Tag Archives: Private events

Custom demised: Visiting St. Helen’s Wells on St. Helen’s Feast Day

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After St. Mary or Our Lady, the greatest number of Holy wells across Britain are dedicated to St. Helen. St. Helen, the mother of the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity is a complex folklore figure and authorities have placed her birth at Colchester Essex where there is a well and chapel dedicated to her. It is reported that at Rushton Spencer in Staffordshire, processions were associated with the date 18th August, St. Helen’s Feast Day. Baines notes in his 1836 History of the County of Lancashire:

“Dr. Kuerden, in the middle of the seventeenth century, describing one in the parish of Brindle, says: ‘To it the vulgar neighbouring people of the Red Letter do much resort with pretended devotion, on each year upon St. Ellin’s Day, where and when, out of a foolish ceremony, they offer, or throw into the well, pins, which, there being left, may be seen a long time after by any visitor of that fountain.’”

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The Med. Mvi Kalend notes a similar custom was he states:

“observed some years ago by the visitors of St. Helen’s well in Sefton, but more in accordance with an indent ractice than from any devotion to the saint”

At Walton, near Weatherby, Yorkshire, villagers would also visit their St. Helen’s well whose water was said to be effective as a cure for many ailments on this day. A story is told that once the infamous highwayman Swift Nick Nevison was on St. Helen’s Day, found having fallen asleep after drinking from the well, but still alluded capture after an ill attempted capture attempt by some local youths!

Hatfield’s St Helen’s well – rags tied after a service at the well although now not on St Helen’s day!

In Great Hatfield, Yorkshire, there St. Helen’s Well was restored on the 18th August in 1995 and since then on or near the feast day, a service is held at the well. Perhaps not the same as the times of old, and although no one betakes of the water it clearly has become an important part of the spiritual landscape of the community.

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Custom survived: May Dew collection, Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

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“On May-day in a fairy ring We’ve seen them, round St. Anthon’s spring, Frae grass the caller dew-drops wring, To wet their ein, And water clear as crystal spring, To synd them clean.”

Poet Robert Fergusson

Go to bed or stay up all night?

After experiencing the dizzy delights of Edinburgh’s Beltane I had to make a decision to wait a few hours or go to sleep and wake up early – the sunrise

Now the second decision how long does it take to get to the summit:

The usage of May Dew is a well-know custom across the country but the only place which appears to still entertain it is Edinburgh. An account in:

“At Edinburgh about four o’clock in the morning there is an unusual stir; and a hurrying of gay throngs through the King’s Park to Arthur’s Seat to collect the May-dew. In the course of half an hour the entire hill is a moving mass of all sorts of people. At the summit may be seen a company of bakers and other craftsmen, dressed in kilts, dancing round a maypole. On the more level part is usually an itinerant vendor of whisky, or mountain (not May) dew. These proceedings commence with the daybreak. About six o’clock the appearance of the gentry, toiling up the ascent, becomes the signal for servants to march home; for they know that they must have the house clean and everything in order earlier than usual on May-morning. About eight o’clock the fun is all over; and by nine or ten, were it not for the drunkards who are staggering towards the ‘gude town,’ no one would know that anything particular had taken place.”

Dew you know why?

Peter Opie in his 1964 article for Folklore, Proposals for a Dictionary, Arranged on Historical Principles, of English Traditional Lore did the sterling task of assembling all the information on May Dew and saw four principle themes develop:

