Category Archives: Overview

Custom survived: Christmas Crackers

Standard

“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!

Custom demised: St. Francis’s day swallow hibernation

Standard

 “But if hirundines (swallow family) hide in rocks and caverns, how do they, while torpid, avoid being eaten by weasels and other vermin?”  

Gilbert White in his  1776 Naturalist’s Journal

Such was the puzzle until recent times about how the swallow bird and its relatives survived the winter unscathed. The country folk even had a date in the calendar for it – St Francis’ Day, the 4th.

On this date it was widely believed that they would survive the winter at the bottom of a lake or pond deep in the mud remaining asleep or else torpid in some hole in the bank of such a river or even trees. It would appear that this belief even marked itself on the landscape with Swalcliffe the a cliff where swallows nested, being an example.  The greater founders of modern science – Linneaus, Buffon and Baron Cuvier – accepted without question Cuvier in his 1819 Le regne animal recorded:

“It appears certain that swallows become torpid during winter, and even that they pass his season at the bottom of the water in the marshes.”

Richard Carew in his Survey of Cornwall recorded:

“In the west parts of Cornwall during the winter season, swallows are found sitting in old deep tin works and the holes in seacliffs; but touching their lurking place, Olaus Magnus makes a stranger report; for he saith that that in the north parts of the world, as summer weareath out, they clasp mouth to mouth, wing to wing, and leg to leg, and so after a sweet singing, fall down into a certain great lakes or pools amongst the canes from whence.”

Olaus Magnus theory was repeated by Carl Linnaeus in his Systema naturae (1758); and even Samuel Johnson stated that swallows@

‘certainly sleep all the winter …in the bed of a river’.

Again Gilbert White in his 1789 The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne failed to believe that a British bird would leave Britain so hibernation was the obvious choice.

This view began to become questioned as an empirical view of science developed. Even so late into the 19th century it was an unquestioned view provided by local evidence such as in the third volume of Kingston’s Magazine for Boys, where an anonymous communication called M. K., stated that:

“A friend of his father once found a bird-ball upon the banks of the Ribble, which sprang into life upon being placed near the fire.”

An another account is given in the following 1883 letter.

“The wife of our village blacksmith was the daughter of a respectable farmer, renting under the Harcourts at Newnham, and incapable of falsehood. She told me this: ‘When I was a young girl, we had lots of swifts nesting under the eaves. Father thought they brought in a deal of dirt and vermin, so when the birds were gone in the autumn he had all the holes plastered up. The spring of next year was very early, fine and warm; and sister and I were disturbed by a strange scrabbling noise. Told father. He said, Rats, and had the skirting board knocked away, and out came what we all thought was a great bat. Father took it up, and it was a swift, and we took out about forty of them, and as the poor birds were mere skin and bone we tried to feed them. No use; so the poor things were tossed out of the window and flew away.”

Another account stating that:

“In the early part of the year 1843 I was residing at Great Glenham, in Suffolk. One morning about the beginning of March, I was told that a swallow had been seen coming out of a pond near our house. I expressed my disbelief in the correctness of this information, but was assured that there could be no mistake. Some days afterwards our gardener came to me in triumph, and told me that he had brought the swallow, which had been found dead near the pond where it had before been seen.”

However whilst misinformation was still being spread, evidence for the counter view was being gathered.  As the 19th century progressed, colonialism had allowed British naturalists to explore globally and hence encountered swallows in places such as India in the British winter.  Even so works such as Maurice Burton’s Animal Legends from 1955 recorded a discovery by a Professor Jagger of a swallow hibernating in a rockface but these may have been misidentifications, often storm petrels or sick birds. Now the 4th is a date for the birds to start migrating!

Custom demised: Goose at Michaelmas

Standard

I dined upon goose yesterday which I hope will secure a good sale of the second edition of my book.”

