Odd British traditions: witches, white rabbits, and medieval calendars

Twelve times a year, some uncounted number of Britons give someone else a pinch and a punch and say, “Pinch, punch, first of the month, white rabbits.” 

How many people do that? Um, they’re uncounted, so we don’t know. Enough to create a slight wave on the Odd British Traditions Scale, even if it’s not a big enough wave to sink any ships.

What do the words mean? If Metro knows what it’s talking about, most of the people who do it haven’t a clue. They do it because they do it. That’s one way to spot a tradition: Its origins are so murky that no one really understands it. Explanations range from medieval beliefs about witches to George Washington. 

What’s George Washington got to do with white rabbits? Not much, even if you believe the story. The tale is that he met with Native American leaders on the first of every month, serving fruit punch with a pinch of salt in it. 

If you believe that, I have a nice bridge in Brooklyn and I’d be happy to sell you a share in it. 

Irrelevant photo: love-in-a-mist

The medieval origin story is marginally more coherent. Salt was believed to make witches weak, so the pinch symbolized a pinch of salt to weaken the witches and the punch was to keep them away forever. Or at least until the next month, when someone could do it to you again. Basically they were giving you good luck. 

And the white rabbits? They’re to keep the person from doing it back to you, because you wouldn’t want any good luck yourself, would you? 

The rabbit line also shows up as “white rabbits, no return.”

Did your average medieval peasant do this to your other average medieval peasant? It’s a good question but not an answerable one. What I can tell you is that the medieval world believed in witches and that the first day of the month mattered back then, so your average peasant might well have known when it rolled around, even if it didn’t affect the planting and the harvesting and the shearing. The month was–well, this will be easier to take in if we back up a bit and talk about medieval calendars. 

Not that your average peasant had a calendar. Or could read one. But they’re a way to explain the medieval month and possibly the medieval mind.

Calendars were luxury items, hand lettered and hand decorated. They were also religious, as everything in medieval Europe was, with the possible exceptions of rain and mud. And horses. Horses weren’t big on religion. Chickens, to the best of my knowledge, weren’t either, although eggs got roped in on some of the holidays so let’s leave the chickens out of it. They’re ambiguous.

Calendars were about tracking saints’ days and assorted church holidays. So if they were a luxury, in churchly circles they were also a necessity. And they weren’t anything like what we think of as a calendar: You didn’t turn the last page at the end of the year and throw it in the recycling, you just went back to the beginning and started over.

But the differences don’t stop there. The medieval months had the same names we use now, but after that everything familiar breaks down. The month was divided into kalends (the first day), nones (the fifth, unless it was the seventh–it depended on how many days the month had), and ides (eight days after nones, although that’s not where they would have counted from). Those were your fixed points, to the extent that something that movable is fixed. 

I was taught that ides–as in “beware the ides of March”–was the fifteenth. I was taught wrong. The ides of March might have fallen on the fifteenth, but any old ides for an unspecified month could also have fallen on the thirteenth.

I’m drawing on the British Library for this, and it has access to experts that my high school English teacher didn’t. 

Now here’s where it gets severely weird: Although medieval months had the same number of days as modern ones, people (and their calendars) didn’t count the days by starting at 1 and going to 30 or 31 or–well, you know where this ends, so I don’t need to list all the possibilities. Instead, they counted backwards from the nearest fixed point: three days backwards from the next kalends, or five days before the ides. That number shows up in a column to the left of the main (I assume) information, which is the name of the saint’s day or church holiday (want to celebrate the circumcision of Jesus, anybody?), which is the wide column on the right of the calendar. The important holidays are in red, leaving us the phrase red letter day.

Okay, in particularly fancy calendars, they’re gold, but the phrase we inherited still involves red.

In case the numbers decreasing as you go up is too easy for you, the calendars use Roman numerals. 

Another column lists the days as single letters, from A to G. These are called Domenical letters. 

Why don’t they use the first letters of the days themselves? Because these were perpetual calendars, rolling over from year to year, so the actual days of the week were a liquid. It’s 2014? E corresponds to Sunday. 

