25 February 2012

Rudolph Day, February 2012

"Rudolph Day" is a way of keeping the Christmas spirit alive all year long. You can read a Christmas book, work on a Christmas craft project, listen to Christmas music or watch a Christmas movie.

Here are three humorous Christmas videos to set the mood:

Cartoon “White Christmas”

Santa’s Stuck Up the Chimney

Funny "Jingle Bells"

Pagan Christmas, Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling
If you are looking for a "unique" Christmas book, you wouldn't have to look much further than this volume. Described as "an ethnobotany of Christmas," it traces the background and the use of all the plants we think of as traditional to the holiday—mistletoe, holly, fir trees, poinsettias, etc. However, it chronicles all the plants over the years having been traditionally associated with the holiday, including the white-spotted mushrooms (the fly agaric) so commonly duplicated as ornaments on European trees, yews, and all the fragrant herbs and spices, i.e. rosemary, bay, ginger, anise, etc., most of which trace back to pagan antecedents and some to drug use to obtain "visions." For that reason, I strongly suggest this book is definitely not for children, as there are reference to sexual practices as well. However, as a book for adults I did find it quite entertaining, reading about customs from the past, some which even dated back to near-prehistoric times. And, indeed, many of the images we think of as "Christmassy," the Scandinavian "julebok" and the Julenissen, St. Nicholas' white horse, the smokers of Germany, the colors red and white, hark back to far older solstice and Yule celebrations. As a plus the book is illustrated with not only photos of the plants, but liberally illustrated with Christmas imagery that goes back to early Victorian chromolithographs, of delightfully pagan-based postcards, advertisements, and greeting cards that were sold freely in Christian countries. Just a very neat book, but not for everyone.

21 February 2012

"Shrove Tuesday" from The Book of Days

The Book of Days, printed in the 19th century, is a fascinating (if occasionally appalling) part almanac/part daybook/part history. You can find the complete book in two parts on Google Books and there is even a website devoted to it. Here is author Chambers' listing for what we call today "Mardi Gras" (and, judging by some of the cruel practices listed therein, the participants may have been just as drunken). Life was indeed violent and unflinching back then.

Shrove Tuesday derives its name from the ancient practice, in the Church of Rome, of confessing sins, and being shrived or shrove, i.e. obtaining absolution, on this day. Being the day prior to the beginning of Lent, it may occur on any one between the 2nd of February and the 8th of March. In Scotland, it is called Fasten's E'en, but is little regarded in that Presbyterian country. The character of the day as a popular festival is mirthful: it is a season of carnival-like jollity and drollery—' Welcome, merry Shrovetide!' truly sings Master Silence.

The merriment began, strictly speaking, the day before, being what was called Collop Monday, from the practice of eating collops of salted meat and eggs on that day. Then did the boys begin their Shrovetide perambulations in quest of little treats which their senior neighbours used to have in store for them—singing:

'Shrovetide is nigh at hand,
And I be come a shroving;
Pray, dame, something,
An apple or a dumpling.'

When Shrove Tuesday dawned, the bells were set a ringing, and everybody abandoned himself to amusement and good humour. All through the day, there was a preparing and devouring of pancakes, as if some profoundly important religious principle were involved in it. The pancake and Shrove Tuesday are inextricably associated in the popular mind and in old literature. Before being eaten, there was always a great deal of contention among the eaters, to see which could most adroitly toss them in the pan.

Shakspeare makes his clown in All's Well that Ends Well speak of something being 'as fit as a pancake for Shrove Tuesday.' It will be recollected that the parishioners of the Vicar of Wakefield 'religiously ate pancakes at Shrovetide.' Hear also our quaint old friend, the Water Poet—'Shrove Tuesday, at whose entrance in the morning all the whole kingdom is in quiet, but by that time the clock strikes eleven, which (by the help of a knavish sexton) is commonly before nine, there is a bell rung called Pancake Bell, the sound whereof makes thousands of people distracted, and forgetful either of manners or humanity. Then there is a thing called wheaten flour, which the cooks do mingle with water, eggs, spice, and other tragical, magical enchantments, and then they put it by little and little into a frying-pan of boiling suet, where it makes a confused dismal hissing (like the Lernian snakes in the reeds of Acheron), until at last, by the skill of the cook, it is transformed into the form of a flip-jack, called a pancake, which ominous incantation the ignorant people do devour very greedily.'

It was customary to present the first pancake to the greatest slut or lie-a-bed of the party, 'which commonly falls to the dog's share at last, for no one will own it their due.' Some allusion is probably made to the latter custom in a couplet placed opposite Shrove Tuesday in Poor Robin's Almanack for 1677:

'Pancakes are eat by greedy gut,
And Hob and Madge run for the slut.'

