Tag Archives: calendar customs

Custom occasional: Jumping over PH at St Salvatore’s College, St Andrews.

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On the 29th of February 1528, 24 year old Patrick Hamilton died and entered St Andrew’s folklore. For on that day he was burned alive for his Protestant beliefs and generations of St Andrew’s University students have avoided the location of his martyrdom ever since.

On the pavement set into the cobblers inconveniently in front of the college chapel and entrance are the letters PH. To many it might be missed but to the students of the University and especially this college it is greatly avoided. For stepping on it could either result in failing your exam or losing your entire degree!

Jumping the curse

https://www.facebook.com/5f9264ee-27b5-47b2-88c5-50e2565b8ec3

Whilst I was there a student was making a beeline to the pavement and at the point of the PH made a side step and continued I asked them why:

“Well I don’t want to tempt fate I have finals this year!”

A number of views on the St Andrew’s Twitter feed note the same. A David Kaiyewu @kaynis1 tweeted that
“Better safe than sorry I think. Knw sm1 who stepped on it n didn’t pass. Superstitious or not just avoid it, it’s just one tiny spot.”
Another posting stating:
“As an undergraduate I never dared to step on the initials!”

Although Abdulmalik Ismaila@AbdulTaibah boldly stated;

I stepped on it several times and I still passed my degree.”

But why the curse?

It is said that the fire burned for  six hours and in this time Patrick Hamilton unleashed a curse to any future student who would step on the place he burned. It is thought the initials were placed  both to mark the martyrdom and make it clear where not to step!

Lifting the curse

It was evident that the custom was very much believed. However, there is a way of reversing the curse fortunately for someone who might inadvertently step on the PH . It can be removed by running into the sea on May Day near naked at dawn or running around Sailles Quad eight times. The St Andrew website wryly observes that:

“While May Dip remains an extremely popular tradition among students, I have yet to witness or hear of someone attempting the latter.”

The number of those in the waters on May Day must suggest that plenty of students must step on it – or they are crazy enough to enter the icy cold waters of the North Sea – you decide.

Once you got your degree of course you were free of the curse’s power and it is said that another tradition exists of upon receiving the degree you would immediately walk past sallies quad with the paper in hand before stepping on it.

I’ve got a degree but one day I may need one from St. Andrews so thought I’d better not risk it!

Custom contrived: Sheringham Viking Procession and Long Ship burning

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When one thinks about Viking festivals one will probably say Up Helly Aa, some may mention York’s Yorvik festival or even Flamborough – only one of which unfortunately I have had the pleasure of attending. Few might say Sheringham, a fantastic week long event, has rapidly getting a reputation to rival the others.

Taking a Viking to the place

Sheringham takes it name from Shira meaning a Viking Lord and Heim meaning home. The custom, fairly young, was started by a local artist called Colin Seal who saw a potential to both honour its heritage, raise its profile and produce some well needed money for the seaside town in a time which is traditionally very quiet and not a time we think of visiting the seaside. In an interview for North Norfolk Press he stated:.

“After Christmas, it’s a bit of a let-down…January and February are quite miserable, so it’s nice to have something to do and, even though it’s cold, people wrap up and we go ahead whatever the weather.”

Cold it was, but at least the sun was shining as we arrived. It had certainly lived up to its promise. The town was very busy with adults and children milling around awaiting the procession.

Over the week there had been all manner of Viking themed events in the museum and local Oddfellows Hall transformed into a Viking Hall from shield and axe making to talks on Viking history but it was the final day which attracted my interest – a whole day of Viking re-enacting culminating in a splendid Viking Longship burning.

Been inViking to a great event

The event now run by a carnival committee also attracts a considerable number of reenactors from Essex to Leicestershire; although the local Gorleston Wuffa group were the main group. There was said to be around 200 and they certainly looked impressive. These re-enactors were excellent looking very convincing both in dress and hair. There were beards a plenty and lots of menace. It really did feel as if the Vikings really had landed that day as they assembled on the clifftop showing off their archery and axe throwing.