In 1813 Jane Austen

Stubble Goose and Sour Blackberries – Devil Spits Day | The FishWife's Kitchen - Nottinghamshire Food Blogger, Former Cafe Owner, Food Writer, Speaker, Small Food-Business Mentor, Cook, Fishwife

Michaelmas Day once had an association with eating goose. It is thought that the tradition begun after Queen Elizabeth I dined on it as the news of the defeat of the Spanish Armada arrived. It is said that from this day onward, she promised always to eat goose on that day feeling it had brought her good luck. Thus it is thought the custom spread. Thus was said:

He who eats goose on Michaelmas day;
Shan’t money lack or debts pay

Even at the dawn of the 18th century, the belief was already so old that its origins had become obscure, as demonstrated by a query to the British Apollo on 22nd of October 1708 –

“Pray tell me whence the custom’d proverb did commence, that who eats goose on Michael’s day, shan’t money lack his debts to pay?”

However, it is more than likely that it had long been eaten on that day as geese were often freely available. Its origins may be very ancient even pre-Christian perhaps. Geese were so common and sold in large numbers explaining why many fairs developed to sell them such as Hulls and Nottingham’s Goose Fair and Tavistock’s Goosey Fair. In the former even rents were paid in geese as noted in 1575 by George Gascoine regarding paying rents in the form of geese went:

And when the tenants come to pay their quarter’s rent,
They bring some fowl at Midsummer, a dish of fish in Lent,
At Christmas a capon, at Michaelmas a goose,
And somewhat else at New-year’s tide, for fear their lease fly loose

An old saying would say:

“On Michaelmas night by right divine,

The goose is chosen to be the swine”.

Goose featured heavily in the harvest belief. For example in many places Michaelmas was known as ‘Goose Day’ and the last portion of grain was referred to cutting the gander’s neck in Shropshire. Of course geese had a practical use in the fields at harvest they could clean up and finish the stubble and as such would become fat on the food. Having goose for Michaelmas became a sign of wealth and prosperity:

“if the goose breast at Michaelmas be dour and dull We’ll have a sour winter, from the start to the full.”

It is clear that the goose as did Michaelmas became largely forgotten partly due to the rise of urbanisation and the industrial revolution. Michaelmas may be remembered in some areas such as school and university terms but in the goose has gone!

Custom demised: Leap Year Agricultural and garden lore

Standard

Today is the 29th of February – a date which as you know only comes around every 4 years- intercalary year or bissextile year. Readers may be familiar with the belief regarding “Ladies Day” or “Ladies’ Privilege,” but there were other beliefs and customs associated with the day due to its rarity.

With a day made up of .25 of a day, there would be bound to be issues and the most wary of this change as always was country folk.  Weather governs agriculture and it according in a year leap the weather always changes on the friday and considering the awful windy and rainy weather of 2020 so far, I did notice that it did change accordingly…but lets see how that changes over the year.

Leaping lambs

Often the presence of an extra day appeared to knock the whole calendar both literally and folklorically out of kilter. One Scottish countryside view was regarding sheep and it was said that:

Leap year was ne’er a good sheep year”

This is reported in an 1816 edition of the Farmer’s Magazine:

“It has long been proverbial here that ‘leap year never was a good sheep year,’ an observation which this winter has been fully realized.”

Interesting in 1816 there was a considerable drop in temperature which meant that the snow quickly turned to ice and many lambs died. Whether it happened on a Friday though is unknown!

Not bean a good year

Planting crops were particular affected by Leap Day and the whole year. New plant fruits should not have been planted on the day as they only bore fruit once every four years. But the most reported was that broad beans and peas grew the wrong way in that their seed would be set in the pods in a different way to other years i.e back to frint. The reason for this appears to be that as this was the Ladies Privilege year when the idea of proposing was upside down the bean would lie the wrong way but why broad beans (and often peas) should be associated with this is unclear.

