Category Archives: Cornwall

Custom survived: Eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday

Standard

A few years back I was invited to be involved in a Shrove Tuesday live radio broadcast from the Nottinghamshire village of Linby. The aim was to discuss why we ate pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and I’ll explain why in a moment.

The association of pancakes with Shrove Tuesday is unlike perhaps any food associated with a calendar day – Christmas has cakes, mince pies and puddings (and much else I would add), Easter – hot cross buns, biscuits and Simnel cakes – but Shrove Tuesday is really only associated with one type of food. This association having become so great that the actual day is slowly morphing into Pancake day, divorced from its Christian origin and in a way devoid of any sense (or lacking not making any sense) of why it would be so associated.

Of course this metamorphosis is purely a commercial enterprise – which appears to have almost completed its aim. When the Pancake day stamp arose is difficult to work out but certainly by the 1980s adverts,  in the main associated with lemon juice, the secularisation was becoming well established.

But why Pancakes in the first place?

Tossing up the origin

Well this brings us back to why I was in Linby where it is said that the custom begun. However, the earliest reference I can find is by a H. E. P. Stuffynwood, near Mansfield in Notes & Queries 2nd S. vol. vii. 1859:

“There is a curious tradition existing in Mansfield, Woodhouse, Bulwell, and several other villages near Sherwood Forest, as to the origin of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. The inhabitants of any of the villages will inform the questioner that when the Danes got to Linby all the Saxon men of the neighbouring villages ran off into the forest, and the Danes took the Saxon women to keep house for them. This happened just before Lent, and the Saxon women, encouraged by their fugitive lords, resolved to massacre their Danish masters on Ash Wednesday. Every woman who agreed to do this was to bake pancakes for this meal on Shrove Tuesday as a kind of pledge to fulfil her vow. This was done, and that the massacre of the Danes did take place on Ash Wednesday is a well-known historical fact. In addition, the villagers will tell you that in this part of the country there were no red haired people before the Danes came; that all were either fair, or black haired before that time. Thinking this tradition as to the origin of pancakes sufficiently curious to be worth preserving, I venture to send it to ” N. & Q.” in the hopes that it may find a place somewhere in the pages of your valuable journal.”

In sort it seems very unlikely even if there was some veracity in the claim that the Linby legend spawned our long association between pancakes and Shrove Tuesday least of all that it cannot be proved it was on the said day.

A race for the origins

What is more evident is that making a pancake would use up the staples which were not part of the fast – namely dairy, eggs, fat and flour.

Certainly the name of Pancake Day for Shrove Tuesday was nothing new. Pancakes features in children’s rhymes at Shrove Tuesday from Skegby Stanton Hill Girl’s school. Nottinghamshire, the local children had a rhyme in the 1900s:

“Pancake day, pancake day if you don’t give us a holiday we’ll all run away. Where shell we run? Down Skegby Lane, here comes the teacher with the big fat cane”

To 1842 in Cornwall:

“Nicka, nicka nan ; Give me some pancake, and then I’ll be gone.”

In 1849 in Devonshire

“Lent Crock, give a pancake, Or a fritter, for my labour.”

And ad nauseum. Similarly, an interesting lost Shrove Tuesday tradition is recorded at Aspley Hall, which may have been more common countrywide. It is noted that the Lord and Lady of the manor would:                                

“provide batter and lard, fire, and frying pans, for all the poor families of Wollaton, Trowell and Cossall, who chose to come and eat their pancakes at his honour’s mansion, The only conditions attached to the feast were, that no quarrelling should take place, and that each wife and mother should fry for her own family, and that when the cake needed turning in the pan, the act should be performed by tossing it in the air and catching it again in the pan with the uncooked side downwards…”

One early origin is in Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry from 1620 which refers to the separate custom of feeding the first pancake to the hen. However custom magpie Thistleton-Dwyer again comes up with a solution to when it arose. Firstly he states that:

“In connection with the custom of eating pancakes on this day, Fosbroke in his Encyclopaedia of Antiquities (vol. ii. p. 572) says that ” Pancakes, the ” Pancakes, the Norman Crispellae,, are taken from the Fornacalia, on Feb. 18th, in memory of the practice in use before the goddess Fornax invented ovens.”

More significantly perhaps for Linby’s claims he then states:

“The Saxons called February ‘Solmonath,’ which Dr. F. Sayers, in his Disquisitions, says is explained by Bede’s ‘Mensis Placentarum,’ and rendered by Spelman, in an inedited MS., ‘Pancake month’ because in the course of it cakes were offered by the Pagan Saxons to the Sun.”

Whilst it does not mention the Linby story it does place the origins in the same period of time. However, in Robert Thompson Hampson’s  1841 Medii Ævi Kalendarium: Or, Dates, Charters, and Customs of the Middle Ages, Volume 1 is originally Swedish pankaka, an omelette but it has been absurdly derived from the Greek words for all bad in reference to the penitents at confession. If it does have such an origin I am sure that those originators would be amazed to see how the pancake has blossomed and continues to bear fruit in the 20th and 21st century and take over the day.

