Category Archives: Games

Custom demised: Gule of August and Lammas Towers, Lothian

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“The herdsmen within a certain district, towards the beginning of summer, associated themselves into bands, sometimes to the number of a hundred or more. Each of these communities agreed to build a tower in some conspicuous place, near the centre of their district, which was to serve as the place of their rendezvous on Lammas Day. This tower was usually built of sods, for the most part square, about four feet in diameter at the bottom and tapering to a point at the top, which was seldom above seven or eight feet from the ground. In building it, a hole was left in the centre for a flagstaff, on which to display their colours.”

Scottish traditions - Lammas Day - History ScotlandSuch records an unusual custom in the Trans. Soc. Antiq. of Scotland, vol. i.  It continues to state:

“From the moment the foundation of the tower was laid, it became an object of care and attention to the whole community; for it was reckoned a disgrace to suffer it to be defaced; so that they resisted, with all their power, any attempts that should be made to demolish it, either by force or fraud; and, as the honour that was acquired by the demolition of a tower, if effected by those belonging to another, was in proportion to the disgrace of suffering it to be demolished, each party endeavoured to circumvent the other as much as possible, and laid plans to steal upon the tower unperceived, in the night time, and level it with the ground. Great was the honour that such a successful exploit conveyed to the undertakers; and, though the tower was easily rebuilt, yet the news was quickly spread by the successful adventurers, through the whole district, which filled it with shouts of joy and exultation, while their unfortunate neighbours were covered with shame.”

There appeared to be some competition arisen which may have lead to some desire to knock over the rival’s effort there for it continues to state:

“To ward off this disgrace, a constant nightly guard was kept at each tower, which was made stronger and stronger, as the tower advanced; so that frequent nightly skirmishes ensued at these attacks, but were seldom of much consequence, as the assailants seldom came in force to make an attack in this way, but merely to succeed by surprise; as soon, therefore, as they saw they were discovered, they made off in the best manner they could.”

The night watch would have a horn and this was called the “tooting horn,” which was described as a “horn perforated in the small end, through which wind can be forcibly blown from the mouth, so as to occasion a loud noise” And it said that there was need for great dexterity and that “they practised upon it during the summer while keeping their beasts; and towards Lammas they were so incessantly employed at this business, answering to, and vieing with each other, that the whole country rang continually with the sounds.”

The custom was organised and the report continues:

“As Lammas Day approached each community chose one from among themselves for their captain, and they prepared a stand of colours to be ready to be then displayed. For this purpose they borrowed a fine table-napkin of the largest size from one of the farmers’ wives within the district, and ornamented it with ribbons. Things being thus prepared, they marched forth early in the morning on Lammas Day, dressed in their best apparel, each armed with a stout cudgel, and, repairing to their tower, there displayed their colours in triumph, blowing horns, and making merry in the best manner they could: about nine o’clock they sat down upon the green and had their breakfast.”

There would still be concerns over attacks from other parties and thus:

“In the meantime scouts were sent out towards every quarter to bring them notice if any hostile party approached, for it frequently happened, that, on that day, the herdsman of one district went to attack those of another district, and to bring them under subjection to them by main force. If news were brought that a hostile party approached, the horns sounded to arms, and they immediately arranged themselves in the best order they could devise; the stoutest and boldest in front, and those of inferior prowess behind. Seldom did they await the approach of the enemy, but usually went forth to meet them with a bold countenance, the captain of each company carrying the colours, and leading the van. When they met they mutually desired each other to lower their colours in sign of subjection. If there appeared to be a great disproportion in the strength of the parties, the weakest usually submitted to this ceremony without much difficulty, thinking their honour was saved by the evident disproportion of the match; but, if they were nearly equal in strength, neither of them would yield, and it ended in blows, and sometimes bloodshed. It is related that, in a battle of this kind, four were actually killed, and many disabled from work for weeks.”

However it then states that:

“If no opponent appeared, or if they themselves had no intention of making an attack, at about mid-day they took down their colours, and marched, with horns sounding, towards the most considerable village in their district; where the lasses and all the people came out to meet them, and partake of their diversions. Boundaries were immediately appointed, and a proclamation made, that all who intended to compete in the race should appear. A bonnet ornamented with ribbons was displayed upon a pole as a prize to the victor; and sometimes five or six started for it, and ran with as great eagerness as if they had been to gain a kingdom; the prize of the second race was a pair of garters, and the third a knife. They then amused themselves for some time with such rural sports as suited their taste, and dispersed quietly to their respective homes before sunset. When two parties met, and one of them yielded to the other, they marched together for some time in two separate bodies, the subjected body behind the other, and then they parted good friends, each performing their races at their own appointed place. Next day, after the ceremony was over, the ribbons and napkin that formed the colours were carefully returned to their respective owners, the tower was no longer a matter of consequence, and the country returned to its usual state of tranquillity.”