The custom even got to the ears of the great scientist Charles Darwin who in his autobiography stated who discussion of his scepticism:

“In illustration, I will give the oddest case which I have known. A gentleman (who, as I afterwards heard, is a good local botanist) wrote to me from the Eastern counties that the seed or beans of the common field-bean had this year everywhere grown on the wrong side of the pod. I wrote back, asking for further information, as I did not understand what was meant; but I did not receive any answer for a very long time. I then saw in two newspapers, one published in Kent and the other in Yorkshire, paragraphs stating that it was a most remarkable fact that “the beans this year had all grown on the wrong side.” So I thought there must be some foundation for so general a statement. Accordingly, I went to my gardener, an old Kentish man, and asked him whether he had heard anything about it, and he answered, “Oh, no, sir, it must be a mistake, for the beans grow on the wrong side only on leap-year, and this is not leap-year.” I then asked him how they grew in common years and how on leap-years, but soon found that he knew absolutely nothing of how they grew at any time, but he stuck to his belief.

After a time I heard from my first informant, who, with many apologies, said that he should not have written to me had he not heard the statement from several intelligent farmers; but that he had since spoken again to every one of them, and not one knew in the least what he had himself meant. So that here a belief—if indeed a statement with no definite idea attached to it can be called a belief—had spread over almost the whole of England without any vestige of evidence.”

With all this in mind I thought I might go ahead and plant some beans and see what happens! I’ll report back in 2024 – hopefully – at the latest.

A.C. Smith in their 1875 article from Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine on Wiltshire Weather Proverbs and Weather Fallacies they note:

“I must also call attention to the remarkable prejudice against Leap-year, a prejudice as common and as widely spread as it misunfounded. It is popularly supposed that neither children nor  domestic animals born in that year will thrive and that neither ” Leap year never was a good sheep year.”

Perhaps the last word though should be for A.C Smith’s who states:

“I need scarcely say that these are all popular delusions, founded on no reliable basis, though doubtless they do occasionally, however unfrequently, by accident, come true ; and then they attract unmerited attention, and are held up to admiring disciples as infallible weather-guides.

One thing however seems quite certain, and that is that if our observations are recorded through a long period of time, there will be found to be a balance of averages, both as regards heat and cold, and wet and dry weather: and in short the general average through the whole period will be found to be maintained.”

And with such cynicism and logic the custom must have died out!

Custom transcribed: Father’s Day

Standard

Image result for fathers day advert 1970s uk

It is fair to say that unlike Mother’s Day it is not the most popular of our transcribed customs but despite the slew of comical cards, cliché toolkit adverts and reference to classic rock and beer, its beginnings had honourable origins

There is some confusion of how the custom actually begun. One This tells us it begun as a response to a local disaster which killed 361 of which 250 were fathers at the 1907 Monongah Mining disaster, not far from Grafton West Virginia where Anna Jarvis had successfully introduced a re-constructed Mother’s Day. Grace Golden Clayton was mourning the loss of her father. As the disaster had left about a 1000 children without a father, she suggested that the pastor of the local church Robert Thomas Webb honour those fathers. The event did go ahead but the event was not promoted and was a small affair. As a consequence all the details of the event have been lost and it never continued.

Father dear father

However, perhaps the true originator of the ‘real’ Father’s Day was perhaps Sonora Smart Dodd. She again was influenced by Jarvis’s Mother Day service hearing a service in 1909 at the Central Methodist Episcopal Church. She suggested to the Pastor that the fathers should have a similar event. She herself wanted to honour her father William Jackson Smart who not only was a Civil War Veteran but raised six children on his own. Dodd suggested her father’s birthday, the 5th June, but apparently did not have enough time to organise it so chose the third Sunday in June. This was thus held on the 19th June 1910 at the Spokane, YMC, Washington. At the event she got the boys to wear fresh-cut roses, red for living fathers and white for those deceased in their lapels.

This time the event was more influential and thus a number of local clergymen adopted the idea and it spread through the city.  Thus in 1911, Jane Addams proposed a citywide Father’s Day in Chicago but this was rejected.

