Tag Archives: Christmas

Custom demised: Stephening at Drayton Beauchamp

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Drayton Beauchamp rectory where locals would apply for Stephening

Christmastide was a period in which begging was common, however in the majority of counties, this was focused on St Thomas’s Day, the 21st. However, in Drayton Beauchamp a custom called Stephening, named after St. Stephen’s Day, was established. It was noted by Chambers’ 1869 The Book of Days who states:

“On St. Stephen’s Day, all the inhabitants used to pay a visit to the rectory, and practically assert their right to partake of as much bread and cheese and ale as they chose at the rector’s expense.”

The custom was not popular with everyone and the account notes:

“the then rector, being a penurious old bachelor, determined to put a stop, if possible, to this rather expensive and unceremonious visit from his parishioners. Accordingly, when St. Stephen’s Day arrived, he ordered his housekeeper not to open the window-shutters, or unlock the doors of the house, and to remain perfectly silent and motionless whenever any person was heard approaching. At the usual time the parishioners began to cluster about the house. They knocked first at one door, then at the other, then tried to open them, and on finding them fastened, they called aloud for admittance. No voice replied. No movement was heard within. ‘Surely the rector and his house-keeper must both be dead!’ exclaimed several voices at once, and a general awe pervaded the whole group. Eyes were then applied to the key-holes, and to every crevice in the window-shutters, when the rector was seen beckoning his old terrified housekeeper to sit still and silent. A simultaneous shout convinced him that his design was under-stood. Still he consoled himself with the hope that his larder and his cellar were secure, as the house could not be entered. But his hope was speedily dissipated. Ladders were reared against the roof, tiles were hastily thrown off, half-a-dozen sturdy young men entered, rushed down the stairs, and threw open both the outer-doors. In a trice, a hundred or more unwelcome visitors rushed into the house, and began unceremoniously to help themselves to such fare as the larder and cellar afforded; for no special stores having been provided for the occasion, there was not half enough bread and cheese for such a multitude. To the rector and his housekeeper, that festival was converted into the most rigid fast-day they had ever observed.”

It was understandably that providing food and drink would cause issues, mainly of drunkenness and rioting, and so in the 1800s, the Reverend Basil Wood rather than getting away with it converted it into an annual sum of money. This was the final death kneel for as the population of the population grew he felt it was more difficult to uphold. Thus in 1827 he abolished it although for many years people would still try to attempt to gain food. In Chambers’ 1869 The Book of Days again he notes:

“In the year 1834, the commissioners appointed to inquire concerning charities, made an investigation into this custom, and several of the inhabitants of Drayton gave evidence on the occasion, but nothing was elicited to shew its origin or duration, nor was any legal proof advanced skewing that the rector was bound to comply with such a demand.”

The only relics of the custom are the rectory and three 17th century pewter plates with a pewter flagon with lid said to have been used for the ceremony. Despite the quote at the start, the sun might be still shining but Stephening has gone! The question is did it happen any where else?

 

Custom revived: Ripon’s Candlemas Festival of Lights

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

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

En-lightening origin

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

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Candle in the wind

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

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

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

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The full wax

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

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

Custom demised: The Vessel or Wassail Cup

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The demise of this custom shows how easily common traditions can be lost. So popular was the custom that it had a place in the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica:

“What is popularly known as wassailing was the custom of trimming with ribbons and sprigs of rosemary a bowl which was carried round the streets by young girls singing carols at Christmas and the New Year. This ancient custom still survives here and there, especially in Yorkshire, where the bowl is known as `the vessel cup,’ and is made of holly and evergreens, inside which are placed one or two dolls trimmed with ribbons. The cup is borne on a stick by children who go from house to house singing Christmas carols.”