So in all it is difficult when to exactly to say why when pancakes became a staple all I know is that every year I think to myself I enjoyed those why don’t I have more often than once a year!?

Custom contrived: Cotehele House Garland

Standard

Living in an old Georgian house I felt the need to establish my old customs as befits it; so at Christmas I have revived the Kissing Bush and placed garlands of evergreen materials over the fire places and up the stairwells. It is a mammoth – and frustrating – task so I feel empathy for the volunteers at Cornwall’s Cotehele House who since the 1950s have established their own – and far more complicated garland.

46,000 dried flowers grown on the house estate are tied together into one hundred feet of rope. Although it takes the staff and volunteers two weeks to construct in reality it takes all year, seeds are ordered in December, grow through spring and summer, picked and dried in the autumn ready for its November construction. In its construction are 60 evergreen pittosporum tree cuttings as its base, with grasses, statice, helichrysum, acrolineum and helipterum being added to it.

In 2013 a BBC news webpage National Trust’s Cotehele creating 90ft flower garland recorded:

Gardeners at a stately home are creating a garland that is more than 90ft (27m) long, following a bumper year for flowers.

Garlands have been made at Cotehele, in south-east Cornwall, since the 1950s and are normally about 60ft (18m) long.

David Bouch, head gardener at the National Trust property, said that more than 40,000 flowers were collected compared to an average of 22,000.

He added that “brilliant growing season” had prompted the increase.

Mr Bouch said he believed the garland was the longest created at a National Trust property.

“Normally, loops go along the centre of the Great Hall, but because of the bumper crop an additional 33ft (10m) of garland will also frame the door,” he said.”

The result is indeed impressive and unique and attracts visitors far and wide to observe it as it sways across the old hall cafe. It certainly puts my efforts to shame.

Custom survived: Harvest festivals

Standard

As the autumn draws in, it is difficult to avoid piles of produce piling up at churches, community halls and schools, all of these being collected for annual harvest festivals which bring colour and poignancy to the drawing days.

Shine on harvest moon

For the medieval period the harvest was a major event. Every village would celebrate bringing in the harvest usually in some harvest home event and quite often a large harvest supper – with much feeding, drinking and associated activities. It was these associated activities which caused many within the church to look at supressing these events. However, others realising the need for a moment of reflection at this time looked for other alternatives.

Thus unlike other customs the origins of the custom is well recorded. It was in 1843 that the Reverend Robert Hawker established a special thanksgiving service at his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall. The custom was firmly established as Christian event adopting Victorian hymns such as We plough the fields and scatter, come ye thankful people come and all things bright and beautiful. The church was decorated with home-grown produce for the Harvest Festival service a tradition which continues today. The service remained a local event until 1854 when the Revd Dr William Beal, Rector of Brooke Norfolk was the first to hold a Harvest Festival. He noted his aim was to:

to put a stop to the disgraceful scenes which too often characterise the close of harvest, and to the system of largess, which gives rise to cases of the grossest description.”   The Times at the time stated more politely that:  “The attempt to put an end to the system of public-house harvest feasts, in which neither wives nor children can join, appears in this instance to have been eminently successful.”   

Another early adopter of the custom was Rev Piers Claugton at Elton Huntingdonshire in or about 1854. By 1875 the Lincolnshire Chronicle recorded St Mary’s Church at Stamford indicating in 20 years how far it could spread.

Reap what you sow

An earlier account is recorded at Plumtree in 1880 in The Nottinghamshire Guardian where a new organ had been installed and attracted considerable interest:

“The service commenced with the harvest hymn, “Come, ye thankful people, come”, sung as a processional. Tallis’ Festal Responses were used in the service, the first part of which was intoned by the Rev. A. Marshall rector of Heythrop, Oxon, and formerly curate of Plumtree; the latter part being taken by the Rector. The first lesson was read by the Rev. F. Sutton, rector of Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire; and the second lesson by the Rev. H. Seymour, rector of Holme Pierrepont. The Proper Psalms, 144  and 147, and the Canticles were sung to Single Anglican Chants. The anthem was “Ye shall dwell in the land” (Stainer), the bass solo in which was sung by the Rev. A. Marshall, and the treble solo by Archibald White, of S. Werburgh’s Church, Derby.”

It continued with:

“A very eloquent and able sermon, which was listened to with marked attention by an appreciative congregation, was preached by the Rev. the Hon. Wm. Byron from the text “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace,” – Ephesians 4:3 – from which, connecting it with the events of the day, he delivered a most admirable and practical discourse on the beauty and necessity of harmony and concord in the parochial and domestic life.”

