The Corby Pole Fair

If nations could be patron saints, England would be the patron saint of weird-ass traditional festivals. Since it doesn’t work that way, it’s had to settle for holding them and glorying in its own oddity. 

Allow me to welcome you to today’s strange traditional festival, the Corby Pole Fair. 

What’s strange about it? It’s held once every twenty years.

Why’s that? Nobody knows.

Marginally relevant photo: A traditional British phone box, now converted into a second-hand bookstore that’s raising money to maintain a village defibrillator.

Anytime you write about one of these festivals, you’re pretty much required to use the phrase “nobody knows.” More than once. If I use it more than 15 times here, I owe you a drink. Of course, you’ll have to catch me first.

But before we go on, let me try to unbraid what’s English from what’s British–something I do regularly and usually get wrong. I’m not sure whether the other nations that make up Britain–or the UK, which isn’t quite the same thing but never mind that for now–are as strange about their festivals as England is. The spotlight falls most often on English weird-assery, so let’s go with that. I’m happy to hear arguments and corrections from anyone even remotely knowledgeable about these things. Or if not knowledgeable, funny. That’ll do at least as well. 

 

The Fair

The Corby Pole Fair dates back (according to one article) “to the 13th century, when Queen Elizabeth I granted the town a charter in 1585.” Which is awkward, because Liz hadn’t been born in the 13th century, and neither had 1585.

Okay, it was a typo and we can all stop being so smug. It’s not like we haven’t written something at least as embarrassing.

Typo aside, though, an alternative explanation of the fair’s origins is easily available. One–or two, or three–almost always is. Or are. That same article tells us that some people say, “It’s after the monarch was rescued from a bog by villagers.”

Is the it in that quote the fair or the charter? 

Hard to say. 

Do we care? Yes, but only a little. Guesswork will do well enough, so let’s nod as if it all makes sense and move on. 

A more coherent attempt at explaining the fair’s origins comes from the BBC–working, I’m sure, from the same press release but reading it more carefully. It says, “Some say it [that’s the fair] goes back to the 13th Century, some to 1585 when Queen Elizabeth I was rescued from a bog by Corby villagers and others to the 17th Century when Charles II granted the town a charter.”

Yes, I checked. Liz was alive in 1585. I can’t verify that she was in a bog or, for that matter, anywhere near Corby but we have at least taken a step in the right direction. 

The fair could also date back to 1226, when Henry III granted Corby (or someone, anyway) the right to hold a fair.

Was Elizabeth I ever rescued from a bog, by Corby villagers or anyone else? Possibly, but I can’t verify it. I asked Lord Google and got referred to scholarly papers that opened with her wanting to build a stable, peaceful country, but nope, no bog.

Next I found something about Queen Elizabeth and a blog. 

Did Queen Elizabeth keep a blog? Well, she did try, but the technology of the time didn’t support it and she gave it up to devote her efforts to more era-appropriate occupations. 

Lord Google’s related questions included, “What is Elizabeth the First known for?” Related answers do not include being rescued from a bog. 

So no, I can’t find any evidence that she was rescued from a bog. Equally, I can’t find any evidence that she wasn’t.  

 

Fairs and Charters

Why did they need a charter to hold a fair? Because that’s how things worked. The National Archive says that  “Early markets and fairs were generally held in one of two ways. . . . If they were held: 

  • “by virtue of a specific royal grant, you are likely to find a charter recording it; 
  • “by prescriptive right, that is, based on immemorial custom, you may not find any charter evidence.”

Charters could be issued to an individual or to something like a town or church. One fair, in Stourbridge, ran for three weeks. In addition to giving everyone a chance to let off steam, they also made money for whoever held the charter. And for whoever came to trade. 

Does any of that still matter today? Oddly enough, yes. The Ilkeston Charter Fair has permission to run for four days, and for more or less 800 years that’s what it did. Then, in 2018, it decided to run for a fifth day and had to apply to the home secretary for permission. Which meant it had to figure out what the correct procedure was. It’s that unusual. And if it got the procedure wrong, it could lose the right to hold the fair at all. 

And that’s where I bailed out and scuttled back to our Corby Pole Fair.

Corby resident Paul Balmer has looked for Liz’s charter but found only a later one, which dates from “1670 or 1682 depending on who you listen to.”

I’d love to explain that phrase to you, but that’s all I know. 

