Tag Archives: traditions

Custom transcribed: Stamford Hill Purim, London

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“Why isnt this better known? After all Chinese New Year is a big event and we are the only photographers here.”

So said a fellow photographer as we watched a man in tradition black and white Hasidic or Haredi dress (typified by long black coat and large fur hat) escort three bears on scooters, who were trying to dodge another dressed as a blue wolf! This was Purim, or rather its most public tradition associated with the Jewish festival.

Really considering there has been a Hebrew community possibly continually from the 1780s when Italian Jew Moses Vita Montefiore famously settled there. This notwithstanding the wholesale influx of the Hasidic community was not established until the 1940s. From then on the curious custom has become more and more evident and now over 30,000 Jews reside in around 19 streets which for 24 hours or so become a focus of so much attention.

I was first made aware of the custom in Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan’s 1994 Maypoles, Martyrs and Mayhem and had always been keen to track it down. The authors state:

“Purim takes place mainly behind closed doors. But because part of the ritual involves dressing in outlandish attire, celebrants can be seen doing the shopping or nipping to the Post Office dressed as clowns, Godzilla or Bambi”

It has took me over 20 years to track it down, probably put off by the ‘behind closed doors’ ( the authors state attending could be tricky) making me think it would be unlikely to see the curious ritual…however I was wrong. Within arriving at Stamford Hill darting across the road in front of me were two clowns and panda!

It’s in the book…

Book of Esther that is. That tells us that a man called Haman in Persia can convinced the King Ahasuerus to murder the Empire’s Jewish community. Fortunately, the King who was married to a Jewish woman by the name of Esther foiled the plot and Haman was hung. The name itself being derived from the word for lots, relating to the lots drawn in preparation of the planned massacre.

There are a number of different customs and traditions associated the day, the exploration of which would warrant another blog post, after all I’ve never done one just on ‘Christmas’ or ‘Easter’ Purim is one of those multifaceted traditions. No it’s the fancy dress I am interested in here.

But why the fancy dress? Purim also falls in the Jewish month of Adar, usually March but sometimes February, who is traditionally it is said “when Adar begins, joy should be increased’. How this fits into fancy dress I still don’t understand unless the persecuted Jews hid from their oppressor by disguise.

One cannot help draw comparisons to other Christian and possibly pre-Christian traditions of disguising especially at the turning of the year. Did Purim originate as a spring festival, a recognised turning of the world when spirit were abroad and disguise helped prevent them dragging you back?

Purim down!

Even the weather could not discourage the attendees. As the rain beat down this Purim, umbrellas were out but colourful costumes were not. In the spate of an hour wandering around I saw

The costumes could be divided into a number of categories:

Traditional – there were girls dressed as Esther, boys as Arabs some on Camels, some even smoking fake Camel cigarettes.

Work related – a number of girls dressed as air hostesses, some with trolleys which helped in the delivery of manot xxx. Soldiers, Doctors.

Comical – Clowns were the most common, but bears and animals common, one was dressed as a drink carton (!) and one in a retro Tony Blair mask!

Parody – What was interesting is the way in which these younger members are allowed to mock their elders. Amongst the costumes were girls dressed a cliché Jewish grandmas, army members, miniature versions of their fathers in full Hasidic dress and rabbis.  The latter were particularly common and they were proud to introduce themselves as such and encourage deference for them. Their costumes particularly looked well made and I would say professional.  Cooper and Sullivan (1994) state that mock-Rabbis were elected over Purim in a move parallel to mock-mayors in secular culture.

Comparing to Hallowe’en is an easy comparison but this is something more artful and clearly more wholesome. There’s no blood and guts.

Purim it about

This is really a community letting its communal hair down. At one point a bombing and pulsing could be heard, a beat a sound of music. Then around the corner, came a large red open top bus. On top it was throng with young Hasidic Jews wearing fezs and looking very jolly. They stopped tumbled out of the bus, looking a little worse for wear, some streamed into houses, others decided to let loose to the music and started twirling around in the road. At one point one grabbed me and putting his hat upon me, we spent a surreal moment dancing around each other, arm in arm, a Purim dance off. Then they were off!