It was recorded that:

“The church was very tastefully decorated with the usual flowers, and fruits, and corn, and produce, which are so general at our Church Harvest Festivals. Plumtree is now amongst the most beautiful of our Notts. churches, and is well worthy of a visit by all who value a hearty service, and appreciate beauty of colouring and artistic design in ecclesiastical decoration.”

By the 1900s it had spread considerably both geographically and ecumenically being described in Horsham Sussex’s Congregation church:

“which was very tastefully decorated for the occasion with flowers, fruit and vegetables”

In the Sheffield it is recorded in Daily Telegraph Sheffield that it was already being described as the:

 “The harvest festival season in Sheffield is now in full swing. In churches and chapels all over the city preachers are drawing the old familiar themes.”

The Berwickshire News and General Advertiser recorded that Etal church:

“was beautifully decorated with fruit, flowers, corn, and vegetables, by Rev. R. and Mrs Simpson.”

Throughout the 20th century it had become firmly established as part of the church’s calendar across the various denominations. Today the focus may have moved from celebrating directly the village harvest to a general celebration of thanksgiving for ‘our daily bread’ to recognising the need of others beyond. So nowadays the displays of food with inedible gourds and sheaths of wheat is far more about ‘arrangements’ than providing food.

Custom demised: Hanging St John’s wort above the door

Standard

Hypericum perforatum - Wikipedia

It’s a very familiar plant, although the one generally grown in our gardens, is not strictly speaking the St John’s Wort of British tradition, its bright gold flowers beam out like the sun at midsummer. Across Britain its virtues were many but one seasonal application was that it once widespread was the placing of it across doorways. William Bingley in his 1800 Tour Bound North Wales records that:

“On the Eve of St. John the Baptist they fix sprigs of the plant called St. John’s-wort over their doors, and sometimes over their window’s, in order to purify their houses, and by that means drive away all fiends and evil spirits.”

In the 1972 Folklore of the Ulster People Sheila St Clair notes that there it protected against the evil eye. Tony Deane and Tony Shaw in their 1975 Folklore of Cornwall state that wreaths were placed at St. Cleer ‘to banish witches.’Maureen Sutton (1996) A Lincolnshire calendar a correspondent from Chapel Hill suggests that the custom was still remembered in the 1920s and 30s there:

“if you hang it up on St John’s Day it will keep away the Devil’.

Christine Hole in her 1977 Witchcraft in England writes of St. John’s Day:

“ the saint’s own golden flower, St. John’s wort-which is quite clearly a sun-symbol-was brought indoors to promote good fortune and protect the house from fires.”

However, the earliest reference shows how this was not just a country custom. In John Stow’s 1603 book on London he noted:

“On the vigil of St. John the Baptist, and on St. Peter and Paul the apostles, every man’s door being shadowed with ….. St. John’s wort.”

It was not alone and other plants were also stuck there creating ‘a goodly show, namely in New Fish street, Thames street’. Whilst it is not clear why they were doing so it would seem that there was some reason for it. It would appear to related to Ella Mary Leather records in her 1912 The Folklore of Herefordshire:

“Antiquatis records that the practise of making midsummer garlands was common in Herefordshire in the old days, ballads were sung while weaving the garlands and the foliage used in their construction were for divination. Those in request were the rose, St. John’s Wort”

In this case it is clear it was for divination rather than protection but one would thing one arose from the other. Fran and Geoff. Doel and Tony Deane 1995 Spring and Summer customs in Sussex, Kent and Surrey note that it was worn to warn away witches.

Why Midsummer? Midsummer was thought to be when the evil spirits were abouts. But why St John’s Wort It is probably likely that this was related to its medicinal properties of the plant which may have scientific background as it has been proven that it has positive effects on nervous disorders such as depression which was often linked to devilish activity. I have not read of anyone who still hangs St John up at Midsummer so I imagine it is not long extinct.

Custom survived: Helston’s Furry Dance, Cornwall

Standard

“To attempt the Furry Dance without, for instance, passing in and out of the houses would be to lose part of the charm and novelty…. in other towns the so-called Furry Dance is but a travesty, which usually consists of a few straggling couples performing all sorts of grotesque figures…. If other towns and villages attempt the dance as an attraction, visitors should be informed that the traditional dance belongs to Helston, where alone it is correctly danced. ….it is an insult to Helston to compare the travesties of modern dancing performed to the old air with the real “Helston Furry.”

Cornishman, Thursday 26th July 1934

Many people in the 1970s may remember Terry Wogan singing on Top of The Tops – the Floral dance. For some unknown reason this one-hit wonder caught the zeitgeist with its catchy tune straight out of nowhere, but for folklorists and people down in the Cornish town of Helston – it was not so little known. It was based on the annual May time celebration that is the Furry Dance.

Hel of a stone!