“Used a medicament, cosmetic or telling the future. 1602 PLAT Delights for Ladies (1611 H 8 b). Some commend May-dew gathered from Fennell and Celandine, to be most excellent for sore eyes. c. 1691 AUBREY Nat. Hist. Wiltshire (1847, 73). May dewe is a very great dissolvent of many things with the sunne that will not be dissolved any other way: which putts me in mind of the rationality of the method  used by Wm. Gore, of Clapton, Esq., for his gout, which was to walke in the dewe with his shoes pounced; he found benefit by it. I told Mr. Wm. Mullens, of Shoe Lane, Chirurgion, this story, and he sayd this was the very method and way of curing that was used in Oliver Cromwell, Protectour. I808 JAMIESON Scottish Dict. Rude [Northern Scotland]. Great virtue is ascribed to May-dew. Some, who have tender children, particularly on Rude-day [3 May], spread out a cloth to catch the dew, and wet them in it. 1850 Notes & Queries Ist Ser. II 475. They say [Launceston, Corn wall] that a child who is weak in the back may be cured by drawing him over the grass wet with the morning dew. The experiment must be thrice performed, that is, on the mornings of the Ist, 2nd, and 3rd of May. 1883 BURNE Shropshire Folk-Lore 19o. I knew a little idiot boy whose mother (fancying it was weakness of the spine which prevented him from walking) took him into the fields ‘nine mornings running’ to rub his back with May-dew. She explained that the dew had in it all the ‘nature’ of the spring herbs and grasses, and that it was only to be ex pected that it should be wonderfully strengthening. 2. Used as a cosmetic. 1667 PEPYS Diary 28 May. After dinner my wife away down with Jane and W. Hewer to Woolwich, in order to a little ayre and to lie there to-night, and so to gather May-dew to-morrow morning, which Mrs. Turner hath taught her as the only thing in the world to wash her face with; and I am contented with it. 1791 Morning Post 2 May. Yesterday, being the first of May, ac cording to annual and superstitious custom, a number of persons went into the fields and bathed their faces with the dew on the grass, under the idea that it would render them beautiful. [Brand I, 1813, 184.] 1850 Notes & Queries Ist Ser. II 475. The common notion of im proving the complexion by washing the face with the early dew in the fields on the Ist of May extensively prevails in these parts [Launceston, Cornwall]. 1952 Opie Schoolchild MS (458/2/47) Girl 14 Kirkcaldy. On the first of May you wash your face in the dew and have a good complexion all year round. 3. Considered especially efficacious when gathered from hills and/ or before sunrise. 1626 BACON Sylva Sylvarum ? 781. I suppose that he who would  gather the best May-Deaw, for Medicine, should gather it from the Hills.. 4. The rite of gathering or ‘washing’ in May-dew considered auspicious….. c. 1900oo Maclagan MS (BANKS Cal. Cus. II 224). On the first day of May girls went to wash their faces in the dew and wish before sunrise while doing this they name some lad and wish in their own mind that he may become their sweetheart and they get their wish. 1952 Opie Schoolchild MS (476/9/16) Girl 14 Aberdeen. It is said to be lucky to wash your face in the early morning dew on the first of May. 1957 Opie Schoolchild MS (999a/6/3i) Girl ii Penrith. On the first of May you wash your face in the dew and you are supposed to marry the first man you meet.”

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Despite claims that it died out in 1930, there has been reference to it since. For F. Marian McNeill in 1968 notes in ‘The Silver Bough Volume Four that:

“the May dew, in a word, was the ‘holy water’ of the Druids. Those on whom it was sprinkled were assured of health and happiness and, tradition has it, where young women were concerned, of beauty as well, throughout the ensuing year. To this day, all over Scotland numbers of young girls rise before dawn on the first of May and go out to the meadow or hillside to bathe their faces in the dew.”

McNeill (1968) highlights Arthur’s Seat stating that it:

“….is a favourite meeting place, and nearby is St. Anthony’s Well, to which many used to resort to “wish-a-wish” on this auspicious day. This picturesque survival of the old pagan rites, together with the Christian service on the summit of the hill, draws hundreds of people to the site. As dawn approaches, numbers of young girls dally on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, laughing and chattering as they perform the immemorial rite, and are regarded with amused tolerance by the majority of the arrivals as they climb to the summit to join in the Sunrise Service.”

By the 1940s a service had developed on the summit. The 1961 Glasgow Herald of the 2 May  recorded:

“About 1000 people climbed Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, yesterday to take part in the twenty-first May Day sunrise service, and to follow the old tradition of washing their faces in the morning dew.”

Certainly, several photos survive showing women washing their faces taken in the 1960s, in 1963 a 1000 climbed to reach there at 5.18 am and the Scotsman shows various photos in 1965 showing girls washing their face. By the late 80s it was still attracting reporters but numbers had dwindled to hundreds. Was it lost? Undoubtedly, there would be enough people turning up to warrant a commercial exploitation as the Scotsman added in 2008 in an article if you do one thing this week:

“Pop along to the car park near the foot of Arthur’s Seat, by the Palace of Holyroodhouse, at 10am on Thursday and you’ll find therapists from Serenity in the City spa uniting new and old beauty traditions. The first ten people to arrive will get a free ILA energy spray mist gift (worth 35) – and if having a wash in the dew isn’t for you, pop along to the spa for a facial.”

Dew going up?

It would appear that at least knowledge of it still survived. I had combined my visit with attendance to the Beltane fire festival on Carlton Hill which finished at 1! Working out on the map that it would take 1 or so to walk and that dawn was around 5.30 it I set my alarm clock at 3.30!