You see why the phrase “nobody knows” comes up so often?

 

Historical accuracy

The fair includes what Balmer says is a Viking tradition of riding the stang. 

“If you didn’t pay your toll [that’s your admission to the fair] you were carried on the ‘stang’ to the stocks and had to pay a penny to get out, but the villagers, because of the charter, were exempt from the toll.”

Why Viking tradition? Corby started out as a Viking settlement.

“Then there’s the greasy pole, which is most probably associated with the ox roast. The lord of the manor often gives an ox to villagers when they are celebrating a fair or a big occasion, the grease from the ox is put on a pole with a ham on the top and if you climb the greasy pole you get to keep it.”

This year, there’ll be a pole but no one gets to climb it. They couldn’t get insurance. 

Then there’s that charter. Remember the charter? At 6 a.m. the bells ring a.m., calling everyone to come hear the charter read out loud at all the entrances to the village.

There’ll also be historical re-enactments, including some Viking-type stuff. You know, a little light looting and pillaging. Some jousting. Some road closures. What could be more historically accurate than road closures? 

In the interest of historical accuracy, the decision to hold this year’s fair was made after surveying the community, holding focus groups and workshops, and meeting with groups and individuals and businesses, not to mention filling out and filing grant applications and advertising the whole mess–and then putting a discussion of it up on the website, presumably to prove the fair has community support.

Decisions about the content of the fair were also influenced by what funding bodies would (and wouldn’t) be willing to pay for,” it says. I worked around nonprofits long enough to recognize a near-universal truth in that.

Town dignitaries get carried around in chairs. There’s a free breakfast for residents.

The fair also offers music. I haven’t seen any mention of morris dancers, so this may be the only safe festival in England for morris-haters.

 

The Details

When is it held? It was on June 3 this year, which means we’ve missed it and will have to wait until 2042. The date for that one hasn’t been set yet.

What? Do I look like a tourist site? You want to know about these things in advance, go someplace sensible.

There. I made it through without saying “nobody knows” more than twice. Or maybe that was three times. Either way, go buy your own drink.

Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day: a short history

Britain’s Mothering Sunday looks like the sister holiday to the U.S. Mother’s Day, but its roots (no surprise here) go back further and–I was going to say it’s a stranger story, but they’re both strange. 

Let’s start with Britain’s holiday.

Mothering Sunday

This started out as a church event that some date back to the 16th century and others trace to full-on medieval times. It had nothing to do with honoring mothers. On the fourth Sunday of Lent (March 27 this year), people went to the main church or cathedral near where they lived, which was called their mother church and which had a special service that day. The rest of the year, they went to their nearest church–a daughter church. 

You’re right: Hierarchy was built into everything.

One theory of the tradition’s origins is that it grew out of a Bible passage that was assigned as the reading for that day. (Apparently, the Church had assigned readings for Sundays and holidays. Who knew?) It had to do with Jerusalem, “which is the mother of us all.” And since it’s all in the interpretation, you can get from there to the mother church in three easy steps. Or two if you’re good at the game.

Marginally relevant photo: spring flowers. Actually a little early for either Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday.

The day took on the air of a holiday. One source says domestic servants (that may exclude other categories of underpaid underlings) were given the day off to “go a-mothering” and also to visit their families. That might include their flesh-and-blood mothers, although since having children was a hazardous occupation you couldn’t take it for granted.

Another source doesn’t limit the day off to domestic servants but includes apprentices and reminds us that children as young as ten left home to work away. In this telling, as they walked the country lanes on their way home they picked a few wildflowers as a gift. 

It’s a sweet image and, I suspect, based more on guesswork than documentation. But that in itself is guesswork. Don’t take it too seriously. 

Another source (the link’s somewhere below–don’t bother me when I’m working, sweetheart) says the mother church tradition was medieval and the tradition of visiting family didn’t start until the 16th century–and it had a practical reason: The holiday fell during what was known as the hungry gap, when the winter’s stores were running low or used up and the fields and hedgerows didn’t offer much to eat. So servants and apprentices might go home bringing food or money. 

Let’s hope they had some to bring.

Cake

Since it’s a law that you can’t have a holiday without food (even the holidays where you fast put a big emphasis on what you eat when the fast ends), Mothering Sunday is associated with a cake, called Simnel cake, which for some reason gets a capital S. It’s a fruit cake with two layers of almond paste and eleven layers of religious symbolism.