Why does Helston dance on this day? The story is that many years again a fiery dragon appeared and dropped a large stone on an area known as Angel Yard. Over a hundred years ago it was broken up and people thought it might result in calamity. It didn’t and they are said to have celebrated their survival by dancing in and out of each other’s houses. In Feasts and

“A legend says this day was set apart to commemorate a fight between the devil and St. Michael, in which the first was defeated. The name Helston has been fancifully derived from a large block of granite which until 1783 was to be seen in the yard of the Angel hotel, the principal inn of the place. This was the stone that sealed Hell’s mouth, and the devil was carrying it when met by St. Michael. Why he should have burdened himself with such a “large pebble” (as Cornish miners call all stones) is quite unknown. The fight and overthrow are figured on the town-seal.”

Utter rubbish of course!

More likely that this was an ancient patronal festival, May the 8th being St Michael of whom the Parish church is named, feast day especially significant that it is started by the bell ringing of that church. A theory expounded by others and suggested by Henry Jenny in the Western Morning News of May 11th 1931:

“It is quite probable that the Helston `Furry` observances are a survival of a pre-Christian Celtic custom transferred, or fixed on, to the patronal feast”.

Of course there is no evidence of any pre-Christian origin either but it clearly is very old. The dance by going in and out of houses resembles many mainland European dances such as the labyrinthian dances of the tarantula and this area may have been brought over by traders and sailors.

Furry about

The custom though has little changed in 200 years, an account from Royal Cornwall Gazette May 1802 gives a typical description and suggests at this point a great age perhaps:

“Our Flora-day seems to have lost none of its attractions. The first hour of the morning was ushered in with drums, fifes and fiddles. Various parties proceeded to the country, where they ravished the gardens and hedges of their sweets, decorated themselves in the spoils, passed a few hours in junketing, and then returned to the town, faddying it thro’ the streets. About ten o’clock, the Volunteers, commanded by Major Johns, proceeded through the Downs, where after going through various evolutions, they returned, and fired three vollies in the Coinage-hall-street. The town now began to fill with visitants in their holiday cloaths; who with the town’s people, faddied at intervals thro’ the streets, and regaled themselves with their friends till evening.”

Faddying is a local term for dancing from country to town by the way! Little had changed it seems a hundred and 50 odd years as Folk Life and Traditions by E. F. Coote Lake in Folklore notes that in 1959 except the clock missed a beat:

“No 7 a.m. Clock Stroke for Furry Dance: But Helston band gave the signal From The Western Morning News, May 9, 1959 Helston’s town clock missed a beat yesterday, and made the Furry Dance late. The band was poised in the street ready to lead off the first dance of the day. The dancers stood in double file in the Corn Exchange, with the Mayor, Mr F. E. Strike, on the steps. All waited for the town clock to strike, for the rule is that the dances must start on the stroke of the clock but it did not strike. The M.C. looked at his watch and looked at the clock, and as time went by it became apparent that the town clock was not going to strike. Instead, a signal was given to the band. The first stroke of the big bass drum called out the time-honoured Furry Dance tune, and once more Helstonians went tripping and twirling along the streets and in and out of the houses, in the first of a series of dances that went on throughout the day, winding a thread of gaiety in ‘the quaint old Cornish.”

However, if ever there was a custom which was ultra-organised it was the Furry dance and I am sure the lack of the bell was a big embarrassment!

In a hurry for the furry!

Arriving early – but not that early as I missed the church peal and the early dances but just in time for the first Hal an Tow – the streets were still relatively quiet and gave me the time to admire the splendour of the doorways dressed in huge boughs and bouquets of spring flowers. The sun shone brightly upon them and they filled the streets with rich aromas. What was incredible was the array on show and the imagination (and competitive streaks) on show. It is noted by Cornish Feasts in 1886’s Folklore:

The week before Flora-day is in Helston devoted to the ‘spring- clean,’  and every house is made ‘as bright as a new pin,’ and the gardens stripped of their flowers to coming into the town.”

Understandably the Furry dance attracts large numbers of curious onlookers so finding a good place can be challenge however I positioned myself beneath the clock tower of the guildhall and awaiting. From here one could see down the street and beyond. Soon the bells run and the music could be heard distantly and then could be seen the promenade dancers in a sea of white at first and then black and pastel colours. First we saw the young children all dressed in white like first communion celebrants, their footsteps weaving in and out, the concentration showing on their face. Then came the adults looking for all the world like we had walked in upon an 18th century debutant’s ball or a garden party at the Palace. These were old hands and this showed in their skill, the dancing was balletic and hypnotic in equal measure.

I ducked away from the busy concourse to see the dancers down a quiet street nearby with no crowds and here I watched how the door opened a local house and the all danced in and the after some time inside begun to dance outside. The band all the time playing their tune.

The sun was shining – well just – and the flowers, top hats and ball dresses looked splendid. Helston Furry dance perhaps the smartest of all may day events and not a Morris in sight!

