General Notes On Festivals
( Originally Published 1884 )
I HAVE been much entertained with the customs and manners of certain towns and villages in England, etc., mentioned in some of your former Magazines, and should be glad if some of your correspondents would inform us why most places in England have eggs and collops (slices of bacon) on Shrove Monday, pancakes on Tuesday, and fritters on the Wednesday, in the same week, for dinner. Having occasion some few years ago to go to Harrowgate for the benefit of my health, I resided great part of my time at that pleasant market town, Ripon, where I was witness to some very curious customs. To begin with the year : the Sunday before Candlemas-day at the collegiate church, a fine antient building, is one continued blaze of light all the afternoon by an immense number of candles. On Easter Sunday, as soon as the service of the church is over, the boys run about the streets, and lay hold of every woman or girl they can, and take their buckles from their shoes. This farce is continued till the next day at noon, when the females begin, and return the compliment upon the men, which does not end till Tuesday evening ; nay, I was told that, some years ago, no traveller could pass through the town without being stopped and having his spurs taken away, unless redeemed by a little money, which is the only way to have your buckles returned. Some time in the spring, I think the day before Holy Thursday, all the clergy, attended by the singing men and boys of the choir, perambulate the town in their canonicals, singing hymns; and the blue-coat charity-boys follow, singing, with green boughs in their hands; the meaning of which I never could learn. On the eve of All Saints the good women make a cake for every one in the family; so this is generally called "cake night." And on Christmas-eve the grocers send each of their customers a pound, or half a pound, of currants and raisins, to make a Christmas pudding. The chandlers also send large mold candles, and the coopers logs of wood, generally called yule-clogs, which are always used on Christmas-eve; but, should it be so large as not to be all burnt that night, which is frequently the case, the remains are kept till Old Christmas-eve. And, on Christmas-day, the singing-boys come into the church with large baskets full of red apples, with a sprig of rosemary stuck in each, which they present to all the congregation, and generally have a return made them of 2d. 4d. or 6d., according to the quality of the lady or gentleman. In some parts of England they heave one another on Easter Monday, that is, take them up in their arms, as if they wish to know how heavy they were. I had almost forgot to inform you, that at Ripon, at nine o'clock every evening, a man blows a large horn at the market-cross, and then at the mayor's door. If any of your ingenious correspondents can inform us of the meaning or origin of these curious customs, it will oblige a constant reader, though a new correspondent.
P.S. The word "creepers," which has been such a puzzle to many of your readers, is nothing but the moveable irons in a kitchen-grate, which keeps the fire together, and called "creepers " in most parts of England, and sometimes "keepers."
Your correspondent Riponiensis, p. 719, will find a solution of some of his queries in Bourne's "Antiquities of the Common People," edit. Brand, p. 155, for the large mold candles on Christmas Eve : " Our forefathers used, when the common devotions of the eve were over, and night came on, to light up candles of an uncommon size, which were called Christmas candles, and to lay a log of wood on the fire, which they termed a yule clog. This custom, Bede tells us, was observed by the Saxons before their conversion to Christianity." Mr. Brand found in the " Ephemeris sive Diarium Historicum," Francf. 1590, 4to., that sweetmeats were at this time given to the fathers in the Vatican, and all kinds of little images were found in the confectioners' shops. He mentions a yule dough, or image of a child in paste, given by bakers to their customers; and from these circumstances he derives mince pies. In Franconia boys and girls go about singing carols, and get fruit and money (Ib.). The candles are usually lighted and carried about on Candlemas Day, and not on the Sunday preceding it. Durand tells us that on Easter Tuesday wives beat their husbands, and on the following day husbands beat their wives (Ib., p. 254). It seems by Mr. Bourne (Ib., p. 250) that the liberties of the Saturnalia were transferred to Easter in compliment to the joyful occasion. The boys and girls at Ripon observe some practice like this. The custom of heaving may be substituted to dancing, or be merely an Easter frolick, or gambol ; or it may be a remain of the Lupercalia celebrated in February. Bourne, p. 213, says : " In some country parishes it is the custom on one of the three days before Holy Thursday to go round the bounds and limits of the parish ;" and he derives it from the antient Terminalia, a festival for the same purpose.. It was fixed to Rogation week ; and Rogations or Litanies, made on a particular occasion by Mamerus, Bishop of Vienna A.D. 550; and the subject of these Litanies was to beg a blessing on the fruits of the earth. In Franconia, as in England, willow wands made part of the parade (lb., p. 269, ex Boemo Aubano). All Saints' Eve cake is nowhere explained; but a different custom of sporting with apples and nuts, and kindling fires, is in Mr. Brand's Appendix, pp. 343-345. Shrove Monday is called Collop.Monday, because they then took leave of flesh, both fresh and salted; and with this Egg Saturday at Oxford corresponds. Pancakes and fritters, or similar food, became the food for the next succeeding fast (Brand, pp. 331-333). The same ingenious writer says : "Some ascribe the Fairy ring, inquired after by your correspondent J. M., p. 719, to lightning, or ants (lb., pp. 117, 118).
