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Sunday, 20 April 2014

Eggs, Easter Bunnies and Totery Cows - Easter Customs, Traditions and Superstitions

Easter Day can fall anywhere between March 22nd and April 25th. The name 'Easter' originates from pagan Spring goddess Eostre, a Germanic version of the Scandinavian fertility queen Frigga. Spring and rebirth are invariably the pivotal themes in pagan religions, and the death and resurrection of Christ had all the key ingredients to keep the newly-converted quite happy.

Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days March 27th1864, details the traditions of Easter.

Easter, the anniversary of our Lord's resurrection from the dead, is one of the three great festivals of the Christian year,—the other two being Christmas and Whitsuntide. From the earliest period of Christianity down to the pre-sent day, it has always been celebrated by believers with the greatest joy, and accounted the Queen of Festivals. In primitive times it was usual for Christians to salute each other on the morning of this day by exclaiming, 'Christ is risen;' to which the person saluted replied, ' Christ is risen indeed,' or else, ' And hath appeared unto Simon;'—a custom still retained in the Greek Church.

The common name of this festival in the East was the Paschal Feast, because kept at the same time as the Pascha, or Jewish passover, and in some measure succeeding to it. In the sixth of the Ancyran Canons it is called the Great Day. Our own name Easter is derived, as some suppose, from Eostre, the name of a Saxon deity, whose feast was celebrated every year in the spring, about the same time as the Christian festival—the name being retained when the character of the feast was changed; or, as others suppose, from Oster, which signifies rising. If the latter supposition be correct, Easter is in name, as well as reality, the feast of the resurrection.

Though there has never been any difference of opinion in the Christian church as to why Easter is kept, there has been a good deal as to when it ought to be kept. It is one of the moveable feasts; that is, it is not fixed to one particular day—like Christmas Day, e. g., which is always kept on the 25th of December—but moves backwards or forwards according as the full moon next after the vernal equinox falls nearer or further from the equinox. The rule given at the beginning of the Prayer-book to find Easter is this: 'Easter-day is always the first Sunday after the full moon which happens upon or next after the twenty-first day of March; and if the full moon happens upon a Sunday, Easter-day is the Sunday after.'

The paschal controversy, which for a time divided Christendom, grew out of a diversity of custom. The churches of Asia Minor, among whom were many Judaizing Christians, kept their paschal feast on the same day as the Jews kept their passover; i. e. on the 14th of Nisan, the Jewish month corresponding to our March or April. But the churches of the West, remembering that our Lord's resurrection took place on the Sunday, kept their festival on the Sunday following the 14th of Nisan. By this means they hoped not only to commemorate the resurrection on the day on which it actually occurred, but also to distinguish themselves more effectually from the Jews. For a time this difference was borne with. mutual forbearance and charity. And when disputes began to arise, we find that Polycarp, the venerable bishop of Smyrna, when on a visit to Rome, took the opportunity of conferring with Anicetas, bishop of that city, upon the question. Polycarp pleaded the practice of St. Philip and St. John, with the latter of whom he had lived, conversed, and joined in its celebration; while Anicetas adduced the practice of St. Peter and St. Paul. Concession came from neither side, and so the matter dropped; but the two bishops continued in Christian friendship and concord. This was about A.D. 158.

Towards the end of the century, however, Victor, bishop of Rome, resolved on compelling the Eastern churches to conform to the Western practice, and wrote an imperious letter to the prelates of Asia, commanding them to keep the festival of Easter at the time observed by the Western churches. They very naturally resented such an interference, and declared their resolution to keep Easter at the time they had been accustomed to do. The dispute hence-forward gathered strength, and was the source of much bitterness during the next century. The East was divided from the West, and all who, after the example of the Asiatics, kept Easter-day on the 14th, whether that day were Sunday or not, were styled Qiccertodecimans by those who adopted the Roman custom.

One cause of this strife was the imperfection of the Jewish calendar. The ordinary year of the Jews consisted of 12 lunar months of 292 days each, or of 29 and 30 days alternately; that is, of 354 days. To make up the 11 days' deficiency, they intercalated a thirteenth month of 30 days every third year. But even then they would be in advance of the true time without other intercalations; so that they often kept their passover before the vernal equinox. But the Western Christians considered the vernal equinox the commencement of the natural year, and objected to a mode of reckoning which might sometimes cause them to bold their paschal feast twice in one year and omit it altogether the next. To obviate this, the fifth of the apostolic canons decreed that, ' If any bishop, priest, or deacon, celebrated the Holy Feast of Easter before the vernal equinox, as the Jews do, let him be deposed.'

At the beginning of the fourth century, matters had gone to such a length, that the Emperor Constantine thought it his duty to take steps to allay the controversy, and to insure uniformity of practice for the future. For this purpose, he got a canon passed in the great (Ecumenical Council of Nice (A.D. 325), That everywhere the great feast of Easter should be observed upon one and the same day; and that not the day of the Jewish passover, but, as had been generally observed, upon the Sunday afterwards.' And to prevent all future disputes as to the time, the following rules were also laid down:

1. 'That the twenty-first day of March shall be accounted the vernal equinox.'

2. 'That the full moon happening upon or next after the twenty-first of March, shall be taken for the full moon of Nisan.'

3. 'That the Lord's-day next following that full moon be Easter-day.'

4. 'But if the full moon happen upon a Sunday, Easter-day shall be the Sunday after.'

As the Egyptians at that time excelled in astronomy, the Bishop of Alexandria was appointed to give notice of Easter-day to the Pope and other patriarchs. But it was evident that this arrangement could not last long; it was too inconvenient and liable to interruptions. The fathers of the next age began, therefore, to adopt the golden numbers of the Metonic cycle, and to place them in the calendar against those days in each month on which the new moons should fall during that year of the cycle. The Metonie cycle was a period of nineteen years. It had been observed by Meton, an Athenian philosopher, that the moon returns to have her changes on the same month and day of the month in the solar year after a lapse of nineteen years, and so, as it were, to run in a circle. He published his discovery at the Olympic Games, B.C. 433, and the cycle has ever since borne his name. The fathers hoped by this cycle to be able always to know the moon's age; and as the vernal equinox was now fixed to the 21st of March, to find Easter for ever. But though the new moon really happened on the same day of the year after a space of nineteen years as it did before, it fell an hour earlier on that day, which, in the course of time, created a serious error in their calculations.

A cycle was then framed at Rome for 84 years, and generally received by the Western church, for it was then thought that in this space of time the moon's changes would return not only to the same day of the month, but of the week also. Wheatley tells us that, 'During the time that Easter was kept according to this cycle, Britain was separated from the Roman empire, and the British churches for some time after that separation continued to keep Easter according to this table of 84 years. But soon after that separation, the Church of Rome and several others discovered great deficiencies in this account, and therefore left it for another which was more perfect.'— Book on the Common Prayer, p. 40. This was the Victorian period of 532 years. But he is clearly in error here. The Victorian period was only drawn up about the year 457, and was not adopted by the Church till the fourth. Council of Orleans, A.D. 541.