Turn the corner and there are two students dressed head to toe in a white traditional dress, smiling singing and shaking hands. Their infectious enthusiasm and addictive beat even reaches an elderly member of the community who mounting the steps of a nearby house,  twists and turns, hands raised up singing along, perhaps remembering younger days.

The intoxicating joy and celebration is difficult to miss…but this is a busy day, cars rush by driven by super heroes who toss their charity contributions in awaiting collectors, one dressed as a golf course!

Purim and out

Indeed as an observer, the whole event appears to be a frenetic flash of colour, as parents escort their fancy dressed charges in and out of houses to deliver their Mishloach manot gifts. Many of these are an art form in themselves, luxury chocolates tiered into pyramids, other expensive bottles of alcohol – for this is the one time of the year the community can drink!

Doors are opened. Every door is open. Children stand and sit of steps in fancy dress! Children their faces full of anticipation sit there waiting…and waiting…sometimes with wistful places… is it me next. Closed doors have Mishloach manot awaiting – one had five bottles of wine awaiting for its owner!

After a while it all becomes a bit too dazzling and you are looking for the next more bizarre costume. At one point I was swamped by a large group of children dressed as soldiers, knights, rabbis, arabs and what in intents and purposes looked like a character off the side of Robinson’s marmalade smoking a cigarette – some costumes were perhaps a little over the right side of PC! They were keen to have their photos taken…all upon doing so they asked for a donation! Upon seeing a girl dressed as a giant fish I think I might have reached the apex!

Purim, its public face, is a crazy festival, but a great one of giving, charity itself is important on the day, but above all celebration. It is said when the Messiah does come all Jewish festivals will cease bar Purim…let the party continue

Custom revived: Coddington Mothering Sunday, Nottinghamshire…where it all begun!

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“Thank you God for the love of our mothers;

Thank you God for their care and concern;

Thank you God for the joys they have shared with us;

Thank you God for the pains they have borne for us;

Thank you God for all that they give us:

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”

‘I’ve lost my mothering’ service

The origins of Mothering Sunday are little obscure although in the Christian calendar the Sunday of the Golden Rose which dated back to the 11th century.  It was believed to date from when communities from satellite churches could pay tribute to the mother church or even communities who rarely made it to church due to their remoteness did so on this date. This then manifested itself as the time when the servants would have the day to visit far off relatives. Various foods became associated with the day, in North in particular, Carlins, a type of pea soaked and then fried in butter was eaten and a cake Simnel cake was baked. Over the years, the religious aspects of the custom, as a result of the Reformation, disappeared and the secular observation slipped away similarly.

Keep Mum! Mothering Sunday and Mother’s day are not the same!

It may not be wise to mention it but every year there are two days which celebrate mothers and two card giving days. The Americans were first. However, it is Constance Penswick Smith that we can thank for the modern revival, for it was whilst reading an article in the Evening news of a lady in Philidelphia was thinking down similar lines. This was in 1906, Miss Anna Jarvis created a secular tradition, set down for the second weekend in May where Mothers were celebrated. It is thought that like Hallowe’en and Valentine’s day, the Stateside Mother’s day was also imported by servicemen in the 1940s and this coincided with the church’s attempt to revitalise the custom.

Setting up headquarters at 15 Regent Street Nottingham, she and a friend Ellen worked tireless to get the ceremony re-established, even designing cards, collected appropriate hymns and approached the Mother’s Union who were keen but thought the custom too long dead to be revived. She published a book in 1921 and from this the idea spread. First locally, when the Reverend Killer of St Cyprians Nottingham and when the new church was consecrated in 1936, mothering Sunday became an annual event and then using her four brothers, who took holy orders, introduced the service into their churches. By the end of the Second World War, the amalgamation of the two customs had become entrenched and despite a few cards which proclaim the correct name, they are generally inseparable as names now especially since the 1950s when merchants realized the commercial potential!