Arthur’s seat was cloaked in darkness when I arrived but I was not alone. On the way up I noticed St Anthony’s Well marked by a small round stone basin and a large stone.  This was the site also associated with May dew as in 1773 Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson and others later noted above. I peered inside it was dry. Once I had reached the top there was a small group of around 10 people of varying ages. The skies were cloudy but then at that moment the clouds cleared and a red orb could be seen.

Dew want to?

I kept making enquiries and was met by a blank stare. The majority of people on the seat appeared to be tourists of one sort or another me included. Perhaps the custom was extinct? However, a small group of local women I met on the way up, I asked were aware of it and one said I did it last year…but wouldn’t this year as I cannot be sure if it was dew or due to a dog. It seemed an odd rationale and maybe it was tinged with some degree of regret. Did it not work?

What dew looking for? 

Then I saw a lady and her husband walking down from the peak looking towards the floor. When she brushed her hand against some grass I knew what she was up to. I rushed down and she confirmed it…we looked together and there appeared a patch which she rubbed both hands over and then across her cheeks gleefully.

A few moments later I asked another lady and she said she was planning to. I offered to help. Strangely, like everything when you are looking for it you just cannot find it. We looked, inspected, crouched, brushed…no. To be honest there isn’t much grass at the summit. Walking down a bit there was a large patch of grass and mossy…she touched it and excitedly full of glees, said ‘yes here’s some’ then at that point she plunged her hands onto it rubbed it up and down and smiling applied. Her companion, her aunt also obliged. ‘I didn’t do it last year and felt ugly all year’ she said.

All this bizarreness was overlooked by some American tourists fresh over from Utah. I explained to them and they too become eager to find some. First they tried a small patch below the trig point…one said she couldn’t be sure it was wet might be just cold. I said about the patch I’d found and quickly they popped down and jumped into the crevice where the mossy grass lay. ‘This is it…it’s wet’ and duly or should I say dewly did it all over again. Laughing and finding the whole thing amusing and who wouldn’t.

Dew drop!

On the way down I meet a fair number of people going up – most of them attendees of the Carlton Hill event – perhaps it was more tradition just to come up rather than see the dawn!

More bizarrely my eye cast to St. Anthony’s Well it was now full of water. Dew? Mysterious source? Or something emptying the water bottle? Perhaps that had become a tradition in its own right?

So if you are on Arthur’s Seat on May Morning worth a go…it might even work!

Custom demised: Fig Sunday

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Palm Sunday known locally as Fig Sunday was a minor hamlet festival. Sprays of soft gold and silver willow catkins called ‘palm’ in that part of the country, were brought indoors to decorate the houses and worn as buttonholes for churchgoing. The children of the house loved fetching in the palm …..better still they loved the old custom of eating figs on Palm Sunday. Some of the more expert cooks among the women would use these to make fig puddings for dinner.’

Flora Thompson Lark Rise to Candleford

Fig Sunday was an alternative name for Palm Sunday and it appears to have been observed as a custom across the country. It is noted that at one point it was observed in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Northampton and North Wales. In Hertfordshire it is recorded in the village of Kempton:

“It has long been the custom for the people to eat figs – keep warsel! – and make merry with their friends on Palm Sunday. More figs are sold in the shops on the few days previous to the festival than in all the year beside.”

In Buckinghamshire it is noted that:

“At Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire, the children procure figs and nearly every house has a fig- pudding.”

In Dunstable, Bedfordshire:

“For some days beforehand the shop windows of the neighbouring town are full of figs and on Palm Sunday crowds go to the top of Dunstable Downs, one of the highest points of the neighbourhood, and eat figs.”  

In the 1912 Byways in British Archaeology by Walter Johnson he observes that a:

 “Ceremony was carried out on Palm Sunday by the villagers of Avebury, Wiltshire, who mounted the famous Silbury Hill, there to eat fig cakes and drink sugar and water. The water was procured from the spring below, known as the Swallow Head.”

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The author observes that real figs were often replaced by raisins as they were in the west of England and Wessex.

Why figs?

“when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.”

The Gospel of St Mark

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Palm Sunday is so called from the custom of eating figs on that day but why them? The main claim is that on Christ’s entrance to city on Palm Sunday he cursed a fig tree for not having any fruit, a barren tree, being hungry he then cursed it. Another claim is that the practice arose from the Bible story of Zaccheus, who climbed up into a fig-tree to see Jesus.