In the time of Elizabeth, it was a practice at Eton for the cook to fasten a pancake to a crow (the ancient equivalent of the knocker) upon the school door.

At Westminster School, the following custom is observed to this day:—At 11 o'clock a.m. a verger of the Abbey, in Ins gown, bearing a silver baton, emerges from the college kitchen, followed by the cook of the school, in his white apron, jacket, and cap, and carrying a pancake. On arriving at the school-room door, he announces himself, 'The cook;' and having entered the school-room, he advances to the bar which separates the upper school from the lower one, twirls the pancake in the pan, and then tosses it over the bar into the upper school, among a crowd of boys, who scramble for the pancake; and he who gets it unbroken, and carries it to the deanery, demands the honorarium of a guinea (sometimes two guineas), from the Abbey funds, though the custom is not mentioned in the Abbey statutes: the cook also receives two guineas for his performance.

Among the revels which marked the day, football seems in most places to have been conspicuous. The London apprentices enjoyed it in Finsbury Fields. At Teddington, it was conducted with such animation that careful householders had to protect their windows with hurdles and bushes. There is perhaps no part of the United Kingdom where this Shrovetide sport is kept up with so much energy as at the village of Scone, near Perth, in Scotland. The men of the parish assemble at the cross, the married on one side and the bachelors on the other; a ball is thrown up, and they play from two o'clock till sunset. A person who witnessed the sport in the latter part of the last century, thus describes it: 'The game was this: he who at any time got the ball into his hands, ran with it till overtaken by one of the opposite party; and then, if ho could shake himself loose from those on the opposite side who seized him, he ran on; if not, he threw the ball from him, unless it was wrested from him by the other party, but no party was allowed to kick it. The object of the married men was to hang it, that is, to put it three times into a small hole on the moor, which was the dool, or limit, on the one hand: that of the bachelors was to drown it, or dip it three times in a deep place in the river, the limit on the other: the party who could effect either of these objects won the game; if neither one, the ball was cut into equal parts at sunset. In the course of the play, there was usually some violence between the parties; but it is a proverb in this part of the country', that "A' is fair at the ba' o' Scone."'

Taylor, the Water Poet, alludes to the custom of a fellow carrying about' an ensign made of a piece of a baker's mawkin fixed upon a broomstaff,' and making orations of nonsense to the people. Perhaps this custom may have been of a similar nature and design to one practised in France on Ash Wednesday. The people there 'carry an effigy, similar to our Guy Fawkes, round the adjacent villages, and collect money for his funeral, as this day, according to their creed, is the burial of good living. After sundry absurd mummeries, me corpse is deposited in the earth.'* In the latter part of the last century, a curious custom of a similar nature still survived in Kent. A group of girls engaged themselves at one part of a village in burning an uncouth image, which they called a holly boy, and which they had stolen from the boys while the boys were to 5o found in another part of the village burning a like effigy, which they called the ivy girl, and which they had stolen from the girls; the ceremony being in both cases accompanied by loud huzzas. These are fashions, we humbly opine, smacking of a very early and probably pagan origin. At Bromfield, in Cumberland, there used to be a still more remarkable custom. The scholars of the free school of that parish assumed a right, from old use and wont, to bar out the master, and keep him out for three days. During the period of this expulsion, the doors were strongly barricaded within j and the boys, who defended it like a besieged city, were armed in general with guns made of the hollow twigs of the elder, or bore-tree. The master, meanwhile, made various efforts, by force and stratagem, to regain his lost authority. If ho succeeded, heavy tasks were imposed, and the business of the school was resumed and submitted to; but it more commonly happened that all his efforts were unavailing. In this case, after three days' siege, terms of capitulation were proposed by the master and accepted by the boys. The terms always included permission to enjoy a full allowance of Shrovetide sports.