Back to mum! Where it all begun

One of the most important places to celebrate the day must of course be where it was first revived. Coddington’s Mothering Sunday service is like everywhere a very popular service, but here there is perhaps more of an appreciation. So in 2013, on Sunday the 10th March, the parish church of Coddington in Nottinghamshire celebrated the 100th anniversary of the re-foundation of Mothering Sunday by Constance Smith.

The church was packed with some of the congregation even having to sit in the bell tower, or on some of the older pews to the side! The talk used the children to find the words around the church and used these to discuss the important qualities of mothers (as well as saying dads could be the same!) The Revd David Anderton, the present day vicar of All Saints Coddington, said of the service:

“Mothering Sunday is important in the life of the church and it is one of our most popular services – thanks to Constance, who is buried here in the churchyard. The choir of Coddington Church of England Primary School join us and mothers are given a Primula plant.  It’s a wonderful celebration and I’m encouraging people to post their prayers for mothers online as we mark 100 years of Mothering Sundays.”

A different clyp ‘round the ear!

“The congregation then takes part in ‘clipping the church’, forming a ring around the building and, holding hands, embracing it.”

The church service led by the Rev William Thackrey and the curate Rev. David Anderson and notable features of the service was the delightful touching tribute to mothers made by the children of Coddington primary school, and then their clyping of the church. This is done in a number of churches, including some Nottinghamshire churches, although usually this is done outside, the horrendous wintry weather meant it was more sensible to clyp the inside of the church. The origins of this custom are obscure but it is associated with Mothering Sunday in Staplehurst in Kent. Some authorities have tried to link the custom to pagan origins but certainly the idea of embracing the mother church is wholly appropriate to the theme of the celebration. Whilst clyping a special hymn ‘We love the place O Lord’ was sung to recognise the importance of the church. The children in this circle then processed through the vestry and into the chancel where the vicar and curate awaited holding trays of primroses; free gifts for their mothers.

Just like mum’s cake

With a final hymn and blessing the congregation were given a bookmark commemorating Constance Smith and Simnel cake. This is of course an old food traditionally associated with the custom of Mothering Sunday. Its creation put down to an argument between Sim and Nell how to cook it; one boiling and one baking.  Some people don’t like it but it always reminds me of my mum’s cakes which I suppose is the point.

A hundred years on from the thought, Mothering Sunday in its religious and secular guise is with us as long as we need to appreciate mothers…and sell cards no doubt!

Find out when it’s on:

Calendar Customs link: The Coddington celebration is not on there but if you need to find out when Mothering Sunday is…

http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/mothering-sunday-mothers-day/

 

copyright Pixyledpublications

Custom demised: Borrowing Days from April

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A widespread tradition across the British Isles and indeed beyond for it is noted in France and Spain are that March borrowed its last three days from April. Brewer’s 1894 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable records:

“March said to Aperill,

I see 3 hoggs (in this case meaning sheep) upon a hill;

And if you’ll lend me dayes 3

I’ll find a way to make them dee (die).

The first o’ them wus wind and weet,

The second o’ them wus snaw and sleet,

The third o’ them wus sic a free

It froze the birds’ nebs to the trees.

When the 3 days were past and gane

The 3 silly hoggs came hirpling (limping) hame.”

Notes and queries of 1852 records:

“The three last days of March are called ‘the Borrowing Days’ in Scotland, on account of their being generally attended with very blustery weather, which inclines people to say that they would wish to borrow three days from the month of April in exchange for the last days of the month of March.”

As noted in an 1852 work North of Ireland:

“Give me (says March) three days of warmth and sunshine for my poor lambs whilst they are yet too tender to bear the roughness of my wind and rain, and you shall have them repaid when the wool is grown.”

However the above account appears at variance to the general believe of the bad weather, as John Brockett’s 1846 Glossary of North Country words records:

“March borrowed of April, three days and they were ill, The one was sleet, the other snow ad third was the worst that e’er did blow.”

It is probable that this association with bad weather begun with the 1548 Complaynt of Scotland which recorded that it ‘froze birds legs to trees’ as such:

“March borrowed of April Three days, and they were ill The one was sleet, the other of snow The third was the worst that e’er did blow.”