When this curious custom died up exactly is unclear it was still being described in the 18th century but as a possible more ancient pagan custom it is a shame and surprised in some format it has not been revived!

 

Custom demised: Rushden’s Mop and Pail Day

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Sergeant Thomas Richards | Murder at the StarRushden records a possibly unique rather antisocial custom which I have not seen recorded elsewhere. First recorded in Round House” Scene. (about 1821)

” “Mop and Pail Day” it appears that the younger inhabitants of the village adhered tenaciously to certain ancient customs, but especially the Mop and Pail. On one particular night a host of them went in accordance with their annual custom to collect mops, pails, brooms and wheelbarrows, carts, and every moveable article they could lay their hands on. These they placed on the Green in a confused heap, there to await the coming morn, when the sport began. At an early hour the lady owners of the mops etc., were seen rushing in crowds towards the grand depot, where a merry scene ensues. Some of the gentle dames were tugging at one mop or doing ditto to a water vat, other wielding certain articles to the imminent danger of the heads or ribs of their neighbours. It was customary for a fiddler to stand on an elevated spot and play “Happy Land”. The men said little, but one old lady entered into a full and learned definition of the custom. They got into trouble over this affair.”

Another account records this extinct Northampton Mercury, 23 May 1846 indicated why this custom died out with some discussion of perhaps what is indicated about ‘getting into trouble’:

“Three young men, and one old lady, of Rushden, stood charged [at Wellingborough Petty Sessions] with conducting themselves in a disorderly manner, on the night of the 12th inst., and setting at defiance the powers that be.”

It continues:

“It appeared that the younger inhabitants of this merry village adhere tenaciously to certain ancient customs, but especially the mop and pail, which by the bye has been entirely overlooked by Strutt [Joseph Strutt, Dresses and Habits of the English People, 1796-9, and Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, 1801]; on the night in question, viz., the 12th of May, when Morpheus had closed the eyelids of the more peaceable inhabitants, the defendants and a host of others went in accordance with their annual custom to collect the mops, pails, brooms, wheelbarrows, carts, and every moveable article they could lay their hands on; these they placed on the green in a confused heap, there to await the coming morn, when the sport begins; at an early hour the lady owners of the mops, etc., were seen rushing in crowds towards the grand depot, when a scene ensued which defies pen or pencil.”

The source of the problem and why it was probably stopped is indicated here:

“Half a dozen gentle dames might be seen tugging at one mop, two attempting to wheel one barrow in different directions, or doing ditto to a water vat; others wielding certain of the articles to the imminent danger of the head or ribs of their neighbours. It is customary during the hubbub for a fiddler to stand on an elevated spot and play some appropriate tune, such as “Happy Land”. The male defendants said little or nothing in their defence, but the old lady entered into a full and learned definition of the custom; gently brushing aside her still raven locks, she gave a statement which might interest a society of antiquarians, but not the generality of our readers. They were each called on to pay the expenses, Ss., and bound over to appear at the Sessions if called on. On leaving, the old lady sighed, and gently brushing aside her hair and a tear, exclaimed “We shan’t be allowed to play at marbles next”.

I am sure it was a very comical custom to watch and in a way perhaps a fun one with permission to revive?

 

Custom survived: Good Friday Holcombe Hill Egg rolling, Lancashire

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The last custom I attended before we dived into national lockdown in 2020 was the annual Good Friday at Rivington Pike, those it seemed fitting that the first post Lockdown Easter custom I should attend is the other noted Lancashire Good Friday custom at Holcombe Hill, near Ramsbottom, Lancashire.

Rolling off

The Holcombe Hill Good Friday custom is noted in virtually all folk customs books but usually as an aside in a list of egg rolling locations; which is not particularly useful as it is often coupled with Bunker’s Hill, Derbyshire, which I am pretty sure is no longer extant. And whilst other egg rolling customs get some detailed accounts made, these days usually online, Holcombe’s custom appears to have been so under the radar, that before the pandemic hit, I doubted it actually happened. Or certainly that it did not happen in the same vigour as that of Rivington. However clearly I was wrong and it was the pandemic that indicated that it was very popular when this appeared in the 2021 Manchester Evening News:

“For the second year in a row, a popular children’s tradition is set to be cancelled.

Egg rolling at Holcombe Hill is an unusual event that takes place at Easter each year and has a history dating back centuries.

If you live in the area you will almost definitely have heard of it and might have been among the crowds of onlookers gathered to watch and cheers as youngsters roll painted boiled eggs down the hillside…..