In days not very long gone by, the inhumane sport of throwing at cocks was practised at Shrovetide, and nowhere was it more certain to be seen than at the grammar-schools. The poor animal was tied to a stake by a short cord, and the unthinking men and boys who were to throw at it, took their station at the distance of about twenty yards. Where the cock belonged to some one disposed to make it a matter of business, twopence was paid for three shies at it, the missile used being a broomstick. The sport was continued till the poor creature was killed outright by the blows. Such tumult and outrage attended this inhuman sport a century ago, that, according to a writer in the Gentleman's Magazine, it was sometimes dangerous to be near the place where it was practised. Hens were also the subjects of popular amusement at this festival. It was customary in Cornwall to take any one which had not laid eggs before Shrove Tuesday, and lay it on a barn-floor to be thrashed to death. A man hit at her with a flail; and if he succeeded in killing her therewith, he got her for his pains. It was customary for a fellow to get a hon tied to his back, with some horse-bells hung beside it. A number of other fellows, blindfolded, with boughs in their hands, followed him by the sound of the bells, endeavouring to get a stroke at the bird. This gave occasion to much merriment, for sometimes the man was hit instead of the hen, and sometimes the assailants hit each other instead of either. At tho conclusion, the hen was boiled with bacon, and added to the usual pancake feast. Cock-fights were also common on this day. Strange to say, they were in many instances the sanctioned sport of public schools, the master receiving on tho occasion a small tax from the boys under the name of a cock-penny. Perhaps this last practice took its rise in the circumstance of the master supplying the cocks, which seems to have been the custom in some places in a remote age. Such cockfights regularly took place on Fastens E'en in many parts of Scotland till the middle of the eighteenth century, the master presiding at tho battle, and enjoying tho perquisite of all tho runaway cocks, which were technically called fugies. Nay, As late as 1790, the minister of Applecross, in Ross-shire, in the account of his parish, states the schoolmaster's income as composed of two hundred merits, with la. 6d. and 2s. 6d. per quarter from each scholar, and the cock-fight dues, which are equal to one quarter's payment for each scholar. Cock-fighting is now legally a misdemeanour, and punishable by penalty.

The other Shrovetide observances were chiefly of a local nature. The old plays make us aware of a licence which the London 'prentices took on this occasion to assail houses of dubious repute, and cart the unfortunate inmates through the city. This seems to hare been done partly under favour of a privilege which the common people assumed at this time of breaking down doors for sport, and of which we have perhaps some remains, in a practice which still exists in some remote districts, of throwing broken crockery and other rubbish at doors. In Dorsetshire and Wiltshire, if not in other counties, the latter practice is called Lent Crocking. The boys go round in small parties,headed by a leader, 'who goes up and knocks at the door, leaving his followers behind him, armed with a good stock of potsherds—the collected relics of the washing-pans, jugs, dishes, and plates, that have become the victims of concussion in the hands of unlucky or careless housewives for the past year. When the door is opened, the hero,—who is perhaps a farmer's boy, with a pair of black eyes sparkling under the tattered brim of his brown milking-hat,—hangs down his head, and, with one corner of his mouth turned up into an irrepressible smile, pronounces the following lines:

A-shrovin, a-shrovin,
I be come a-shrovin;
A piece of bread, a piece of cheese,
A bit of your fat bacon,
Or a dish of dough-nuts,
All of your own makin!

A-shrovin, a-shrovin,
I be come a-shrovin,
Nice meat in a pie,
My mouth is very dry!
I wish a wuz zoo well-a-wet
I'de zing the louder for a nut!

Chorus—A-shrovin, a-shrovin,
We be come a-shrovin!

Sometimes he gets a bit of bread and cheese, and at some houses he is told to be gone; in which latter case, he calls up his followers to send their missiles in a rattling broadside against the door. It is rather remarkable that, in Prussia, and perhaps other parts of central Europe, the throwing of broken crockery at doors is a regular practice at marriages. Lord Malmesbury, who in 1791 married a princess of that country as proxy for the Duke of York, tells us, that the morning after the ceremonial, a great heap of such rubbish was found at her royal highness's door.

Mr R. W. Blencowe, in editing certain extracts from the journal of Walter Gale, schoolmaster at Mayfield, in the Sussex Archaeological Collections, tells us that the salary of the Mayfield schoolmaster was only £16 a-year, which was subsequently increased by the bequest of a house and garden, which let for £18 a-year. There were none of those perquisites so common in old grammar-schools, by which the scanty fortunes of the masters were increased, and the boys instructed in the humanities, as in the Middle School at Manchester, where the master provided the cocks, for which he was liberally paid, and which were to be buried up to their necks to be shied at by the boys on Shrove Tuesday, and at the feast of St Nicholas, as at Wyke, near Ashford. No Mr Graham had bequeathed a silver bell to Mayfield, as he had done to the school at Wresy in 1601, to be fought for annually, when two of the boys, who had been chosen as captains, and who were followed by their partisans, distinguished by blue and red ribbons, marched in procession to the village-green, where each produced his cocks; and when the fight was won, the bell was suspended to the hat of the victor, to be transmitted from one successful captain to another. There were no potation pence, when there were deep drinkings, sometimes for the benefit of the clerk of the parish, when it was called clerk's ale, and more often for the schoolmaster, and in the words of some old statutes, 'for the solace of the neighbourhood:' potations which Agnes Mellers, avowess, the widow of a wealthy bell-founder of Nottingham, endeavoured, in some degree, to restrain when she founded the grammar-school in that town in 1513, by declaring that the schoolmaster and usher of her school should not make use of any potations, cock-fightings, or drinkings, with his or their wives, hostess, or hostesses, more than twice a year. There were no 'delectations' for the scholars, such as the barring out of the schoolmaster, which Sir John Deane, who founded the grammar-school at Wilton, near Northbeach, to prevent all quarrels between the teacher and the taught, determined should take place only twice a year, a week before Christmas and Easter, 'as the custom was in other great schools.' No unhappy ram was provided by the butcher, as used to be the case at Eton in days long gone by, to be pursued and knocked on the head by the boys, till on one occasion, the poor animal, being sorely pressed, swam across the Thames, and, reeling into the marketplace at Windsor, followed by its persecutors, did such mischief, that this sport was stopped, and instead thereof it was hamstrung, after the speech on Election Saturday, and clubbed to death. None of these humanising influences were at work at Mayfield: there was not even the customary charge of 5s. to each boy for rods.