 

Custom revived: Hal-an-Tow, Helston, Cornwall

Standard

On the 8th of May – the picturesque town of Helston becomes even more picturesque. Doorways are adorned with masses and flowers and everyone is dressed immaculately in readiness for the famed Furry dance. However, for the folklorist and customs enthusiast get there early and one can experience two customs on the same day – the earliest the revived Hal-an-Tow.

In Tow!

The earliest account of the custom appears in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1790 which is quoted in Charles Knightly’s 1986 The customs and ceremonies of Britain:

“In the morning, very early, some troublesome rogues go round the streets with drums or other noisy instruments, disturbing their sober neighbours and singing parts of a song, the whole of which nobody now recollects, and of which I know no more than that there is a mention in it of the grey goose quill and of going to “the green wood to bring home the summer and the May-O”: and, accordingly, hawthorne flowering branches are worn in hats.”

John Bickerdyke’s 1889 The curiosities of Ale and Beer records:

“At Helston, in Cornwall, on the 8th of May, called “Furry Day,” may still be witnessed a survival of the old May Day festivities. Very early in the morning the young men and maidens of the place go off into the country to breakfast. About seven o’clock they return bearing green branches, and decked with flowers, they dance through the streets to the tune of the “Furry Dance.” At eight o’clock the “Hal-an-Tow” (Heel and Toe?) song is sung, and dancing and merriment fill the remainder of the day.”

THE HAL-AN-TOW.

Robin Hood and little John, They both are gone to fair O !And we will go to the merry green wood, To see what they to do there O !And for to chase O !To chase the buck and doe O !With Hal-an-tow, Jolly rumble O !

Chorus:

And we were up as soon as any day O !And for to fetch the summer home, The Summer and the May O !For Summer is a come O ! And Winter is a gone O !

Where are those Spaniards That makes so great a boast O !They shall eat the grey goose feather And we will eat the roast O !In every land O !The land where’er we go, With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c

As for St. George O !St. George he was a knight O !Of all the knights in Christendom, St. George he is the right O !In every land O !The land where’er we go,With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c.

God bless Aunt Mary Moyses, And all her power and might O !And send us peace in merry England,Both day and night O !And send us peace in merry England,Both now and evermore O !With Hal-an-tow,Jolly rumble O !

Chorus: And we were up, &c.

Hal an Two, or three or four

What appears to be a unique custom may not be what it seems. Research suggests that it was found in other Cornish towns. Nicholas Boson of Newlyn records that it was said the maypole was set up with the men singing “Haile an Taw and Jolly Rumbelow” in 1660.  

Hal – an Tow what it means?

One thought is that the word Hal derives from kalann meaning the first of the month which is changed to an H in some version and ‘tow’ means garland in Cornish. However, this is no believed not to be true as the tow is pronounced like cow and not toe and derives from the Cornish word ‘tew’ meaning fat. It is possibly that it refers to the eve of fattening time – ie the coming of summer!

What the Hal – an Tow is it about?

So what is Hal – an Tow about? To my mind watching it, it comes across as a way devised for the town to remember and teach its history in a lighthearted way. The song is associated with various tableaux of characters – Characters include Friar Tuck, Robin Hood, St. George, St Piran and St. Michael.

Knightly thinks that the custom, and the Furry Dance which takes place on the same day, is:

“a rare survivor of…the Robin Hood May Games once played from Cornwall to Southern Scotland”.

In Peter Kennedy’s 1975 Folk songs of Britain & Ireland

The meaning of the title is disputed.  According to one theory it is “heave on the rope”, an adaptation by Cornish sailors from the Dutch “Haal aan het touw” (“tow” is pronounced to rhyme with “cow” in Helston today).  

 But it seems a pity with such a Cornish-sounding title to despair of finding a link with the old.”

Sabine Baring Gould 1890 Songs of the West suggested that the Hal an Toe formed part of an old English May Games which included the election of a May Queen and King, Morris dance performed by disguised sword-bearing men, the Hobby Horse and Robin Hood and thus was a sort of Mummer’s play. The Morris association is suggested in Kennedy’s 1975 Folk songs of Britain & Ireland

Others think it might refer to the heel and toe dance of The Monk’s March, which is still danced in the English Cotswold Morris tradition.  

The work continues to note that Mordon stated that:

“has every sign of being a processional Morris dance even to the slow part at the beginning of the chorus in which, when its steps were still known and used, the dancers in characteristic Morris style would have spread out sideways for a few steps, waving their handkerchiefs before forming into line as before.” 

The first two verses are fairly typical of a Robin Hood mummer’s play song, with the addition of the invasion of the Spaniards remembering when there were many attacks on the coast such as the burning of Mousehole. The next verse refers to St George and the dragon, albeit referring to a Helston local variety perhaps. Interestingly it is believed that an additional verse by a noted Cornish poet, Robert Morton Nance in the 1930s:

“But to a greater than St George our Helston has a right-O, St Michael with his wings outspread, the Archangel so bright-O, Who fought the fiend-O, of all mankind the foe’

Interestingly, unlike other customs this indicates that the custom is more fluid then many and in 2005 the following was added:

“St Piran showed his care for us
And all our sons and daughters, O
He brought the book of Christendom
Across the western waters, O
And taught the love of Heaven above
For Cornishmen below.”