Sadly although a few food bloggers might promote fig pudding making on the day, Fig Sunday as a community custom has long ceased.

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 revived: The Inspection of the Gibson Mausoleum Sutton

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What! I was writing this blog page on this unique demised custom…then it was revived! Good news for this is perhaps strangest of demised customs was the annual inspection of the Gibson Tomb at Sutton in Surrey held every 12th August. A record in the charities reads:

In the will of Mrs Elizabeth Gibson, spinster, dated 7 December 1786 “ I give the sum of £500 four percent Bank Annuities unto the Minister and Churchwardens (for the time being) of the said Parish of Sutton in the County of Surrey, in trust, to pay and apply the interest to the future repair of the said monument and vault as often as need or occasion shall require; and in the meantime I direct the interest of the said £500 to be laid out in the purchase of shoes and stockings for the poor people and children of the said Parish at the discretion of the Ministers and Churchwardens for the time being.

Mrs Mary Gibson by her last Will gave and bequeathed to the Minister and Churchwardens, for the time being, of the Parish of Sutton in the County of Surrey; £500 three per cent consolidated Bank Annuities on trust to be applied as follows: Five pounds to the Minister of Sutton for the time being for ever for preaching a sermon on the twelfth of August every year. Five pounds to be distributed that day at Church to the poor in every year by the Churchwardens. One pound to be paid to the Clerk of the said parish for the time being on that day in every year. Four pounds to be divided between the Churchwardens on that day in every year, on condition that the said Churchwardens do attend on the said twelfth of August in every year and survey and examine the monument and family vault of the Gibsons, and if any reparations or amendments are wanting that they do apply and certify the same to the Governors and Guardians of Christ’s Hospital, and if they should refuse or neglect to repair and amend the aforesaid monument within the limited time that the said Churchwardens of Sutton for the time being give notice of such refusal or neglect to the Governors and Guardians of the Foundling Hospital. October 1793, Giles Hatch, Rector. Richard Mugridge, Thomas Young, Churchwardens.”

Dying to have a look!

From a simple bequest developed a ceremony with much pomp and circumstance. A sermon would be preached on the day. On the allotted day of 12th August the Vicar would attend in full vestments accompanied with a choirboy who held the key upon a cushion. At the tomb would often be a small group of curious bystanders all hoping to get a look at this curious custom. The door was unlocked and the attendees poured in!

Then it was all change, the sermon was the first to go and then the new appointment of a rector of the church in 1985 appeared to cement its fate forever. He believed it was a rather ‘undignified side-show’ and ceased the annual inspection, although in keeping with the bequest the tomb was still inspected for damage except it was not publicised. The custom survived albeit in a less spectacular fashion – however it survived. Then his inheritor went further and refused point blank to inspect claiming it was unsafe- as a result the tomb has laid unopened and uninspected for over 10 years. Sadly not event Christ’s School is interested anymore and so the custom is became another victim of health and safety culture! The event even reached the national newspapers with the Independent in 1994 taking up the mantle but the rector wouldn’t budge. They noted:

“He advanced several reasons for the ban: that questions had been asked about the pagan style of the ceremony; that it was not in keeping with the living church; that Mary Gibson would not have liked it; and that it was not good for the church to be ‘involved in anything which can seem queer’.

But his arguments failed to satisfy the Gibson camp which is outraged. They appealed to the Folklore Society, to experts on British burial, and finally to the Archbishop of Canterbury. To no avail. Mr Hazelhurst continued to exclude the public.

The torch-bearer for the Mary Gibson fan club is Millicent Hamilton Bradbury, 79, an amateur historian from Hammersmith, west London, who has spent 15 years researching the family’s obscure history. ‘We were very grieved,’ she said.

Mr Hazlehurst is unrepentant. ‘We had comments from people saying if we believed in the resurrection it seemed rather funny we were paying so much attention to these coffins in the tomb. The way crowds of people came with children to look at the coffins was rather macabre, and didn’t speak to the living faith.’

However, a ray of hope has appeared for Mrs Hamilton Bradbury with the news that Mr Hazlehurst is leaving. ‘You can imagine,’ she confided gleefully, ‘we shall be getting on to the next rector at once]”

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Resurrection

It may have worked, for then perhaps out of the blue in 2015 the church returned to their inspection, Wednesday the 12th at 1pm. Large crowds had assembled outside the church. The rector and church wardens carried the bible aloft accompanied by a choir boy with the key on a cushion. A service was held around the mausoleum remembering Mary and reading her will. Then the key was inserted into the lock, the door opened and fortunately little evidence of damage was there! The custom was reborn…without the scrum of the public joining in it can be noted. It just goes to show no calendar custom can be lost forever…2015 looks like a great year for the revival!