Origin number three perhaps is Methodist pastor J.J. Berringer of Irvington Methodist Church in Vancouver Washington. It what may have been an independent invention which locally was believed to be the origin of the custom.

Origin number four was Harry C Meek, who was dubbed the ‘Originator’s of the Father’s Day’ by the Lions Club International, because he came up with the idea of the custom in 1915, picking the third Sunday in June as it was close to his birthday.

Father on in time

A move was developing to allow Americans to adopt it as a holiday and President Woodrow Wilson event went to Spokane to speak at a celebration as an attempt  to raise its profile. Due to Dodd taking up studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, in the 1920s, the custom looked like it would die out. However, in the 1930s she returned to Spokane and started promoting it again there and nationally speaking to companies who might benefit for promoting it by providing traditional presents.

In 1938, a Father’s Day Council was founded by the New York Associated Men’s Wear Retailers which aimed to further promote the custom as a holiday. It was  not successful, as newspapers, reluctant to support another commercial enterprise like Mother’s Day, made sarcastic attacks and jokes. However, the merchants fought back and even used some of the derogatory opinions in their advertising.

Even in the 1930s, a movement started to replace both Mother’s Day and the embryonic Father’s Day, with a Parent’s day. The Great Depression prevented the success of this movement as the retailers saw it as a way to promote ties, hats, socks, pipes, tobacco, golf clubs and of course greeting cards in this;

Second Christmas for all the men’s gift-oriented industries.”

 

image 0

By World War II advertisers saw it as a way to celebrate American troops. When it arrived in the UK is unclear but one feels that again like Mother’s Day it came over with those troops. Interestingly in the Belfast Newsletter of 20th May 1930 it is referred to as American:

“FATHER’S DAY, In the United States of America they have a day called Father’s Day —this year it is the 15th of June—and the idea is that on this day presents are bought by wives and by children.”

And according to the Western Mail of the 25th July 1949 lamenting the lack of adoption stating:

“It is sad to note that there has been no nation-wide response to the proposal for an annual Fathers’ Day. It would be an occasion when ‘Poor old Poppa, who, as the Americans used to sing, He don’t get nothin’ at all, would receive due.”

Yet by at least 1952 effort was being made by companies as an advert in the Fraserburgh and Northern Counties Advertiser saying:

“FATHER’S DAY. Show your appreciation of your DAD on FATHER’S DAY by choosing him a nice gift at RUSSELL’S “The Men’s Wear Shop.”

The Tatler in 1957 had an advert which stating:

“A good new pipe is something he’s been wanting for months, maybe years. So ye him a Barling Guinea Grain.”

Or in 1966 Gift decanters were available. By the 1970s and certainly into the 1980s it had become well established and despite some who see it as a Clinton cards event it is now firmly established. Interestingly, what begun as a religious service is now almost wholly secular.

image 0

Custom demised: Cattle kneeling on Christmas Eve

Standard

“The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”

Isaiah Chapter 1, verse 3

It was once believed that at the bells rang at midnight, the cattle in their barns would kneel in honour of the occasion. The belief would appear to be an extrapolation of the account in Isaiah as neither St Matthew’s and St Luke’s gospel mention it and from this slight on how the people of Israel disregard Christ compared to the animals, grew into the belief immortalized in paints and illustrations. It became such a widespread belief that Thomas Hardy’s 1895 Tess of the d’Urbervilles:

 “Well, then he called to mind how he’d seen the cattle kneel o’ Christmas Eves in the dead o’ night. It was not Christmas Eve then, but it came into his head to play a trick upon the bull. So he broke into the ‘Tivity Hymm, just as at Christmas carol-singing; when, lo and behold, down went the bull on his bended knees, in his ignorance, just as if ’twere the true ‘Tivity night and hour. As soon as his horned friend were down, William turned, clinked off like a long-dog, and jumped safe over hedge, before the praying bull had got on his feet again to take after him. William used to say that he’d seen a man look a fool a good many times, but never such a fool as that bull looked when he found his pious feelings had been played upon, and ’twas not Christmas Eve. …”

Indeed, Hardy was so interested in the custom that he celebrated it again in poetry in 1915 for The Times on Christmas Eve:

“Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock. ‘Now they are all on their knees,’ An elder said as we sat in a flock By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where They dwelt in their strawy pen; Nor did it occur to one of us there To doubt they were kneeling then. 