The bringing of bad weather may seem a little confusing at first but in Ireland a local legend was established to explain it. It is recorded that the old Brindled Cow or An tSean-bho Riabhach, made the claim that the bad weather of March could not even kill them and so it borrowed three days from April. And the month used these days to kill and skin the poor cow. using these extra days with redoubled fury, killed and skinned the poor old cow. Interestingly this time around it the first days of April which are seen to be unpleasant as a result!

However, I feel that the commentators are missing a point – April is famed for showers – and has a write this the days running up to the 29th are warm and fine, ironically rain and storms came in as the 29th came in…April weather!

Custom demised: Shrovetide Street Football, Dorking, Surrey

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1898: Shrove Tuesday football in Dorking: PS Campbell severely kicked in the struggle with the crowd and was incapacitated and forced to retire

Today it is the picture of a genteel Surrey town, bustling with shoppers in and out of shops. On Shrove Tuesday this year it will be much the same as it was the year before. However until the early 20th century each year the streets would be bustling with boisterous boys and blokes ready for a day of street football. Of course Shrovetide football survives still in a number of places of course, but each is subtly different and Dorking’s was no different.  The game much as any street football was a mixed game of kicking, throwing and scrumming which was curiously more formalized then others.

Original football chant?

Kick away both Whig and Tory/Wind and Water Dorking’s glory’.

So read an inscription on a frame carried by an old band. One unusual custom was that before the match there was a band. The Taffer Bolt’s Band disguised in back were the opening act for the match. They played pipes, drums and a triangle and were lead by one of them who carried three footballs, red and green, white and blue and gold leaf, attached to the said frame. Amusingly being genteel Surrey, the ‘organisers’ were keen to ensure everyone was provided for after the match and a collection was made before the match started.  It is worth noting that it was recorded that:

Wind and water is Dorking’s glory.” Mr. Charles Rose, in his Recollections of Old Dorking, 1878, suggests that “wind” refers to the inflation of the ball and “water” to the duckings in the mill pond and brook, at one time indulged in.”

Over the years the event became formalized. It begun at the gates of St. Martin church at 2 o’clock and was played until 6pm a meal was even organized at the Sun Inn afterwards.

 Kicked in to the long grass

Shrovetide football across the country has always had a fragile relationship with their communities and the police. In Dorking the combined concerns of the damage caused and the lost of trade for shop keepers lead for its abolishment. However the local council liked it. In the end Surrey County Council banned it. In 1897 the following account appears:

“Shrove Tuesday football in Dorking: Traders in West and South Streets in Dorking asked the Standing Joint Committee to adopt measures to end the nuisance. Superintendent Page was in charge and reported that he met with Superintendents Alexander and Bryce and with a force of sixty constables did their best to prevent the playing of football.

The ball was kicked off by a member of the Town Council and was then seized by the police. More balls were produced all of which were taken into the possession of the police after a severe struggle. By 5 and 6 o’clock the crowd was increased by a great number of people leaving work, joined in and added to the general confusion.

There was no riot or damage to property. Later in the year fifty two defendants were all convicted of the offence of playing football on Shrove Tuesday to the annoyance of passengers. Eventually they were fined five shillings being unable to produce the charter said to give them the right to play.”

Interestingly, the defence of the participants was supported not only by Dorking Urban District Council who passed a resolution criticising the action of the Surrey Standing Joint Committee but local important people amongst them Mr. Henry Attlee (father of the ex Prime Minister Clement).

However. despite this support the more powerful Surrey Council continued to penalize participants, 60 people in 1898 including Dorking councillor had been fined. An account reads above:

“PS Campbell severely kicked in the struggle with the crowd and was incapacitated and forced to retire.”

With such incidents, Surrey County Council were more strenuous in their attempt to supress and in 1907 the streets were silent on Shrove Tuesday. The custom had given up the ghost. It was extinct and was never revived.

Sadly, such street football events by their very nature I doubt will ever be revived. So today a walk down the streets of Dorking on Shrove Tuesday will not see scrums of people fighting over their ball…buts let us hope somewhere there might be a small group kicking some ball about!