How’d they get away with cake when it was Lent and people weren’t supposed to eat anything tasty or fun? 

Aha! They did it by reading the small print. The rules of Lent were relaxed for this one day, and so the day was also known as Refreshment Sunday. And that too was linked to a Bible verse, the one about Jesus feeding a multitude with bread and fish. Not with a fruit cake with two layers of marzipan, but it’s all in the interpretation.

The day was also called Mid-Lent Sunday, in case that’s on the test.

A break in the tradition

All of that–with the possible exception of the cake–went out of fashion in the 20th century.

Enter Constance Adelaide Smith, who kicked off a revival, starting with her 1921 book, written under the pseudonym C. Penswick Smith and subtly titled The Revival of Mothering Sunday.

She called for a holiday to honor  many forms of motherhood–the mother church, Mother Earth, mothers of children, the mother of Jesus, and–well, I’m sure she could’ve gone on. And did. The tradition  already existed, she argued, but needed official recognition to kick it into high gear.

She did not say “high gear.”

The medieval idea of motherhood as she saw it–at least according to one source–was rugged and diverse. 

Rugged? Well, the British LIbrary’s blog illustrates this point with a medieval painting of Mary handing off the baby Jesus to an angel (“Here, you, do something useful and hold the kid”) so she can sit on the devil and do a spot of wrestling. While wearing a pristine, floor-length skirt. To the modern eye, it’s an odd picture–especially the freeze-frame wrestling match–but I’ll admit to liking it.

Sort of. But only for its oddity.

Diverse? The medieval holiday wasn’t about honoring your own particular mother but motherhood in many forms. Or at least in one of the forms Smith included in her list: the mother church.

Smith herself had no children, which may be relevant here.

Yet another source, though, mentions that the medieval holiday wasn’t the uplifting event she imagined. Among other things, parishes were likely to get into brawls over who’d go first in the processions.

These things are always neater in hindsight.

Smith had another reason to go back to the medieval period. She’d been inspired by the U.S. creation of Mother’s Day (1914, since you asked) but didn’t want it to displace British traditions.

According to historian Cordelia Moyse, “A lot of people felt that industrialisation and urbanisation were destroying British culture and community.” So Smith took the medieval tradition, knocked off the mud and manure, polished it up a bit, and presented it as home grown, deeply rooted, and coming from a time of greater harmony, when people knew their neighbors and got into fights in church processions.

The idea caught fire at the end of World War I–according to one source because of the country’s many losses in the war. That doesn’t entirely make sense–it was young men who died in the war, not mothers–but grief’s a funny thing and will pour itself into any container it finds.

By 1938–or so it was said–Mothering Sunday was celebrated in every parish in Britain and every country in the empire.

Mother’s Day

Now we shift to the United States, where we already know Mother’s Day became an official holiday in 1914.

How’d that happen? Well, kiddies, it started in the previous century (that’s the 19th; you’re welcome) in several smallish ways. Before the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis helped start Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, which were to teach local women how to care for their children. Forgive the cynicism, but my guess is that local women had been bringing up children for generations–that’s why some were still available for Ann R. J. to teach–but never mind. I’m sure Ann R. J. knew how to do it better than they did.

Then in 1870, Julia Ward Howe (she wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and was a pacifist and abolitionist) wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” which called for mothers to unite and promote world peace. In 1873, she called for a Mother’s Peace Day. 

Juliet Calhoun Blakely, a temperance activist, convinced Albion, Michigan, to celebrate a Mother’s Day in the 1870s.

All of that seemed to go nowhere, as these things so often do. Then in 1907, Anna Jarvis held a memorial service for her mother, Ann R. J. Who was dead at the time. That doesn’t seem entirely relevant, but see above about grief.

In 1908, Jarvis got a Philadelphia department store owner, John Wanamaker, to back a Mother’s Day celebration at a West Virginia church and, ever so coincidentally, to hold a Mother’s Day event at his stores. 

From there she campaigned for the holiday to be added to the national calendar, organizing a letter writing campaign to newspapers and politicians. First towns and cities adopted the holiday, and then it became national. It falls on the second Sunday in May.

After that, it all went wrong. Her idea involved a single white carnation, a visit to Mom, and a church service, but the florists, candy companies, and greeting card companies saw dollar signs and the holiday became a money spinner. (My own mother called it Florist’s Day.)

