sheepskin wig. In his dexter hand he holds his wand of office and his civic chain and glass are represented by horses’ s manes and the prison-door key, the latter emblematical of the reign of bailiffs. His worship is supported on the right hand by the Town clerk, a person of very knowing look, and quite alive to the tricks of the law, as is fully indicated by the expressive position of his left thumb. Under his other arm he holds the Charter of the Borough, which the good Burgesses, fearing parchment would not be lasting enough, have inscribed on the hide of leather. On the left side is the Bum bailiff alias Head Constable, which his truncheon about to dislodge a sweep, who in return is about to powder his Worship’s wig with his soot bag. The two figures right and left are Macebearers, as seen by the splendid cabbages which they carry; and the Bellman in his Phrygian cap and shaggy skin dress, is reading the proclamation.”

However, this revival was a final hurrah, as in the end the Municipal Reform Act of 1835 swept away all the rottenness associated with the real Mayor and the need for the custom and so it quietly died.