Now from the time the Romans finally left Britain (A.D. 426), when he supposes both churches to be using the cycle of 84 years, till the arrival of St. Augustine (A.D. 596), the error can hardly have amounted to a difference worth disputing about. And yet the time the Britons kept Easter must have varied considerably from that of the Roman missionaries to have given rise to the statement that they were Quartodecimans, which they certainly were not; for it is a well-known fact that British bishops were at the Council of Nice, and doubtless adopted and brought home with them the rule laid down by that assembly. Dr, Hooke's account is far more probable, that the British and Irish churches adhered to the Alexandrian rule, according to which. the Easter festival could not begin before the 8th of March; while according to the rule adopted at Rome and generally in the West, it began as early as the fifth. 'They (the Celts) were manifestly in error,' he says; 'but owing to the haughtiness with which the Italians had demanded an alteration in their calendar, they doggedly determined not to change.'—Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, vol. i. p. 14.

After a good deal of disputation had taken place, with more in prospect, Oswy, King of Northumbria, determined to take the matter in hand. He summoned the leaders of the contending parties to a conference at Whitby, A.D. 664, at which he himself presided. Colman, bishop of Lindisfarne, represented the British church. The Romish party were headed by Agilbert, bishop of Dorchester, and Wilfrid, a young Saxon. Wilfrid was spokesman. The arguments were characteristic of the age; but the manner in which the king decided irresistibly provokes a smile, and makes one doubt whether he were in jest or earnest. Colman spoke first, and urged that the custom of the Celtic church ought not to be changed, because it had been inherited from their forefathers, men beloved of God, &c. Wilfrid followed:

'The Easter which we observe I saw celebrated by all at Rome: there, where the blessed apostles, Peter and Paul, lived, taught, suffered, and were buried.' And concluded a really powerful speech with these words: 'And if, after all, that Columba of yours were, which I will not deny, a holy man, gifted with the power of working miracles, is he, I ask, to be preferred before the most blessed Prince of the Apostles, to whom our Lord said, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it; and to thee will I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven" ?'

The King, turning to Colman, asked him, 'Is it true or not, Colman, that these words were spoken to Peter by our Lord?' Colman, who seems to have been completely cowed, could not deny it. 'It is true, 0 King.' 'Then,' said the King, 'can you shew me any such power given to your Columba?' Colman answered, ' No.' You are both, then, agreed,' continued the King, are you not, thatthese words were addressed principally to Peter, and that to him were given the keys of heaven by our Lord?' Both assented. 'Then,' said the King, 'I tell you plainly, I shall not stand opposed to the door-keeper of the kingdom of heaven; I desire, as far as in me lies, to adhere to his precepts and obey his commands, lest by offending him who keepeth the keys, I should, when I present myself at the gate, find no one to open to me.'

This settled the controversy, though poor honest Colman resigned his see rather than submit to such a decision.

On Easter-day depend all the moveable feasts and fasts throughout the year. The nine Sundays before, and the eight following after, are all de-pendent upon it, and form, as it were, a body-guard to this Queen of Festivals. The nine preceding are the six Sundays in Lent, Quinquagesima, Sexagesima, and Septuagesima; the eight following are the five Sundays after Easter, the Sunday after Ascension Day, Whit Sunday, and Trinity Sunday.


The old Easter customs which still linger among us vary considerably in form in different parts of the kingdom. The custom of distributing the 'pace' or 'pasche ege,' which was once almost universal among Christians, is still observed by children, and by the peasantry in Lancashire. Even in Scotland, where the great festivals have for centuries been suppressed, the young people still get their hard-boiled dyed eggs, which they roll about, or throw, and finally eat. In Lancashire, and in Cheshire, Staffordshire, and Warwickshire, and perhaps in other counties, the ridiculous custom of' lifting' or ' heaving' is practised.

On Easter Monday the men lift the women, and on Easter Tuesday the women lift or heave the men. The process is performed by two lusty men or women joining their hands across each other's wrists; then, making the person to be heaved sit down on their arms, they lift him up aloft two or three times, and often carry him several yards along a street. A grave clergyman who happened to be passing through a town in Lancashire on an Easter Tuesday, and having to stay an hour or two at an inn, was astonished by three or four lusty women rushing into his room, exclaiming they had come 'to lift him.' 'To lift me!' repeated the amazed divine; 'what can you mean?' 'Why, your reverence, we're come to lift you, 'cause it's Easter Tuesday.' 'Lift me because it's Easter Tuesday? I don't understand. Is there any such custom here?' 'Yes, to be sure; why, don't you know? all us women was lifted yesterday; and us lifts the men today in turn. And in course it's our reights and duties to lift 'em.'

After a little further parley, the reverend traveller compromised with his fair visitors for half-a-crown, and thus escaped the dreaded compliment. In Durham, on Easter Monday, the men claim the privilege to take off the women's shoes, and the next day the women retaliate. Anciently, both ecclesiastics and laics used to play at ball in the churches for tansy-cakes on Eastertide; and, though the profane part of this custom is happily everywhere discontinued, tansy-cakes and tansy-puddings are still favourite dishes at Easter in many parts. In some parishes in the counties of Dorset and Devon, the clerk carries round to every house a few white cakes as an Easter offering; these cakes, which are about the eighth of an inch thick, and of two sizes,—the larger being seven or eight inches, the smaller about five in diameter,—have a mingled bitter and sweet taste. In return for these cakes, which are always distributed after Divine service on Good Friday, the clerk receives a gratuity- according to the circumstances or generosity of the householder.
Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922 about Easter Cakes:

"Of the many ceremonies and customs that formerly existed at this time the distribution of Easter cakes was probably as common in Dorsetshire as in other counties.  A Dorchester correspondent of the ‘The Dorset County Chronicle, writing in April 1858, after referring to the old nursery rhyme of “Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man” (which he calls “Batty Cake”), says: -

“Hot cross buns have their own holy mark which requires no further observation than that the ecclesiologist has pronounced it to be Grecian and not a Latin cross.  Easter cakes however, have not any ecclesiastical distinction, although intimately connected with church officials.  The parish clerk, time out of mind, has had the privilege of calling at each house at Easter to treat the inmates with ‘figgy’ cakes at remunerative cost.  (When were currants and raisins first termed ‘figgy’?)

“The Church wardens and sidesmen (Synodsmen) are also great patrons of Easter customs, holding a special meeting for their celebration when inaugurated into office.

“Moreover in this county, at Easter, ‘furmity’, a diet composed of wheat and milk, - was sold by the plate or cup full, especially at the Easter sessions, at Sherborne…And in the country places ‘skimmer cake’ (dough cake boiled in a skimmer’, used commonly by dairy folk in Dorsetshire on festival occasions) was formerly much given to rustics as a treat instead of household loaf…But the School-Children’s treat of Easter cakes, from Lady Bountiful of the parish, was always customary in Dorset as in other parts of England.”
The Easter Bunny in tradition and folklore

Have you ever wondered how the symbol of the rabbit became associated with the Easter Festival?