However it was the torchlit procession that I was waiting for. Slowly the sun was setting glimmering across the water and people were massing along the road and on the beach.  The Vikings then began to march, both men and women, holding their torches to the side. The warm of the torches certainly helped keep the crowd warm but it was about to get a lot warmer. Behind them came their Long boat and slowly they dragged it to the beach down the ramp followed by two Vikings carrying their torches aloft and the crowd behind them. Two groups of Vikings awaited holding their torches facing each other ready to burn it as the boat was physically raised over the pebbles to its burning place.

Do Burn your boats

Soon the Viking crowd threw bits of wood and other combustibles. The 28 foot long Longboat was an impressively made piece and a shame to see it burn, with its menacing dragon head. According to the Eastern Daily Press it:

“built by West Runton carpenter Brian Howe and his son Henri.Featuring a dragon-like figurehead with mythical creatures and Norse themed decorations on the bow, the boat also includes a mast and sail, as well as more than 30 hand-painted Viking shields emblazoned with the names of the town businesses sponsoring the festival. Weighing in at around 500lb, it has been painstakingly painted over hundreds of hours by a team of volunteers led by artist Jill Brammer, Viking Festival founder Colin Seal and former TV and film set designer Chris Neville.”

It was slowly lowered by the awaiting torch bearers on the softer and flatter sand. More and more wood was laid within it and one by one the torch bearers threw their torches in. A blast of the horn went out and the crowd cheered high above beach at a safe distance as the Vikings magically bathed in its glow. Raising their axes and swords the Vikings formed a group menacingly! Cheers went out from the Vikings and slowly but surely the boat began to be engulfed in the flames. As the sea lapped at its footings the flames continued to burn until after around an hour it was nothing but burn scraps, flames leaping into the air as it lay on its side collapsing. All in all a remarkable end to an excellent day and week.

 

Custom demised: Leap Year Agricultural and garden lore

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Today is the 29th of February – a date which as you know only comes around every 4 years- intercalary year or bissextile year. Readers may be familiar with the belief regarding “Ladies Day” or “Ladies’ Privilege,” but there were other beliefs and customs associated with the day due to its rarity.

With a day made up of .25 of a day, there would be bound to be issues and the most wary of this change as always was country folk.  Weather governs agriculture and it according in a year leap the weather always changes on the friday and considering the awful windy and rainy weather of 2020 so far, I did notice that it did change accordingly…but lets see how that changes over the year.

Leaping lambs

Often the presence of an extra day appeared to knock the whole calendar both literally and folklorically out of kilter. One Scottish countryside view was regarding sheep and it was said that:

Leap year was ne’er a good sheep year”

This is reported in an 1816 edition of the Farmer’s Magazine:

“It has long been proverbial here that ‘leap year never was a good sheep year,’ an observation which this winter has been fully realized.”

Interesting in 1816 there was a considerable drop in temperature which meant that the snow quickly turned to ice and many lambs died. Whether it happened on a Friday though is unknown!

Not bean a good year

Planting crops were particular affected by Leap Day and the whole year. New plant fruits should not have been planted on the day as they only bore fruit once every four years. But the most reported was that broad beans and peas grew the wrong way in that their seed would be set in the pods in a different way to other years i.e back to frint. The reason for this appears to be that as this was the Ladies Privilege year when the idea of proposing was upside down the bean would lie the wrong way but why broad beans (and often peas) should be associated with this is unclear.

The custom even got to the ears of the great scientist Charles Darwin who in his autobiography stated who discussion of his scepticism:

“In illustration, I will give the oddest case which I have known. A gentleman (who, as I afterwards heard, is a good local botanist) wrote to me from the Eastern counties that the seed or beans of the common field-bean had this year everywhere grown on the wrong side of the pod. I wrote back, asking for further information, as I did not understand what was meant; but I did not receive any answer for a very long time. I then saw in two newspapers, one published in Kent and the other in Yorkshire, paragraphs stating that it was a most remarkable fact that “the beans this year had all grown on the wrong side.” So I thought there must be some foundation for so general a statement. Accordingly, I went to my gardener, an old Kentish man, and asked him whether he had heard anything about it, and he answered, “Oh, no, sir, it must be a mistake, for the beans grow on the wrong side only on leap-year, and this is not leap-year.” I then asked him how they grew in common years and how on leap-years, but soon found that he knew absolutely nothing of how they grew at any time, but he stuck to his belief.