As amongst your readers and correspondents there are many who take pleasure in whatever relates to ancient usages, and in tracing their origin, I have thought my intention , could not be so well answered by any other means as by procuring a place for what follows in your entertaining and instructive magazine. I have often wished to know the first foundation of several popular customs, appropriated to particular seasons, and been led to think, however widely they may have deviated from their original design and meaning, of which we have now wholly lost sight, they are derived from some religious tenets, observances, or ceremonies. I am convinced that this is the case in Catholic countries, where such like popular usages, as well as religious ceremonies, are more frequent than amongst us ; though there can be little doubt but that the customs I refer to, and which we retain, took their rise whilst these kingdoms were wholly Catholic, immersed in ignorance and superstition, and in everything led and dictated to by the priests and religious communities.
To give an instance which will illustrate or better explain my meaning. The inhabitants of Paris on Thursday in Passion Week go regularly to the Bois de Boulogne, and parade there regularly with their equipages. There used to be the Penitential Psalms, or Tenebres, sung in a chapel in the wood on that day, by the most excellent voices, which drew together great numbers of the best company from Paris, who still continue to resort thither, though no longer for the purposes of religion and mortification, but (if one may judge from appearances) of ostentation and pride. A similar cavalcade I have also seen, on a like occasion, at Naples, the religious origin of which will probably soon cease to be remembered.
In the idea that many customs retained amongst us spring from some institutions which have a reference to religion, I have endeavoured to recollect and add such as have fallen within my observation (some of which may probably be local), joining to each a vague, hasty conjecture as to the possible foundation of them; not pretending to assign these as the real reasons, but hoping to draw information, not censure, from some of your readers, who are possessed of more knowledge and will bestow more thought on the subject.
In the midst of that festivity and hospitality, and those marks of general joy which prevail at the anniversary of the birth of Christ, it is a very common custom to ornament the houses (and many churches) with evergreens; and minced pyes are a constant dish. May we refer the branches (as well as the palms on Palm Sunday) to this : " And they cut down branches and strewed them in the way ;" and may not the pye, a compound of the choicest productions of the East, have in view the offerings made by the wise men, who came from afar to worship, bringing spices, etc.?
Some things customary probably refer simply to the idea of feasting or mortification, according to the season and occasion. Of these perhaps are lamb's wool on Christmas Eve [see post, p. 16]; furmety on Mothering Sunday ; braggot (which is a mixture of ale, sugar, and spices) at the festival of Easter ; and crossbuns, saffron cakes, or symnels, in Passion Week ; though these, being formerly, at least, unleavened, may have a retrospect to the unleavened bread of the Jews, in the same manner as lamb at Easter to the Paschal Lamb. This, perhaps, may also be the case with respect to pancakes on Shrove Tuesday; unless that shall be supposed to allude to "the egg at Easter," an emblem of the rising up out of the grave; in the same manner as the chick, entombed, as it were, in the egg, is in due time brought to life. So also the flowers, with which many churches are ornamented at Easter Day, are most probably intended as emblems of the Resurrection, having just risen again from the earth, in which, during the severity of winter, they seem to have been buried. The barbarous practice of throwing at a cock, tied to a stake, at Shrovetide, I think I have read, has an allusion to the indignities offered by the Jews to the Saviour of the world before his crucifixion; as, perhaps, the custom of imposing upon and ridiculing people on the first of April may have to their mockery of Him. Something like this which we call making April fools is practised also abroad in Catholic countries on Innocents' Day, on which occasion people run through all the rooms, making a pretended search in and under the beds, in memory, I believe, of the search made by Herod for the recovery and destruction of the child Jesus, and his having been imposed upon and deceived by the wise men, who, contrary to his orders and expectation, " returned into their own country another way."
A custom, which ought to be abolished as improper and indecent, prevails in many places, of lifting, as it is called, on Easter Monday and Tuesday. Is this a memorial of. Christ being raised up from the grave ? There is at least some appearance of it, as there seems to be a trace of the descent of the Holy Ghost on the heads of the Apostles in what passes at Whitsuntide fair in some parts of Lancashire, where one person holds a stick over the head of another, while a third, unperceived, strikes the stick, and thus gives a smart blow to the first. But this, probably, is only local.
There are many other customs, no doubt, which I forget, or have omitted, which your readers would, I am persuaded, be pleased to see knowingly discussed and rationally accounted for, and others which do not seem to admit of a probable explanation. I recollect one more, which, however, I think scarcely needs explaining, viz., that prevailing amongst ,the Roman Catholics of lighting fires upon the hills on All Saints' Night, the eve of All Souls, fire being, even amongst the Pagans, an emblem of immortality, and well calculated to typify the ascent. of the soul to heaven.