The origin of the Easter Bunny probably goes back to the festival's connection with the pagan goddess Eostre. Eostre (sometimes spelt Oestre) was a fertility goddess from whom we derive the word "oestrogen" and she is closely associated with fertility symbols such as eggs. The rabbit is known as a highly fertile creature and hence an obvious choice for Easter symbolism.

In fact the use of the rabbit is probably a mistake - the Easter "bunny" is more likely to have been a hare, since it is the hare that is usually considered the sacred creature of Eostre.

Pagan fertility festivals at the time of the Spring equinox were common. It was believed that at this time, when day and night were of equal length, male and female energies were also in balance. The hare is often associated with moon goddesses; the egg and the hare together represent the god and the goddess respectively.

The earliest known reference to our modern Easter Bunny tradition appears to be from 16th century Germany. In the 18th century, German settlers to America brought the tradition with them. The Bunny was known by them as Oschter Haws (a corruption of the German Osterhase ) and brought gifts of chocolate, sweets and Easter Eggs to good children. Often children would make up nests for Oschter Haws, sometimes using their Easter bonnets, and the Bunny would leave his treats there.

Witch Hares

It is because of this strong connection with pagan traditions that Hares were strongly associated with witches and witchcraft in Christian times. People claimed that a witch could shape shift her form at night and become a hare. These solitary creatures, rarely seen, sometimes standing on their hind legs like a person, aroused suspicion.

When in distress they uttered a strange, almost human-like cry, which gave the animal a supernatural quality. For its behaviour would mimic that of a supposed witch. In this form she stole milk or food, or destroyed crops. Others insisted that hares were only witches' familiars.

Folk musician Seth Lakeman song The White Hare tells the folklore tale of a witch who can transform into a white hare. See music video below.

In Dorset there are many stories associated with Witch Hares. In the Purbecks, the gateway at West Lulworth, known as 'Daggers Gate', is believed to mark a grave of a supposed witch who could transfer herself into a hare. It acquired its unusual name in 1789, after farmer Sam Varnell was stabbed and killed at the spot by the daughter of the supposed witch. The witches ghost is still said to haunt the area often taking the form of a hare.

Rabbits, the Portland taboo word

These associations caused many people to believe hares were bad luck and best avoided. A hare crossing one's path, particularly when the person was riding a horse, could cause disaster.

Many people on Portland believe that even the rabbit is bad luck! Even to say the word could send Portlanders into a stupor, fearing what might happen (see previous blog entry Wallace and Gromit spook island). The fear of rabbits is based on the fact that quarry men would often see rabbits emerging from their burrows immediately before a rock fall. Such rock falls often injured and even killed quarry workers; therefore, it is understandable that rabbits became associated with bad luck.

Whoops a Daisy

It was believed in Dorset that over Easter calves were particularly prone to falling into ditches. Once they had plunged in, they could not get out and often died. The farmers' solution to this seasonal problem was to slit the calves' ears. By the time they had healed up, Easter was over and the threat was thought to be past.

Friday, 18 April 2014

'Hot Cross Buns! One A penny! Two A Penny! Hot Cross Buns! - The Customs and Traditions of Good Friday

Traditional Hot Cross Bun
Good Friday is the first day after Lent, and hot cross buns have long been a favourite way to break the fast today. The buns are older than Christianity - pagan celebrants ate wheat cakes at their spring festivals, and the Greeks, Romans and Ancient Egyptians all had buns with a cross etched on the top. The round bun represented the full moon, and the cross divides the bun into the four lunar quarters. Traditional buns have the cross cut into the dough or pricked out with a pin: the brash pastry bands are a more recent thing. Not all Good Friday buns featured a cross, and in some areas they were triangular, like a samosa.

The well-known jingle 'Hot cross buns, one a penny, two a penny' is a street-seller's cry. The buns were traditionally eaten at breakfast, and the town vendors had to be on the streets before dawn to make the most of their once-a-year wares. The buns have been munched in England today for hundreds of years, but it was only in the last century that the tradition caught on across the rest of Britain.

The Widow’s Son Sign
In Bow in the East End of London there is a Victorian pub in Devons Road whose name – The Widow’s Son - evokes a sad story commemorated every Good Friday in what has become a little piece of naval tradition.

The pub was built in 1848 on the site formerly occupied by a poor widow’s cottage. Her only son was a sailor for whom she baked some hot cross buns, expecting him to return at or soon after Easter. When the son failed to return she hung the buns from her ceiling, and repeated the action the next year and the next, continuing until her death.

Given the fame locally of the story, the pub built where her cottage had stood took the name The Widow’s Son, and to some locals it is also known as The Bun House.

Every Good Friday a Royal Navy sailor presents a new bun to the pub for inclusion in the net, though naval involvement is relatively recent. The custom has developed somewhat over the last few years, with sailors visiting on the bun day to pay their respects, sing a song or two, and drink to the lost mariner. A sailor’s hat is now presented to the pub as well as the bun.

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the traditions of Good Friday in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:- 
"Good Friday Bread. —It is generally believed that the bread baked on Good Firday never gets mouldy; an in some parts it  is used as a charm or talisman in order to make other bread " keep ".
The late Rev. Canon C. W. Bingham, a well-known writer upon Dorset antiquities, and who rendered most useful work to the Continuators of the third and last edition of Hutchins' 'History of Dorset', stated in Notes and Queries (Ser. III, viii, 146. 1865) that he had recently seen in a cottage a very small toy-loaf hanging over the  chimneypiece, and on inquiry was told that it had been baked on Good Friday, and that if it were carefully preserved it would prevent the good wife's bread from being " reamy ", that is, stringy, during the whole year.
The same preservative effect,that is, to prevent mouldiness or heaviness in bread,—is said to be obtained if a cross is pricked with a fork on the loaves before they are baked. In Dorsetshire the cross generally consists of five pricks or points, thus ..

The practice also obtained of making a cross in the flour before baking, and on the malt before mashing up before brewing, to keep it from being bewitched.(Conf. Shropshire Folk-Lore. p, 167)

I think it was this form of pricked cross that usually figured on the " hot-cross-buns " so generally consumed on this day.

A correspondent in the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries (1904), vol. ix, p. 113, speaking of " Good Friday Bread ", says that this was a large plain bread cake made at the same time as the buns for Good Friday, and marked with a cross. It was stored for the year and used as a remedy for sick cattle. It was supposed to be especially good for calves suffering from quarter-evil. When required for use a portion of the bread was crumbled, mixed with cider, and given as a drench. The correspondent adds that another peculiar use of the sign of the cross was that in the weekly making of bread for the household, and when the " leaven was laid " overnight (i.e. the yeast mixed with a part of the flour and left to ferment) a cross was marked in it to prevent the witches from dancing over it.

The Dorset editor of this periodical (Rev. Canon C. H. Mayo) added a footnote that a lady parishioner of his at Holnest, who died in 1895, was a firm believer in the virtues of Good Friday Bread. When grated it was taken as a remedy for diarrhoea. In some parts it is believed that it will cure any ailment.