Despite this long history, authorities have advised that no egg rolling take place at Holcombe Hill this year as large crowds ‘would make social distancing impossible’.

The car park on Lumb Carr Road will be locked over the Easter weekend to dissuade people from driving to the hill.

Coun Andrea Simpson, Bury council’s cabinet member for health and wellbeing, said: “After a year of lockdown, we’re all desperate to get out there and enjoy the countryside, and get our lives back to normal…..Thousands of people mixing together at Easter carries a very real risk of causing infection to spread and making people very ill.”

Bar this there is little else recording it bar a mention in 1908 of someone selling sweets at the top in the Bury News and perhaps the original focus of the custom the Church service first recorded in print in 1949 as far as I can gather.  Sadly in many well-known customs people feel it is unnecessary to write anything about them…until now!

Rolling on

So I decided to attend in 2022 and experience the custom. With such rather informal affairs it is always difficult to know what time to attend. If the church custom still happened at the foot of the hill it would have been good to attend, but finding details of this was more difficult and it would appear to be bit early…so I aimed for midday.

Arriving there on a sunny Good Friday thankfully it was clear that there were already many on the summit of Holcombe Hill by the large number of cars crammed along the streets of the small village in its shadow. After finding a parking place, I noticed the large numbers of families with the children clutching egg boxes…meaning only one thing…egg rolling.

At the base of the hill one could see the small figures of people at the top appearing like spikes on dinosaur either side of the dark shadow of the Peel Monument on top. Indeed, there was a steady stream of people of all ages ascending the summit which felt at times more like a mountain than a hill! On the way, there were bits of egg shell. Did they land here or did they not make it?

I spoke to a number of people as they ascended the hill and asked them why they did it. One commented that ‘it was a family tradition’ and another said ‘I remembered going to the summit with his father and grandfather’ I asked did you go with eggs and one could not remember and the other said ‘why yes of course’. I also asked why they did it and another stated that ‘it was just a ritual a way of burning off a big lunch’ another said it was to ‘remember to the Calvary!’

At the top there was a large number of people, mainly eating their lunch, and then like a steady stream, going down to the edge of the hill with their eggs. I peered into a couple of egg boxes to see some neatly painted eggs; indeed some looked stained in the traditional fashion. I joined the families to see how they were rolling them and the answer was they werent! The hill unlike every other site for egg rolling had no good slope. Much of the hill was covered with thick heath and bracken. Instead the children went to the edge of the cliff, one ledge looked pretty precarious and there the aim being to get they either as far as possible, as smashed as possible or both and beneath a large rocky outcrop -the main aim of their projectiles, was splatted with eggs and shells like a giant omelette attempt! It seemed that this was the usual practice for the children confirmed by one of the older men with his grandchildren…and as such I was surprised it had not been recorded before!

 

Custom contrived: The Bog Snorkelling championships

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Perhaps king of the crazy customs dreamt up one day in the pub is the World Bog Snorkelling Championship. Started in Llanwrtyd Wells, a fairly forgotten place not really on the way to anywhere but once in the eye of attention when it was developed as a spa. That was long ago and despite some grand buildings its been largely forgotten by the outside well. It is certainly a great candidate for a bizarre sporting custom and being surrounded by boggy highland areas – bog snorkelling is it.

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Legend tells that that seed of an idea begun in an chat in the town’s Neuadd Arms between a few regulars and Gordon Green in 1976. The seed was sown but the first championship largely a quiet affair by comparison of today was held at the Waen Rhydd bog near the town in 1985. The winner (or winners as it was doubtless like today men and women championships) has not been recorded or rather I have been unable to find. Since then the world’s stage has come to Wales to enter with competitors coming as far as way as South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, USA and even England. As such its been on German and Australian TV as a regular ‘wacky world’ component on the news. 

The BBC website covering the event neatly described the bizarreness of it:

“Taking an activity normally associated with the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean and moving it to a large drain in Dungannon may not be to everyone’s taste.”

And yet people flock to get into those murky dirty water to race down two lengths of a 60 metre drain in the bog and be the winner.  The continue: 

“Why someone would want to dive into a deep cold, very dirty, and slightly smelly bog drain is a moot point, even among the competitors.”

Some competitors said they may need to find a different hobby, but one man said he had set a record for the sport, mainly because no-one else had been timed yet.

“It’s cold, yes, when you get in, but it’s good for your skin,” said one female devotee of the sport.”

Personally I was not convinced by the later reason. looking down into the water and watching the competitors emerging from the murky waters like a modern day creature of the black lagoon some covered with floating pieces of moss!

