Custom demised: Going a-nutting


nuttingAll the youths are now a-nutting gone.”

Grim the Collier of Croydon

The 14th September passes by without fanfare these days but for many it was Holy Cross Day when the True Cross was revealed but in England the day became associated with a more domestic custom…one actually possibly at loggerheads with the church. For in some cases these nuts were brought into church. In Edward Brayley’s Topographical history of Surrey (1850) notes that at the church at Kingston upon Thames:

“the cracking noise was often so powerful, that the minster was obliged to suspend his reading, or discourse until greater quietness was obtained.”

In this case Steve Stroud (2001) The English Year notes that it was believed to be part of a civic custom about selecting a bailiff although the author notes he cannot see the connection. But it might give a reason for Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield (1766) stating:

“Religiously cracked nuts on Michaelmas Eve.”

The nuts collected considering the time of the year were hazelnuts and accounts of ‘going a nutting’ can be found across the centuries. Eton schoolboys were granted a half day holiday in 1560 to gather nuts…however one wonder what would greet them when they arrived. For clearly other activities were abroad which were far from innocent. The phrase soon became a bye word for sexual proclivity and soon collecting nuts would become a nod and wink for something else. Certainly by 1660 a common expression would be:

“A good year for nuts, a good year for babies.”

The Devil was soon associated with the custom as a way to avoid such proclivities. Poor Robin’s Almanack of 1709 contains the following verses:

“The devil, as the common people say, Doth go a nutting on Holy-rood day; And sure such leachery in some doth lurk, Going a nutting do the devil’s work.”

 Going nutting was particularly avoided on Sunday when it was thought the Devil would be abroad disguised as an kindly old gentlemen who would pull down branches and whisk you away. Poet John Clare notes that certain days he would be likely found:

“On Holy Rood Day it is faithfully…believed both by old and young that the Devil goes a –nutting…I have heard many people affirm that they thought it a tale until they ventured into the woods on that day when they smelt such a strong smell of brimstone as nearly stifled them before they could escape…”

Now few people go nutting today…so the Devil must be otherwise entertained.


2 responses »

  1. Some years ago I was looking into folk customs of Kingston upon Thames, and found out about Cracknut Sunday. I came across three local19th century descriptions.

    In 1852, “The History and Antiquities of the Ancient and Royal Town of Kingston upon Thames,” W. D. Biden said the custom wasn’t confined to this parish, (although I’ve not heard of any other instances,) was held on Michaelmas Eve, and had something to do with the election of the bailiffs.

    In 1877 W. Chapman in “Handbook of Kingston…” said it was held on the Sunday before Michaelmas Eve, was not only to do with the election of the bailiffs, but also of other members of the Corporation, and was connected with the civic feast held when the officials were elected.

    This was also described by F. Somner Merryweather in “Half a century of Kingston History,” 1887, but he didn’t add anything new to the information.

    It sounds such an odd tradition; it would be nice to know more about it.

  2. “Nuts … are traditionally associated with love, marriage and childbirth”. In Rome they were given to newly-weds and showered on them in France. In Devon “the bride was met as she came out of the church by an old woman who gave her a bag of hazel nuts … In many English counties still, a plentiful crop of nuts in any parish is said to foretell numerous births there during the coming year” and an “unusually large crop of double nuts” foretold “a large number of twins … In Germany… ‘going a-nutting’ was a euphemism for love-making”, (Radford,E&MA., ‘Encyclopaedia of Superstitions’, 1971 edition, Book Club Associates). So, if there was a pattern of bumper crops of nuts followed by a greater number childbirths, was that because of what had been happening 9 months earlier in the woods? Surely love making didn’t stop when there were few or no nuts in the woods? The Enclosure Acts prompted large landowners, (many of whom would have been local magistrates), to try and stop nutting parties.Nutters were described in pejorative terms and threatened with punishments.They seemed to have remained defiant and nutting parties were not stamped out.  

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