Doles of loaves of bread, large and small for adults and children, were formerly distributed in the parish churchyard at Corfe Castle; but as that custom seems to have partaken more of a local character I have reserved any further account of it for my chapter on Local Customs.

Plants.—The late Rev. Canon Bingham mentions (Notes and Queries, Ser. II, vii, 451.) that a very fine Brompton stock was recently presented to him from a cottage garden in Dorsetshire, with the assurance that its flourishing condition was due to the fact of the seed from which it grew having been planted on Good Friday.

This testimony as to the efficacy of stock seed being sown on Good Friday is confirmed by the belief in some parts of the county that the flowers will in that case be double.

Bees.—Many people, I am told, make a practice of examining their hives on Good Friday, and salting the floor of the hives.

Nails.—It is believed in Portland that finger-nails must not be cut on Good Friday or you will suffer from toothache throughout the year.

Soapy water.—Another writer in the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries (1911), vol. xii, p. 232, states that an old Dorset woman, aged about 86, told him that she had been taught by her grandmother never to throw away soapy water on Good Friday. No reason was assigned for this except that it was said to have " something to do with our Saviour ".

An editorial footnote confirmed the existence of this belief, and added that it was also said that soapy water thrown away at this time turns to blood.

Several of these customs and superstitions referable to Good Friday have been noted by the late Mr. R. Bosworth Smith, of Bingham's Melcombe, in his Bird Life and Bird Lore (1909), p. 363 ; and it is not difficult, I think, to believe that he gathered much of his information from the same source that I have, namely, from the late Canon C. W. Bingham of that parish. He says:—

" Good Friday is one of the most important days of the year, from a secular as well as a religious point of view; the secular, doubtless, owing to the religious. Many of the villagers still make a point of baking a batch of bread on that day, and of setting apart a miniature loaf to be carefully kept, hung up by the fireside, throughout the year. It will prevent the bread of other bakings from turning ' vinny ' (Mouldy) or sour. A few crumbs of it, soaked in milk, are a sovereign specific for most of the ailments to which children's flesh is heir.

" In like manner they sow gilly flower seed at precisely 12 o'clock on Good Friday, in the belief that the flowers will come up double. Potatoes ' set' on that day, irrespective of the question—rather an important one, it will be admitted — whether Easter be early or late in the year, will have an important influence on all the other c settings ' of the season.

" The weather, indeed, of Good Friday and Easter Day is as important a factor in the growth of the hay crops, as is that of St. Swithin elsewhere :—

' Rain Good Friday or Easter Day, 

Much good grass, but little good hay'

Another Dorset writer, Mr. Wilkinson Sherren, in his Wessex of Romance (1908), p. 17, mentions the fact that in Moreton Church sprigs of English willow and pieces of yew-tree are placed at the end of every seat on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, arid that no one in the village remembers the time when this custom was not observed."
Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days March 25th 1864, details the traditions of Good Friday.
The day of the Passion has been held as a festival by the Church from the earliest times. In England, the day is one of two (Christmas being the other) on which all business is suspended. In the churches, which are generally well attended, the service is marked by an unusual solemnity.
Before the change of religion, Good Friday was of course celebrated in England with the same religious ceremonies as in other Catholic countries. A dressed figure of Christ being mounted on a crucifix, two priests bore it round the altar, with doleful chants; then, laying it on the ground with great tenderness, they fell beside it, kissed its hands and feet with piteous sighs and tears, the other priests doing the like in succession. Afterwards came the people to worship the assumedly dead Saviour, each bringing some little gift, such as corn and eggs. There was finally a most ceremonious burial of the image, along with the 'singing bread,' amidst the light of torches and the burning of incense, and with flowers to strew over the grave.
The king went through the ceremony of blessing certain rings, to be distributed among the people, who accepted them as infallible cures for cramp. Coming in state into his chapel, he found a crucifix laid upon a cushion, and a carpet spread on the ground before it. The monarch crept along the carpet to the crucifix, as a token of his humility, and there blessed the rings in a silver basin, kneeling all the time, with his almoner likewise kneeling by his side. After this was done, the queen and her ladies came in, and likewise crept to the cross. The blessing of cramp-rings is believed to have taken its rise in the efficacy for that disease supposed to reside in a ring of Edward the Confessor, which used to be kept in Westminster Abbey. There can be no doubt that a belief in the medical power of the cramp-ring was once as faithfully held as any medical maxim whatever. Lord Berners, the accomplished translator of Froissart, while ambassador in Spain, wrote to Cardinal Wolsey, June 21, 1518, entreating him to reserve a few cramprings for him, adding that he hoped, with God's grace, to bestow them well.
A superstition regarding bread baked on Good Friday appears to have existed from an early period. Bread so baked was kept by a family all through the ensuing year, under a belief that a few gratings of it in water would prove a specific for any ailment, but particularly for diarrhea. We see a memorial of this ancient superstition in the use of what are called hot cross-buns, which may now be said to be the most prominent popular observance connected with the day.

In London, and all over England (not, however, in Scotland), the morning of Good Friday is ushered in with a universal cry of Hot Cross-Buns! A parcel of them appears on every break-fast table. It is a rather small bun, more than usually spiced, and having its brown sugary surface marked with a cross. Thousands of poor children and old frail people take up for this day the business of disseminating these quasi-religious cakes, only intermitting the duty during church hours; and if the eagerness with which young and old eat them could be held as expressive of an appropriate sentiment within their hearts, the English might be deemed a pious people. The ear of every person who has ever dwelt in England is familiar with the cry of the street bun-vendors:
One a penny, buns,
Two a penny, buns,
One a penny, two a penny,
Hot cross-buns!
Whether it be from failing appetite, the chilling effects of age, or any other fault in ourselves, we cannot say; but it strikes us that neither in the bakers' shops, nor from the baskets of the street-vendors, can one now get hot cross-buns comparable to those of past times. They want the spice, the crispness, the everything they once had. Older people than we speak also with mournful affection of the two noted bun-houses of Chelsea. Nay, they were Royal bun-houses, if their signs could be believed, the popular legend always insinuating that the King himself had stopped there, bought, and eaten. of the buns. Early in the present century, families of the middle classes walked a considerable way to taste the delicacies of the Chelsea bun-houses, on the seats beneath the shed which screened the pavement in front. An insane rivalry, of course, existed between the two houses, one pretending to be The Chelsea Bun-house, and the other the Real Old Original Chelsea Bun-house. Heaven knows where the truth lay, but one thing was certain and assured to the innocent public, that the buns of both were so very good that it was utterly impossible to give an exclusive verdict in favour of either.
A writer, signing himself H. C. B., gives in the Athenaeum for April 4, 1857, an account of an ancient sculpture in the Museo Borbonico at Rome, representing the miracle of the five barley loaves. The loaves are marked each with a cross on the surface, and the circumstance is the more remarkable, as the hot cross-bun is not a part of the observance of the day on the Continent. H. C. B. quotes the late Rev. G. S. Faber for a train of speculation, having for its conclusion that our eating of the hot cross-buns is to be traced back to a pagan custom of worshipping the Queen of Heaven with cakes—a custom to be found alike in China and in ancient Mexico, as well as many other countries. In Egypt, the cakes were horned to resemble the sacred heifer, and thence called boas, which in one of its oblique cases is boun—in short, bun! So people eating these hot cross-bunslittle know what, in reality, they are about.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Clipping the Church and the Customs and Traditions of Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday, also called "Mothers' Day" in the United Kingdom and Ireland falls on the fourth Sunday of Lent (exactly three weeks before Easter Sunday). It is believed to have originated from the 16th century Christian practice of visiting one's mother church annually, which meant that most mothers would be reunited with their children on this day. Most historians believe that young apprentices and young women in servitude were released by their masters that weekend in order to visit their families. As a result of secularization, it is now principally used to celebrate and give thanks for mothers, although it is still recognized in the historical sense by some churches, with attention paid to Mary the mother of Jesus as well as the traditional concept 'Mother Church'. 

