Tag Archives: Private events

Custom transcribed: Nottingham Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtan

Standard

Recently I have been highlighting the rich customs of Nottingham; a county which rarely gets a focus in folklore circles (unless it is Robin Hood of course) however in the process of writing my Customs and Ceremonies of Nottinghamshire there is a rich range and Vaisakhi the annual Sikh celebration is without doubt on of the most colourful.

Nottingham’s Sikh celebration consists of a Nagar Kirtan procession which starts at the Lenton’s Sri Guru Teg Bahadur Gurdwara early in the morning and snakes its way around the perimeter of the city arriving around three pm at the newest Gurdwara Ramgarhia Sabha to the north of the city. 

The Nottingham Sikh’s Website sums up the significance of the custom well:

“Vaisakhi has traditionally been a harvest festival in the state of Panjab, in modern day India. It is marked by the first day of the month of Vaisakh on 14th April. For Sikhs, Vaisakhi is the highlight of the year marking the Birth of the Khalsa and a time to celebrate their faith and identity.

The Sikh Gurus began their mission of teaching spiritual enlightenment at the start of the 15th century with their first Guru, Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469 – 1539). The subsequent nine Gurus contributed to making Vaisakhi an annual time of gathering for the Sikhs. Each year, at Vaisakhi, the Gurus would introduce new elements to the Sikh teachings.

At this time, the Sikh faith was under vicious attack for its revolutionary nature. The rise of the faith promoted many new freedoms, such as the outlawing (by the Sikh Gurus) of female infanticide, the affordance of equal rights for women and the advancement of an egalitarian society. The fifth and ninth Sikh Gurus were martyred whilst peacefully undergoing torture from the rulers of the time. In reaction to these martyrdoms, the Sikhs were militarised by the sixth and tenth Gurus, by varying degrees, to ensure the survival of the Sikh faith.

The Vaisakhi of 1699 was to be the most revolutionary yet.”

For Sikhs, Vaisakhi celebrates the formation of this Khalsa Panth in 1699 by their 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji and thus is a time to celebrate their faith and identity. Unfortunately, to the ill-informed, or rather local media this has been dubbed Sikh new year, but as one of the attendees told me ‘ this is a big day for Sikh’s think of it as Sikh’s equivalent of Christmas’…pure fodder for the those ill-informed newspaper hacks! However, a closer association would be the harvest home celebrations perhaps of the pre-Industrial age; although they did not include any religious associations.

Sikh more information

My first encounter of this custom was in the early 00s when it came past my house. First I heard the sound of music and chanting and then coming to the front door was confronted with its colour and splendour. According to one of the attendees it was already 10 years old by this stage and indeed the earliest account I can find is from The Nottingham Evening Post of Friday 13th 1990 which states:

“Hundreds of Sikhs formed a colourful procession through Nottingham today – to celebrate one of the most important days in their religious calendar. Ceremonial horses and a sacred float carrying a model of the Golden Temple at Amritsar in India led the way in the parade for Vaisakhi – the day when the Khalsa movement of baptised Sikhs was formed in 1699. Most of  Nottingham’s Sikh community joined the inner-city march, which visited five temples.”

A good account and informative of the reason for the custom, however, by 1993, the Nottingham Evening Post from the 22nd of April journalist sloppiness had crept in:

“HAPPY NEW YEAR s was celebrated with a spectacular procession through the streets of Nottingham At its peak up to 2000 people joined in the celebrations on the five-mile parade along a route past the city’s six gurudwaras Sikh temples People lining the roadside were handed sweets as a sign of goodwill by children Among those joining the fun for Vaisakhi the most important day in the Sikh calendar were Sukhdeep Singh Badyal seven (left) and Charn-jit Kaur Rayat eight The event was organised by the Sikh Community.”

I wonder if these children were still attending? It appeared as a regular feature in the post for the next decade and appears on line although lacks perhaps the details needed for those interested in the custom and rather focuses on the road closures!

Processing it all

I recently came across the parade, in the middle of the day, twenty years after my first encounter and it did not disappoint. The main focus was a float carrying as it traditional the turrets of the Sikh’s golden temple, bedecked with ribbons and adorned with gold as below musicians played music, sung and chanted. A LED sign informed those unaware of what it was about with a Happy Vaisakhi. In front of the float were ceremonial sword dancers and staff bearers who periodically stopped and displayed their splendid skills. Leading the procession was a truck with a large ceremonial drum which was enthusiastically beaten. Behind them helpers swept the ground and sprinkled holy water and behind them barefooted ceremonial sword bearers and flag holders shuffling along. The whole spectacle was a vibrant aural and visual delight of blue and orange, made even more palatable by the free sweets and later on the Langar (free vegetarian food). Following up the float was the assembled Nottingham Sikh congregation dressed in their finest and not looking particularly worn out as I would have done if I had been parading since the early morning. Now 40 years old this custom is a firm fixture in the city’s ceremonial customs so much I am surprised Robin Hood has yet to make an appearance!