In the 1800s up to around 1920s, local children around the midlands and northern England, County Durham, Lancashire, and particularly Yorkshire, would enact a curious custom like a mix between carol singing and May Dolls. The custom had many names, often localised Wesley Bob, a Wassail Bob, a Vessel Cup, a Pretty Box or a Milly Box. When the custom was done varied. Visitation days varied accounts recorded in Yorkshire emphasis this variation in Thorpe Hesley it began at Christmas Eve and went on for two to three days. Whereas Hoyland Common only on Christmas day morning. West Melton and Hemingfield it was Boxing Day and Rawmarsh it was New Year’s Day. Generally though the tradition would begin at Advent or more often St. Thomas’s Day, although in some areas it was November, suggesting there is nothing new in the early celebration of Christmas!

How the custom was organized differed from place to place. Sometimes it was a private form of begging and at others organized by the church. The basic approach was as follows: two girls would be the ‘vessel maids’ and they carried a box, decorated with evergreens, often fruit and spices, from home to home, covered in a white cloth. At the people’s homes, the girls would sing a carol and solicit the homeowner for some money, usually a penny, to reveal what was under the sheet. This was a scene of the Holy Family.

Clement Miles in his Christmas in Ritual and Tradition notes that:

“At Gilmorton, Leicestershire, a friend of the present writer remembers that the children used to carry round what they called a “Christmas Vase,” an open box without lid in which lay three dolls side by side, with oranges and sprigs of evergreen. Some people regarded these as images of the Virgin the Christ Child and Joseph.”

Wassail song

As Wright, in their A Yorkshire Wassail Box in Folklore (1906) notes the song sung varied. Sometimes it was the familiar ‘God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen’ followed by:

God bless the master of this house,

Likewise the mistress too,

And all your pretty children

Around your table go.

For it is the time of year

When we travel far nad near;

So God bless you and send you

A Happy New Year.

We have a little purse,

It is made of leather skin,

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Our boots are very old,

And our clothes are very thin;

We’re tired out with wandering around,

And if we cannot sing,

If you only spare a copper

To line the purse within.

So God prosper you and I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”

At Normanton the following could be heard:

“Here we come a–wessailing (sic), among the leaves so green.

And here we come a—wandering, so fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,

And to you your wassail too,

And God send you a Happy New Year, a New Year!

And God send you a Happy New Year!

“We are not daily beggars, that beg from door to door,

But we are neighbour’s children, that you have seen before.

Love and joy come to you

I have a little purse lined with stretching leather skin,

And I want a little of your money to link it well within.

Love and joy come come to you.”

Then the box contents were revealed!

A description of the box from the Yorkshire village of Wheatcroft described it as follows:

“The dolls in it have been carried round for twenty–five years.  The box measures 111/4 in. x 7 1/2 in. by 3 in. deep.  It has a lid, but this is not always the case, though the contents of a box are always covered. The box contains besides the two dolls (the large of which is dressed in red), paper flowers, a lemon, holly and mistletoe, a purse, and an artificial orange and an artificial apple, both the artificial fruits containing sweets.  If all the fruits are real, it is necessary to put in a bag of sweets.  The purse should have a hole in it… S.A.’s mother says that the dolls represent the Virgin and Child, and that the box should be made of “parch–board” and lined with moss and ivy. 

Curious origins

Bad luck was associated with the vessel cup if the householder denied it or if it did not arrive. Duncan (1925) in his Second book of carols notes a saying:

“As unhappy as the man who has seen no Advent Images.”

Thistleton Dyer in his British Popular Customs,

“The household visited by the party were allowed to take from these decorations a leaf or flower, which was carefully preserved as a sovereign remedy for toothache.”

All these associations perhaps link it to a possible pagan origin. Certainly, Wright (1906) believed it was associated with pre-Christian deity Dionysius. For as a baby he was placed in a cradle and surrounded by flowers, although it is more likely the biblical crib story derives from that. He also notes that the name vessel came from ship and that the effigy was the boy Sceaf (afterwards changed to Jesus) as a representation of the birth of a new year. Support for this comes from author such as Chaucer who does record the belief that New Year “like a child, came over the sea in a ship.” However it is more likely that it comes from wassail as in was hael ‘good health’.