Bog trotters

Each year 200 entrants sign up. All that is needed of course is a pair of goggles and a snorkel – you don’t even need a wetsuit – but this does not stop the competitors turning up in more and more bizarre costumes. Many looking like a stag or hen night which has somehow got lost from their evening pub crawl and ended up bewildered at the edge of a peat bog and say ‘oh well we are here now might as well join in – be rude not too.’. Some costumes are of course completely impractical in a peat bog as well blowing up like balloons in the murky water and sadly making them too buoyant like someone going for one of those school safety certificates. 

I turned up in 2017 and was confronted by a considerable number of men in dresses, nuns and a person dressed as a bumble bee – whose wins when she entered caused considerable drag and slowed them down.

Bogged down

There was a considerable bit of cockiness from some who waited bathing in the warm sun, dismissing the enterprise as easy and upon entering the cold brown waters looked rather shocked to find and were huffing and puffing at the end. Tempting as it looked – and I did have a snorkel and glasses in the car – I wasnt tempted.

Some individuals were more determined  such as Mr Neil Rutter who took the crown in 2017. The challenge was on. The year before a 1 minute 19 seconds was the world record (but that was over in Ireland). Mr Rutter shouldn’t have been upset he came in a very respectable 1 min 26.15 secs. Little did I know the very next year spurned on by this perhaps he broke the world record at 1 min 18.81 secs. He remains the title holder as well as the current Bog Snorkelling champion due to the impact of Covid of course. The only other time it had been cancelled was in 1995 due to a drought! 

The Bog Snorkelling has become the catalyst of other smaller events expanded into a sort of triathlon approach. And somewhat prescient the Royal Mail included the event in a celebration of UK Weird and Wonderful Customs it would seem in 2019 – a few months before the pandemic would stop them!! When it is bet I could not think of a better way to spend an August bank holiday…if you havent been get your flippers on an attend. 

 

 

Custom revived: Hemswell May Day, Lincolnshire

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A cursory glance of a book on Calendar customs will find no mention of the Hemswell May Day. This is a shame for although the present celebration is not of a great vintage, it is claimed that Hemswell maypole dancing celebrations in the world dating significantly back to 1660, the year of the Restoration. However, the earliest record of the Maypole is from the street name first recorded in 1841.It is noted that the weathervane was added in 1859, Gutch and Peacock (1908) in their work on Lincolnshire folklore notes:

“Hemswell Maypole. — On a recent visit to the neighbourhood of Gainsborough, I went to Hemswell, a village at the foot of what is termed ‘ The Cliff,’ in the northern division of the county of Lincoln. In the centre of the village I was surprised to see a Maypole. The pole proper stands between two stout posts about fifteen feet high. Near the top of them a strong iron bolt is passed through the whole. The posts are fixed firmly in the ground, while the pole between is loose at the bottom, but kept in place by a second transverse bolt near the ground, which is drawn out when the pole is wanted to be lowered; which is done by getting a ladder and fixing a rope high up on the pole, by which it is pulled down, swinging on the top transverse bolt as on a pivot. It is steadied by another rope at the bottom. When decorated it is raised to its place again by pulling the bottom rope, and it is fixed by reinserting the lower transverse bolt.”

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The authors do not appear to describe any use of the Maypole and the earliest record of its use being pictures of the early 1900s. It is known that it was lowered and repainted in 1919 by the village carpenter, a Charles Love at the cost of 25/-. However, by the time Rudkin (1936) describes it, the correspondent appears to suggest such events were a thing of the past:

“Feast week was in Maytime (ie Mayweek first week in May) and there used to be stalls all in the street round the maypole. There was ‘good-stiff’ stalls and sweetmeat stalls and aunt sally a rare fine show it was!As a little ‘un I remember it and id 4d to spend so I spent it all in halfpence – and I did buy a lot with that 54d! We danced at nighttime round the Maypole, but only ordinary round dances, none of those dances with ribbons attached to the pole – I never heard tell of that being done pers Mrs H of Hemswell.”

She is more emphatic in the County Magazine (1934-6), as Rudkin notes:

“Hemswell is our only village that can boast of a Maypole still in position..but all traditions about dances or other doings are now dead in the village itself.”

May be old or Maypole be not!

Allen (1994) in her work The Hemswell Maypole notes however and a Mr. Senior in 1977 could remember a youth climbing it to put some briads on it. Allen (1994) suggests that the attempt was unsuccessful as he could not recollect any dancing. It appears if a Mrs Edith Bamford is correct with her recollection in 1986 when 87 that the tradition of Maypole dancing was kept alive by the school having a portable maypole. Certainly photographs from the 1950s show this. Despite this repairs were made in 1957 and 1964. It appears probable that the custom was revived in 1976 when the Lincoln Folk Dance society asked if they could use it.  They brought their own braids and a May Day was established and now dancing and a small fete is held around the Maypole area and parish hall on the May Bank Holiday.  The braids due to the difficulty of reaching the top of the pole are set mid way up.  Now the children wear a special costume with boy’s smocks patterned to denote their work and girls with long cotton skirts, aprons and fen-bridle style cotton bonnets.  Over the years Allen (1994) notes:

“Sometimes a May Queen has figured in the celebrations; the Lincolnshire Morris Men have often joined us, and other visitors have included the Lincoln Folk dance society, the Tatterfoals, and Dukes Dandy Clog Dancers, all bringing their particular brand of tradition.”