 

Customs demised: The cream of the well

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Picture the scene, waiting at the church with fresh buckets in hand, a collection of faithful villagers. The clock strikes 12 O’clock, it’s New Year’s and the race is on….to get to the holy well to draw what was called the Cream of the Well….the most valuable water available at that time of the year…

In Northumberland, Birtley’s Crowfoot well was one such site and the water was to be kept in a bottle, and as well as giving good luck was believed to stay fresh throughout the year. Three wells at Wark on Tyne taking the first draft would allow a person to fly or pass through a keyhole! Mackinlay (1893) notes that the tradition in Scotland, where it may have been stronger, where there was considerable rivalry between farm girls and on their way they would chant:

The flower o’ the well to our houses gaes, An I’ll the bonniest lad get. (This term flower of the well I shall refer to in a moment.)

In Wales the lucky lady was called the Queen, and this may perhaps indicate some pagan association with the tradition. The Welsh had a similar tradition and the water best between 11 and 12 on New Year’s eve was sprinkled into houses. Here it was known as the crop of the well and often a box covered with mistletoe or holly was used to contain it. Unlike that of Northumberland, the water would lose its powers until the next New Years although in some sites it would turn to wine.

On the Isle Of Man, it is reported by Roeder (1904) of the quarrel between neighbours over the Cream of the well:

 “Such as were envious of their neighbour’s success, and wished to draw away their prosperity, creamed the well they drew water from. This act was believed to be particularly cacious in ensuring a rich supply of milk and butter to the one who had cows, and performed the act on the well of those who also owned cows. All the utensils used in the dairy were washed with part of the cream of the well, and the cows received the remainder to drink. It was gone through in some districts on the last night of the year.”

The tradition was also undertaken in fishing communities where a handful of grass was plucked and thrown into the pail containing the water. This appears to be related to the related custom of Flower of the well, where it is said that by throwing a flower or grass on the spring to tell others that you had got their first. The furthest south example appears to be a Alconbury in Herefordshire where the St Ann’s Well, although the date has slipped. Here it was thought to be more effective in curing eye problems in the water being drawn from the well after midnight on Twelfth Night. The spring was said to produce blue smoke on this date

The tradition does not appear to be noted further south than the Herefordshire example above and mainly in areas affected by neighbouring Celtic areas such as Wales and Scotland. Similar traditions occur at Beltaine/May day further south indicating that the 1st of January was a rather unEnglish tradition. New year was more often celebrated in the spring in the South, although even in Scotland at some wells, the cream of the well could be obtained on the first Sunday of May..however this is another tradition to discuss at a later date.

 

Customs survived: The Haxey Hood game

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Hoose agen Hoose, Toon agen Toon, if a man meets a man knock  ‘ I’m doon, but d’ont `urt’ im”,

364 days a year, one imagines people passes through the quiet village of Haxey (more correctly Westwoodside and Haxey and hence the town) quite unaware of its great day of celebration; a day which puts itself apart from early other village in the land, a day which is full of the strange and wonderful features that this blog is all about: the Hood game. The great event always falls on the 6th January (unless this is a Sunday and then it falls on the Saturday)

<b>Hood wink!<b/>

The basic premise of the event is a scrum, Rugby like, for the hood, a two-foot length of stout leather, rather than a ball, with the goal one of the village’s pubs  As such, the Hood game can be seen as a type of ‘street football’ as seen in other villages but it is much more than that, especially in colour and ceremony. Unlike any other ‘street football’ game it has obvious ‘organisers’ The Lord of the Hood and his Boggins and the Fool with his face blackenedin their red jackets and jumper s and hats festooned with feathers they make a striking sight…especially on the drab and colourless landscape of the fens in January.

Arriving around midday, the village looks strangely deserted..but if you enter one of the village’s four pubs you will find this Lord of the Hood and his Boggins  accompanied by another figure called the Fool in full song and sway and it is an evocative scene. The pub is so full it is almost impossible to move and the group sway in unison singing traditional folk songs:, Farmers Boy, John Barleycorn and Drink Old England dry as they psych themselves up with a mixture of machismo, beer and patriotism. Often the songs would end with the chant:

“Hoose agen Hoose, Toon agen Toon, if a man meets a man knock  ‘ I’m doon, but d’ont `urt’ im”,

Which means

“House against House, Town against Town, if you meet a man, knock him down but don’t hurt him.”