The meaning of the Twentieth Day ; wherein the proverbial Saying that " Christmas day is one of the twenty, and not one of the twelve," is noticed and explained; and a word is said of Low-Sunday, and Plough-Monday.
In ancient time, before the Reformation, our greater festivals here in England (as I presume the case is now in Popish countries) had each of them their Octave, or Eighth Day. Of these Octaves or Uta's, as they are often called, mention is frequently made in the law-books and glossaries, and though the word occurs not in our liturgy, yet we have certain, vestiges of the thing amongst us, as in Low Sunday (which is the octave of Easter-day, and is so called in reference to it, that being the high or principal day of the feast, and this the lower or secondary one) and the proper prefaces in the Communion Office, which are directed to be used on the festival, and seven days after.* See Mr. Wheatley on those two places, as likewise Bishop Sparrow.
The former of these authors again, on the Sunday after Christmas Day, when the same collect is used, writes thus : " It was a custom among the primitive Christians, to observe the octave, or eighth day, after their principal feasts, with great solemnity; and upon every day between the feast and the octave, as also upon the octave itself, they used to repeat some part of that service, which was performed upon the feast itself." See also Bishop Sparrow, p. 113, from whom it appears, that formerly the same collect was used on Low-Sunday as on Easter-Day; and though it has now a distinct collect, yet this relates as expressly to the Resurrection as that on Easter-Sunday does.
If you will turn into the calendars prefixed to the Roman Missals and Breviaries, you will find many of the Festa Duplicia, or Higher Feasts, dignified with Octaves ; see also Dr. Mareschal's Observations on the Saxon Gospel, p. 538.
Now the feast of the Epiphany, or the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, is Festum Duplex, in the calendars above cited, or an holy day of the first rank, and has there its octave (as likewise it very anciently had*) which falls upon the 13th of January, or the 20th day after Christmas ; and you will find, upon trial, that Christmas Day, as the old saying, in these Northern parts imports, is, one of the twenty days of festivity, supposing that feast to be kept till the octave of the Epiphany, and not one of the twelve, if you terminate the observation of it on the day of the Epiphany itself. Whereupon, I observe, that the feast of the Nativity was anciently prolonged, in some respects, till the said twentieth day ; the expression here under consideration clearly implies it ; but this was the utmost extent ; for the Plough-Monday, which is the Monday after the twelfth day, when the labour of the plough, and the other rustic toils begin, never is extended further than the twentieth day, nor can be, for, indeed, it can never extend so far, unless the twelfth day happen on a Monday. The Feast of the Nativity, I say, was prolonged to the twentieth day in some respects, and, I might have added, with some persons, because the countryman generally returned to his labours before that day; to wit, on the Monday after the twelfth day, and that it was only with the better sort, who were more at leisure, and in respect of the church service, that' the feast was extended to the twentieth day. The words of Bishop Sparrow are so full to the purpose, on this point, that I shall recite them : " But when we say, that the church would have these high feasts continued so long, it is not so to be understood, as if she required an equal observance of those several days; for some of those days she commands by her cannons and rubricks,* some she seems only to commend to us, to be observed; some are of a higher festivity, some of less. The first and the last, namely, the octave of the first, are usually the chief days for solemn assemblies; yet every one of those days should be spent in more than ordinary meditation of the blessings of the time, and thanksgiving for them : According to that which the Lord commanded to the Jews concerning the feast of tabernacles (Lev. xxiii. 36). Upon every one of the days of that feast an offering was to be made, but the first and last were the solemn convocations." You see clearly here the original of the octaves, that it was a practice borrowed from the Jews; that the intermediate days, between the feast and its octave, were of more relax'd observation, and, conse-quently, that the husbandman might take to his plough on the Monday after the twelfth day, though it was within the octave of that feast; lastly, that the octave was, nevertheless, a festival to be observed by all.
I observe, lastly, that the Manifestation of our Saviour to the Gentiles, was always reckoned a part of the Christmas solemnity, ac-cording to the saying above, That Christmas-Day was not one of the twelve. We consider it at this time as such; the octave, consequently, of that feast must be so too. And this is no more than proper, especially in these Western parts of the world ; for, as the inhabitants thereof, ourselves for example, were of the number of those Gentiles, the imparting of the Gospel to the Gentiles was a matter of the utmost consequence to us, and so is very justly made an appendage to the festival of the Nativity.
To comprize the whole in a few words ; the twentieth day is the octave of the Epiphany, which festival, with its octave, was usually included in the grand festival of Christmas ; the festival is apparently so now, according to every one's apprehension, and the octave, in the nature of things, and according to the usual proceedings of the liturgies in such cases, is an essential part of that festival; and, tho' manual labour did in truth begin before the said octave, or twentieth day, as has been shewn, yet this was always antiently reckoned a day of obligation nevertheless, and by our ancestors was constantly kept as an holy day, and that both by the labourer and the gentleman; for, though the labourer might be allowed to begin to work before, as is said, yet he was always supposed and expected to observe the octave, or the last day, as is now, I think, very generally done.