Custom survived: Making Simnel Cakes for Mothering Sunday

Standard

Recently I have noticed that well-known bakery Greggs had been selling Simnel cakes around March time in memory of the tradition of making Simnel Cake which if the number of recipes on the internet is anything to go by is still a commonly made cake. Here is a clip of well-known Mary Berry making one!

The association with Mothering Sunday has been so great that it became alternatively known as Simnel Sunday. 

Nathan Bailey in his 1721 Dictionary states that:

“Simnel is probably derived from the Latin Simila, fine flour, and means a sort of cake, or bun, made of fine flour, spice, &c.”

Frequent mention is made of the Simnel in the household allowances of Henry the First.

“Cancellarius v solidos in die et i Siminellum dominicum, et ii salum, et i sextarium de vino claro, et i sext. de vino expensabili, et unum grossum cereum, et xl frusta Candell.”–_Libr. Nigr. Scaccarii,”

Why a cake should be firstly established with a religious custom is unclear but some have argued that it derived from a type of bread given out on the Sunday service. Indeed a bread called “simnel bread” is mentioned by Jehoshaphat Aspin, in his Pictures of Manners, &c., of England quoting from a statue book of the 51st of Henry III:

“A farthing symnel_ (a sort of small cake, twice baked, and also called a cracknel) should weigh two ounces less than the wastel_(a kind of cake made with honey, or with meal and oil).”

At some point probably to make it more commercially viable it manifested itself into cakes with the image of Jesus to know the traditional 12 apostles and Jesus made of balls of marzipan!

Edward Baines in his 1836 History of Lancashire records that:

“At Bury, in Lancashire, from time beyond memory, thousands of persons come from all parts, and eat “simnels” on Simnel Sunday.”

However the custom nearly fell afoul of the church:

“Formerly, nearly every shop was open, quite in defiance of the law respecting the closing during “service,” but of late, through the improved state of public opinion, the disorderly scenes to which the custom gave rise have been partially amended. Efforts have been repeatedly made to put a stop to the practice altogether, but in vain. The clergy, headed by the rector, and the ministers of all denominations (save the Romanists) have drawn up protests and printed appeals against this desecration, but, as just stated, with scarcely any visible effect. It is not a little singular that the practice of assembling in one town, upon one day–the middle Sunday in Lent, to eat simnel cake, is a practice confined to Bury. Much labour has been expended to trace the origin of this custom, but without success.”

Herrick in his Hesperides has the following:

“TO DIANEME. “A CEREMONIE IN GLOCESTER.    “I’ll to thee a Simnell bring, ’Gainst thou go’st a _mothering;  So that, when she blesseth thee, Half that blessing thou’lt give me.”

Hone’s Book of Days gives the origin of the name

“There is a story current in Shropshire, which is more picturesque. Long ago there lived an honest old couple, boasting the names of Simon and Nelly, but their surnames are not known. It was their custom at Easter to gather their children about them, and thus meet together once a year under the old homestead. The fasting season of Lent was just ending, but they had still left some of the unleavened dough which had been from time to time converted into bread during the forty days. Nelly was a careful woman, and it grieved her to waste anything, so she suggested that they should use the remains of the lenten dough, for the basis of a cake to regale the assembled family. Simon readily agreed to the proposal, and further reminded his partner that there were still some remains of their Christmas plum-pudding hoarded up in the cupboard, and that this might form the interior, and be an agreeable surprise to the young people when they had made their way through the less tasty crust. So far all things went on harmoniously; but when the cake was made, a subject of violent discord arose, Sim insisting that it should be boiled, while Nell no less obstinately contended that it should be baked. The dispute ran from words to blows, for Nell not choosing to let her province in the household be thus interfered with, jumped up, and threw the stool she was sitting on at Sim, who, on his part, seized a besom, and applied it with right good will to the head and shoulders of his spouse. She now seized the broom, and the battle became so warm, that it might have had a very serious result, had not Nell proposed as a compromise that the cake should be boiled first and afterwards baked. This Sim acceded to, for he had no wish for further acquaintance with the heavy end of the broom. Accordingly, the big pot was set on the fire, and the stool broken up and thrown on to boil it, whilst the besom and broom furnished fuel for the oven. Some eggs, which had been broken in the scuffle, were used to coat the outside of the pudding when boiled, which gave it the shining gloss it possesses as a cake. This new and remarkable production in the art of confectionery became known by the name of the cake of Simon and Nelly, but soon only the first half of each name was alone preserved and joined together, and it has ever since been known as the cake of Sim-Nel or Simnel.”