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The Hobby Horse and the rider

Only a hobby

One of the most interesting aspects of the day is a hobby horse – more horse like than others, which collects money and appears from all accounts to be a familiar feature although it is isolated from the dancing and appears to not to be associated with a Morris team. He wanders around with a note asking for money for his stable – the village hall! One wonders the origin of it, of course Obby Oss are associated with three West Country May events and certainly Rudkin refers to one in nearby towns of Grimsby where a sadly colourful defunct May pole day records: 

“And there was also Robin Hood, the Friar, the fool, the dragon and the Hobby Horse, all robed in character.”

Such a cavalcade of characters may suggest similar disguises where undertaken at Hemswell, but only the Hobby Horse remains, a person completely covered with a  sheet with a horse’s head on top carved out of wood. A bonus as the Hobby Horse is certainly a unique feature to Hemswell and one which looks vert old.

From the revival in the 1970s this quiet local celebration has continued. In 1992 when the pole was weathered for 5 years previous and a new brass fox placed on the top of its 17th feet, ensuring perhaps at least another 100 years of May days…so long may this remote location celebrate the May with their very own Maypole.

Custom demised: Holne Ram roasting on May Day.

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 In 1853, the curate of Holne in N. & Q. 1st S. vol. vii. p. 353 records a curious:

“At the village of Holne, situated on one of the spurs of Dartmoor, is a field of about two acres, the property of the parish, and called the Ploy (play) Field. In the centre of this stands a granite pillar (Menhir) six or seven feet high.”

Now folklorists have seen some significance with the association of the custom with a menhir suggesting an ancient custom and as such the following is of considerable interest. The author continues: 

“On May-morning before daybreak the young men of the village used to assemble there, and then proceed to the moor, where they selected a ram lamb (doubtless with the consent of the owner), and after running it down, brought it in triumph to the Ploy Field, fastened it to the pillar, cut its throat, and then roasted it whole, skin, wool, &c. At midday a struggle took place, at the risk of cut hands, for a slice, it being supposed to confer luck for the ensuing year on the fortunate devourer. As an act of gallantry the young men sometimes fought their way through the crowd to get a slice for the chosen amongst the young women, all of whom, in their best dresses, attended the Ram Feast, as it was called. Dancing, wrestling, and other games, assisted by copious libations of cider during the afternoon, prolonged the festivity till midnight.”

The custom appears in Black’s Guide to Devonshire who records:

“PLOYFIELD playfield where the ram feast is celebrated every May day a lamb being caught slaughtered and roasted and old games following the banquet.”

When it  died out is unclear. However, it is thought that the custom moved to July the 6th and involved catching ram from the moor,  dressing it with roses and leading to the Plat Park’ where it was slaughtered and then roasted. The meat was then apparently sold off and a day of games continued. In the end a ram was provided for the roast with little ceremony and in its final entity became the village’s fete which apparently still continues it a sanitised format today.

Custom contrived: Edinburgh Beltane Fire festivals

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Beltane is an ancient festival day which until recently had been largely forgotten it would seem but due to a neo-pagan revival to have been increasingly observed. One of the earliest and certainly most vibrant is that established in 1988 by a musical collective called Test Dept as their website records: 

“The event was intended as a celebration of traditional rituals as a local manifestation of an international spirit……Choreography, iconography and performance were moulded by the originators’ research into historical accounts of Beltane and their own influences (e.g. Test Department’s drumming, Trinidadian carnival, and ritual dance and performance).”

In a way of the custom is a sort of revival as Edinburgh had a tradition of beltane celebrations located on Arthur’s seat of which the washing in May Dew is the last remnant. However, anyone who has been to the told of Arthur’s seat would attest it is big on scenery but small on space! Thus the location was moved to Carlton Hill. The first Beltane fire festivals were a success:

“Originally an event with a core of a dozen performers and a few hundred audience, the event has grown to several hundred performers and over ten thousand audience. Key characters within the performance are maintained, though reinterpreted by their performers, and additional participants incorporated each year.”

Popularity has brought its challenges as the website notes:

“Originally, the festival was free and only lightly stewarded, however, as the event has grown in popularity, due to the capacity of the hill, funding requirements… the festival has in recent years moved to being a ticketed event.”