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Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren

Death of the custom

When the custom died out is unclear but certainly by the 19th century it was coming under some criticism being described as ‘impious,’ being celebrated by ‘the lowest dregs of humanity,’ and ‘the singing so wretched caterwauling.’

Interesting like many customs it appears in the early 20th century to have gone through a transformation. Dunstan in his West Riding Vessel Cup or Wassail Song states the song is:

“as now generally sung by children decked and carrying evergreens and sometimes having blackened faces.”

And no actual cup! Thomas et al (1926) in their Advent Images and Lucy Green, continues on the theme, the Lucy green is a small child dressed in evergreen branches and called it “Lucy Green.” And another called “Turkey Claw Chori” where a turkey claw as a badge of office for those soliciting money. Even the song changed ‘Seven Joys of Mary’ but sung to the tune of ‘God rest you merry.’ However, a search on the internet shows people are keen to revive and presenting some stateside Catholics have revived it…will it ever return here…time will tell.

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Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren

 

Custom demised: Bringing in the Yule Log

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“Come, bring with a noise,

My merry, merry boys,

The Christmas log to the firing;

While my good dame, she
Bids ye all be free,

And drink to your heart’s desiring.

With the last year’s brand
Light the new block, and

For good success in his spending,

On your Psaltries play,
That sweet luck may

Come while the log is tending.”

Robert Herrick 1591-1674

In the cold depths of winter nothing is heartening that a blazing fire ranging in the hearth. So important was the provision of this vital winter fuel that a whole custom arose around it – the bringing in the Yule log – a tradition with confusing origins as well. Today ask someone in the UK what a Yule log is and they will direct you to a cylindrical chocolate cake with or without a plastic Robin, but go back over 100 years ago and most people would have been familiar with it. An account from Belford in Northumberland summarises it well:

“the lord of the manor sends round to every house, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, the Yule Logs—­four or five large logs—­to be burnt on Christmas Eve and Day.  This old custom has always, I am told, been kept up here.”

The collection and bringing in was all part of the ritual of course. In Wootton Wawen, Warwickshire, the Yule block was drawn into the house by a horse on Christmas Eve. This is one of the earliest accounts in England when a Sarah Chandler remembered:

“Beginning with Christmas Eve in the year 1759 my third year, I perfectly remember on that day being carried by Thomas, an old man servant to my grandmothers…the object of my visit on that particular day was to see the Yule block drawn to the house by horse, as a foundation for the fire on Christmas Day and according to the superstition of those times for twelve days following, as the said Block was not to be entirely reduc’d to ashes till that time had passed by.”

John Udal (1922) in his work on Dorset Folklore noted:

“It was customary in many farmhouses on Christmas Eve for a large block of wood to be brought into the kitchen, and an immense fire having been made up, the farm labourers would come around and sit around it, or as many as were able would crowd into the chimney corner, and drink beer and cider. This was what was usually called the Christmas brown.”

Ella Mary Leather (1912) in The Folklore of Herefordshire records:

“lasted for twelve days, and no work was done.  All houses were, and are now, decorated with sprigs of holly and ivy, which must not be brought in until Christmas Eve.  A Yule log, as large as the open hearth could accommodate, was brought into the kitchen of each farmhouse, and smaller ones were used in the cottages.  W——­ P——­ said he had seen a tree drawn into the kitchen at Kingstone Grange years ago by two cart horses; when it had been consumed a small portion was carefully kept to be used for lighting next year’s log.  ’Mother always kept it very carefully; she said it was lucky, and kept the house from fire and from lightning.’  It seems to have been the general practice to light it on Christmas Eve.”

In the West Riding, while the log blazed cheerfully, the people quaffed their ale and chanted:

“Yule!  Yule! a pack of new cards and a Christmas stool!”