The last verse has been thought to possibly suggest a vulgarisation of the Virgin Mary, the Cornish word for ‘maid’ or ‘virgin’ being mowse like moses thus Mary Mowse, Mary the virgin, perhaps again it refers to Maid Marian

A similarity has been made to Padstow’s May Day in some of the wording seen in now unused sections of the song. Indeed there is a parallel between the character of Ursula Birdhood in their May song and Helston’s Mary Moses. Its singing at only the first and last place it is performed, echoes in away the Padstow’s Night song.

The revival

The custom was abandoned in the 19th century probably because it encouraged lascivious behaviour encouraging as it did the locals to enter the woods at dawn and collect boughs of plants with possible other diversions. Then in 1930 on the back of the Old Cornish Society wave of Cornish rebirth it was brought back.

Hal and back

I arrive on a Saturday when the sun was shining and the whole town sparkled. Map in hand I searched for the Hal-an-Tow’s first location which appeared to be a car park. Here a big crowd had assembled awaiting the players.  Oe read a proclamation and around them dancers covered head to toe in foliage, knights and a dragon. Following Hal an Tow is great fun and the players clearly are well practiced and take it very seriously as well as having great fun. Carrying banners and blowing whistles and horns they appear to be pushing out the evil spirits perhaps or waking up the locals for the main event! Their customs and tableaux are splendid and the dragon is particularly superb. The whole custom is very hypnotic and I you feel yourself singing along and the tune turning over and over again in your head…until that is your start hearing the Furry dance tune!!

Custom demised: Dipping on May Day in Cornwall

Standard

Image result for old drawing of polperro

“The first of May is Dipping Day   The sixth of May is Looe Fair Day.”

 

In a previous blog post I discussed May Dew on Arthur’s Seat, in the other end of the country in Cornwall, a curious custom called dipping was associated with May Day and similarly thought to give good luck. R A Courtney is his 1886 article for Folklore on Cornish Feasts and Feasten customs records:

“In Cornwall May Day is hailed by the juveniles as ” dipping-day.” Early in the morning the children go out into the country and fetch home the flowering branches of the white-thorn, or boughs of the narrow- leaved elm, both of which are called ” May.” At a later hour all the boys of the village sally forth with their bucket, can, and syringe, and avail themselves of a licence to ” dip, or well-nigh drown, without regard to person or circumstances, the person who has not the protection of a piece of ” May ” in his hat or button-hole.”

Thomas Bond in his 1823 ‘Topographical and Historical Sketches of the Boroughs of East and West Looe, in the County of Cornwall notes:

“On May day the boys dress their hats with flowers and furnish themselves with bullocks horns in sticks of about two feet long are fixed and with those filled with water they parade the streets all day dip all persons who pass them if they have not what is May in their hats that is a sprig of hawthorn.”

Why did they do it? Perhaps Tony Dean and Tony Shaw’s 2003 Folklore of Cornwall has the answer:

“The importance of dew may have had some link with the May Day practice of sprinkling with water, ‘dipping’, to bring good luck. We have already noted that the Padstow Oss once visited Treator Pool for this purpose and all over Cornwall, dipping was a common custom.”

Dipping appears to be recorded nowhere else although it does have a similarity to customs seen in Poland associated with Easter Monday.

Custom demised: Lide Friday

Standard

Wikipedia tin mine cornwallHere is a lost custom I am sure would welcome a revival to a wider range of industries. T. F.  Thiselton Dyer in his 1875 British Popular Customs Present and Past notes that the first Friday in March was called Lide, from the Anglo Saxon Hlyd for March. This is remembered in an old proverbs which states:

“Duck’s won’t lay ‘till they’ve drunk Lide water.”

Daffodils were also called Lide lilies/ T. F.  Thiselton Dyer notes that in Cornwall it was associated with a bizarre custom:

“This day is marked by a serio-comic custom of sending a young lad on the highest mound or hillock of the work, and allowing him to sleep there as long as he can ; the length of his siesta being the measure of the afternoon nap for the tinners throughout the ensuing twelve months.”

Thus the day was considered a sort of Cornish miner’s holiday although the weather which Thiselton Dyer again notes was:

“usually characterizes Friday in Lide is, it need scarcely be said, not very conducive to prolonged sleep.”

It is believed that during

“Li Saxon times labourers were generally allowed their mid-day sleep ; and it has been observation  that it is even now permitted to husbandmen in some parts of East Cornwall during a stated portion of the year.”

As the tinners disappeared from Cornwall so did the custom it would appear.

Custom survived: New Year’s Day First footing

Standard

Image result for First footing

As what you do on the first day of the year determines the rest of the year, or so it is said, I was invited to speak on local radio about New Year Day customs – prominent in these is First Footing and I was interested to hear both the newsreader and the presenter recounted their own First footing.