Well upon cooking my Simnel cake I took pains to boil the fruit and then add it to the mix bake it slowly..and then with the marzipan on carefully place it under the grill..and very nice it was too. My mother was very pleased with it as I arrived surprising her on Mother’s Day.

Custom survived: St. Ives Langley Bread

Standard

“charged his lands in St. Ives with the payment of 40s. a year to be distributed to poor widows and fatherless children, and with a further sum of 6s. to the churchwardens to be given to the bellringers.

Robert Langley by will dated 24 Aug. 1656 Charity report 1909

St Ives is a delightful small town which is noted amongst those interested in calendar customs for its bible dicing, however there is another custom that the town has undertaken for the last 300 years or so which has failed to be recorded as far as I am aware in any books on calendar customs. So for the 10th year of blogging on calendar custom it felt appropriate that I experienced and being free on the day of its distribution the 5th of January, linking it to epiphany no doubt it felt this was the ideal opportunity. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Bread and Butter

The custom consists of a dole given out on or around the epiphany and fortunately being free this year. It was set up as stated above in 1656 by local philanthropic St. Ives man, Robert Langley and whilst there is no stipulations about fatherless children it is still distributed to poor widows (and grammatically now widowers). The tradition is known as the Langley Bread and continues as a giving practice once a year in January.

I arrived to see the truck outside the Corn Exchange loaded with Co-op bags drive off – hand I missed it – no for as I went into the main hall of the building to see tables bellowing under a pile of green Co-op bags crammed with food and the Mayor in his chain, the trustees of the charity and town council secretary awaiting the first of the applicants.

In 2022 there were 120 bags lined up on the tables. Around 45 being delivered each year to local nursing homes. The number had been adjusted to take into account the number of recipients who came the previous year and thus the number left over. 

All doled up

Soon the first applicants appeared and many of them for familiar faces who had come previously to collect their bag of goodies and as a local newspaper account records:

“Great care is taken to ensure that only widows and widowers who are residents of St Ives benefit. As people come in to the building, they give out their addresses which are checked on the electoral roll.”

Indeed the clerks asked for names and they searched carefully their electoral role and upon finding them crossed them off and gave the recipient a ticket. However it was only a few feet away where the Mayor was ready to collect the ticket and give over the bag.

Many of the recipients were ‘regulars’ and despite having to be checked on the role many had come for the chat as well – being lonely widowers this would of course make sense. Indeed there was a sort of melancholy to the custom typified by one recipient stating

“Last year I came with my friend and wasnt eligible and this year I can come and collect one myself”

Sadly we all know what that means. But on the flipside it also encouraged people to talk to each and help each other as recorded in the newspaper article which stated:

one person is authorised to collect for friends.

“Especially where the old folks’ bungalows are, the fittest one will come down and collect them for their neighbours,” said David Hodge, who as mayor is responsible for giving out the bags. “Hence, they come with a list and they then go back with some for all their friends. It is checked, honestly!”

One could see that for many lonely widows it was a good reason to get into town and perhaps socialise or in some cases challenge the Mayor on their policies.

The trustees stick very rigidly to the wording of the charity. A man turned up from nearby Reach and politely asked if he was eligible having been born in St Ives and was a widower. He however was refused as he no longer lived in the town. He seemed okay with that and it was interesting to see that the letter of the original bequest being undertaken.  

The bags soon went down. By 10 .45 85 bags were gone. By 11.40 107 had gone. And then by 11.45 only 13 were left. It had been a successful day the previous year they had had 150 bags left but nothing goes to waste as like the earlier ones they are delivered to those in nursing homes.

Now however very little of the original charity money goes to buy the dole and is donated by local companies. In 2022 it was donated for the third year from the Co-Op. Back in the 1800s it would have simply been bread like many other doles. However, now its full of other staples.  The bag consists of digestive biscuits, tea, bread, butter and sugar and were delivered by the company on the back of truck at 8 o’clock. Usually I was informed that it was topped up by the charity and this included orange juice or jam but this year they could not be sourced. 

Two for the price of one!

The Langley bequest is actually two customs in one as he left money for the bell ringers from St Ives’ parish church. The reason being because of a very familiar story seen elsewhere is bell tolling bequests. It is said that Langley was lost in a snowstorm on nearby Hemingford Meadow walking to St Ives. Upon hearing the parish church bells he was guided back to safety and thus in gratitude he left money for the bell ringers to ring a peel. This apparently also happens in January, however the trustees did not know when.