After feeling suitably fortified the group then proceed to an old stone, what appears to be the base of a cross or mounting block outside St Nicholas parish Church (called the Mowbray stone). Here is perhaps the strangest part of the ceremony and therefore the most evocative of the day perhaps. From the stone, from the stone Fool with his tassled custom and face blackened, makes a speech of welcome holding the Hood ahigh. He states that running and throwing with the hood are disallowed. Nothing unusual about that perhaps, but whilst giving this oration damp straw is placed beneath him and he is smoked! As the speech continues a considerable amount of smoke is generated and this  `Smoking the Fool’, is believed to be a safer version of an older ritual of  watered down version of suspending the fool over a bonfire of smoking straw. The ‘newer’ method is said to be safer, although the flames were very real in 2009 when I am sure I saw the fool burn! Clearly the fool is aware of the danger and traditionally runs away before the talk and ceremonially captured…although he still gets to kiss every girl on the way to his sacrifice.

Once the speech is over and the fool smoked the  crowd begins its chant of:

 “Hoose agen Hoose, Toon agen Toon, if a man meets a man knock  ‘ I’m doon, but d’ont `urt’ im”,

This tells everyone that the game is about to begin and a field on Upperthorpe Hill is the destination. Here any crops in the field appeared to be trampled indiscriminately although I was careful to gingerly tread over it. One wonders why this hill is chosen as it has a fantastic view across the fens to the Humber and it may have had some earlier significance.

To begin with the Lord of the Hood and his boggins doing some practice, mainly for children where the sacking versions of the hood are thrown and caught in the field for £2.

Then the leather hood is thrown up and the scum or rather sway begins….like a giant amoeba, this sway moves one way and then another but ultimately in the direction of the village and its four pubs, either of which is a goal. Along the way,as darkness sets, the sway becomes a large mass of steaming humanity guarded by the Boggins whose purpose is to prevent any property such as parked cars being enveloped and damaged in the ensuing madness. As there is no teams as such, indeed anyone visiting can join in and frequently do, it is difficult to see the motivation to get it into a said pub, but perhaps the teams do exist as bar regulars or else the glory is in being the one which gets it to the front steps. This event after much pushing and shoving, a great clouds of steam , is the ending of the game and once the landlord takes the Hood they will proudly display it until the following year. .

But what is it all about?

There are two origins of the custom, indeed both may be true…..

The ‘official story’

The official story dates from the 14th Century, is that the John and his wife Lady de Mowbray ( the Mowbray family held lands here ) whilst riding across Upperthorpe Hill when a gust of wind hit her silk riding hood. Nearby, there were thirteen farm workers working nearby who rushed to catch the hat. However, the one who caught it apparently was too shy to hand it back directly and thus gave it to a braver co-worker. Lady de Mowbray remarked that by doing so the man who caught it was behaving like a fool and the man who returned it a Lord. She appeared to like the idea and gave thirteen acres to the parish with the only stipulation being that the chase for the hood was re-enacted each year.

The pagan origin theory…

This story may have some origin in the truth but it appears to be a too convenient back story to explain some of the aspects of the story. It clearly has an older origin. Indeed, folklorists recognise some pagan traditions. Taking certain aspects…

Smoking the fool….is perhaps a vestige of a sacrifice. Certainly the kissing of girls on the way and escape are indications of this.

The Hood itself is said to be the hide of a sacrificed bull…but surely it’s the skin of the sacrificed fool! Perhaps the blackened face either a remembrance of the burnt evidence or to disguise who was the victim

Roasting the hood…..Certainly the tradition of roasting the hood soaked in ale in a spit in the fire has also has indications of sacrifice. The fact the ale is drunk by the people there .

Thirteen Boggins…witches covens are comprised of thirteen!

Link with plough Monday

The character of the fool is interesting. He is a character seen in the Plough Monday plays enacted in the midlands, and was particularly well recorded from the Gainsborough area where they were called Plough jags. Of course the main theme of these plays is resurrection and although the fool is not the one to die in these plays, but it may be significant. It is possible that at some point the plough play perhaps got amalgamated with a shrove tide football game or perhaps all plough plays were distilled from sacrifices.

Whatever its origin if you happen to be around in this region come the 6th; the Haxey Hood game is a must.

Remember

“Hoose agen Hoose, Toon agen Toon, if a man meets a man knock  ‘ I’m doon, but d’ont `urt’ im”,

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