January 1st - New Year's Day
( Originally Published 1884 )
Almost every county in England has some amusement or local custom nearly peculiar to itself; and your deeming many of such not unworthy of being brought out to the public eye, has induced me to transmit to you an account of one or two, which I never saw any where except in Westmorland and Cumberland. To the numerous Saint-days that our Calendar points out, a great share of that class of men called journeymen add one more, which they term Saint Mon-day; yet you probably never heard of a Saint New Year's-day, though such an one there is, and that too very faithfully kept in many parts of the two Northern counties. Early in the morning of the first of January, the Fcex Populi assemble together, carrying stangs and baskets. Any inhabitant, stranger, or whoever joins not this ruffian tribe in sacrificing to their favourite Saint-day, if unfortunate en˛ugh to be met by any of the band, is immediately mounted across the stang (if a woman, she is basketed), and carried, shoulder height, to the nearest public-house, where the payment of sixpence immediately liberates the prisoner. No respect is paid to any person ; the cobler on that day thinks himself equal to the parson, who generally gets mounted like the rest of his flock : whilst one of his porters boasts and prides himself in having but just before got the 'Squire across the pole. None, though ever so industriously inclined, are permitted to follow their respective avocations on that day. Such amusements, Mr. Urban, are something similar to the fable of the Children and the Frogs, amusing to the performers, but disagreeable to those who are thus unwillingly exalted above their neighbours, and made subject to accidents, which annually happen. An acquaintance with whom I was walking, in endeavouring to avoid the stang, received a severe stroke on his groin, which confined him to his room some days. I should be glad to see any of your correspondents explain the origin of this custom; which, until prevented by the interfering hand of the magistrate, I fear will continue.
Another, equally as absurd, though not attended with such serious consequences, deserves to be noticed. In September, or October, the Master is locked out of the school by the scholars, who, previous to his admittance, give an account of the different holidays for the ensuing year, which he promises to observe, and signs his name to the Orders, as they are called, with two bondsmen. The return of these' signed Orders is the signal of capitulation ; the doors are immediately opened ; beef, beer, and wine, deck the festive board ; and the day is spent in mirth. Even at so early an age, the idea of liberty and power beats high in the breast of these English, beardless heroes ; and this, as well as the former, has something of the present Gallic spirit in it. [See Gent. Mag. Library, "Manners and Customs," PP. 164-173.
Junius asks, "In what book can be found an account of those Popular Antiquities, April Fool day, and a custom prevalent in Yorkshire, for the keeper of the Pinfold to go about on the eve of New Year's day with the rabble at his heels ; who, at the end of some balderdash verses or rhymes, shout, "Hagman Heigh !"
As your pages are peculiarly devoted to the illustration of every thing that is curious in Antiquity; some of your Readers may be able to explain the origin of the following custom :
On returning from the country, I happened to sleep at St. Alban's on the night of the 31st of December last, and was awakened early the next morning by a confused noise of boys and girls in the street, crying for sale Popladys ! Popladys !"
Enquiring at breakfast time the meaning of those words, I was informed, that it was a very ancient practice in that town, to cry and sell in the streets and in the Bakers' shops, on New Year's Day, a species of cake or bun, called Poplady, one of which was brought to me. It was a plain cake, like the Cross Buns sold on Good Friday; but instead of being circular was long and narrow, rudely resembling the human figure, with two dried raisins or currants stuck in to mark the eyes, and another to represent the mouth, the lower part being formed somewhat like the outer case of an Egyptian mummy.
As the Abbey of St. Alban's is celebrated in Monkish story, it is probable that this cake is a relic of Romish superstition : perhaps a variety of the Yule Cake, which we are told, in Brand's "Popular Antiquities," was sometimes made in confectionery to represent the infant Christ or the Virgin Mary. But whence the name of Poplady? Can it be a corruption of Pope Lady the female Pope alluding to the fabulous tale of Pope Joan, recorded by Platina in his " History of Sovereign Pontiffs ?"
If you, Sir, or any of your Correspondents, can throw any light on this curious, though ridiculous custom, it will oblige,