So fair a fancy few would weave  In these years! Yet, I feel, If someone said on Christmas Eve, ‘Come; see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb, Our childhood used to know,’ I should go with him in the gloom,  Hoping it might be so.”

 John Brand in his 1849 Observations of popular antiquities of Great Britain was the first to record the folk custom, although as Steve Roud in his 2008 The English year states that it was extremely well-known in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Brand states:

“An honest countryman, living on the edge of St. Stephen’s Down, near Launceston, Cornwall informed me, October 28th 1790, that he once, with some others, made trial of the truth of the above and watching several oxen in the stalls at the above time, at twelve midnight, they observed the two eldest oxen only fall on their knees, and as he expressed it, in the idiom of the country, make ‘a cruel moan like Christian creatures’

Testing the belief

Of course, the first test of this belief would come when in 1752 the calendar was changed from Julian to Gregorian, but a contributor to Bentley’s Magazine in 1847 had a way of explaining it:

“It is said as the morning of the day on which Christ was born, the cattle in the stalls kneel down; and I have heard it confidently asserted that when the new style came in, the younger cattle only knelt on December 25th while the older bullocks preserved their genuflections fir old Christmas Day, January 6th

Despite this explanation many thought the event implausible, even Brand himself:

“I could not but with great difficulty keep my countenance; he saw this, and seemed angry that I gave so little credit to his tale, and walking off in a pettish humour seemed to marvel at my unbelief.”

Despite these early scoffs there may well indeed be people who believe this happens as Roud (2008) states and it is interesting to note perhaps that the belief was strongest in the USA.

Custom contrived: Thinking Day

Standard
Thinking Day Fort Sheridan Girl Scouts Cumbria copyright Lake Country Discovery Museum

Thinking Day Fort Sheridan Girl Scouts Cumbria copyright Lake Country Discovery Museum

“Far greater than the financial success, however, is the spiritual impact of Thinking Day. A special message I broadcast some years ago gives my assessment of its value: “During the twenty-four hours of 22 February, these kindly, generous thoughts are being thrown out into the ether by Guides who care personally about the preaching of love and goodwill in the world, and these thoughts and prayers are concentrated thus as a live force for the developing of friendship and understanding, for which all peoples are longing.”

“Though you cannot visit sister Guides in France or Finland, in Austria or Australia, in Italy or Iceland, Canada or Chile, Ghana or Guatemala, U.S.A. or U.A.R., you can reach out to them there in your MIND. And in this unseen, spiritual way you can give them your uplifting sympathy and friendship. Thus do we Guides, of all kinds and of all ages and of all nations, go with the highest and the best towards the spreading of true peace and goodwill on earth.”

Right sort of thinking

Beyond those in the Scouts or Guides – and their associated groups- Thinking Day is little known. Celebrated every year since 1922, the 22nd of February, or nearest weekend, it’s central idea is that it was a day that members thought about their sisters and brothers originally in Britain but now globally, and the movement’s impact.