In Shropshire, where it was called the brand or brund and could be oak, holly, yew or even crab tree and rollers and levers would be used to set it into the hearth of the fireplace.  Evidence for the force needed to drag this weighty log could apparently be seen in the rutted floor stones of Vesson’s farm at Habberley in 1895.

Yule meet again

In Gutch’s 1912 County Folk-lore of East Riding of Yorkshire notes an interesting practice recorded at Filey where besides the Yule log a tall Yule candle was lit on the same evening or in some cases holes bored in it to produce flames, this was the case in 1900 in Herefordshire where the bron or brund was bored twice in the middle so that flames would come out earning the name Christmas Candle.

Keep the fires burning

County Folk-lore of Lincolnshire by Mrs. Gutch and Mabel Peacock (1908) describes at Clee, that:

 “when Christmas Eve has come the Yule cake is duly cut and the Yule log lit, and I know of some even middle-class houses where the new log must always rest upon and be lighted by the old one, a small portion of which has been carefully stored away to preserve a continuity of light and heat.”

The log was lit on Christmas Eve and kept a blaze through the twelve days of Christmas and it was customarily said that as it burned the servants were always provided with ale. This would appear to be a survival of the tradition of having these days as holidays. Tony Deane and Tony Shaw (2003) in Folklore of Cornwall notes that it was also called the mock. They add that children were allowed to stay up late on Christmas Eve watching the flames and toasting with drinks the mock until recently, although they do not give further details.

Touch wood for luck

It was said that a fragment of the log is occasionally saved, and put under a bed, as noted by Gutch (1901) in her County Folklore of North Riding of Yorkshire, where at Whitby it remained till next Christmas, under the bed. It was said to secure the house from fire; a small piece of it thrown into a fire occurring at the house of a neighbour, will quell the raging flame.  The embers were also carefully tended and were must not be thrown out “for fear of throwing them in Our Saviour’s face.” According to Charlotte Burne (1883)  in Shropshire folklore they were:

“were raked up to it every night, and it was carefully tended that it might not go out during the whole season, during which time no light might either be struck, given, or borrowed.”

This tradition of the log’s power has been used to suggest a pre-Christian origin to the tradition. Dean and Shaw particularly note that in Cornwall it often had the image of a man carved upon it thought done to prevent witchcraft. Some have suggested this had to do with human sacrifice. However, there is no evidence for any use before the 1700s in Britain and no evidence before Christianity either.

Wooden be found today!

The custom’s decline is an interesting example of how socio-economic changes cause customs to decline. Clearly a victim of the Great War as accounts appear to disappear or rather not recorded subsequent. This is because of the changes that happened. The the large estates with their infinite staff became to decline, numbers of staff fell and the Manor house began to lose its position as the community focus. Furthermore as heating became more dependent on mains supply, many places did not need it and that combined with the disappearance of the horse as a work animal might have been the final nail. Yet interestingly, this is one of the few customs which translated across to the Americas and thrives there, probably because parts of the continent are so cold and snow bound they need they. A notable example can he read here but in the main they are either associated with boarding houses or hotels. Something ripe for a revival in Britain I feel!

 

 

Custom demised: Taking down Christmas decorations on Candlemas Eve

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What? Surely it’s Twelfth Night or Twelfth Day. Indeed, whilst that debate rages about….and some people take them down on Boxing Day I hear. But the real debate is Twelfth Night or Candlemas?.

This debate certainly is quite germane with me, who sits here, composing this post on the 25th January in the shadow of a fully decorated Christmas tree! Why I’ll explain in a minute. However, when discussing the fact I still had the tree up on Plough Monday, Frank a folklorist and local Historian said ‘You’ll get back luck then’ to which I replied with the following fact from what I had discovered researching customs, that Christmas decorations were to be burnt at Candlemas north of the Trent of Nottingham, where it is said that candles must be thrown away.