It is heartening to see Langley’s bequest continues to give support to those in need…although he clearly had little thought of mobility in snow ladden Januaries – perhaps not the best time for aged widowers to travel about!

Custom survived: Building bonfires for Guy Fawkes

Standard

“Don’t you Remember,
The Fifth of November,
‘Twas Gunpowder Treason Day,
I let off my gun,
And made’em all run.
And Stole all their Bonfire away.”

Charlton in Otmoor – 1742

Bonfires and Guy Fawkes Night are synonymous so much that the name Guy Fawkes appears to be disappearing and it is now called bonfire night. But why did bonfires become associated with a remembrance which you would think would not want to celebrate with the very thing which was avoided!

The association is early as soon after the King’s escape, his council encouraged the celebrate with bonfires which were “without any danger or disorder” in 1605. One of the earliest recorded being in Dorchester, by the 1670s in London it had become an organised fire festival by the London apprentices such that in 1682 London’s militia were forced to intervene in when violence ensued and such that the following year bonfires were banned in the capital. When James II came to the thrown, fireworks were banned and the government attempted to reduce the celebrations of the day. It was unsuccessful and when he was deposed in 1688, William of Orange actively encouraged its celebration except keeping the ban on fireworks. In Nottinghamshire earliest reference of Guy Fawkes celebrations appears to 1743 as noted in the borough records. The forest ground in Nottingham is still the location of one of the largest Bonfire night celebrations, and records in 1830 and 1890 record bonfires. Celebrations appear to often cause conflict. In 1834 two shots were shot into the Wing Tavern. A report also notes:

“The anniversary of Guy Fawkes was celebrated in Newark by the ringing of bells, a large bonfire in the market place and plenty of squibs, crackers etc. Blunderbusses, guns and pistols were let off….during the evening to the annoyance of everyone walking the street.”

In a diary written by a William Moss of Mansfield (who worked as a Cooper) is the following entry for 5 November 1841:  

“Gunpowder Plot; but I think it is almost forgotten at Mansfield.  I have neither seen squib nor cracker, nor anything of the kind.  There is one bonfire at the top end of Stockwell Gate and I know not of any more in the town”.

Going ‘chumping’ was a Nottinghamshire term for collecting sticks and deadwood from hedges called ‘chump’ for Bon fires. A Bill Morely recalls the rivalry between local groups which was focused on bonfire night antics, and it is worth quoting at length:  

“Bonfire Night, and the time leading up to it, had its rituals, amazing to look back on (no nonsense about Hallowe’en in those days; I don’t suppose I heard of it until my teens). When the lead-up to Bonfire Night started, the estate split into three gangs: us, that is those who lived on or near the top end of Danethorpe Vale, Collin Green and Edingley Square, a slightly more formal square near the bottom of Caythorpe Rise. Opposite our house, by the wall of the Firs where I was born, was Hooley Street (leading to the orchards which are now Elmswood Gardens), where Hall Street had their bonfire – another gang. So the four gangs built their bonfires, and guarded them against attack from the others. Usually it was the young ones like me who were left to guard the fires whilst the bigger kids went about their business of collecting, or scouting for the enemy, or maybe just clearing off. Sometimes you’d find when you came home from school that the entire bonfire had gone. It wasn’t other gangs though; it was the council, which didn’t want the fires on its property. The most infamous of these council raids was in 1945 or ’46. The day before, or actually on November 5, (incidentally, all bonfires were on November 5, no rubbish about spreading them over three or four weeks like today) the council took Collin Green’s bonfire away. Well, with the returned soldiers saying, according to legend and no reason to disbelieve it, stuff like, “we didn’t fight a war to come home and find our kids can’t have a bonfire”, and the like, they dismantled the garden gates round the Green – all council property, of course – and rebuilt the bonfire with them. And everyone approved, even my very respectable parents. But back to the gangs: there was always a hollow in the middle of the fire, and we sat in there, ready to ward off the enemy coming to nick our fire, or possibly set fire to it. Bit stupid being inside it, of course. And there were pitched battles on the streets of the estate. The members of the other Greens were often friends, but, for a couple of weeks, we’d fight them. The fights were always the same, throwing grass-sods and sticks at each other, and always on the roads of the estate. What did the adults do? Nothing. What did they think, especially those without children? I can’t remember anyone getting hurt, and we didn’t throw stones, so perhaps we unconsciously realised it was a ritual not reality, but there were real frissons of fear and aggression. Collin Green was our main enemy. In fact, as far as I remember, all our actual fights were with them. This was all on a ‘respectable’ estate; these days it would either be much worse and seriously violent, or it just wouldn’t happen. However, we were really frightened of the Hall Street gang (did it really exist?). Hall Street had some fairly rough older boys, or so we thought, but again some of the younger kids from there were friends of mine at school. Anyway, the real fear was that Hall Street would come, and we were seriously scared of that. Did they ever? We certainly never had one of the pitched battles with them. On Bonfire Night, all the boys (girls too) came to the bonfire (on which there’d be a guy) with long poles, on the end of which were tightly bound rags, in flames and we’d set the fire going by thrusting the burning torches into it. I remember the anguish of whether I’d get there in time for the start. My mother seemed to take ages to get the rags sorted out, as no doubt the other mothers did too. Again, there was no penny-for-the-guy stuff, round our way anyway, though the guy was probably another thing to defend in the last two days. The fire always seemed to burn very fast, the guy vanishing in a few minutes, and then it was more or less over, and, no, we didn’t put potatoes or chestnuts in the fire, it was just a fire, nice and primitive.”