It certainly is a vibrant and busy event. I followed ticket in my hand the throng of people, devotes to the fire festival as they snaked up the hill. Once in you really do feel this is an immersive experience everywhere there is action, sounds, sights, smells and excitement. However, getting that killer photo is more of a challenge! 

The event starts with a procession of a resplendent white May Queen with a foliage covered green man with as their website states:

“followed by a cavalcade of characters who are intrinsically linked to them and their journey. Their destination is punctuated by various groups who either help or hinder their progress towards the Green Man’s fate and the May Queen’s destiny.”

If it wasnt them it was the throng of onlookers jostling for a position! The May Queen signifies the beginning of summer physically emphasized by the lighting of an immense bonfire. Once this has happened the performers move around the site integrating with great aplomb and flashes of red, white and toplessness! Writhing bodies and jumping in and out of the crowds creating a magical. Many doing the traditional jumping through the fire for luck and causes woops and cheers from the crowd. 

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After a dramatic stage performance signifying the inception of summer the May Queen and Green Man spark the birth of summer by lighting a huge bonfire. The performance then moves into its community phase. All the participants congregate in a place called the Bower. From here the finishing movements of the festival are played out in a dance of reds and whites. This is also where the home comforts of warmth, food and drink are provided to the tired and often very cold performers and crew. As the website notes:

“There are very few barriers between the audience and performers which offers up opportunity for an immersive experience. It is one where you are likely to come face-to-face with one of our colourful characters, or can step back and marvel at the scale of a production wrought in only two months by around three hundred volunteers. The presentation may leave you figuratively in the dark regarding what is being portrayed, but there is also a chance you may find yourself literally there too. One suggestion is to ‘head to the high ground and then follow the sound of drumming.”

The sound was indeed incredible and all in all this is an amazing event custom a must to experience and be part of. Less of an event to experience what Beltane was like in the pre-Modern years I would add but that is beside the point Edinburgh should be justly proud of this fantastic addition to the folklore calendar. A must! I left a bit before it finished and looked back at Carlton hill the spectacle of rich reds and oranges pours across the Edinburgh skyline creating an exciting vista. 

Custom transcribed: Wife carrying races

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The UK Wife Carrying Race has taken place since in 2008 in Dorking, Surrey, and from tiny acorns it has grown as it only attracted only three competitors in its first year growing to include 23 couples. The official website states that:

“Unlike the Finnish World Championships where pairs of carriers run against each other, in the UK Wife Carrying Race all couples run against each other in one wild mix of flailing arms, legs and buttocks. The UK race also differs from the Finnish competition in that the course is not flat: carriers have to tote their ‘wives’ uphill to the half way point, with an altitude gain of around 10m, before running back downhill to the finish line. Hay bales are used to provide hurdles on both the outward and return legs and while the course does not feature a pool, like in Finland, there is a ready supply of volunteers with water pistols and buckets of water to soak the competitors as they near the finish.”

The website continues:

“The race in Dorking has also seen the full spectrum of carrying styles: the piggyback (popular, but tiring and not very fast); the bridle carrying (almost impossible to keep up for long); the Fireman (across the shoulders); the shoulder ride (precarious but surprisingly swift) and the Estonian hold, where the ‘wife’ hangs upside down on the man’s back with her legs over his shoulders: This is the hold that is now almost invariably used in competition, being swift and relatively comfortable for both carrier and ‘wife.”

Carried away with a good story

Lou Ambers on the blog post ‘The strange sport of wife carrying’ :

There are three stories that people say form the basis for this strange sport. The first of these stories is one where an ancient Finnish robber and his gang of thieves used to plunder the land. The leader of the gang was named Ronkainen the Robber and he and his gang used to steal food and women from surrounding villages in the area where he lived. They would carry the women away on their backs and that evolved into the wife carrying race of today. The other legend behind this race is the one about a practice in 19th century Finland when young men used to go to neighbouring villages and steal other men’s wives and claim them for themselves. The practice was known as wife stealing and may have contributed to the sport of today. The final origin story is a little bit mundane and ordinary. This again features the character named Ronkainen the Robber but this time he used to train his thugs to become faster and stronger by carrying big heavy sacks on their backs.”

The homeland of wife carrying is thus Scandinavia and with a cheeky node to that origin claims that the British one was established:

 “with help from our Scandinavian cousins” for around 300 years from 793AD when Viking raiders raided villages and abducted wives.”