He was apparently unaware of the custom, but delving into an array of customs it appears that the Northerners were not the only ones exempt! Further research suggests that it is a custom which has waxed and then waned over the centuries to such a point that no-one would be aware of it largely. Certainly in the 17th century the custom prevailed as noted by the poem ‘Ceremony upon Christmas Eve’ written by Robert Herrick in 1648. He records:

“Down with the rosemary, and so,

Down with the baies, and mistletoe

Down with the holly, ivie and all,

Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall,

That so the superstitious find

No one least branch there left behind;

For look, how many leaves there be

Neglected, there (maids trust to me)

So many goblins you shall see.”

 

The poem was adapted by Edgar Pittman into Candlemas Eve Carol and similarly the carol Farewell to Christmas notes:

“Here have I dwelled with more & less
From Hallowtide till Candlemas,
And now must I from your hens pass;
Now have good day”

Herrick in his Upon Candlemas Day poem also wrote:

“End now the white loaf and the pie, and let all sports with Christmas die.”

Despite this the custom is largely forgot. This is surprising considering how widespread the observance was.  Raven (1977) records it in Staffordshire:

“in the mid-nineteenth century, the Christmas decorations used at Stone Mill were taken to the cowsheds and fed to the cattle to prevent them ‘casting’ their calves.”

Palmer (1976) noted that this was the tradition too in Warwickshire, as was it in Worcestershire:

“It is unlucky to keep Christmas holly about the house after Candlemas Day, as the Evil One will then come himself and pull it down.”

The custom would indeed appear to be commonly encountered in the west far more than in the North.  In Burne’s () Shropshire, she was told by a servant that holly and ivy was taken down on Candlemas Eve so as to put snow-drops in their place.  In 1864 it is also recorded in Suffolk:

“If every scrap of Christmas decoration is not removed from the church before Candlemas-day there will be a death within a year in the family occupying the pew where a leaf or berry is left.”

This latter belief still associates with our modern date. Udal (1922) in his Dorsetshire folklore records too:

 “Candlemas Day or Eve – was the great occasion in Dorsetshire, as in other counties, when all Christmas decorations, such as holy, mistletoe, and evergreens, should be taken down…but care should be taken not to throw away as ordinary rubbish, but should entirely destroyed in the fire. If otherwise, it portends death or misfortune to some one of the household before another year is out.”

Yet despite this Hardy’s poem Burning the Holly still favours Twelfth Night but its date of 1898 agrees with Roud (2004) that opinion was changing by the turn of the 20th century. However even in the United States, in Williamsburg,  a 18th century poem records:

“When New Year’s Day is past and gone;
Christmas is with some people done;
But further some will it extend,
And at Twelfth Day their Christmas end.
Some people stretch it further yet,
At Candlemas they finish it.
The gentry carry it further still
And finish it just when they will;
They drink good wine and eat good cheer
And keep their Christmas all the year.”

 It makes good sense as Candlemas was the Feast of the Purification, the last feast which signified the baby Jesus’s acceptance at the Temple. Being no longer a baby in a Manger but a baptised child. Furthermore as this was a lean time of the year agriculturally it would have little impact. It may also be significant to note that Candlemas Eve was and is Imbolc, the old Pagan celebration and perhaps taking down before may have been a way of distancing from the pagan past.

 Why the change of date?

Is it possible that the authorities wanting to discourage the festivities which associated with the date, especially the Lord of Misrule, established this date as the one when Christmas officially finished and everyone went back to work, especially as in the 1800s communities moved from largely agricultural to industrial.

 Burn the lot!

The majority of correspondent’s state that these decorations should then be burnt and if not bad luck would befall anyone who did not. Roud (2004) notes that there is no geographical spread of the custom and that there was more likely to be disagreement due to changing attitudes over time. He refers to records burning the decorations recorded as far back as the eleventh century but the earliest anti-burning being from 1866.  I’m quite sure the family would want me to burn the decorations though, especially the large ‘plastic’ tree. Burning would bring more than bad luck….but a deadly cocktail of chemicals

Well perhaps it’s not quite a demised custom, I inadvertently have done so and so I gather do some churches, mainly Catholic, although I have not heard of any from Britain.