These large informal street fires became a thing of the past when in the 1960s the police, local authorities and fire brigade combined to prevent them and in 1963 27 organised sites were provided. In the 1990s regular sites were established in across the country from those set up to raise money for preservation railways such as that done by the Quorn railway (Leicestershire) and various ones to raise money for scouts, WIs and schools. 

Why bonfire?

Historians have often suggested that Guy Fawkes Day served as a Protestant replacement for the ancient Celtic Samhain festival. Another theory is that it transferred from Crispin’s Day celebrations. Over time the bonfire has changed of course. In 2005 David Cannadine commented on the encroachment into British culture of late 20th-century American Hallowe’en celebrations, and their effect on Guy Fawkes Night:

Nowadays, family bonfire gatherings are much less popular, and many once-large civic celebrations have been given up because of increasingly intrusive health and safety regulations. But 5 November has also been overtaken by a popular festival that barely existed when I was growing up, and that is Halloween … Britain is not the Protestant nation it was when I was young: it is now a multi-faith society. And the Americanised Halloween is sweeping all before it—a vivid reminder of just how powerfully American culture and American consumerism can be transported across the Atlantic

Despite the changes there is something still attractive to people and very well attended. People still have the primeval need to feel the warmth of the bonfire.

 

Custom survived: Signor Pasquale Favale Bequest

Standard

I should say just survived as just before the pandemic hit the City of London were proposing re-allocating the moneys to other charitable purposes; however I am unclear whether this has happened…

Calendar customs are not always very evident some are small and rather private affairs; Signor Pasquale Favale bequest is one of these. My attention was first drawn to this by accident reading notices outside of a church and was curious to find out more.  The bequest reading:

“poor, honest, young woman, native of London, aged 16 to 25 who has recently been, or are about to be married”

A marriage made in heaven.

Favale was an Italian married a London girl and was married for many happy years with her in such that when he died in 1882 he stipulated in his Will of the 25th March that 18,000 Italian francs (around £720) should be used to provide a yearly dowry to three girls as his wife ‘was a native of the city’ and that ‘he had many happy years in the city’. Like all such bequests there were stipulations. Firstly that they should be born in the city that they should be born in the City., be poor, honest young women. They should be aged 16-25 and who had recently been, or were about to be, married. Thus be doing so he set up Britain’s most unusual bequest and custom. Thus every July the trustees of the charity decide upon the beneficiaries. Of course finding these beneficiaries is not easy – hence the sign on that church door -doubtlessly multiplied across the city. 

Outside St Botolph Without Bishopgate copyright David Brown via Flickr

18000 Italian francs was around £720 which after expenses needed to set up the foundation he required; the residue was too small for the interest in it to be enough to put the bequest until effect until 1914, but for over a hundred years it has been given.

When the money was left dowries were common practice from the bride’s families to her husband and perhaps he was concerned that many prospective women lost out because of the lack of money or was he bitter that his wife’s family never provided him with one?  

For richer or poorer?

Of course wording of the bequest has been problematic. When the City of London became the trustees the necessity that recipients be born in the City was removed. Very few are more within the square mile of the city, especially since St Barts closed its maternity unit and those that might be are unlikely to be ‘poor’ but I’d hope they were ‘honest’!

Such that since 2000 the bequest states that it should award:

“Marriage Portions to poor honest women who were born within the City of London or have resided therein for the period of at least one year, and who either have been married within the period of twelve calendar months next preceding the date of award or who are about to be married”.

As a report by the City of London states:

“Although the terms might make bestowing the gift difficult – finding a ‘poor’ resident of the City probably poses as much of a challenge as determining whether she is ‘honest’, the tradition continues.”

One of the most recent recipients has been Lorna Emmett a 31-year-old chartered accountant, Lorna Emmett, who married her husband in Hampstead in May. She received the £150 dowry. Another recipient stated:

 “It was actually the concierge at my building who pointed it out. I thought it would be nice to be part of such a romantic tradition and it will also make a small contribution to the wedding expenses!”