How do you figure that out

“To find the Dominical or Sunday Letter, according to the Calendar, until the year 2099 inclusive, add to the year of our Lord its fourth part, omitting fractions; and also the number 6: Divide the sum by 7; and there is no remainder, then A is the Sunday Letter: But if any number remaineth, then the Letter standing against that number in the small annexed Table is the Sunday Letter.”

Did you get that?

Another column has numbers from 1 to 19. These are called the golden numbers and they help you find the date of Easter in any given year, because Easter wandered in from a lunar calendar and isn’t a fixed date on the calendar we stole from Rome. 

How can a list of numbers from 1 to 19 help you figure out when Easter falls? You really don’t want to know, but I’ll tell you anyway: 

“For the determining of Easter . . . look for the Golden Number of the year in the first Column of the Table, against which stands the day of the Paschal Full Moon; then look in the third column for the Sunday Letter, next after the day of the Full Moon, and the day of the Month standing against that Sunday Letter is Easter Day. If the Full Moon happens upon a Sunday, then (according to the first rule) the next Sunday after is Easter Day.”

If I’d lived back then and if I’d needed to know, I’d have done what I suspect most people did and relied on someone else to tell me when Easter was due.

Many calendars also listed days when some kind of activity would be unlucky–bad days to start a journey or days that were unlucky for the limbs. What you were supposed to do with your limbs on unlucky days isn’t clear–at least not to me–but may have been perfectly clear to anyone living at the time. Keep them safe within your sleeves, possibly. Or avoid chain saws.

These unlucky days were called Egyptian days, and I haven’t been able to trace down the origin of the phrase. Let’s assume it grew out of a mix of ignorance and raw prejudice. There was a lot of both going around at the time. What a contrast to the enlightened times we live in.

*

My thanks to Cheryl, who ran around pinching and punching to greet the first day of August this year. She has an exceptionally gentle punch and a sharp sense of the absurd.

94 thoughts on “Odd British traditions: witches, white rabbits, and medieval calendars

  1. I have to confess that I’ve always thought ‘Pinch, punch, first of the month’ and ‘White rabbits’, are two entirely separate things. I also think they’re both daft, to say nothing of painful. Some of the girls at my school were vicious pinchers.

    Recently I read Ovid’s Fasti, which is more or less a Roman liturgical calendar. It’s full of kalends and ides, so the medieval calendar must have inherited a lot of dating conventions from the Romans. Medieval calendars can be very beautiful. Each year the British Library chooses one and posts the relevant month on its blog on the first day of each month. That’s much nicer than a pinch or a punch, or even a white rabbit.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I’m grateful that the pinch/punch tradition is one we–and I’m not sure if I mean Americans in general here or just the kids at my school–didn’t import.

      Thanks for saying that about the Roman calendar. I didn’t think to look any further back than the medieval period.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. And in the 1950s, smart kids, if they went to a school with bigger, meaner kids, shortened the whole thing from “a pinch and a punch etc, etc” to ‘pinch, punch no returns”
    It worked for me! I could never remember all the other relevant words and pronounce them correctly before some hefty front-row boy had got in a painful return.
    Oh, at my school anyway, the assault was limited to the upper arm.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yeah, the white ones do sound upmarket. Did you do the pinch/punch thing? There seems to be an endless, no-charge, free-for-all supply of those in the world, unfortunately.

      I’m not sure it was Pope Gregory who we should thank for changing the calendars. He reorganized the months and days, as I understand it, but I’m not sure when the whole kalends/ides/etc. thing ended. I’m guessing all those calculations about when Easter falls and when the week starts in any given month and year fell away as printing became cheaper.

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  3. Enjoyed that, thank you very much. As a confirmed Brit, I’ve never heard the ‘white rabbit’ thing though – except the one in Alice and by the aforementioned Jefferson Airplane (they don’t sing like Grace Slick anymore). One irritating thought, however: does ‘luck’ use the Gregorian, Julian or some other calendar?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Luck uses her own calendar and laughs at us for trying to predict when she’ll do what.