First footing is an interesting piece of British folklore and one that is clearly spreading and as it has taking away local variants no doubt. Early accounts record that it was restricted to the north of England and Scotland but clearly has spread in the first place as the 1st of January was accepted in England as the first day of the year and as media has recorded it.

Indeed the earlier accounts record it as a Scottish custom as noted by Chamber’s 1856 Book of Days :

“There was in Scotland a first footing independent of the hot pint. It was a time for some youthful friend of the family to steal to the door, in the hope of meeting there the young maiden of his fancy, and obtaining the privilege of a kiss, as her first-foot. Great was the disappointment on his part, and great the joking among the family, if through accident or plan, some half-withered aunt or ancient grand-dame came to receive him instead of the blooming Jenny.”

A dark night?

Who should be the first footer was always important but there appears to have been virtually countrywide agreement. For example the standard description for the first footer is described in Lancashire:

“a light-haired man is as unlucky as a woman, and it became a custom for dark-haired males to hire themselves out to “take the New Year in.””

Paying someone to do it was not unusual and Maureen Sutton in her 1996 Lincolnshire calendar records an account from the city of Lincoln which recalls:

“We believed the first dark haired man to set foot over your threshold would bring with him good luck. He had also to bring in the silver, the coal, and the wood that you had put out the night before. My mother used to pay one of our neighbours to first foot she wanted to make sure that everything was done as it should be. Some women thought that first dark haired you saw on New Year’s day you would marry. A fair haired man would bring bad luck, a ginger one was even worse and a women was out of the question. I think she paid the neighbour a shilling.”

Christine Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire in 1936 records that:

“To avoid the risk of such disastrous visits. The master of the house, if he is dark, usually goes out just before midnight. As the clock strikes, he is admitted as First foot.”

In Northumbria according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria it was also desirable that they be unmarried, possibly recalling another tradition of marrying the first man on the new day.  However in Yorkshire although it was important that the First footer:

“always be a male who enters the house first, but his fairness is no objection.”

Tony Dean and Tony Shaw in their Folklore of Cornwall 2009 stressed how the presence of a man was important:

“A female must never be the first over the threshold on New Year’s Day and sometimes boys were main nominal sums to pass over the step before a lady.”

And in the 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather, she notes that:

“a women would not enter a house without first enquiring if a man had been there that day”

And a story is even told of a young Mansfield girl barred from the home on New Year’s day and subsequently picked up by the police in late 1800s because no man had visited the house yet. However equality was rightfully affecting this tradition. In Birmingham a Ted Baldwin recording back in the 1920s in Roy Palmer’s 1976 Folklore of Warwickshire that:

If the person had black hair he or she would be welcome to come in the front door and leave by the back, it was a sign of good luck for the coming year and anyone performing this generous act was awarded sixpence according to custom.

And in Worcestershire it is recorded that in Notes and Queries that:

A belief exists in this county, that if the carol singer who first comes to the door on New Year’s morning be admitted at the front door, conducted through the house, and let out at the back the inmates will have good luck during the year.”

Image may contain: drink and indoor

Bring in the coal

What was brought in and how is equally important and now it appears that in most cases the items have become standardised if sometimes difficult to obtain. Ted Baldwin’s:

Another tradition was to present neighbours with a piece of coal as a symbol to warn off want.”

According to Kingsley Palmer in the 1976 Folklore of Somerset:

“It was the man who first set foot inside the house on New Year’s Day who shaped the pattern of life for the coming months. He should be dark and carry a lump of coal….although the observance is generally practiced in the northern counties it is also a Somerset tradition and can still be found today. Needless to say, a dark man with a few small pieces of coal can visit his friends at this time of year and be rewarded for his efforts.”

In Durham a homeowner would check their larder was full and their coal and firewood stocks were high according to Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria. In Cornwall money would be left on the window sill. A correspondent from Boston in Sutton recorded stated:

“Silver meant meant you’d have money for the year; coal would give you light and heat; and if you take in wood, you wont take a coffin out in the year, y’er wont take wood out of the house”

Hence the expression recorded in Hole’s Traditions and Customs of Cheshire:

“Take in and then take out, Bad luck will begin, Take in and then take out, Good luck comes about”

She continues to record that:

“A curious adaptation of this idea was shown in a Manchester murder trial. During the New Yeae holiday there, one of the habitues of a public house asked for whiskey on credit. The publican refused on the grounds that it was unlucky to give it then. The infuriated customer drew a knife and stabbed the host who died.”

Hole also notes that:

“It was unlucky to give fire, or a light, out of the house on the 1st January. To do so might cause a death in the family within the year or bring some misfortune.”