Custom survived: The Beeston Carollers

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Beeston Carols (6)A door step challenge

I was only relating how it had been many years since I have heard a group of carol singers at the doorstep. Whilst it is true that carol singing is still a common custom, often done across the advent period, in churches; schools, market squares it is rarely down in the streets and doorsteps, Beeston still upholds the custom. Also whilst many carol services sing the nationwide familiar carols, in some parts of the country the carols are local variants, South Yorkshire being a stronghold.

Yorkshire tradition

Oddly, Beeston a small town now part of the Nottingham conurbation has its own tradition of unique carols said to have been passed down from generation to generation from Yorkshire weavers who settled here in the 1800s. The Beeston Chilwell road Methodist carol choir have continued the tradition since 1870, at first as a male only choir and then after First World War including women.  Despite being part of the so-called Yorkshire carol tradition, recent research has revealed the carols to originate from Leicestershire, Derbyshire as well as Yorkshire. Indeed, one of these carols, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, is the most local being written by William Matthews a Nottingham composer in c.1820. Originally there were probably a number of groups by the 1900s there were apparently two that of the Beeston Methodist and a private group ran by Bill Spray. Furthermore, they would probably only sing on Christmas Eve, done through the night as a Bill Spray recalls in the 1900s from an article on the custom:

They didn’t start to 8 o’clock and they went on to 2 in the morning. I used to go with my father and my brother and sister who were both older. Mother stayed at home and finished off the Christmas baking. Some of the singing was done in the streets, but in the main it was at the big houses, of which there were very many in Beeston at the time. We usually sang at least two carols at every place we visited. After midnight we would probably do no more knocking on doors, but one of our members would go out the next morning to the houses which we hadn’t collected. One feature was that immediately after midnight we always sang Christian’s Awake. We always finished in Beeston square and always sang an anthem. The words were from the Book of Isaah Behold the Virgin shall conceive and bear a son…there were about 20 or 30 of us.”                                                                                                                      

It is interesting that in later years the proclamation of the Gospel was more important than collecting money, today perhaps there has been a reversal, where money is collected for charity. In the days of Bill Spray the money collected was for themselves noting:

“My father and grandfather belonged to a carol choir in Beeston called the Combined Choir and they used to go out mainly to the large houses and they collected for themselves…In those days wages were very, very low. There was no paid holiday. So when Christmas was coming they knew they would lose. They would have a short week for Christmas week. And so they used to go out and collect their poor wages and compensate for the lack of any wage over the Christmas period.”

Interestingly, despite the black out, the carollers continued during World War II although they did make note of the locations of all the air raid shelters. Again as in the World War I, the male section was reduced but older men were utilized to ‘balance the harmonies’.

Beeston Carols (12)

Hark..mine’s a pint!

One of the main fixtures of the carol season is their singing in a local pub, currently the Crown. This may seem an unusual place for a carol service, but despite a few bemused looks and it was only a very few, the idea appeared to be a popular one. I arrived there with one minute to go to the starting time and with a whisper around about the choice of carol, the pub erupted in song. An incredible melodic sound filled the pub as the majority of people there joined in. Fundamental to this performance was the choir master who sat central to the group and like a conductor of a grand orchestra was fully enraptured by the experience and his arms flailed about with great gusto. At the start of each carol, he produced a rough piece of paper with the running order and a harmonica to set the pitch and sending the message around often like a strange code with special words being used for the arrangements. In some cases the names were very cryptic, but the carols would be well known if he tunes not, as I explain below. The group were a mix of different ages and voices. One main said he was a new comer and then related he had been in the group since the 1990s such perhaps is the strength of the choir’s continuity. With some announcements came comments such as Palmer’s Street anthem for popular carols relating the fact that every household would want this to be song down the street. Indeed as mentioned earlier the choir’s main focus is still to travel the streets. I was informed that the singing in pubs was a fairly recent invention, starting only a few years since in another pub, the Hop-pole, as a warmer alternative to the street walks.