Church Clipping

St Laurence, Upwey, near Weymouth
Church of St. Laurence, Upwey, near Weymouth
The custom of ‘Clipping the Church’ as it is called, is a dance-like ceremony in which the parishioners join hands and move around the outside of the church in an unbroken ring often singing a traditional clipping hymn. The word "clipping" is Anglo-Saxon in origin, and is derived from the word "clyp-pan", meaning "embrace" or "clasp" and thus is an expression of devotion to the Mother Church, although the tradition is sometimes held on Easter Monday or Shrove Tuesday. As is so often the case with traditions like this, Clipping the Church finds its origins in pagan times and has probably descended from the Spring Equinox festivals.  Currently, there are only a few churches left in England that hold this ceremony like St. Peter's Church, Edgmond, and St. Mary's Church in Painswick.   

'Clipping the Church' at Upwey in 1970
'Clipping the Church' at Upwey in 1970
The Church of St. Laurence at Upwey also revived this tradition in 1962.  An account of this custom was featured in a local newspaper 'Why they are 'Clipping' the Church', March 1970.

"The Mothering Sunday Celebration, pictured above is called Clipping the Church and was performed at Upwey Parish Church, Weymouth, yesterday for the eighth year after the revival of the tradition.

The Rector, the Rev. A. Leslie Jones, explained that the ceremony arose from an Epistle in the Bible which referred to the Church as the "mother of us all." The tradition was an "embracing" of the mother on the fourth Sunday in Lent.

About 100 people attended a short service before the ceremony which posies brought by the children were blessed and presented to their mothers.

Then the concregation went outside, linked arms and walked or danced around the church."

An earlier revival in nearby Preston featured a Clipping the Church ceremony in the Dorset Evening Echo 8th March 1961.

"The ancient custom of “Clipping the Church” was observed at the picturesque village church of St Andrew’s at Preston, Weymouth, yesterday – Mothering Sunday.

The ceremony was revived nine years ago, is intended to symbolise the family character of the Christian church.  The church was nearly filled and the service conducted by the new Vicar, Canon W. J. Smith, assisted by the Rev E.V. Tanner.

Children and their parents filed out of the main door, headed by the choir and joined hands to completely surround the church.

Moving round it continuously they sang the hymn “All things bright and beautiful.”


Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the traditions of Mothering Sunday (Mid-Lent Sunday) in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:-
"Without attributing to Dorset folk the ideas of some old writers in giving this name to the fourth Sunday in Lent, namely, that whilst Roman Catholicism was the established religion in England it was customary for people to visit their Mother church on Mid-Lent Sunday and to make their offerings at the high altar, (See Brand, i, 92.) yet there are traces of a less ecclesiastical practice that at one time prevailed in some parts of the county at this time. The eating of " furmity " (fr. frumentum) a dish composed of steeped wheat, milk, currants, spice, etc. and boiled together—whether at the house of parents whom it was usual in some parts of England to visit on this day and to take them some little present of nice eatables, or otherwise—was customary at this time to some extent in Dorsetshire. We have the authority of the late Sir Frederick A. Weld, K.C.M.G.—at one time Prime Minister of New Zealand and, later, Governor of the Straits Settlements—for saying(Notes and Queries, Ser. v, v. 78) that in his own home at Chideock, in West Dorset, "furmity" made of boiled wheat and raisins, was eaten on their village feast day. I myself, many years ago, accepted some of this savoury dish at the hands of an old West Dorset lady, now dead, at this time of the year.

I have had no support from any Dorset source for the suggestion of certain scriptural writers (8 See Brand, i, p. 93 (n.). that this eating of " furmity " on Mothering Sunday may have taken its rise from the miraculous " feeding of the five thousand " by our Saviour as recorded in the Gospel for that day, or, perhaps, from the entertainment by Joseph of his brethren as related in the first lesson.
Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days March 6th 1864, details the tradition of Mother's day.
In the year 1864 the 6th of March is the fourth Sunday in Lent, commonly called Midlent Sunday. Another popular name for the day is Mothering Sunday, from an ancient observance connected with it.
The harshness and general painfulness of life in old times must have been much relieved by certain simple and affectionate customs which modern people have learned to dispense with. Amongst these was a practice of going to see parents, and especially the female one, on the present, such as a cake or a trinket. A youth engaged in this amiable act of duty was said to go a-mothering, and thence the day itself came to be called Mothering Sunday. One can readily imagine how, after a stripling or maiden had gone to service, or launched in independent housekeeping, the old bonds of filial love would be brightened by this pleasant annual visit, signalised, as custom demanded it should be, by the excitement attending some novel and perhaps surprising gift. There was also a cheering and peculiar festivity appropriate to the day, the prominent dish being furmety—which we have to interpret as wheat grains boiled in sweet milk, sugared and spiced. In the northern parts of England, and in Scotland, there seems to have been a greater leaning to steeped pease fried in butter, with pepper and salt. Pancakes so composed passed by the name of carlings: and so conspicuous was this article, that from it Carling Sunday became a local name for the day.
 'Tid, Mid, and Misera,
Carling, Palm, Pase-egg day,'
remains in the north of England as an enumeration of the Sundays of Lent, the first three terms probably taken from words in obsolete services for the respective days, and the fourth being the name of Midlent Sunday from the cakes by which it was distinguished.
Herrick, in a canzonet addressed to Dianeme, says

I'll to thee a simnel bring,
'Gainst thou go a-mothering:
So that, when she blesses thee,
Half that blessing thou'lt give me.'

Simnel Cake
He here obviously alludes to the sweet cake which the young person brought to the female parent as a gift: but it would appear that the term 'simnel' was in reality applicable to cakes which were in use all through the time of Lent. We are favoured by an antiquarian friend with the following general account of Simnel Cakes.