In Sussex according to W. D. Parish a Dictionary of Sussex Dialect of 1875 that it was unlucky to bring mud into the house and it was called January butter and in Cornwall it is recorded that even dust was swept inwards. In Essex recorded at Colchester by Sylvia Kent’s 2005 Folklore of Essex was the following rhyme for the first footer:

“I wish you a happy new year, a pocketful of money, a cellar full of beer, a good fat pig to last all year. So please give a gift for New Year.”

Warwickshire the following must be said by boys or men:

“A good fat pig to serve you all year Open the door and let the New Year in, Open the door and let me in.”

A Birmingham correspondent recorded in 1966 when she was 40 states that it was:

“and a big fat goose to last you all year.

At this point that poke the fire, runs three times around the table and shouts ‘New air in with the door open and then runs out.”

In Fran and Geoff Doel in 2009 Folklore of Northumbria children would beg as they first footing:

“Get up aad wife and shake your feathers, dinna think we are beggars, we are just bairns come out to play, get up and giv our hogemany.”

Wrong footed

Is this custom now dying out? Its one of the few private customs which is still undertaken despite no obvious benefits, indeed there is even has a wikihow webiste: https://www.wikihow.com/Celebrate-a-First-Footing. Having said that there has been concern over its survival. In Dundee it was reported in the Evening Telegraph in 2016 that:

“Dundonians are being urged to revive an age-old New Year’s tradition by giving a lump of coal as a first-footing gift. The Scottish custom of visiting neighbours after midnight on Hogmanay has become less common in recent years. Traditionally, visitors would have come with gifts, including coal, shortbread, whisky or salt. In a bid to restore the custom, supermarket Lidl will give out lumps of coal to customers in Dundee – the idea being it would have been placed on the host’s fire to keep it going. Paul McQuade, Head of Buying for Lidl in Scotland, hoped the giveaway would keep the encourage folk to keep the tradition going. He said: “Hogmanay and New Year’s Day is a time for eating and drinking with friends, neighbours and family. “It’s a special time around the world, but especially in Scotland.“This year, we want to give our customers something extra – a lump of coal to present to their neighbours and hopefully this will help revive the tradition of first-footing in the community.” The coal will be available at checkouts in all Lidl stores from today, while stocks last.”

Well I can record that it is still done as noted in my radio interview. So next year my bread, coal, silver will be sitting on the doorstep ready for the doors to open!

Custom demised: Holy Innocent’s Day or Childermas

Standard

History of Childermas: Feast of the Holy Innocents

Holy Innocent’s Day or Childermas is a forgotten date in the calendar but in Britain it was recorded. The day still remembered beyond the British Isles records the slaughter by Herod of the boy children born in Bethlehem in his attempt to remove the Christ child. As these the first murdered associated with the burgeoning faith, they became the first martyrs and as such became marked in the church calendar.

Generally the day was thought to be unlucky and nothing would be organised on this day, Richard Carew noted on 17th century Cornwall:

“that proves as ominous to the fisherman as beginning a voyage on the day when Childermas day fell doth to the mariner.”

Similarly in Shropshire Charlotte Burne in her 1883 book of Shropshire folklore recorded:

“Innocent’s Day sometimes called Cross day is a day of ill omen. The ancient people of Pulverbach applied this name not only to Innocent’s day but throughout the year to the day of the week on which it had last fallen, such day of the week being believed to be an unlucky day for commencing any work or undertaking. A popular saying about any unfortunate enterprise was ‘It must have been begun on a cross day.”

As children were the forefront of the custom it was important to remember them. In some parts of the country the youngest child “rules the day.” It was the youngest who decides the day’s foods, drinks, music, entertainments. In Rutland, according to Leicestershire notes and queries:

“Playing in Church – When living in the Parish of Exton, Rutland, some 15 years ago. I was told by an old lady that in her girlhood, in the very early years of this century, it was custom for children to be allowed to play in the church on ‘Innocent’s day.’”

Still today, Boy or Youth Bishops, rule until Holy Innocent’s day and often a mass is held to commemorate their hand over. In the 17th century, Gregorie’s Works of 1684 noted a contrary custom:

“It was at one time customary on this day to whip the juvenile members of a family. Gregory remarks that ” it hath been a custom, and yet is elsewhere, to whip up the children upon Innocents’ Day morning, that the memory of this murder might stick the closer ; and, in a moderate proportion, to act over the cruelty again in kind.”

According to Thistleton-Dwyer’s 1900 British Popular customs past and present Gregory was informed of another custom told to him by his friend, Dr. Gerard Langbain, the Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford, from which it appears that, at the church of Oseney, associated with the old abbey. He notes:

“They were wont to bring out, upon this day, the foot of a child prepared after their fashion, and put upon with red and black colour, as to signify the dismal part of the day. They put this up in a chest in the vestry, ready to be produced at the time, and to be solemnly carried about the church to be adored by the people.”

This too has been forgotten and perhaps what with Christmas’s secular approach more and more skewed to children it appear unlikely that any customs are going to be revived