After a time I heard from my first informant, who, with many apologies, said that he should not have written to me had he not heard the statement from several intelligent farmers; but that he had since spoken again to every one of them, and not one knew in the least what he had himself meant. So that here a belief—if indeed a statement with no definite idea attached to it can be called a belief—had spread over almost the whole of England without any vestige of evidence.”

With all this in mind I thought I might go ahead and plant some beans and see what happens! I’ll report back in 2024 – hopefully – at the latest.

A.C. Smith in their 1875 article from Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine on Wiltshire Weather Proverbs and Weather Fallacies they note:

“I must also call attention to the remarkable prejudice against Leap-year, a prejudice as common and as widely spread as it misunfounded. It is popularly supposed that neither children nor  domestic animals born in that year will thrive and that neither ” Leap year never was a good sheep year.”

Perhaps the last word though should be for A.C Smith’s who states:

“I need scarcely say that these are all popular delusions, founded on no reliable basis, though doubtless they do occasionally, however unfrequently, by accident, come true ; and then they attract unmerited attention, and are held up to admiring disciples as infallible weather-guides.

One thing however seems quite certain, and that is that if our observations are recorded through a long period of time, there will be found to be a balance of averages, both as regards heat and cold, and wet and dry weather: and in short the general average through the whole period will be found to be maintained.”

And with such cynicism and logic the custom must have died out!

Custom survived: Chalking on Epiphany Eve

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At the local catholic church I noticed at the mass before Twelfth night that they would be blessing chalk and handing it out to the congregation. Why is this you may ask? Well the church as does many across the Christian world – Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox continue a curious custom which has its roots deep within the superstitious world of the medieval mind.

At the chalk face

The custom appears to have originated in central Europe at the end of the middle ages and spread. When it first arrived in Britain is unclear and indeed it is equally unclear how long as a custom it has been undertaken but a cursory check online would suggest it is fairly widespread from Paisley to Plymouth.

When and actually what is done varies in some places it would be done on New Year’s Day, but more commonly it would be done on the more traditional Feast of the Epiphany. Indeed, as noted in the introduction it would take place after the Epiphany Mass when blessed chalk would be taken home for it to be done at home by either a priest or more often the father of the family.

Chalk and talk

The chalking the doors follows the following formula for the ritual; over a door would be written for 2020 for example:

20 + C+M + B + 20.

The numbers refer to the year but what do the letters refer to? Like many religious activities it has two meanings. Firstly C M and B are the initials of the first names of the Magi who visited Jesus on Twelfth Night, Caspar, Malchior, and Balthazar. But also they mean:

Christus mansionem benedicat

A Latin phrase meaning:

 “May Christ bless the house.”

The “+” signs represent the cross.

The purpose of the chalking those is to request the house is blessed by Christ and this good will is taken for the rest of the year and secondly that it shows those passing of the family’s faith and welcoming nature. Sometimes the custom is simply chalking but it some causes holy water is used and prayers said

Chalk it up

What is particularly interesting is that the custom is a widespread survival of a much more curious lost custom; that of making ‘witch marks’ or ‘apotropaic’ marks to protect the house and its occupants from evil forces. The carving of sunwheels, Marian symbols, pentagrams, etc can be found on entrances or exits of old houses across Britain. By doing so it prevented the evil spirits from entering and protect and bless the house. Chalking the door is the only survival as far as can be ascertained of this custom and as such is of considerable interest.

Traditionally the blessing is done by either a priest or the father of the family. This blessing can be performed simply by just writing the inscription and offering a short prayer, or more elaborately, including songs, prayers, processions, the burning of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water. An example below being given:

Prayer:

On entering the home,

Leader(Priest, if present, or father of the family) : Peace be to this house.
All: And to all who dwell herein.

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

All Pray: The Magnificat. During the Magnificat, the room is sprinkled with holy water and incensed. After this is completed,

All: From the east came the Magi to Bethlehem to adore the Lord; and opening their treasures they offered precious gifts: gold for the great King, incense for the true God, and myrrh in symbol of His burial.

Leader: Our Father. . .
And lead us not into temptation

All: But deliver us from evil.
Leader: All they from Saba shall come
All: Bringing gold and frankincense.
Leader: O Lord, hear my prayer.
All: And let my cry come to You.