      Interesting that you’ve never heard of the white rabbits or (I assume) the pinch/punch thing. I’ve always wondered how kids’ traditions make their way from one school to the next. It must not have gotten to yours. And yes, I’m assuming that it’s primarily a kids’ thing, although I don’t really know that.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I knew pinch and punch, but not white rabbits. I would never have remembered people’s birthdays back then, but then I don’t now. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking – it’s nearly September and we haven’t sent ‘important person’ ‘s card across the Atlantic yet! I don’t think people made so much of birthdays, but if they were called by a saint’s name they would probably raise a cheer on the saint’s day – though they would have to rely on the priest to remind them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re probably right about all of that. A few saints’ days would’ve stood out–especially if your town or church was named after her or him. But other than that, there were so many I don’t know how anyone could’ve kept track. Especially if you were illiterate and the days of the year didn’t really matter to daily life.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think we had a pinch and a kick riposte, but the treading on toes is a new to me innovation! Again no white rabbits. There could be a whole phD on regional variations of childrens’ traditions! We used to have a game with a chant that went ‘in and out the dusty bluebells’ which apparently comes from scots gaelic hiring fairs and nothing to do with flowers. Considering we were in Oxfordshire 900 miles south of gaelic speaking regions this strikes me as pretty impressive.

    Liked by 3 people

    • That is impressive. Any idea what the connection to hiring fairs was? It’s not (to understate the case) at all obvious.

      When I was a kid, in New York, we played a game called Captain May I? When I moved to Minnesota as an adult, I found out that the same game was called Mother May I? Adult or not, I still felt a wave of contempt for kids who needed their mothers’ permission. The captain’s, now–that was different.

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      • My Gaelic isn’t good enough to give the actual words, but there are words used at the hiring fairs that sounded a bit similar to ‘dusty bluebells’ I seem to remember it as a sort of dance.
        Oh yes – we had Mother may I? (and Mr Crocodile (can I cross the river Nile?), Peep behind the curtain, what’s the time Mr Wolf? …) There was a special place at school that these sorts of games were played – we called it ‘the poles’ where (surprisingly enough) some metal poles held up a redundant piece of joinery between two parallel walls (the start and finish obviously). I was disappointed to find them gone when I revisited many years ago, although wonder whether it still is ‘the poles’ to the children, not knowing the origin of the name….

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Well, that was a thoroughly delightful read. Now I’m off to the British Library website to look at calendars. There goes my day….down the (white) rabbit hole.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. There was always a rush in our house to get in the first pinch and punch, which put me at a disadvantage as teenage years arrived, when the 1st fell on a weekend. It’s no fun being woken from a lie in by controlled violence! The White Rabbit is a character in Alice In Wonderland, and I wonder if Lewis Carroll borrowed him from folklore?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I learned about the “white rabbits” habit years ago – but no one else in my (admittedly) very small circle is familiar with the saying.

    But pinching? Punching? I can see how the monthly ritual was abbreviated for the more delicate among us!

    Thanks for fuller story!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I am sure, I think, they had a reason for doing things the way they did. Have no real idea what it might of been. But thinking the sun and everything else revolves around the earth must have made things much more difficult.

    Another excuse to pinch and punch in grade school. Thank would have been fun. Maybe.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The Old Farmer’s Almanac (and maybe the other ones too) has an explanation of domenical days, and every year I try to wade through it and have no idea what it means. This explains it a bit better. Though thank goodness I don’t need to know this.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Fascinating information! Made me smile. Thanks! Interesting too now that I received my DNA 🧬 ancestry results yesterday stating that I have 27% British roots in Greater London Greater Manchester & several other UK 🇬🇧 sites! Am thrilled about this especially since I began my EU travels in March 1985 by spending a cold 🥶 wet month in London & Windsor before crossing the Channel to France in April. More! SylviaSecrest@hotmail.com Cheerio

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve got something on–well, it’s not a traditional tradition but a new British tradition scheduled for the end of September. Hope it’ll fill your demand. Before then, it’s smoke and sleeping arrangements in Tudor times and a few other things. Have a wonderful trip.