It is an old custom in Shropshire and Herefordshire, and especially at Shrewsbury, to make during Lent and Easter, and also at Christmas, a sort of rich and expensive cakes, which are called Simnel Cakes. They are raised cakes, the crust of which is made of fine flour and water, with sufficient saffron to give it a deep yellow colour, and the interior is filled with the materials of a very rich plum-cake, with plenty of candied lemon peel, and other good things. They are made up very stiff; tied up in a cloth, and boiled for several hours, after which they are brushed over with egg, and then baked. When ready for sale the crust is as hard as if made of wood, a circumstance which has given rise to various stories of the manner in which they have at times been treated by persons to whom they were sent as presents, and who had never seen one before, one ordering his simnel to be boiled to soften it, and a lady taking hers for a footstool. They are made of different sizes, and, as may be supposed from the ingredients, are rather expensive, some large ones selling for as much as half-a-guinea, or even, we believe, a guinea, while smaller ones may be had for half-a-crown. Their form, which as well as the ornamentation is nearly uniform, will be best understood by the accompanying engraving, representing largo and small cakes as now on sale in Shrewsbury.

The usage of these cakes is evidently one of great antiquity. It appears from one of the epigrams of the poet Herrick, that at the beginning of the seventeenth century it was the custom at Gloucester for young people to carry simnels as presents to their mothers on Midlent Sunday (or Mothering Sunday).

It appears also from some other writers of this age, that these simnels, like the modern ones, were boiled as well as baked. The name is found in early English and also in very old French, and it appears in mediæval Latin under the form simanellus or siminellus. It is considered to be derived from the Latin simile, fine flour, and is usually interpreted as meaning the finest quality of white bread made in the middle ages. It is evidently used, however, by the mediæval writers in the sense of a cake, which they called in Latin of that time artocopus, which is constantly explained by simnel in the Latin-English vocabularies. In three of these, printed in Mr. Wright's Volume of Vocabularies, all belonging to the fifteenth century, we have 'Hic artocopus, anglice symnelle,' 'Hic artocopus, a symnylle,' and 'artocopus, anglice a symnella;' and in the latter place it is further explained by a contemporary pen-and-ink drawing in the margin, representing the simnel as seen from above and sideways, of which we give below a fac-simile.

It is quite evident that it is a rude representation of a cake exactly like those still made in Shropshire. The ornamental border, which is clearly identical with that of the modern cake, is, perhaps, what the authorities quoted by Ducange v. simila, mean when they spoke of the cake as being foliata. In the Dictionaries of John de Garlande, compiled at Paris in the thirteenth century, the word simineus or simnenels, is used as the equivalent to the Latin placentæ, which are described as cakes exposed in the windows of the hucksters to sell to the scholars of the University and others. We learn from Ducange that it was usual in early times to mark the simnels with a figure of Christ or of the Virgin Mary, which would seem to shew that they had a religious signification. We know that the Anglo-Saxon, and indeed the German race in general, were in the habit of eating consecrated cakes at their religious festivals. Our hot cross buns at Easter are only the cakes which the pagan Saxons ate in honour of their goddess Eastre, and from which the Christian clergy, who were unable to prevent people from eating, sought to expel the paganism by marking them with the cross.

It is curious that the use of these cakes should have been preserved so long in this locality, and still more curious are the tales which have arisen to explain the meaning of the name, which had been long forgotten. Some pretend that the father of Lambert Simnel, the well-known pretender in the reign of Henry VII, was a baker, and the first maker of simnels, and that in consequence of the celebrity he gained by the acts of his son, his cakes have retained his name. There is another story current in Shropshire, which is much more picturesque, and which we tell as nearly as possible in the words in which it was related to us. 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 pre-served and joined together, and it has ever since been known as the cake of Sim-Nel, or Simnel!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

"Mad as a March Hare": The Customs and Traditons of Spring

EostreThe ‘Spring’ or ‘Vernal Equinox’, which was once called ‘Ostara’, occurs on either 20th, 21st or 22nd March when the sun enters ‘Aries’ according to the Earth’s orbit and the insertion of leap years. The Spring Equinox marks the time when the sun crosses the celestial equator northwards or the ‘half way point’ resulting in equal twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night. At the equinox the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west after which the daylight hours grow increasingly longer until the sun reaches its highest point in the sky at the ‘Summer Solstice’, which occurs in June. 

The Oestra Hare in folklore and tradition
Have you ever wondered how the symbol of the rabbit became associated with the Easter Festival? The origin of the Easter Bunny probably goes back to the festival's connection with the pagan goddess Eostre. 

Eostre (sometimes spelt Oestre) was a fertility goddess from whom we derive the word "oestrogen" and she is closely associated with fertility symbols such as eggs. The rabbit is known as a highly fertile creature and hence an obvious choice for Easter symbolism.

In fact the use of the rabbit is probably a mistake - the Easter "bunny" is more likely to have been a hare, since it is the hare that is usually considered the sacred creature of Eostre.

Pagan fertility festivals at the time of the Spring equinox were common. It was believed that at this time, when day and night were of equal length, male and female energies were also in balance.

The hare is often associated with moon goddesses; the egg and the hare together represent the god and the goddess respectively.  The earliest known reference to our modern Easter Bunny tradition appears to be from 16th century Germany. In the 18th century, German settlers to America brought the tradition with them. The Bunny was known by them as Oschter Haws (a corruption of the German Osterhase ) and brought gifts of chocolate, sweets and Easter Eggs to good children. Often children would make up nests for Oschter Haws, sometimes using their Easter bonnets, and the Bunny would leave his treats there. 

Witch Hares

Witch HareIt is because of this strong connection with pagan traditions that Hares were strongly associated with witches and witchcraft in Christian times. People claimed that a witch could shape shift her form at night and become a hare. These solitary creatures, rarely seen, sometimes standing on their hind legs like a person, aroused suspicion.

When in distress they uttered a strange, almost human-like cry, which gave the animal a supernatural quality. For its behaviour would mimic that of a supposed witch. In this form she stole milk or food, or destroyed crops. Others insisted that hares were only witches' familiars.

Folk musician Seth Lakeman song 'The White Hare' tells the folklore tale of a witch who can transform into a white hare. See music video.

In Dorset there are many stories associated with  Witch Hares. In the Purbecks, the gateway at West Lulworth, known as 'Daggers Gate', is believed to mark a grave of a supposed witch who could transfer herself into a hare. It acquired its unusual name in 1789, after farmer Sam Varnell was stabbed and killed at the spot by the daughter of the supposed witch. The witches ghost is still said to haunt the area often taking the form of a hare

Rabbits, the Portland taboo word

These associations caused many people to believe hares were bad luck and best avoided. A hare crossing ones path, particularly when the person was riding a horse, could cause disaster.