Beeston Carols (2)

A local remix

“Although many of the carols of today were sung in the past for example Hark the Herald Angels sing and While Shepherds watched different tunes were used.                            

Nothing is new. Modern popular music often steals older baselines or instrumental tracks, fuse new songs onto them, and make new tracks, others re-arrange popular songs in a remix fashion. This in a way describes many of the well known carols song by the choir. On paper we all know ‘Whilst Shepherds watch’ or ‘Hark the Herald angels’ but in the dulcet voices of the choir local variants were song. Like some obscure Northern soul track, such carols are not called by their well known name but terms such as Liverpool or in this case Cranbrook, named after the Canterbury author of the tune. In the case of ‘While shepherds..”, it is sung more enjoyably, to the tune of the well known ‘Ilkley Moor bar tat’, although it was this popular folk tune which stole the carol’s tune not vice versa. There are at least six versions of this carol by this carol, prompting one listening to comment that’s not the proper tune and miss the unique nature of the custom. Interestingly, of these carols, as the Chilwell Road Methodist website notes, were only transcribed as late as between 1976 and 1980 by a Bert and Andrew Taylor stating, before hand they were learnt by heart from generation to generation:

“In order to preserve for posterity the traditional tunes and harmonies sung by the Choir …, we have now set down rationalised versions.”

What makes such local variants an enjoyable experience is the use of the Gallery style of singing, named after where the songs were song in the church and often thought to be a bit too earthy and rough around the edges for church. In these carols different parts of the choir, particularly the men and women took different sections of the carol to an anthemic result. Immersed in the centre of this wall of sound this made the performances unforgettable.

Keeping them on the streets

The website also notes that by the late 1980s, a regular pattern had been established. The Carol Choir visited local Care and Nursing Homes on Sunday afternoons during December, sang one Saturday lunchtime in Beeston Square or High Road, and then spent three evenings (including Christmas Eve) singing around the streets, covering an area between Wollaton Road, Beeston, and Grove Avenue, Chilwell. I had planned to join the choir again for one of their street walks but sadly the weather and previous engagements prevented me…assuming the choir went out during the horrendous weather! Hopefully another year I’ll manage it. copyright Pixyled publications

Custom revived: The Ripley Guisers

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The east midlands are a very interesting area for folk plays as I have discussed before. What is particularly interesting is the pre-Christmas and post-Christmas divide. In Nottingham-Lincolnshire pre-Christmas mummer’s plays do not appear to exist, such activity being restricted to Plough Monday, but just over the Derbyshire border they do. Is this to do with the east west Dane law divide? One team which bridges that divide between Nottinghamshire (Selston) and Derbyshire (Ripley) is the Hammersmith Play performed by the Ripley Morris or Ripley Guisers, a Hero-Combat style of play.

Once a dying custom

In a strange parallel to the plot of the play, Mummer’s play are a success story custom wise. This is a reverse compared to when George Long, writing in 1930 who states that the joint attractions of the wireless and theatre were too distracting for the younger folk. The author references some locations where mummer’s plays were or at time of writing were once found, but he does not reference Derbyshire. Indeed pick up any nationwide published survey and the only mention of Mummer’s plays is generally the well known Marshfield team and little else. It is true that this team is one of the oldest, other counties have long traditions and revivals. In Derbyshire there appears to be three permanent teams: Glossop, Winster and Ripley.  In the area the name Guizers or often Bull Guisers is used. The term Guiser deriving from disguise and the term is also in currency to describe both the characters of nearby Yorkshire Cakin Neet (descendent of Hallowe’en’s trick or treat) or those characters which appear in Up-Helly–Ah and New Year’s eve in Allendale.  The term bull again is interesting considering my opening statement and suggests a hybrid from the term Plough Bullocks a term used in Notts and Lincs for Plough Monday teams.