Indeed £150 probably does not go far these days and this is what is probably behind the move to consolidate the charity with others and use the moneys elsewhere. Interestingly, there are many poor and honest brides outside of the city boundaries who would no doubt benefit but it does not seem that that method of changing the bequest has been explored!

One do hope that the bequest does not disappear into an amorphous charity pot and that brides still benefit for years to come…despite its rather antiquated idea behind it.

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!

Customs demised: Blood letting horses on St Stephen’s Day

Standard

 

“Ere Christmas be passed let horse be let blood,
for many a purpose it doth them much good.
The day of St. Stephen old fathers did use:
if that do mislike thee some other day choose.

Thomas Tusser, Five hundred points of Good Husbandrie

Boxing Day for the modern household may involve the Boxing Day sales, more Christmas food or sitting on the sofa but to those until at least the 16th century who had horses or cattle it was an important day for phlebotomy – or blood-letting. It was common enough a tradition in the late 16th-century for poets such as Truse, who was also a farmer whose work was a poetical book on agricultural advice.

The view was widespread across Europe at the time as a quote from German protestant pastor and playwright Thomas Naogeorgus evidences:

“Then followeth Saint Stephens days, whereon doth every man
His horses jaunt and course abrode as swiftly as he can
Until they doe extreemely sweate, and than they let them blood,
For this being done upon this day, they say doth do them good
And keepes them from all maladies and sicknesse through the yeare,
As if that Steven any time took charge of horses heare.”

Is blood letting a viable treatment for laminitis? | Laminitis : Understanding, Cure, Prevention

Why let horses?

The tradition of blood letting is based on the principle of the four humours. This being that there were four elements: fire, earth, water and air, and four had corresponding body fluids: yellow bile, black bile, phlgem and blood. From the ancient Greeks onwards it was thought that an imbalance of these caused sickness and thus if there was too much blood sickness could arise!

Why St Stephen’s Day?

The reasons why this was done on St Stephen’s Day is unclear. It is possible that he was thought to be the patron saint of horses. Hone in his 1826 Everyday Book suggests:

About Christmas is a very proper time to bleed horses in for then they are commonly at house then spring comes on un being now coming back from the solstice and there are three or days of rest and if it be upon St Stephen’s day it is not the worse seeing there are with it three days of rest or at least two.”

The custom would appear to be widespread. An entry:

Item for letting our horses blede in Chrystmasse weke iiijd

Is in the Receipts and of the Canons of St Mary in Huntingdon  Hone suggests that his sources that the tradition was brought to Britain by the Danes and states a book called Wits Fits and Fancies states:

“it is the custome for all horses to be let bloud and drench’d A gentleman being that morning demaunded whether it pleased him to have his horse let bloud and drencht according to the fashion He answered no sirra my horse is not diseas’d of the fashions.”

In John Brand’s Book of Days he quotes John Aubrey who says:

“On St Stephen’s day the farrier came constantly and blouded all our cart horses.”

The wisdom of blood-letting as medicine improved disappeared as people realised by draining the blood they were making the patient potentially more ill or prone to disease. Consequently did this most curious custom but one would imagine it survived in rural areas longer than one would have expected.

Custom occasional: Jumping over PH at St Salvatore’s College, St Andrews.

Standard

On the 29th of February 1528, 24 year old Patrick Hamilton died and entered St Andrew’s folklore. For on that day he was burned alive for his Protestant beliefs and generations of St Andrew’s University students have avoided the location of his martyrdom ever since.

On the pavement set into the cobblers inconveniently in front of the college chapel and entrance are the letters PH. To many it might be missed but to the students of the University and especially this college it is greatly avoided. For stepping on it could either result in failing your exam or losing your entire degree!

Jumping the curse

https://www.facebook.com/5f9264ee-27b5-47b2-88c5-50e2565b8ec3

Whilst I was there a student was making a beeline to the pavement and at the point of the PH made a side step and continued I asked them why:

“Well I don’t want to tempt fate I have finals this year!”

A number of views on the St Andrew’s Twitter feed note the same. A David Kaiyewu @kaynis1 tweeted that
“Better safe than sorry I think. Knw sm1 who stepped on it n didn’t pass. Superstitious or not just avoid it, it’s just one tiny spot.”
Another posting stating:
“As an undergraduate I never dared to step on the initials!”

Although Abdulmalik Ismaila@AbdulTaibah boldly stated;

I stepped on it several times and I still passed my degree.”

But why the curse?

It is said that the fire burned for  six hours and in this time Patrick Hamilton unleashed a curse to any future student who would step on the place he burned. It is thought the initials were placed  both to mark the martyrdom and make it clear where not to step!