Many people on Portland believe that even the rabbit is bad luck! Even to say the word could send Portlanders into a stupor, fearing what might happen (see previous blog entry Wallace and Gromit spook island). The fear of rabbits is based on the fact that quarry men would often see rabbits emerging from their burrows immediately before a rock fall. Such rock falls often injured and even killed quarry workers; therefore, it is understandable that rabbits became associated with bad luck.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

St. Edward the Martyr's Day

Stained Glass Window at
Shaftesbury Abbey of
St. Edward by Rupert Moore
The following is an extract taken from the 'Chambers Book of Days' March 18th 1864, with regards to the death of Edward the king of England who was brutely murdered near Corfe Castle. 
"The great King Edgar had two wives, first Elfleda, and, after her death, Elfrida, an ambitious woman, who had become queen through the murder of her first husband, and who survived her second; and Edgar left a son by each, Edward by Elfleda, and Ethelred by Elfrida. At the time of their father's death, Edward was thirteen, and Ethelred seven years of age; and they were placed by the ambition of Elfrida, and by political events, in a position of rivalry. Edgar's reign had been one continued struggle to establish monarchism, and with it the supremacy of the Church of Rome, in Anglo-Saxon England; and the violence with which this design had been carried out, with the persecution to which the national clergy were subjected, now caused a reaction, so that at Edgar's death the country was divided into two powerful parties, of which the party opposed to the monks was numerically the strongest. The queen joined this party, in the hope of raising her son to the throne, and of ruling England in his name; and the feeling against the Romish usurpation was so great, that, although Edgar had declared his wish that his eldest son should succeed him, and his claim was no doubt just, the crown was only secured to him by the energetic interference of Dunstan. Edward thus became King of England in the year 975.

The ruins of Corfe Castle Edward appears, as far as we can learn, to have been an amiable youth, and to have possessed some of the better qualities of his father; but his reign and life were destined to be cut short before he reached an age to display them. He had sought to conciliate the love of his step-mother by lavishing his favour upon her, and he made her a grant of Dorsetshire, but in vain; and she lived, apparently in a sort of sullen state, away from court, with her son Ethelred, at Corfe in that county, plotting, according to some authorities, with what may be called the national party, against Dunstan and the government.
The Murder of Edward
The Anglo-Saxons were all passionately attached to the pleasures of the chase, and one day—it was the 18th of March 978 — King Edward was hunting in the forest of Dorset, and, knowing that he was in the neighbourhood of Corfe, and either suffering from thirst or led by the desire to see his half-brother Ethelred, for whom he cherished a boyish attachment, he left his followers and rode alone to pay a visit to his mother. Elfrida received him with the warmest demonstrations of affection, and, as he was unwilling to dismount from his horse, she offered him the cup with her own hand. While he was in the act of drinking, one of the queen's attendants, by her command, stabbed him with a dagger. The prince hastily turned his horse, and rode toward the wood, but he soon became faint and fell from his horse, and his foot becoming entangled in the stirrup, he was dragged along till the horse was stopped, and the corpse was carried into the solitary cottage of a poor woman, where it was found next morning, and, according to what appears to be the most trustworthy account, thrown by Elfrida's directions into an adjoining marsh.The young king was, however, subsequently buried at Wareham, and removed in the following year to be interred with royal honours at Shaftesbury. The monastic party, whose interests were identified with Edward's government, and who considered that he had been sacrificed to the hostility of their opponents, looked upon him as a martyr, and made him a saint. The writer of this part of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, who was probably a contemporary, expresses his feelings in the simple and pathetic words, 'No worse deed than this was done to the Anglo race, since they first came to Britain.'
Edward the Martyr Sign
Corfe Village

The story of the assassination of King Edward is sometimes quoted in illustration of a practice which existed among the Anglo-Saxons. Our forefathers were great drinkers, and it was customary with them, in drinking parties, to pass round a large cup, from which each in turn drunk to some of the company. He who thus drank, stood up, and as he lifted the cup with both hands, his body was exposed without any defence to a blow, and the occasion was often seized by an enemy to murder him. To prevent this, the following plan was adopted. When one of the company stood up to drink, he required the companion who sat next to him, or some one of the party, to be his pledge, that is, to be responsible for protecting him against anybody who should attempt to take advantage of his defenceless position: and this companion, if he consented, stood up also, and raised his drawn sword in his hand to defend him while drinking. This practice, in an altered form, continued long after the condition of society had ceased to require it, and was the origin of the modern practice of pledging in drinking. At great festivals, in some of our college halls and city companies, the custom is preserved almost in its primitive form in passing round the ceremonial cup—the loving cup, as it is sometimes called. As each person rises and takes the cup in his hand to drink, the man seated next to him rises also, and when the latter takes the cup in his turn, the individual next to him does the same."

Thursday, 13 March 2014

In memory of Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal who died on this day 13th March 1925

John Symonds Udal's Grave
St. John the Baptist Church, Symondsbury
On this day 13th March 1925, judge, sportsman, antiquarian, collector, essayist and a miscellaneous writer - John Symonds Udal, author of 'Dorsetshire Folklore', died at the age of 76 at his London home in St. John's Wood.  His ashes where brought back to his beloved home of Symondsbury and interred in St. John the Baptist churchyard adjacent to the Manor House where much of the original preparation of his 'Dorsetshire Folklore' had taken place.
by John Symonds Udal

Between two hills of lofty prominence,
A humble village slumbered as it lay;
Nor oft disturbed by curious visitors,
To see its beauties, or to give it praise,
Secure, and free from noise, in peaceful quiet,
It thus had passed through ages unobserved,
The parish church, —  within its hallowed ground
Strewn o’er with mounds to mark the sacred
     dead, —
A cross in shape — upreared a massive tower
Towards the sky's deep vault of azure hue.
Sweet chimes the mossy belfry carolled forth,
To meet the freshness of the wanton air,

While o’er it all there dwelt an innocence,
A gentle calmness of a better world,
That falls on no palatial residence.
‘Twere best to view the scene from Colmer's
     hill : —
One side—the sparkling sea, its rolling waves,
Seething in endless motion on the strand,
Inspires the soul with heartfelt thankfulness .
For God’s great works, by nature's laws ordained.
And far below, the neighbouring town appears,
Decked out in picturesque attractiveness.
The other — distant hills the scene reveals,
Of Pilsdon with its furze and table top;

Poetic Lewesdon, too, whose threatening brow
O’erhangs the village Stoke spread out beneath;
While sunny cornfields, pastures, meadows, all,
Seemed to have found the very place to thrive.
The birds in joyous freedom pass the hours,
Unharmed by man — protected by their God.
So might the golden age have been indeed,

Which Virgil told in rapturous flowing verse;
When all was love, and friendship’s soothing
Had shed eternal peace on all below.
At Colme’s foot the village rectory lies,
Encompassed by the shade of waving trees,
A calm retreat from weary toil; and from
The garden walls, in rich profusion hang,
Thick clusters of the luscious mellow peach,
And ruddy nectarine, with apricot.
The other side the garden’s mossy wall,
There stood an ancient farmhouse, prominent,
Where round the mullioned window’ embrasures
The honeysuckle clasped its pliant arms;
Where on the kitchen floor, overlaid with stone,
Before the cheerful woodfire's glowing heat,
The slow-revolving spit its task performed.
But now, by ruthless time and modern art,
Another structure rises in its place,
And of the old, nought but the walls remain,