Custom survived: Mummers or Darkie Day in Padstow

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I was staying in Padstow over the 2000-2001 New year once (the real dawning of the Millennium but that’s another story!), after escaping some of the worst sounds of the party being held in a pub in the town I went to bed earlier so that I could greet the new dawn. The next day was a delightful one full of clear skies and promise, I got up early the next day to be greeted by the spectacle of local people with blackened faces playing traditional instruments of drums and accordions and singing with much gusto. A strange sight and one which in recent years has become much in contention beyond Cornwall. I’d written this post back in 2011 and did not post…perhaps I was a bit nervous of doing so…..and its only posted now as I have been ill and did not have time to do another post…..interestingly its more current than ever, what with news reports about banning black faced Morris in Birmingham so its worth examining a new.

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A black mark against the town?

Listening to the songs I became wary of their odd lyrics they appears to be minstrel songs, I admitted although I had been to May day in the town I had never heard of this tradition, it was absent from my books. Clearly local people and tourists enjoyed the spectacle. I thought little more of it and was glad I had witnessed the custom
A few days later driven by an article in the Daily Mail and the Guardian I believe a storm developed over the racist element of the day, with the usual subtext of ignorant yokels (in itself racist of course). Soon prominent black politicians understandably got involved and a media storm ensued this time involving the BBC with comments from the venerable late London MP Bernie Grant:

“I thought the days when white people dressed up as black people were well behind us”

Padstonians insist that this is not the case and deny both description and allegations and indeed as early back as the 1970s the content and conduct was apparently reviewed to avoid offence…although one must remember Love Thy Neighbour and The Black and White Minstrels were popular at that time!! That said the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary did get involved and saw no reason for arrest. The Padstonians showed obvious concern and renamed it Mummer’s day but the controversy continues.

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Keep mum?

How old the custom is, is difficult to say. It is known that in eastern Cornwall, such get-togethers were common in pubs and private homes in the 19th century but antiquarian interest and indeed national press coverage is lacking, which is surprising considering the acres of footage on the town’s famed May Day. Most reports are local, the Cornish Guardian certainly report it since 1901 as Carol singing. A copy of the Padstow Echo in 1967 notes in a diary entry where 15, 7 to 13 year old children travelled the town visiting the elderly. The three women are thanked for:

“keeping alive the Padstow Darkies by training the young Padstonians with the Darky Songs which have been traditionally sung here, with also the musical accompaniment.”

An online article using local informants recollects their involvement in the 1940s and then into the early 20th century when their parents were involved. On this basis it can be included as a surviving custom if it is a rather secretive one, but possibly a changeable one.

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Not all black and white
The origins of the day are confusing; the blackening of one’s face after all is very common in a wide range of folk customs from mummers to molly dancers. The overall theme being to disguise the face, so that in most cases the employers would not have recognised them, as the majority of the customs, including this one, were begging. This has probably been done for centuries long before English people ever had contact with our African relatives.
Whether confusion occurs is the claim that it stems from the town’s experience with slaves, emphasized by a tradition that slaves were allowed free time in the town and this would have naturally brought they into contact with the natives. This happened elsewhere and did not create a folk custom, which suggests that the Cornish were either more susceptible to the traditions the slaves had or in support of the non-racist origin had greater sympathy, a point I will explore later.
From what can be gathered is that the original tradition was closer to a mummer’s play and perhaps because it was undertaken mainly by children who I argue either had difficulty in remembering lines or else the play had unsuitable themes, someone changed it. Anyone who has children will know it’s easier to get to get them to sing carols than do the nativity!
In simple terms someone seems to fused minstrel songs to an older tradition and because these songs were probably better, more tuneful or memorable, this aspect dominated. This theory is supported by an article by…where one of the correspondents says:

“I believe that the mummers went from house to house performing their play and got fed up with the same old lines and tried out the new at that time Foster music hall songs. This was enjoyed and response probably favourable and the tradition took off in place of the mumming”.