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  12. Never hear the Pinch, Punch poem though we do day white rabbits on the first day of a month with the letter R in it. I always assumed that was because you could eat rabbit in those months (not that we did). Thank you for researching and sharing all these weird traditions that, as a native, I should know about – but don’t (or have forgotten – a distant memory in primary school of singing about ‘stalky bluebells’ and weaving under the upheld clasped hands of schoolmates has me traumatised because I don’t know if I made it up!).

    Liked by 1 person

  13. So what did I have to do to get my name in print at last? Easy! Just run around at midnight in the pub apinching and apunching all, including a bemused Ellen. She asked why and I said it was on olde Britishe traditione – hey presto – she was hooked and thus I get the credit for this post! Seriously though- I eagerly anticipate my regular fix of Ellenikipedia – I just so love your humour- sorry , I mean humor!
    Cheers Cheryl.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I don’t want any part of pinching and punching as well as no witches or rabbits! Like on St Paddy’s Day wear green or get pinched! Better not pinch me. Thanks so much for linking up at the #UnlimitedMonthlyLinkParty 4. Shared.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Where I went to school, no one got pinched for not wearing green on St. Paddy’s Day but I do remember noticing that kids with roughly as much Irish heritage as I can claim (which is to say, none) suddenly wore green. Somehow everyone wanted to get on the bandwagon, but only for one day.

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  15. Wow! I hardly know where to start. Of course you wrote this last month, and I’m just getting around to reading it now. I was at an agricultural fair yesterday and I did see a white rabbit – goes that count? The only person close enough to pinch and punch is my wife. Pinching and punching, not advisable. I’m considering the sheer economic ruin of using perpetual calendars. I think that notion could send the markets spiraling south. I hope you’re having a good A or 6 or nones. See you again midway to the ides.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I got dizzy toward the end of your comment–about the point where I’d have had to figure out if the was the nones or–well, you get the point–and had to stop reading for a while.

      We actually do have a perpetual calendar, without all the bells and whistles and red-letter days. You write in people’s birthdays. They don’t change from year to year, they just move further into the past. It’s wonderful. But I’ve learned (a bit late for some) to write in the years the assorted kids were born, because they keep getting older and with the ones I don’t see it does make a difference.

      But to your point: I really don’t recommend introducing the tradition to the States. We have enough problems with unchanneled aggression.

      Liked by 2 people

  16. Ellen, I always enjoy reading about never-heard-about-that-before British traditions. I really only “practice” the food and tea traditions myself. This week, shortbread and tea. https://www.delightfulrepast.com/2019/09/shortbread-petticoat-tails-masters-by.html Even though it’s too hot to run the oven, when I’m craving shortbread, it must be done. Loved your reply to the person who thought white rabbits originated with Jefferson Airplane! This is one blog where I always read all the comments!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I’ve always wondered about the “pinch punch first of the month” thing, Ellen! It’s not a tradition I’ve adopted, and for the last 30 years living in the UK, it was one of those things I kept meaning to look up. Thank you for sharing the story behind it! I also had no idea about the medieval calendar being so very complex!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. About the Egyptian Days, I read somewhere (may remember where, some time tomorrow) that they were first identified as unlucky by the ancient Egyptians. The source said the 28th of December was supposed to be the worst…I remember reading that shortly after the year a pet died, followed by the year we lost a major round of a major lawsuit, followed by the year another pet died, on that day, so I’ve gone through life thinking there may be something in the idea of 12.28 being especially unlucky. For everything. Even though, most years, nothing good or bad has happened on that day…

    Liked by 1 person

    • That would burn it into your memory. I’d assumed that it had something to do with the belief at the time that the Gypsies were Egyptian, but it turns out that they didn’t arrive until the sixteenth century (I just looked that up).

      I have no idea how the Egyptian calendar worked. I expect they’d have had a 28th day, but probably of a different-shaped month.

      I’ll shut up now. I’ve gone far past the edge of anything I actually know.

      Liked by 1 person

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