 Thinking about you

The date was chosen because it was rather coincidentally the birthday of both Lord Robert Baden-Powell and Lady Olave Baden-Powell the founders of the Scouts and Guides. Interestingly, according to Lady Baden-Powell that the origin for the idea was from overseas. In Window on my Heart she states

“It was in Poland [at the 7th World Guide Conference, held in Kattawice in 1932] that `Thinking Day’ had its origins. A Belgian Guider at the Conference suggested that there should be one day set apart in each year when all of us should think of each other in terms of love and friendship. All the students of Scout and Guide pray to the god could have as vital a power as the Women’s World Day of Prayer. There was also a practical suggestion that on `Thinking Day’, each Guide throughout the world should contribute `A Penny for Your Thoughts’ towards the World Association funds. The Conference paid Robin (her pet-name for her husband) and me the compliment of choosing our joint birthday, 22 February, as Thinking Day. At first the idea hung fire but, one by one, the nations began to promote the scheme. Money began to pour in for the World Association and the totals have risen steadily from £520 12s. 6d. in 1933 to £35,346 in 1970/71 — the last year for which I have the complete figures.”

Traditional thinking

Over the time various customs and traditions have arisen connected to the day. One tradition is that at dusk a candle should be placed in the window by every Scout or Guide, ex-Scout or ex-Guide,:

 “This is my little Guiding Light, I’m going to let it shine.”

Another tradition is sending letters or postcards to other Scout and Guides before Thinking Day and of course as this has grown globally the spread has been so that email, tweets and facebook posts have replaced this!

A tradition which was upheld in many schools, but appears slowly to be dying out is that members would come to school dressed in their uniform. This is still upheld in some schools, such as Emerson Valley School, Milton Keynes is and recent report stated on their website:

“Wednesday 22nd February is World Thinking Day.  It is a very important day for Beavers, Cubs, Scouts, Rainbows, Brownies and Guides as it is the birthday of  Lord and Lady Baden Powell, Founders of the movement. A number of Emerson Valley School children and staff followed the tradition of proudly  wearing their uniforms to school!

In 1999 at the 30th World Conference the name was changed from Thinking Day to World Thinking Day and themes were introduced. These ranged from 2005’s Thinking about food, 2008 Thinking about Water but more recently the Thinking prefix has been dropped and themes are just Connect and Grow.

In a way it is a shame that Thinking Day is restricted to the Scouting movement – it would be nice for us all to adopt it – we could all do some time to think about others and issues!

Custom transcribed: Christmas Tree Festivals

Standard

I was recently asked how long does something have to go for, for it to be considered a tradition. I answered ten years because once you’ve gone past the decade there’s a feeling of ‘let’s keep it going’. Christmas Tree festivals appear to be the fad new fashion of the 21st century…last century I had never heard of them…now search for them on-line and you’ll find one in virtually all the counties of Great Britain! The website http://www.christmastreefestivals.org/ has 176 of them recorded.

dsc_0680

 

Branching out!

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of this modern custom. The oldest I can find go back to the mid 1990s such as those of Hitchin, Hertfordshire and Brighstone on the Isle of Wight. Further back and we get an answer of where this custom arose from – festivals over 24 years are firmly US based. But why start them?

Deep roots

It seems curious that the modern church, protestant and Catholic could be combined with celebrating such a pagan thing as a dressed tree – a tradition linked to pagan tribes from the Romans to the Celts. They appeared soon to be Christinanised being adorned by fruits and nuts such that by the 1500s they were being brought into the house, popularised by Martin Luther who encouraged fir trees to be brought into the house and lighted by candles on the branches. By 1800 it had become popularised in the UK, its famed being cemented by Victoria’s Prince Albert. Since then the Christmas essential for every house, shop, mall, restaurant and everything in between, was the fir tree -real or fake!

dsc_0626dsc_0623

From tiny acorns

It is quite remarkable how quickly both this custom has spread and how popular the customs have become locally. The best example of this can be seen at Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. In 2016 it topped 1378 different trees and thus became the largest collection in the country. A good tourist attraction for the town in a time of year in which tourists may well be thin on the ground. Of course, churches are constantly looking for something to reconnect what is slowly becoming a secular celebration to its Christian original message (leaving aside for a moment its hijacking of the pagan one!) The Christmas tree is a focal point. Everyone likes a colourful Christmas trees, being establishing such a festival not only brings communities together, after all everyone can dress a tree and there is no set way to do it, but brings people in. Walking into a church there is something indeed magical about the array of trees glistening and sparkling in the gloom. One is reminded of the magic of the season and the creativity of the people responsible. A new custom yes, but one based in an old tradition and one which is very welcome to add to the custom list.