Leader: Let us pray. O God, who by the guidance of a star didst on this day manifest Thine only-begotten Son to the Gentiles, mercifully grant that we who know Thee by faith may also attain the vision of Thy glorious majesty. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

Leader: Be enlightened, be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee—Jesus Christ born of the Virgin Mary.

All: And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light and kings in the splendor of thy rising, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon thee.

Leader: Let us pray.
Bless, + O Lord God almighty, this home, that in it there may be health, purity, the strength of victory, humility, goodness and mercy, the fulfillment of Thy law, the thanksgiving to God the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. And may this blessing remain upon this home and upon all who dwell herein. Through Christ our Lord.

All: Amen.

After the prayers of the blessing are recited, each room of the home is sprinkled with Epiphany water and incensed. The initials of the Magi are inscribed upon the doors with the blessed chalk. (The initials, C, M, B, can also be interpreted as the Latin phrase “Christus mansionem benedicat” which means “Christ bless this house”.)

Example: 20 + C + M + B + 20 

Another possible prayer to say during your Chalking:

May all who come to our home this year rejoice to find Christ living among us; and may we seek and serve, in everyone we meet, that same Jesus who is your incarnate Word, now and forever. Amen.

God of heaven and earth, you revealed your only-begotten One to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Loving God, bless this household. May we be blessed with health, goodness of heart, gentleness, and abiding in your will. We ask this through Christ our Saviour. Amen.”

It appears that the custom is in some sort of revival of interest. It is described in St Asaphs, Wales,  St Paul’s Wokingham, St Giles Matlock and St Mary’s Hardwick, Derbyshire. An account from the COE website states how the custom can fall again into abeyance often to do with the views of the incumbent:

This used to be an annual feature of the Epiphany ceremonies conducted by the Revd Brian Brindley of Holy Trinity, Reading, who was something of a dramatist in liturgical matters.

The idea was that the members of the congregation took home a blessed piece of chalk, and also a piece of black paper, on which they were asked to write the traditional names of the three Wise Men. This was taken home and attached to the front door of one’s house in order be identified with the aim of the pilgrimage of the kings.”

Interestingly, in the 1800s custom appears to have become secularised if this account is any suggestion:

“At Skipsea, in Holderness, Yorkshire, the young men gather together at twelve o’clock on New Year’s Eve, and, after blackening their faces and otherwise disguising them- selves, they pass through the village, each having a piece of chalk. With this chalk they mark the gates, doors, shutters, and waggons with the date of the new year. It is considered lucky to have one’s house so dated, and no attempt is ever made to disturb the youths in the execution of their frolic.”

Such secular exuberance appears to have died out but its religious observance continues.

Custom contrived: Chepstow Wassail and Mari Llwyd

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

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

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

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

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

No room at the inn or stable!

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

“The discussion was From inside the house

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

From the Mari Lwyd party outside

Honest men are we, who sue

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

From inside the house to end the contest

Come in, come in, and sit at ease

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

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

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

Border Morris on the border

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

A meeting of skulls

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

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

One of the organisers stating:

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

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

Custom demised: St Paul’s Day Weather predictions

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For many say the 25th January and the acknowledgement would be Burn’s Night, but country folk also identified the day, St Paul’s Day or St Annanias Day, as one of the days of the year in which the weather for the rest of the year could be predicted. The earliest version of this is a Latin verse from monks quoted  by John Brand’s 1841 Popular antiquities

“Clara dies Pauli bona tempera denotat anni;
Si nix vel pluvia, designat tempera cara;
Si fiant nebulae, pereunt animalia quaeque;
Si fiant venti, designat praelia genti.”

There are several French and English translations of these lines in to appropriate verse such as:

“If St. Paul’s day be fair and clear,
It does betide a happy year;
But if it chance to snow or rain,
Then will be dear all kind of grain;
If clouds or mists do dark the skie,
Great store of birds and beasts shall die;
And if the winds do flie aloft,
Then war shall vexe the kingdome oft.”

Or

 “If Saint Paul’s Day be faire and clear,  It doth betide a happy year; If blustery winds do blow aloft,  Then wars will trouble our realm full oft; And if it chance to snow or rain, Then will be dear all sorts of grain.”