Lifting the curse

It was evident that the custom was very much believed. However, there is a way of reversing the curse fortunately for someone who might inadvertently step on the PH . It can be removed by running into the sea on May Day near naked at dawn or running around Sailles Quad eight times. The St Andrew website wryly observes that:

“While May Dip remains an extremely popular tradition among students, I have yet to witness or hear of someone attempting the latter.”

The number of those in the waters on May Day must suggest that plenty of students must step on it – or they are crazy enough to enter the icy cold waters of the North Sea – you decide.

Once you got your degree of course you were free of the curse’s power and it is said that another tradition exists of upon receiving the degree you would immediately walk past sallies quad with the paper in hand before stepping on it.

I’ve got a degree but one day I may need one from St. Andrews so thought I’d better not risk it!

Custom contrived: Chepstow Wassail and Mari Llwyd

Standard

Each January the boarder town of Chepstow becomes home to a fascinating mix of Welsh and English customs – The Chepstow Wassail. A colourful picandmix custom.

On arrival it is very evident this has become a rallying place for all people who wish to celebrate the winter and as such Morris teams from a wide area attend. The town is awash with blacks, purples and the sounds of bells, cries and clashing of sticks.

Strictly speaking the custom is divided into two – the wassail an English luck giving custom previously described here and the Mari Lwyd – a Welsh house visiting good luck custom which has not been fully covered yet in this blog.

When I arrived there a large group had assembled around a rather raggedy looking tree below the grounds of the castle. Here some Border Morris were half way through an apple wassail, pouring ale over the roots whilst the congregation assembled singing a wassailing song, toast attached to trees and ribbons swaying.  Everyone despite the cold was enjoying themselves smiling and enjoying the special bond the custom had established.

A few metres away were some dancers and weaving in an out of the crowd were Kentish Hooden Oss making the children laugh and look bemused in equal measure. They were a fair way from home again indicating the countrywide popularity of the custom.

No room at the inn or stable!

However in the pub nearby was a Mari Lwyd, one of a number in the town, which was about to go through the Pwnco, a rhyme/song full of riddles – a sort of old Welsh rap battle! The landlord was preventing the Mari Lwyd and his team from entering. From a casual observer one might agree for outside clad in a white sheet was a scene from perhaps from a horror film – a bleach white horses skull. The Mari Lwyd is a curious custom and one we will only briefly discuss here.

“The discussion was From inside the house

What, ho! Morganwg’s happy land
Is full of corn and barley
What, ho! is your request – demand?
Answer! We grant short parley

From the Mari Lwyd party outside

Honest men are we, who sue

Favours many, money due
To the Mari Llwyd from you!

From inside the house to end the contest

Come in, come in, and sit at ease

Ye merry sons of Cymru
Here’s sweet metheglin, here’s cream cheese
With milk, cream cakes and flummery!”

The Mari Lwyd is a strange mixture of macabre and marvellous. Its empty eye sockets filled with sparkling green glowing glass eyes, upon its head a crown of flowers with ribbons attached which flew in the cold winds. Its head shrouded to make it look even more mysterious – and hide the pole. Its jaw open and closing like a clapperboard.

Once inside it joined a whole throng of Mari Lwyds snapping and leaning over into people’s lunches and attempting to drink their lemonades! Those who expected them were very amused but there one or two who found it all a bit too weird.

Border Morris on the border

As darkness fell the main proceedings begun. At first the Mari Lwyds went to the bridge for the famed “Meeting Of English and Welsh at the border  Here a large crowd had assembled at the ‘border’ some carrying England flags on the English side and the others Welsh flags. The official start begun when a large rocket was sent into the air to tell the Mari Lwyd that the English wassailers had finished and that they were about to reach the bridge’s middle. With them the group carried lanterns, played music and carried a large apple cart carrying the symbol of their wassailing – a decorated apple tree. As a horn sounds, the sign of the English approach a which both them move slowly to the centre shouting and cheering carrying their flags. Warlike in a way if it wasn’t so surreally apparelled. Despite their menacing approach as soon as the middle is meet celebrations break out, hand shaking, flag exchanging and singing. Wassail to everyone and happy new year. If only every border was like. The Welsh invite the English over to join them in Chepstow. After then the Mari Lwyd descended upon the Chepstow Museum. Here the crowd once again got into good spirited boisterousness, name calling and ilk. Here the Pwnco continued until the Lord and Lady of the ceremony appeared at the museum door and offered a wassail cup full of mulled cider.