Jarvis might’ve seen that coming but apparently didn’t. She was cagey enough to enlist both Wanamaker and the florist industry when she was campaigning for the holiday. 

By 1920, she was denouncing the day’s commercialization and urged people to stop buying Mother’s Day flowers, cards, and candy. Eventually, she was launching lawsuits against groups that used the name Mother’s Day. 

In 1948, she denounced the holiday completely and lobbied to have it taken off the U.S. holiday calendar.

It wasn’t.

The lawsuits ate through her money and she died broke. The floral and greetings card companies that she had campaigned against paid her bills.

If anyone’s campaigning to establish National Irony Day, her story’s a perfect fit.

And Father’s Day?

No insult to fathers intended here, but it’s easier to get sentimental about a group that’s ignored or treated badly the rest of the year. Then once a year, you show up with flowers and chocolate and, you know, that makes it all okay. 

Fathers, though? They just don’t have the same appeal. Although you can trace Father’s Day back to the middle ages too, if you want.

Of course you want. European Catholics celebrated Saint Joseph’s Day  on 19 March, and a tradition of celebrating fatherhood in general can be traced back to 1508–which doesn’t say that it began then, only that if it started earlier no one’s found the notes.

In 1966, the U.S. made it a national holiday. It’s also celebrated in the U.K. but not an official holiday.

The overpriced Easter egg report

It’s almost Easter, so let’s check in on the most absurdly expensive Easter eggs I could find online. I do this every year. I still haven’t figured out why.

Low end? An extra-thick dark chocolate egg filled with individual truffles. They’re made with gin, wine, rum, and–

No, sorry. I was going to write opiates, but they’re not listed. My mistake. 

Putting filled chocolates, or in this case, truffles, inside an egg is a British thing at this time of year. I never saw that done in the U.S. So there’s your vague gesture in the direction of intercultural education.

That’s from Hotel Chocolat for £29. With that, you get five paragraphs of prose, a generous side of adjectives, and a warning that the truffles aren’t for children. 

Marginally relevant photo: This is your Easter periwinkle. If you don’t celebrate Easter, don’t worry about it–I don’t either. As far as I know, it’s not an Easter flower.

 

Yeah, but surely we can waste more money than that 

Hotel Chocolat also has a £55 two-tier box of chocolates. It’s not actually an egg, but why should we follow the rules when I’m the one who made them? Since it’s expensive enough to be called a cabinet, not a box, it fits right in here. 

Yeah, it looks like a box to me too. Shows you what we know. 

The money must’ve gone into the packaging here, because you only get four paragraphs of prose, and they’re shorter than the ones that come with the £29 egg.

Cheapskates.

At Fornum & Mason’s you can find a £45 milk chocolate egg that Glamour Magazine tells us is a work of art with a flawless shine and tercentenary-blend chocolate. A centenary or so back, I worked in a candy factory and I never once heard of a tercentenary blend. But then we weren’t making high-end chocolates. And they wouldn’t have told me what was going on anyway.

Each egg’s handcrafted to make sure it’s a little different from all the others. And every last one of them is better than all the others. They’re all guaranteed to rot your teeth. 

Enjoy.

Glamour also wedges in a Fortum & Mason’s spring hamper, which is cheating but the prices haven’t gotten absurd enough yet, so let’s go with it. It costs £125 and whoever wrote their article swears that Glamour readers are snapping up F & M hampers. 

Uh huh.

The hamper includes biscuits, which are cookies if you’re American, and–oh, other stuff, including a rosé sparkling tea that’s 0% ABV. That means alcohol by volume. Most tea is 0% alcohol by volume–it’s one reason you drink it to stay awake–but you don’t usually pay enough for that to be mentioned. 

On the other hand, most tea isn’t sparkling. Or rosé

No, I haven’t the faintest idea what the stuff is. But do you really care what’s in the hamper? It’s from Fortnum & Mason’s. It comes in a wicker basket that’s called a hamper because that’s how they do things over here.

Where I come from, the only thing we called a hamper was the whatsit we threw our dirty clothes in. We kept our cookies somewhere else. We’d have kept our tea somewhere else too but we didn’t drink tea.

And yes, of course I read Glamour Magazine. Once a year, just before Easter. They helped me develop the look you can admire in the photo at the top right of Notes’ home page.