Wives tales

The race has tried to be inclusive – apparently in 2015 Joel Hicks carried “Tiny Tina” a male friend in drag who was 7’4″ and 22 stone – although I am not sure that it ticked any transgender inclusivity box and in 2016 he apparently carried two wives to tick the polyandry box. Indeed the website records:

“The UK Wife Carrying Competition has now seen all combinations of competitors: men carrying women, a man carrying a man and a woman carrying a woman, and in 2013 welcomed a woman carrying a man fir the first time: The BBC’s Stephanie McGovern carried 78-kg Mike Bushell around the course (they came last by a long way, but they did finish!)”

Lou Ambers on the blog post ‘The strange sport of wife carrying’ :

“This odd race is not the most politically correct though. As the world moves on in terms of male and female equality we still have a race where women are carried by big strong men to the finish line. It does not say a lot about gender rights. But the race is a tongue in cheek kind and is only done to keep old traditions alive and relive the olden days of Finland. The sport seems to be more of a joke event and it is not to be taken seriously.”

Of course the whole event is very tongue in cheek and no pollical points are being made. In 2019 the website reported:

“Three brave couples took part: Joel Hicks and Wendy Cook, Ian and Kath Phillips, and Kevin Bailey and Kim Lowe. Joel opted for the transverse fireman’s carry, while the other two couples went for the classic piggyback. Joel Hicks (a veteran fundraiser who had travelled from Hinkley, Leicestershire, in order to take part) was dressed as a baby, complete with nappy and fetching blue bonnet.

Joel took an early lead, and hardly slowed down to walk until the climb to the half way high point, whereupon he accelerated away again, leaving the other two couples jostling for second place. Joel – a well-built young gent, to say the least – sprinted home in just 1 minute 59 seconds for the 380m course, although Kevin Bailey was a close-run second in 2:13. Ian jogged in a breathless but happy third, to win the last-placer’s Pot Noodle, in 2:30.”

 Sadly, although perhaps social distancing might not impact upon true husbands and wives it would preclude any causal ‘wives’ if the reader understands me, so the race has been given a well-earned rest time for the contestants to practice in lockdown no doubt!

Custom contrived: The Elf on the Shelf

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The Elf on the Shelf - Wikipedia

“Like most things that get big in America, the Elf on the Shelf was bound to cross to these shores eventually. Now it’s available in the UK, the Elf on the Shelf is spreading like wildfire.”

Kate Whiting What is Elf on the Shelf? All you need to know about the Christmas craze

“Horrible passive aggressive doll that ‘watches you’ then tells on you to Santa.”

Amazon review

For many years we had plastic Elf sitting with his knees firmly tucked under his chin. He sat – because he had loop in his head – firmly hanging from one of the branches of our annual Christmas tree. He was a bauble like many of the others – currently the weirdest one on the tree is a pickled gherkin but that’s another story! Then as the current millennium developed a new Elf appeared on the Christmas roster and the term Elf on the Shelf became more and more frequently heard. Why?

Another book on the she-Elf-ie!

In the Strange and Sweet history of Elf on the Shelf the Huffpost summaries the story as follows:

“According to the book, the elf is a “scout elf” who sits on a shelf or table or another part of a family’s home to observe the children’s behavior during the holiday season.

Each night, the elf flies back to the North Pole and reports the kids’ actions to Santa Claus to inform his naughty and nice list picks. The elf then returns before the children wake up and settles in a new part of the house, creating a hide-and-seek game each morning.”

The Elf would visit from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve suggesting that parents would set up the Elf between these areas.The authors, Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell of thisT 2005 children’s picture book appear to be almost single handedly created their own custom – developed and spread by social media. Carol Aebersold stated that they got the idea from a family tradition that she Carol started for her two children in Georgia USA in the 1970s:.

“We had an elf growing up for as long as we can remember. Our elf was named Fisbee, and Fisbee of course would report to Santa Claus at night and be back in a different position in our house the next day,” Pitts explained. “We loved it. It was a chance for us to tell Santa directly what maybe we might want for Christmas, or to do good deeds so that Santa would know about them.”

When Aebersold was a child herself, Fisbee was more like an ornament that stayed on the Christmas tree and didn’t move. But the tradition morphed over time, and when she became a mother, she told her kids the elf would magically fly around at night and mustn’t be touched or it would lose its magic ― likely “to protect it, because we were pretty rambunctious children,” said Pitts.

The idea of a magical elf that flies to the North Pole at night and reappears in a surprise location was “super fun and whimsical” to the twins and their brother, Brandon, Pitts recalled. “It had all of us racing out of bed in the morning to find our elf!”

Help your Elf

As the custom developed it appears rules developed now on the book’s website:

  1. “A scout elf cannot be touched. Christmas magic is very fragile and if a scout elf is touched it may lose that magic and be unable to fly back to the North Pole.”
  2. “A scout elf cannot speak or move while anyone in the house is awake! A scout elf’s job is to watch and listen.”