Or

“If St Paul’s Day be fair and clear We shall have a happy year.
But if we have but wind and rain dear will be the price of grain.
If clouds and mist do mark the sky Great store of birds and beasts will die.”

Some counties have recorded local versions such as Devon:

“If St Paul’s Day be fine expect a good harvest, If it wet or showery be expect a famine. If it is wind expect a war.”

The predictive nature of the verses thus is three-fold. Firstly it predicts the weather for the year, then its affect on agriculture and then its effect on the war!  But why the 25th?  However, fair weather on St. Paul’s day predicted a prosperous year ahead. snow or rain betokened an unprofitable and clouds suggested death of cattle; and winds predicted war.

Brand again remarks:

“I do not find that any one has even hazarded a conjecture why prognostications of the weather &c for the whole year are to be drawn from the appearance of this day.”

Yet as Brand (1841) states that it is

“article of constant belief in Western Europe, during the middle ages, and even down to our own time, that the whole character of the coming year is prognosticated by the condition of the weather on this day; and this is the more singular, as the day itself was one of those to which the old prognosticators gave the character of a dies Ægyptiacus, or unlucky day.”

John Gay in his 1716 Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London, also notes:

“All superstition from thy breast repel Let credulous boys and prattling nurses How if the Festival of Paul be clear tell Plenty from liberal horn shall show the year rain When the dark skies dissolve in snow or The lab ring hind shall yoke the steer in vain roar But if the threatening winds in tempests Then War shall bathe her wasteful sword in gore He concludes Let no such vulgar tales debase thy mind and wind Nor Paul nor Swithin rule the clouds.”

The author of the excellent weatherwithouttechnology.co.uk notes that:

“This is a good guide for the first six months, but after that tails off somewhat. However, it has been known to be 90% correct and in one year, 100% correct.”

And adds a person note:

“Having religiously followed the following instructions by Uncle Offa for 15 years, the best result was 80%, and I found that up to the last week of June it is quite reliable, alas, after that it does tail off rapidly”

Should anyone want to revive this custom widely and publish predictions they state that:

“When following the weather on this day, it is necessary to observe and note down its phases hour by hour, or even every half hour throughout the day from 6am until 6pm. This is due to the belief that the hours of the day will reflect the weather month by month throughout that year. Generally such signs are dependable to the end of July, but diminish thereafter.”

This year on the 25th where I was, was fine and clear. Further north there was snow. Thus that may influence the relevance of the method its geographical scope!

Custom revived: Richmond Poor Owd Oss

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“The most exciting Christmas custom was that of the Poor Old Horse which perambulated the town from one public house to another.”

William Wise 1888

It is not very often that a revisit a custom – but the Poor Owd Oss, Old Hoss or T’Owld ‘Oss of Richmond is different enough from its southern stablemate to have a separate account – and it is also not often you come across a custom which the great legend of traditional ceremonies, customs and British culture Mr. Homer Sykes, has not attended and photographed – in conversation with him he said he hadn’t heard of it and thought ‘why have I not done that one’. So I thought I would use this post to describe my experiences with the Poor Owd Oss and the history I have gleaned of it.

Take a horse to Richmond

Richmond is a delightful old market town nestled in equally picturesque Swaledale. A place that deserves many customs – it had at least three customs which are unique to the town – the poor Owd Oss being the most curious and certainly entertaining. A town nestling in both racing and hunting territory it is therefore not surprising to see a horse based custom. One which in itself regals in the hunting pink and crops of its attendants.

The words for the song were possibly first recorded academically by Robert Bell’s  1857 Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England, under the title The Mummers’ Song; or The Poor Old Horse, As sung by the Mummers in the Neighbourhood of Richmond, Yorkshire, at the merrie time of Christmas who adds:

“‘The rustic actor who sings the following song is dressed as an old horse, and at the end of every verse the jaws are snapped in chorus.”