Is it racist?

 

Anyone who’s been to Cornwall will know they can be a bit wary of anyone east of the Tamar, but I don’t think they are racist…indeed they are very friendly, just understandably protection of their traditions. From what I can gather there could be two reasons for the tradition. The simplest is that an adult in the 1920s when the minstrel songs were popular decided to build a repertoire of these songs for the children as they were easier to remember. The other theory is custom was established as albeit a rather ham-fisted attempt to show support for the American black people community or simpler a love of their music. Solidarity for them was often strong in Methodist areas and Cornwall is one of these. An example of this being the strike held in Manchester cotton mills where the pro-slavery confederate army uniforms were being made. Perhaps typically for the British we put our foot in it, and sadly what is seen as once support has naturally become offensive. A parody rather than show parity by dressing up – but again as blacking up is a common motif for begging is that a coincidence? Interestingly now the name is changed, perhaps the one thing which would stop the racist accusations would be to stop blackening their faces, costume aside which is although is claimed minstrel based is common to many folk groups. It was a sensible compromise. Now that this is done, would anyone really be offended after all we’ve all been singing Beyoncé and Michael Jackson songs and not been called racist..have we?

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Custom demised: Holly Day, Brough, Cumbria

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In the Cumbrian town of Brough, once in Westmorland was an unusual Twelfth night custom which appeared to be the extension of the usual burning of the greenery on Twelfth night as now enacted at London’s Geffrey Museum. An account by Reuben Percy and John Timbs in their 1828 The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction which states:

“Holly Tree At Brough it is called night because it was customary at time of the year to decorate the altars holly There are two head inns in town at which the holly is provided alternately Early in the morning send out a body of husbandmen to fell large ash tree for although it is called night yet holly being a scarcity ash substituted They then affix torches of greased reeds to each bough tree and then take it into the inn to remain till seven o clock in At that hour a gun or pistol is fired the tree is taken out into a convenient part of the town where it is lighted after huzzaing for about half an hour is carried up and down the town on shoulders followed by the and stopping every time they the cross at the top of the town again salute the holly and fireworks are discharged It is taken town again and so on till it is The person who carries the his shoulders is named Ling who it is extinguished carries it to of the town and after throws it among the crowd eagerly watch the opportunity of away with it for I should observe two separate contending parties to whichever inn it is carried the to spend the evening in drinking very often it terminates with a name given to all their The origin of the custom as I observed from the offerings to the altars at of the year which is the by the name given to it WHH”

William Hone in his 1827 Everyday book added:

“Twelfth Night, or Holly Night, was formerly celebrated at Brough, by carrying through the town a holly-tree with torches attached to its branches. The procession set out at 8 o’clock in the evening preceded by music, and stopped at the town-bridge, and again at the cross, where it was greeted each time with shouts of applause. Many of the inhabitants carried lighted branches as flambeaux; and rockets, squibs, &c, were discharged on the joyful occasion. After the tree had been carried about, and the torches were sufficiently burnt, it was placed in the middle of the town, when it was again cheered by the surrounding crowd, and then was thrown among them. The spectators at once divided into two parties, one of which endeavoured to take the tree to one of the inns, and the other to a rival inn. The innkeeper whose party triumphed was expected to treat his partisans liberally.”

A curious custom which appears to be a mixture of burning out bad spirits into the new year with some survival of a pagan tradition mixed up with wassailing. What is more curious is that in some form we have not seen it restored.

Custom survived: Visiting the Lewis Santa’s Grotto, Liverpool

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So reads the sign as we enter

Santa’s grotto. Seen in department stores, shopping malls, garden centres and indeed everywhere across the English speaking world from Australia to (New) York. A staple all through the 20th century.  Yet I bet you thought it was an American invention? But no! The first place ever to invite Father Christmas to enchant children was in Liverpool and what’s even less well known perhaps outside of the city is that the same grotto is still going strong 137 years on! At first it might seem a little unusual to consider this a custom but a custom it is – a calendar one – and possibly the most engaged in custom in Britain. And one which is truly English.