Of course each night once the children have gone to bed the parents would have to find new places to place the Elf; which has resulted in some amusing locations and a whole range of images shared on social media.

It is thought that 2007 was an important point when actress Jennifer Garner was photographed with the Elf on the shelf box and soon the booksellers were flooded with orders and toy stores started selling the product. Now over 11 million elves have been sold and it has spread across the world including Great Britain.

Elf and safety warning

The custom hasn’t always been welcomed. Notwithstanding the hundreds of parents who have had to think about where to place the Elf each night and the horrendous middle of the night moment when a parent has just remembered they have not moved it, the have been other concerns.

In Who’s the Boss? “The Elf on the Shelf” and the normalization of surveillance Professor Laura Pinto reports that:

“Although The Elf on the Shelf has received positive media attention and has been embraced by millions of parents and teachers, it nevertheless represents something disturbing and raises an important question. When parents and teachers bring The Elf on the Shelf into homes and classrooms, are they preparing a generation of children to accept, not question, increasingly intrusive (albeit whimsically packaged) modes of surveillance?”

But psychological impact aside many such as The Atlantic columnist Kate Tuttle have questioned its position as a tradition, seeing it as:

“a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a tradition.”

But then I would say so are virtually half of our current customs and traditions – divorced as they are from what they really stood for!

This has ranged from reports on Amazon which states it is a

“My 4 year old cried and didn’t want it in the house.”

Custom survived: Christmas Crackers

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“Thomas Smith and company have endeavoured by employing special artists to produce designs, the finest modern appliances to interpret their work, and combining Art with Amusement and Fun with Refinement, to raise the degenerate cosaque from its low state of gaudiness and vulgarity to one of elegance and good taste….the mottoes, instead of the usual doggerel, are graceful and epigrammatic, having been specifically written for Tom Smith’s Crackers by well-known authors, among whom may be mentioned the late Tom Hood Esq., Charles H Ross Esq., Editor of Judy, Ernest Warren Esq., Author of Four Flirts, Laughing eyes etc.”

 

No Christmas table feels complete without them but they provide no sustenance and little ornament in a way. The cracker and its strange rituals around them has become a mainstay of the Christmas period. But how did a gunpowder and toy filled device end up being so ubiquitous? Instead

The cracker’s origin can be traced back to the 1840s but it has soon become a staple. It’s a simple idea a cardboard paper tube wrapped in brightly coloured paper and twisted at each end. It is what is inside that makes it special – two strips of gunpowder coated card, a paper crown, a gift and a joke. Often the latter being unfunny and possibly decades old.

That’s a cracker

The tradition thus has developed that at the start of the meal the arms are crossed over with each hand taking a cracker firmly. Each person pulls at the same time, the aim being to be one of the lucky recipients of the end with the hat, gift and joke. As they do so the friction on the paper as they pull apart causing the bang.  How and why this developed is unknown but it is not dissimilar to that done at New Year’s Eve.

It’s all gone crackers

The history of crackers can be traced back to one sweet manufacture called Tom Smith who in London had developed bon bon sweets which he made by a twist of sweet wrappers around. As the sales of these sweets began to drop he looked at novel ways to increase his sales. At first he added love poems and marketed them as gifts men gave to their wives and girlfriends at Christmas this later developed into the corny jokes and mottos. An example of an 1891 motto is:

“The sweet crimson rose with its beautiful hue,

Is not half so deep as my passion for you,

‘Twas wither and fade, and no more will be seen

But whilst my heart lives you will still be its queen,”

Then in 1847 he came across the idea of adding the banger mechanism after being influenced by he had heard the sound of a log crackling in a fire. He continued placing sweets into the bon bons but in time these themselves were abandoned and small items were placed inside. These were described as:

“Grotesque and Artistic Head dresses, Masks, Puzzles, Games, Conundrums, Jewels, Toys, Bric a Brac, Fans, Flowers, Tiny Treasures, Japanese curiosities, Perfumery, Scientific and Musical Toys, and many other surprises.”

This new product he marketed as Cosaque apparently from the erratic dancing of the cossacks or the sound of the horses depending where you read it, but soon as other makers decided to adopt the idea. It is said that as overseas manufacturer copied the original design, Tom decided to develop eight different types and distributed these throughout.  He successfully saw off the competition and his business spread but the name ‘cracker’ had by this time stuck, clearly describing the sound of the pulled cracker. Finally Tom’s son Walter Smith added the paper hats in 1910 and then the jokes in the 1930s.

Now you get virtually anything in a cracker from an Aston Martin Vanquish Coupe, a Cartier Diamond necklace and even a Sunseeker yacht valued at over $3 million but in most some combs, bottle openers and plastic flappy fish!