The song sung is as follows although not all verses were sung dependent on the time the group wanted to spend in the place!:

You gentlemen and sportsmen,
And men of courage bold,
All you that’s got a good horse,
Take care of him when he is old;
Then put him in your stable,
And keep him there so warm;
Give him good corn and hay,
Pray let him take no harm.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

Once I had my clothing
Of linsey-woolsey fine,
My tail and mane of length,
And my body it did shine;
But now I’m growing old,
And my nature does decay,
My master frowns upon me,
These words I heard him say,
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

These pretty little shoulders,
That once were plump and round,
They are decayed and rotten,
I’m afraid they are not sound.
Likewise these little nimble legs,
That have run many miles,
Over hedges, over ditches,
Over valleys, gates, and stiles.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

 I used to be kept
On the best corn and hay
That in fields could be grown,
Or in any meadows gay;
But now, alas! it’s not so,
There’s no such food at all!
I’m forced to nip the short grass
That grows beneath your wall.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

I used to be kept up,All in a stable warm,
To keep my tender body
From any cold or harm;
But now I’m turned out
In the open fields to go,
To face all kinds of weather,
The wind, cold, frost, and snow.
Poor old horse! poor old horse!

 

My hide unto the huntsman
So freely I would give,
My body to the hounds,
For I’d rather die than live:
So shoot him, whip him, strip him,
To the huntsman let him go;
For he’s neither fit to ride upon,
Nor in any team to draw.
Poor old horse! you must die!

So at each location, the group discuss ‘first three?’, ‘last two?’ In reference to what verses they recite. It is said that there were once 20 verses but the six verses above make sense, it would be difficult to see how any more verses would add anything.

During the song the ‘horse’ performs a number of actions. He even ‘nuzzles up to the huntsmen gallops and leaps, over hedges, over ditches, over valleys, gates and stiles’ and chomps on the ‘best of corn and hay’ and then forced to nibble the short grass and he is turned out to winter. In the winter he trembles with cold until he is finally beaten down by all the attendants with their whips and dies when he is neither fit to ride upon nor any teams to draw’. However, after he falls he is up again in the death and revival seen in all ‘mummer’s plays’

In the past it was accompanied by a fiddle, fife and drum, with a number of attendants, two of which were huntsmen, who carried long whips which they cracked throughout the song. In those days all of the T’owld ‘Oss party blacked their faces, which of course is the best way to disguise oneself.’

This is seen in a photo from around the turn of the century. Not so now and he does not appear to have been so since modern times. Now these attendants were in a well-dressed – possibly the best dressed – uniform as noted of hunting pink and top hats, these being adorned with holly and mistletoe.

I attended on their annual outing in and out of shops, cafes, banks and hairdressers in the town but days before they had done a prestigious circuit of villages and surrounding towns, going as far east as Malton. On the night of Christmas eve they extend their travels into the larger houses of the district being the guest of Aske Hall’s the Duke of Zetland. I was impressed by their routine but what is noticeable that unlike virtually all over such teams they do not collect for charity, indeed there is no evidence of any money collected. I enquired of this, one of the attendants explained that ‘Charity is a very personal thing and they did not feel it was right to impose a charity on people.’ They said they made it clear that any money given went to maintaining the costumes and ‘horse’ which do need to dry cleaned, tidied up and re-upholstered on occasions which is expensive.

Was is also interesting is that the group is not made of off duty Morris, as nearly all over ‘mummers’ are. Indeed, one too issue over the name ‘mummer’ although from an academic viewpoint this is what such customs would be called. Nor are the group, folk singers or folkies in general. No the team were local people who wanted to keep the custom going.

Horse has bolted?

When I turned up I thought I had missed it as a stream of people left the Town Hall and one of two of his attendants separated from the party and only partly dressed stood around drinking outside. Inside the town hall, the group were being feted by the town’s mayor with copious amounts of whisky after having entertained children and their parents in a show. Had they been around and this was their finally? I asked one of the company ‘what time do you start again?’ hopefully.

Julia Smith (1989) in Fairs, Feasts and Frolics states:

“My original informant remembered how she had been frightened when she came upon the ‘horse’ prancing through the streets when she was a child. She thought it had been connected with one family, and she was right, as I discovered when I found Mr Bill Ward. It was Bill Ward’s maternal grandfather Edward Peirse went out with the horse in the late nineteenth century and various members of the family have been involved with it over the 100 years.”