 

Onward

For £80, you can get 200 grams of boring looking chocolate egg, in milk or dark, from Marchesi. Except for the price, this is minimalism–one paragraph of low-key prose, muted colors, and not much in the way of decoration on the egg itself. 

For reasons they don’t bother to explain, it’s called Girl, even though it’s pretty clearly not a girl but a chocolate egg.

You can also get one called Boy, which is not a boy any more than Girl is a girl. When I worked at the candy factory, no one ever talked about the chocolate having either a gender or a sex, but maybe we were missing the obvious.

If you go up to £85, you get 300 grams of gender-free chocolate. 

The Hotel de Crillon, which unlike Hotel Chocolat seems to be a real hotel, offers a chocolate egg with a car driving out of it.

Sorry, did I say a car? “The famous D.S, the Palace’s iconic car,” and it doesn’t drive out, it “seems to emerge.” Which sort of implies that it doesn’t really emerge, it just fools you into thinking it does while it’s actually still in bed. But you’ll have to spend £70 to find out for sure.

Spend £100 and you can buy a kilo–that’s 2.2 pounds–of milk chocolate and hazelnuts from Venchi. It comes with almost no prose, but the photos dance around a bit, whether you want them to or not.

 

Eggs we’ve probably missed out on

For £150, Harrod’s has an egg that as far as I can tell is mostly air. (Ever wonder why the rich are thin?) It’s made of anorexic slabs of chocolate finished with gold leaf and separated by layers of luxury air. They only made fifty, so we’ve probably missed our chance.

For £140, you can get a ceramic egg with ears from Harvey Nichols. It comes with truffles inside. Only thirty were made, so we’re probably too late, but I’ve got a £1 bag of chocolate eggs in the other room and I’d be happy to share. When I was working in the candy factory, I lost my taste for candy anyway.

 

And at the top of the obscenity scale

The most expensive egg comes from Choccywoccydoodah (I had to cut and paste that) and costs–yes indeed–£25,000. Or possibly £10,000. I’ve found both prices quoted. I put it down to journalists going comatose in the presence of high numbers, but really, at a certain point, who cares? So what if it all get a little murky when we get to the cash register?   

Each egg weighs 220 pounds, or 100 kilos, and wrecks my explanation of why the rich are thin. More to the point, each one also has an intricately detailed scene inside, featuring dragons, or ducks, or hares, or whatever. And each one takes three weeks to make. 

And then, presumably, some barbarian comes along and eats the thing. Or doesn’t eat it and you end up with cockroaches. 

How is it possible to sell a chocolate egg for that kind of money? Well, as it happen yesterday morning’s paper let me know that in 2020 one of the directors of a gambling website was paid £48,000 per hour for every hour of every day–working, sleeping, and otherwise–that could be scratched out of the year. 

That may explain why a very few people lose their sense of proportion.

Starling murmurations

Whatever your holiday, if you have one just now, join me in celebrating the amazing things that starlings do at this time of year.

Photos by Ida Swearingen.

Starlings gather at dusk and if the conditions are right they create amazing airborne patterns before they settle into the trees and roost together. The roosting’s for safety, for warmth, and (the experts swear) to exchange information on where the good food is. The murmurations may be to confuse predators.

Starlings also gather for shorter times during the day, condensing onto power lines, where they pack themselves together wing to feather. So tightly, in fact, that they’ve caused the occasional power outage in the Scottish town of Airth. So many gathered on the lines, and they settled and took off in such a mass, that their weight made the wires bounce, shutting down the power, sometimes for seconds and sometimes longer.

Christmas 2020

The world needs a pandemic carol, and I’m convinced you do as well, and that everyone you know does too. Well, it just so happens that a friend wrote one. With her permission, here it is, direct to you from Duluth, Minnesota.

 

Christmas 2020
Bring on a brighter year

                        by Jane Whitledge

Hark! The herald angels sing,
We’re tired of social distancing!
What can I say of such a year,
Except “good riddance, disappear!”
Don’t come back with your virus
Now go away,  no more to tire us—
We’re weary of this isolation
Impatient for real celebration!

Each one of us now simply asks,
When will we be done with masks
And gobs of soap and sanitizer?!
Oh, bring good tidings, Moderna, Pfizer!
And though we love you, Dr. Fauci,
We’re really getting kind of grouchy
Standing here six feet apart.
When can the hugs and handshakes start?