Before the porch, a sparkling fountain plays,
Casting its streams of many coloured hues,
To greet in harmony the sun’s bright rays.
Elsewhere, indeed, the scene remains unchanged,
The undulating mead — the shady copse -—
Where both the pheasant and the rabbit lurk,
The fluttering partridge, and the nervous hare.
There from the top of Rybury's verdant slope,
We feel the influence of the sea-born breeze,
That floating o'er the open downs of Eype,
 Infuses strength, and renovates the frame,
Yet must we linger not too long a time
On one sweet place, while many us invite,
But parsing on to other scenes as fairy
Leave Symondsbury to slumber on again.
'Marriage and Other Poems' by John Symonds Udal, 1876

Read more about his life - John Symonds Udal - A Dorset Folklorist

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Jack O' Lent: The Traditions and Customs of Ash Wednesday and Lent Tide

After the fun and frolics of Shrove Tide comes the solemnities of ‘Lent Tide’; the period of time which runs from ‘Ash Wednesday’ to ‘Good Friday’. The word ‘Lent’ derives from an old name for March, ‘Lenten Tide’, meaning the time when the days lengthen. During Lent Christians traditionally observe forty days of fasting to imitate Christ’s miraculous abstinence in the wilderness. In the past the rules of Lent were faithfully observed with only one proper meal allowed per day, yet eggs, dairy produce and wine were strictly forbidden. Sex too, was forbidden during Lent therefore Lent marriages were rare. As one old proverb says: ‘Marry in Lent and you’ll live to repent!’

Weather Lore

‘Wherever the wind lies on Ash Wednesday, It continues during all Lent’.


Jack-a- lent
One now defunct custom was the beating up of a ‘Jack-a-Lent’ or ‘Jack-O-Lent’. A Jack-a-Lent was a straw stuffed human effigy which would be dragged and beaten through the streets at the start of Lent and was then hanged from a tree until ‘Palm Sunday’, when it would be shot to pieces.

The Jack-a-Lent was said to represent Judas but this custom is more likely to have its roots in an age-old ritual of driving out winter. He is mentioned in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor.

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the customs and traditions of Lent in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:-


I have already mentioned (p. 21, Pancakes and Football customs) the custom of " Lent-crocking ", but I can find no trace existing in Dorsetshire of the old Lenten custom or pastime of throwing cudgels at "jack-o'-lents ",—puppets usually stuffed with straw.
Barnes, indeed, in his Glossary (1863), p. 65, defines them as "a scarecrow of old clothes, sometimes stuffed ", and refers to Fielding,—" who was sometime in Dorset,' — as using the name in his Joseph Andrews (chapter ii). Barnes's reference here would appear to indicate that he knew of the word being used only as a scarecrow, and not as a pastime; for Fielding in this passage, in which he alludes to "Jack-o'-Lent" being the modern appellation of the god Priapus, can scarcely have used it as referring to any of that deity's attributes other than an agricultural one, — in this instance that of a " bird-keeper ", (See also Barnes's observations in his Fore-say (ante) as to " Jack-a-lent", p. 3.)
That the pastime, however, must at one time have prevailed in Dorsetshire is clear from an extract which the late Mr. Thomas Wainwright has given from the '" Cofferers' Accounts " for the year 1574-5 in his Bridport Borough Records (1898), p. 33 :— " Itm paid to Owyn for the making of Jack-a-lent and his hors hire — 4.s."

Brand, too, gives references to this practice from various Elizabethan and later dramatists. 
One of these, from Quarles' Shepheards' Oracles (1646), p. 88, gives the word as used in both senses :—
"How like a Jack a Lent
He stands, for Boys to spend their Shrovetide throws,
Or like a puppit made to frighten cows."
I have no evidence as to how this pastime was carried out in those days; though it is not improbable that it was the direct ancestor of our own modern, and still universally indulged in, amusement of " Aunt Sally ".
Extract below taken from the Chambers Book of Days February 10th 1864, details the tradition of Ash Wednesday.

It is an ancient custom of the Christian church to hold as a period of fasting and solemnity the forty days preceding Easter, in commemoration of the miraculous abstinence of Jesus when under temptation. From leaglen-tide, a Saxon term for spring (as being the time of the lengthening of the day), came the familiar word for this period—LENT. Originally, the period began on what is now the first Sunday in Lent; but, it being found that, when Sundays, as improper for fasting, were omitted, there remained only thirty-six days, the period was made by Pope Gregory to commence four days earlier namely, on what has since been called Ash Wednesday. This name was derived from the notable ceremony of the day in the Romish church. It being thought proper to remind the faithful, at commencement of the great penitential season, that they were but dust and ashes, the priests took a quantity of ashes, blessed them, and sprinkled them with holy water.

The worshipper then approaching in sack-cloth, the priest took up some of the ashes on the end of his fingers, and made with them the mark of the cross on the worshipper's forehead, saying, Memento, hemo, quia cinis es, et in pulverem reverleris (Remember, man, that you are of ashes, and into dust will return). The ashes used were commonly made of the palms consecrated on the Palm Sunday of the previous year. In England, soon after the Reformation, the use of ashes was discontinued, as 'a vain show,' and Ash Wednesday thence became only a day of marked solemnity, with a memorial of its original character in a reading of the curses denounced against impenitent sinners.

The popular observances on Ash Wednesday are not of much account. The cocks being now dispatched, a thin scare-crow-like figure or puppet was set up, and shied at with sticks, in imitation of one of the sports of the preceding day. The figure was called a Jake-a-lent, a term which is often met with in old literature, as expressive of a small and insignificant person. Beaumont and Fletcher, in one of their plays, make a character say:

If I forfeit, Make me a Jack o' Lent and break my shins

For untamed points and counters.'

Boys used to go about clacking at doors, to get eggs or bits of bacon wherewith to make up a feast among themselves; and when refused, would stop the keyhole with dirt, and depart with a rhymed denunciation. In some parts of Germany, the young men gathered the girls into a cart, and drove them into a river or pool, and there 'washed them favouredly,'—a process which shews that abstinence from merriment was not there held as one of the proprieties of the day.

'Among the ancient customs of this country which have sunk into disuse, was a singularly absurd one, continued even to so late a period as the reign of George I. During the Lenten season, an officer denominated the 'King's Cock Crones' crowed the hour each night, within the precincts of the Palace, instead of proclaiming it in the ordinary manner of watchmen.' On the first Ash, Wednesday after the accession of the House of Hanover, as the Prince of Wales, afterwards George II, sat down to supper, this officer abruptly entered the apartment, and according to accustomed usage, proclaimed in a sound resembling the shrill pipe of a cock, that it was "past ten o'clock." Taken by surprise, and imperfectly acquainted with the English language, the astonished prince naturally mistook the tremulation of the assumed crow, as some mockery intended to insult him, and instantly rose to resent the affront: nor was it without difficulty that the interpreter explained the nature of the custom, and satisfied him, that a compliment was designed, according to the court etiquette of the time. From that period we find no further account of the exertion of the imitative powers of this important officer: but the court has been left to the voice of reason and conscience, to remind them of their errors, and not to that of the cock, whose clarion called back Peter to repentance, which this fantastical and silly ceremony was meant to typify.'—Brady

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