Although Julia Smith (1989) states that:

“the custom has never died out completely’

Image may contain: 5 people, people standingThough as she herself was told by Mr Ward ‘the horse may have remained stabled for short periods of time’. The Second World War was one period of rest and as Julia Smith states:

“After the second world war, when Mr Ward first became involved, he and his cousin visited a horse slaughterer to obtain a house’s skull which was boiled for them. They fitted the skull with eyes of black glass, painstakingly chipped from the bottle of old wine bottled and rounded on the inside. The skull was wired together so that the jaws could be opened and closed, while the inside of the mouth was lined with red plush velvet. The whole skull was covered with material to represent the skin….the horse…was adorned with artificial Christmas roses and poinsettias”

Horsing around again

Following the Old Oss for the day it was evident it was a welcome sight. We entered a barbers, where one of the team explained it to the hairdresser, into a packed Costa Coffee where the horse attempted to steal sandwiches and drink coffees, interacting with young children with a mixture of fear and confusion. We travelled down to the Old Station where a large crowd were entertained and terrorised. Some appeared to find it a little strange and odd! Perhaps the oddest was in Barclay’s Bank.  Here the team were rewarded with mince pies and wine by the bank manager – you don’t get that with internet banking.

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Back from the knacker’s yard!

However, this is not exactly accurate as a house or pub visiting custom it appears to have died out shortly after the second world war, in the 1950s. The reason given is the impact of TV. When the teams visited the houses with the Horse, they felt they had been intruding and that people were more interested in the TV. As a result I was informed that the head was buried for a long period in Mr Ward’s back garden.

It was not until the early 80s I believe that a local man interested in the custom, called Mick Sheenan, asked Mr Ward if he could revive the custom. No one appeared very clear on the date but I wonder if Julia Smith’s not being aware of it suggests close to the publication date of her book? It is mentioned in Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan’s 1996 Maypoles Martyrs and Mayhem:

From the week before Christmas, pubs and parties around Richmond, North Yorkshire are the main targets of the Richmond Poor Horse players. These mummers perform and sing the Poor Old Horse which describes a horse’s life and death. One man, dressed in garish mock-horse guise – complete with decorated horse skull – mimes the appropriate action.”

The horse is looked upon a bringer of luck and fertility and indeed as the group moved around people rushed up to engage with the horse, rub its head. However, the visitations have not always been popular and as is experienced by many teams visiting pubs you can find you are not as popular as you thought. In one visit a drunken squady thought it would fun to show it who was tough and headbutted it – the result blood and a broken nose. In another the horse was worse for wear when after accidentally hitting someone at a bar, it was repeated pummelled so much that they had to drag the horse out of the fight!

Horse whispers?

How old is the custom? Bell was emphatic stating that the:

The ‘old horse’ is probably of Scandinavian origin,– a reminiscence of Odin’s Sleipnor

Quentin Cooper and Paul Sulivan’s 1996 Maypoles Martyrs and Mayhem state:

“The creature dies, and then rises again; at which point you realise that you have strayed into totem-beast-as-Celtic-god territory.”

Whilst that is possible that the ‘horse’ remembers something ancient, it is more probable that the song is more contemporaneous to Bell’s time. Steve Roud in his 2005 The English Year places the custom between 1840 and the middle of the 20th century. The death and rebirth is always cited by folklorists as evidence of the ancient origins tied to the dying of the sun at winter and indeed the song does have a similarity to the seasons. However, one can argue so does all life and thus it could be a pure coincidence. I have argued that it was done during winter for pure financial reasons people were in greater need and others such as the landed gentry more generous. Were they trying to remind us of how poor they were with their dead horse? Is it possible that the custom was a simple house visiting custom as like the Mari Lwyd, a welsh horse, in which a team decided to add a song perhaps when it translated across to England? Or are the Mari Lwyd and poor old oss a coincidence? The financial impact of which meant an increase in popularity and the spread of the song. The limit of the song to Yorkshire, north Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire suggests that it had slowly spread from a point of creation – likely to be Yorkshire – and had not fully spread when it had begun dying out as Roud notes in the mid 20th century. However does it really matter? For some the custom harks back to our old pagan times some like it for the weirdness.

Richmond’s T’owd Oss ended up for the last time on Christmas Eve in the pub where he was beaten to death for the final time that year…but he’ll be back next year no doubt!

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