No such rules as those in force at the free grammar-school at Cuckfield prevailed at Mayfield. They were not taught 'on every working day one of the eight pearls of reason, with the word according to the same, that is to say, Nomen with Amo, Pronomen with Amor, to be said by heart; nor as being a modern and a thoroughly Protestant school, were they called upon before breakfast each Friday to listen to a little piece of the Pater Noster, or Ave Maria, the Credo, or the verses of the Mariners, or the Ten Commandments, or the Five Evils, or some other proper saying in Latin meet for babies.' Still less, as in the case of the grammar-school at Stockport, did any founder will 'that some cunning priest, with all his scholars, should, on Wednesday and Friday of every week, come to the church to the grave where the bodies of his father and mother lay buried, and there say the psalm of De Profundi, after the Salisbury use, and pray especially for his soul, and for tho souls of his father and mother, and for all Christian souls.' Neither did the trustees, that they might sow the seeds of ambition in the minds of the scholars, ordain, as was done at Tunbridge and at Lewisham, 'that the best scholars and the best writers should wear some pretty garland on their heads, with silver pens well fastened there unto, and thus walk to church and back again for at least a month.' A ceremony which in these days would infallibly secure for them all sorts of scoffings, and probably a broken head.

14 February 2012

Happy Valentine's Day

02 February 2012

Candles, Groundhogs, and Other Denizens of This Date

There are many names for February 2!

Americans know it as "Groundhog Day" for the odd custom of using the "groundhog" (a.k.a. the woodchuck) to predict the coming of spring. According to the tale, if the groundhog sees his shadow, we will have six more weeks of winter; however, if it is cloudy and there is no shadow, spring is in the offing.

This custom dates back to European folklore, and initally involved a badger. However, the rhyme which goes with the tale is even older. There are several versions, but they all boil down to:

‘If Candlemas day be sunny and bright,
winter will have another flight;
if Candlemas day be cloudy with rain;
winter is gone and won't come again."

The "Candlemas" of the rhyme is the day within the Liturgical Year in which all candles are blessed for the year. The Feast Day being celebrated is the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple or the Purification of the Virgin. It was the custom in those days to present male children at the Temple 40 days after their birth. Since the Liturgical Calendar gives the birthdate of Jesus as December 25, then the date for this event would be February 2.

There are no set customs for Candlemas; however this blog talks about a charming Candlemas tea, and of course, according to the old Robert Herrick verse, all Christmas decorations must be down by this date.

by Robert Herrick

DOWN with the rosemary and bays,
     Down with the misletoe ;
Instead of holly, now up-raise
     The greener box (for show).

The holly hitherto did sway ;
     Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter day,
     Or Easter's eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
     Your houses to renew ;
Grown old, surrender must his place
     Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
     And many flowers beside ;
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin
     To honour Whitsuntide.

Green rushes, then, and sweetest bents,
     With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
     To re-adorn the house.

Thus times do shift; each thing his turn does hold;
New things succeed, as former things grow old.

If the idea of having Christmas decorations up until February horrifies you, do remember that Christmas decorating was simply sprays of holly, rosemary, and bay leaves around the room, perhaps brightened with a bit of ribbon. In those colder days in homes with no central heat, these evergreens would last pretty well until February 2!

Not to mention that Herrick gives a good list of what would be called today "natural home decorations" through Whitsuntide (Pentecost).

In pre-Christian and non-Christian societies, the holiday was celebrated as Imbolc or Brigid's Day.

Here's the February 2 listing from Chambers' 19th century classic The Book of Days (this whole, fascinating book can be found on Google Books, and has its own website www.bookofdays.com).

And just a few more notes on Groundhog Day via StormFax.