A meeting of skulls

Organised as event to revive local music dance and folk customs locally by the The Widders Welsh Border Morris and Tim Ryan of the Severn Princess ferry restoration since 2005 and has grown from strength to strength. As mentioned teams come from far afield across Wales and into the midlands and beyond. In 2019 there were 30 Mari Lwyds although this included some out of area versions such as Kimberley’s Owd Oss! For a custom once in decline it is clearly more and more popular. Indeed popularity has been an issue and in 2020 the custom went for a rest and a re-think due to its massive success. An article in a local newspaper stated that:

“It has grown so much in popularity since it began 15 years ago, to the extent that organisers have pulled the plug while they ponder how best to reorganise it. Mick Lewis, a member of the organising committee, said he is proud that they have built such a popular event, and confirmed the festival will return in 2021 after a period of “soul-searching”.”

One of the organisers stating:

“Fifteen years ago we started with just one Mari Lwyd, and now we get over 30 turn up, along with hundreds of people,”

Such can happen to customs, that their popularity outweighs their origin provision and thought. Bloggers like myself must be very aware of the impact our reviews can have. So I should state that the Chepstow Wassail is a great custom perhaps to reduce numbers not one to go to every year and spectate.

Custom demised: St Paul’s Day Weather predictions

Standard

For many say the 25th January and the acknowledgement would be Burn’s Night, but country folk also identified the day, St Paul’s Day or St Annanias Day, as one of the days of the year in which the weather for the rest of the year could be predicted. The earliest version of this is a Latin verse from monks quoted  by John Brand’s 1841 Popular antiquities

“Clara dies Pauli bona tempera denotat anni;
Si nix vel pluvia, designat tempera cara;
Si fiant nebulae, pereunt animalia quaeque;
Si fiant venti, designat praelia genti.”

There are several French and English translations of these lines in to appropriate verse such as:

“If St. Paul’s day be fair and clear,
It does betide a happy year;
But if it chance to snow or rain,
Then will be dear all kind of grain;
If clouds or mists do dark the skie,
Great store of birds and beasts shall die;
And if the winds do flie aloft,
Then war shall vexe the kingdome oft.”

Or

 “If Saint Paul’s Day be faire and clear,  It doth betide a happy year; If blustery winds do blow aloft,  Then wars will trouble our realm full oft; And if it chance to snow or rain, Then will be dear all sorts of grain.”

Or

“If St Paul’s Day be fair and clear We shall have a happy year.
But if we have but wind and rain dear will be the price of grain.
If clouds and mist do mark the sky Great store of birds and beasts will die.”

Some counties have recorded local versions such as Devon:

“If St Paul’s Day be fine expect a good harvest, If it wet or showery be expect a famine. If it is wind expect a war.”

The predictive nature of the verses thus is three-fold. Firstly it predicts the weather for the year, then its affect on agriculture and then its effect on the war!  But why the 25th?  However, fair weather on St. Paul’s day predicted a prosperous year ahead. snow or rain betokened an unprofitable and clouds suggested death of cattle; and winds predicted war.

Brand again remarks:

“I do not find that any one has even hazarded a conjecture why prognostications of the weather &c for the whole year are to be drawn from the appearance of this day.”

Yet as Brand (1841) states that it is

“article of constant belief in Western Europe, during the middle ages, and even down to our own time, that the whole character of the coming year is prognosticated by the condition of the weather on this day; and this is the more singular, as the day itself was one of those to which the old prognosticators gave the character of a dies Ægyptiacus, or unlucky day.”

John Gay in his 1716 Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London, also notes:

“All superstition from thy breast repel Let credulous boys and prattling nurses How if the Festival of Paul be clear tell Plenty from liberal horn shall show the year rain When the dark skies dissolve in snow or The lab ring hind shall yoke the steer in vain roar But if the threatening winds in tempests Then War shall bathe her wasteful sword in gore He concludes Let no such vulgar tales debase thy mind and wind Nor Paul nor Swithin rule the clouds.”

The author of the excellent weatherwithouttechnology.co.uk notes that:

“This is a good guide for the first six months, but after that tails off somewhat. However, it has been known to be 90% correct and in one year, 100% correct.”

And adds a person note:

“Having religiously followed the following instructions by Uncle Offa for 15 years, the best result was 80%, and I found that up to the last week of June it is quite reliable, alas, after that it does tail off rapidly”

Should anyone want to revive this custom widely and publish predictions they state that:

“When following the weather on this day, it is necessary to observe and note down its phases hour by hour, or even every half hour throughout the day from 6am until 6pm. This is due to the belief that the hours of the day will reflect the weather month by month throughout that year. Generally such signs are dependable to the end of July, but diminish thereafter.”

This year on the 25th where I was, was fine and clear. Further north there was snow. Thus that may influence the relevance of the method its geographical scope!