Till then we’ll give to the food shelves
And may there be a lot of elves
To aid the little girls and boys                                                                                                  Who fear there won’t be any toys,
And save the fraught small businesses—
May they have future Christmases!
And as we sing bright carol verses
Bless the doctors and the nurses!

And to the scientists—goodwill!
Bless your work, bless your skill!
We’ll string the garland on our tree
With thoughts for others—empathy.
And in this troubled, cold December,
May hardship make us all remember
In pandemic’s darkest weather
That we are in this all together.

And though it be all you can handle,
Go ahead and light a candle.
Stay hopeful, cheerful kind, and clean.
Pretty soon the great vaccine!
So, “Merry Christmas one and all!”
Goodbye to bleach and alcohol
(except for wine, and, yes, champagne,
For when we meet—we will—again!)

May this two-thousand-twenty-one
Put the past year on the run!
And may your heart ring like a bell—
Happy new year! Please stay well!!
May this two-thousand-twenty-one
Put the past year on the run!
And may your heart ring like a bell—
Happy new year! Please stay well!!

© Jane Whitledge, 2020

Whatever you celebrate, I wish you a good one. And may the new year be kinder than this one has.

Santa Shih Tsu wishes you a happy holiday. She also wishes the photographer had moved the trash out of the background before taking her picture. It’s been a bad year when not even Santa gets what she wants.

Bring Your Dog to Work Day

June 26 is Bring Your Dog to Work Day. This seems to be a British event, although the website I found doesn’t say so. The clues are: 1) A picture of a dog named Winston, 2) a reference to rescuing dogs in London (although there’s also a reference to rescuing some in Asia, which discerning readers will notice covers a larger area than London), and 3) a .co.uk URL. Once you get past all that, your guess is confirmed by a British phone number in 3.25-point type at the bottom.

This is Moose, who doesn’t need to go to work with anyone else.He has his own job, keeping the vandal hordes from breaking in, even when they’re disguised as neighborhood cats. They don’t fool him.

You’re welcome to mark the day wherever you are. Especially if you’re working from home. As Jane Bernal pointed out on Facebook in response to my Bring your Cat to Work Day post, with social distancing and all, shouldn’t we have been celebrating Bring Your Work to Cat Day?

We should have. So even if your dog likes to travel, even if you’ve gone back to work, call in tomorrow. Explain that it’s Bring Your Work to Dog Day. You’re staying in.

Take Your Cat to Work Day

June 22 was National Take Your Cat to Work Day. I’m not entirely clear what nation that applies to, but it’s probably the U.S., since no one involved seems to remember that other nations exist and might be running on a different schedule. I’m American, so I get to say this: We do tend to forget those things.

Whoever’s nation we’re talking about, though, we’re (as cab drivers liked to say back when I was one of them) a day late and a dollar short, but I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate anyway, wherever and whenever we may be. Take your cat to work, friends. Don’t tell him or her that it’s the wrong day. Cats don’t care what the calendar says.

This is Fast Eddie on top of the drying rack, not caring what the calendar says. 

Do it especially if you’re working from home. And if you’re not–well, we all know that cats don’t like to go anywhere they didn’t decide on themselves, so just bring your work home and offer up a few treats in honor of the holiday.

And have a wonderful Take Your Cat to Work Day. From all of us here at Notes from the U.K., which has a wide-ranging, multi-delusional staff of one.

And a cat.

Hogmanay: What to do when you can’t celebrate Christmas

Quick, before it ends, let’s talk about Hogmanay.

Let’s talk about what? Why Hogmanay, of course, a holiday I never heard of before I moved to Britain. It’s celebrated in the farthest end of Britain from where I live–Scotland, and I’m in Cornwall–and runs from New Year’s Eve through the first of January. January second is an official holiday in Scotland, even though they have to pay for it by giving up one of the other national holidays.

It is–or so I’ve read–a Celtic / Norse fusion that happened when the Norse invaders’ solstice celebrations crashed into the Celtic Samhain traditions, which marked the start of winter. The result later crashed into Christianity and became Christianized. It was called daft days. People ate, drank (probably a lot, given the name), lit bonfires, and visited neighbors to do more of the same. 