Not keeping mum

On Friday night, the team go out for three consecutive Fridays in the last three weeks of December, they were in their home patch of Ripley. The weather was wild, windy and wet, perfect perhaps to cast one’s mind back to times gone. Turning up, I just nipped to the loo, when I heard the sound of a ringing handbell and rushing out, fortunately I was washing my hands at the time, I was confronted by the image of a man covered in a suit of colourful ribbons. He was the introducer, and introduced the characters: King George, Turkish Knight, Beelzebub. The crowd in this bijou pub clearly enjoyed the experience with its various in jokes and comic asides, clearly indicating the team enjoyed ths annual jaunt, the play continues to the customary ressurection. As soon as they appeared, they disappeared and not a drop was drunk going against the view of many the play was just an excuse for drinking!

A local revival

Poor jokes aside..and there was another topical joke about ash trees having a bigger bark that bite..what is pleasing to hear is that unlike some other revivals the play used is very local coming from a village to the north called Hammersmith. Before its revival, it was last performed in 1904, fortunately in 1983, the Ripley Morris Men met Percy Cook, a 91 year, who had performed the play when a young boy. He told them the script with consisted of 5 or 6 characters and two songs. The characters, King George, Beelzebub, The Doctor (or t’Doctor), the Turkish knight and the introducer were familiar characters, but in this play was …a Policeman, who stops the fight at the end! Interestingly, there familiar man in drag is absent and Beelzebub is the blood relation to the Turkish Knight.

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There is record that the play was still being performed in the early 70s but whether this was to do with the Ripley Morris men or not is unclear. Interestingly, there are also records of play being played in Riddings and Somercotes, areas where the modern play is toured. That in Somercotes was performed in the early 1940s, Ridding by children into the 1970s. The Morris team was established in 1924, but fell into abeyance in the 1950s to be revived in 1981, so it seems unlikely to have been in this team. The present team, which has had obvious changes in the 30 years had provided 1,100 performances and raised £28,000 for the local hospital which is a considerable feat. The end song was particularly interesting, I have been told that part of it comes from a local playground chant from Hammersmith and part from a music box, and both came from Percy Cook  rather than a fusion of two sections one from the Hammersmith play and the other from Selston where the Guisers also circuit, which I had read elsewhere. It goes

“one stormy night in winter, the snow was falling pretty hard, I went to get some flea powder for the dogs in my backyard. I met a married maiden whose dark eyes were green, and when I noticed her wash her dirty face her hands smelled of ice cream…. You should have seen her eat brown bread, you should have seen her stand on her head. You should have seen her drop down dead in our backyard last night…”

What on earth, the song was about I cannot be sure, but I was told that it was amalgation of the Hammersmith and Selston script and that they team played around until they cound music that matched. It sounded unique, I haven’t heard anything similar and it sounded almost musical hall like. I continued my tour with the team and later arrived at the Marquis of Ormonde. I was not a 100% sure they would be there, so I thought I’d check. No idea was the reply! Looking around I was bemused that this pub thick with parties dinning on their work’s Christmas dinners would soon be subjected to a very strange scene indeed. Sure enough, in came the bell man pushing through the queue for their Christmas carvery was greeted with an odd mixture of humour, a reference to Avatar, confused faces and in some cases indifference, as if that happens every day, there’s no impressing some folks. The team is a very professional and hard working, and were word perfect if one of their characters did miss a cue and arrived early. In places I observed them at, they were very well received, although apparently the week before they were thrown out of one pub on their circuit. All in all it’s great to see this tradition continuing into its 30th year long may they continue but as Long (1930) states:

“if this book, by increasing interest in the subject, encourages more young fellows to give their scanty leisure to learn their parts.”

I too would be glad if the blog did!

thanks to Graham Clarke for the corrections

copyright Pixyled publications