The story begins with David Lewis who upon visiting the world’s first department store, the Parisian Bon Marche, who brought the idea of a department store in 1877 back to Liverpool. What is interesting is that the store had an exhibition area, an idea Lewis also adopted – then in 1879 it decided to introduce a Christmas themed exhibition.

Santa Claus is coming to Town

Naturally in a city dominated by its maritime history, it was not surprising that Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, patron of seafarers as well as children would visit Liverpool first. Christmas Fairyland was the title of the world’s first Santa’s grotto. It was an instant success with the public attracting people from across the country who could finally meet Father Christmas in person and wonder at his grotto. The grotto covering 10,000 square feet became a popular seasonal sight for Liverpool. Its popularity caused other department stores to develop their own grottos of varying quality, including Blackler’s in Liverpool famed for its giant Father Christmas, again another seasonal staple, whose re-appearance at the Museum of Liverpool has been a welcome one for those who fondly remember it. By the end of the century the grotto had been established in the USA and Australia ensuring Santa would be very busy on the run up for the big day.

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Naughty or nice?

Entering the Lewis Grotto is still a magical experience. There is a whiff of exciting anticipation as one waits in the downstairs waiting room, ready for one’s number to be called, ascend the staircase and enter the magical world. Crossing the threshold one is confronted with a fairy tale fantasy world populated by a miniature world of elves and teddy bears. The grotto’s theme when I visited was nursery rhymes and famous children stories, Snow white, Pinocchio, Nutcracker, Peter Pan. Sleeping Beauty, Little Mermaid, Pocahontas and Aladdin are represented by a tableaux, some moving and many incorporating familiar Liverpool sites like the Rapid Tower and the Liver Building. Other displays in the past have been Alice in Wonderland set in Liverpool and Santa on the Moon. Figures move and sway, wave and enchant both young and old. The display comprises interestingly of both the Lewis Grotto with additions from that of Blackler’s which ran from 1957 until 1988 a youngest compared to Lewis of course, these polar bears guard the entrance to Santa.

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Finding a new ho-ho home!

After 130 years of enchanting children it looked like this iconic grotto was to see its last Christmas, when like many department stores, it closed. But all was not lost. Then then grotto manager, a Mr Mike Done purchased the stock of the grotto at a considerable expense. He was the natural choice to want it to continue as he had worked with it 27 years. After looking around all of Liverpool for a suitable place – size and geography wise – Mike settled on perhaps the slightly incongruous 4th floor Rapid Hardware store. The first theme of its new location was to be about how Santa lost his home and ended up at Rapid.

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So there on the top floor the grottos is set up. This setting up takes a number of months consisting of blocking out windows, painting the backgrounds, setting up the figures, the electricity and everything needed to make the site magical.

It is fantastic to still be able to visit the grotto that spawned such a popular countrywide custom and one which has kept to its own traditions. It is clear by the busy downstairs waiting room that it is still an essential part of a Liverpudlian’s Christmas. Indeed as I was told by Mr. Done one particular visitor has been an 103 year old who worked in the store for 80 years previous and ever misses a visit. He was quick to add that such events spur him to continue with the grotto. Furthermore, as Mr Done related, grottos such as this are a dying tradition. True that Father Christmas is a busy as ever but these are in and out enterprises with very little event to them. This is certainly not the case at the Lewis grotto it is all about the experience.

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Not a grotty grotto

After wandering through these delightful displays we await our moment to meet– the curtain pulls across and there in a Victorian styled drawing sitting on a wreath wrapped thrown – was Father Christmas – even the most cynical is swept along with the enchanting experience and the children certainly leave spellbound with a special glint in their eyes.

In this modern quick fix world of the rapid turnover visit to Santa this Lewis grotto is indeed from another era – one as much about the experience and the build up being as much a part as meeting the man himself. So if you are looking to find that special magical Christmas feeling make a pilgrimage to the oldest and perhaps the best Santa’s grotto,  make it to Lewis grotto now firmly ensconced at Rapid and hopefully continuing well into its second century. Long may Santa be visiting it too.

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