Custom contrived: Apple Day

Standard

An Apple a Day

Apples and the British. We do love an apple! Whether its plucked from the tree, in a sauce for pork or fermented in a cider, there’s something quintessential about apples and the British. We’ve sung to give good crops and bobbed at Halloween so it is about time they had their own custom.

National Apple Day is a contrived custom which has spread remarkably quickly. Started in 1990 on the 21st October. Like the trees themselves they have grown and grown! Its unusual compared to some contrived customs because firstly it has spread and secondly it was the establishment on one organisation, Common Group, an ecological group established in 1983

The rationale by the initiators the Common Ground was to celebrate the richness and variety of the apples grown in the UK and by raising awareness hopefully preserve some of the lesser known types, hopefully preserving old orchards and the wildlife associated with them

Apple of your eye

The Common Ground website describes how by reviving the old apple market in London’s covent garden the first apple day was celebrated:

The first Apple Day celebrations, in the old Apple Market in London’s Covent Garden, brought fruit to the market after 16 years’ absence. Forty stalls were taken. Fruit growers and nurseries producing and selling a wide variety of apples and trees rubbed shoulders with juice-and cider-makers, as well as writers and illustrators with their apple books.

Representatives of the WI came laden with chutneys, jellies and pies. Mallorees School from North London demonstrated its orchard classroom, while the Hertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust explained how it manages its orchard for wildlife. Marks & Spencer helped to start a trend by offering tastings of some of the 12 ‘old varieties’ they had on sale that autumn. Organic growers were cheek by jowl with beekeepers, amidst demonstrations of traditional and modern juice presses, a calvados still and a cider bar run by the Campaign for Real Ale. Experts such as Joan Morgan identified apples and offered advice, while apple jugglers and magicians entertained the thousands of visitors – far more than we had expected – who came on the day.”

From the seeds…

From that first Apple Day, it has spread. By 1991 there were 60 events, growing to 300 in 1997 and now 1000s official and unofficial events, mainly but not wholly focusing on traditional apple growing regions such as Herefordshire. It has grown to incorporate a whole range of people to include healthy eating campaigns, poetry readings, games and even electing an Apple King and Queen in some places festooned with fruity crown. In Warwickshire the Brandon Marsh Nature reserve stated in 2016:

Mid Shires Orchard Group are leading a day celebrating the wonders of English apples. Learn about different varieties, taste fresh apple juice and have a go at pressing (you can even bring your own apples to have turned into juice for a donation).

Things to do on the day:

  • Play apple games •Learn about local orchards •Discover orchard wildlife •Enjoy the exhibitions •Explore the Apple Display • Buy heritage apple trees.”

Whilst a Borough Market, London, a blessing is even involved:

“Borough Market’s neighbour Southwark Cathedral will also celebrate the day with a short act of harvest worship in the Market, accompanied by the Market’s choir.”

Apple Day shows us that however urban our environment we can still celebrate our rural connections and with the growing number of events it is clear Apple Day is here to stay!

Custom demised: Visiting wells and springs at Midsummer

Standard

Many wells and springs were believed to increase in proficiency either Midsummer (Eve or Day). Often such wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton, Northamptonshire or St John’s Well, Shenstone, Staffordshire, whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day.  This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire, Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes in her Lincolnshire folklore that:

“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”

Now a lost site, it is possible and indeed likely that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.

Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:

“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day, By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well; The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”

In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.

These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:

“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”         

Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire

a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s  day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”

Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:

People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”         

When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Nottinhamshire’s Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6)  in an article called  Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:

“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”       

Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.

The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo.  This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.

Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:

“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”

It was suggested that the building was:

“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. Nowadays if you visit these wells at Midsummer you will find yourself alone…but in a way that may have been the way it had always been.