Then the Reformation swept through Scotland, and a sober lot the Scottish Protestants must’ve been. They frowned on Christmas celebrations. (They frowned on a lot of things.) No more feasting. No funning around. Sober up, you lot, because this is serious stuff. And by this, I mean everything–religion, life, and anything else you happen to mention. For part of the seventeenth century, the Christmas break was banned. Christmas didn’t become a public holiday in Scotland until 1958. Boxing Day–that spare Christmastide holiday that falls on December 26 and that the English never quite manage to explain to outsiders–didn’t join it until 1974.

Scotland, remember, doesn’t run by English law. It confuses me too if that makes you feel any better.

And in case it isn’t already clear, both of those last two dates, the ones marking the time when Christmas was allowed to show it be-tinseled face again, are in the twentieth century.

So what was the result of all this sobriety? The fun moved to New Year’s Eve and its surrounding days. 

No one’s sure where the name Hogmanay came from. The origin might be French. It also might be Greek. It could be Anglo-Saxon. Or possibly Scandinavian. In an assortment of those languages, it might mean gala day, it might mean holy month, and it might mean your linguist is highly imaginative.

What do people do? Drink. Party. Hold a torchlight parade. Sing “Auld Lang Syne,” preferably with arms linked. Set off fireworks. Watch terrible TV programs. (I’m quoting that from the Metro there. The link’s above, turning, somewhat randomly, “or so I’ve read” blue. What people do on Hogmanay isn’t something I’d know, down here in Hogmanayless Cornwall. But since I’m already tucked neatly into parentheses here, I might as well point out that not all these traditions are traditional. That business with the TV, for example…)

But Hogmanay includes much more domestic, and probably original, traditions, like cleaning the house before the holiday, and take the old ashes out of the fireplace. 

And then there’s first footing. This is supposed to predict how a family’s year will go. If the first person to come through the door after midnight (together with his or her feet) is a tall, dark-haired man, all will be well. Blond hair? Bad luck. That may have come from having a countryful of blond-haired Viking invaders around, but it’s all lost in the murk of time. It could also be an earlier tradition. 

I’m not sure what a short, bald woman coming through the door predicts. Probably an eccentric year.

If the first footer brings a piece of coal and a roll made of rye flour, the family will be warm and fed through the year.

In Stonehaven, near Aberdeen, people set fire to  balls made of chicken wire, paper, and rags, then swing them around–as any sensible person would. In South Queensferry, people run into the freezing cold sea to raise money for some charity or other. In Kirkwall (that’s in the Orkneys), they play the Ba’ game–a street football game that can last anywhere from four minutes to eight hours, depending on how long it takes for one faction to get a goal. It can involve as many as 350 players. A BBC program described it as not so much a game as a civil war. Shopkeepers board up their windows in advance.  The ball weighs three pounds, the game has no hard and fast rules, and injuries are–.

Okay, serious injuries are “fairly rare.” Players have been known to try to reach the goal over the rooftops.

This year, Edinburgh’s old-fashioned Hogmanay uproar includes a street party with £85 tickets, put on by the Underbelly, which seems to have taken over a lot of Edinburgh’s public events and runs a lot of venues during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The events run for four days (I doubt £85 will get you access to all of them, but what do I know?) and are expected to attract some 70,000 people to the city.

Having gotten permission for the events, the Underbelly proceeded to overplay its hand, telling people who lived on the street where it was throwing its party that they’d have to apply for passes to get to their own homes. They could also apply for up to six passes for their friends. And if they wanted to throw their own Hogmanay party with more than six people? After a bit of uproar, they were told they could apply for more passes.

Oh, and the police and fire services would get information on everyone who was applying.

After a bit more uproar, it was all a misunderstanding. The Underbelly never meant to keep anyone from anything and, you know, it’s all just a traditional part of a good old-fashioned Hogmanay.

The police have said the restrictions are unenforceable. I’m writing this on December 29 and no one, including the Underbelly, seems to have a clue how it will deal with people heading for private parties in the area.

And in case I haven’t mentioned it, at least some of Edinburgh’s events involve bagpipes. If anyone’s exercised about how anyone’s going to sleep, the papers haven’t mentioned it.

Wishing you all a good Hogmanay. If this is the first you’ve heard of it, you have just enough time to organize something.

Victorian Christmas carols: a link

I was going to shut up till next Friday, but this post at News from the Past is timely and makes me think (as if I didn’t already) that the spirit of love and joy struggles to hold its own against the spirit of outrage and complaint. It’s about Christmas carols and the great offense they caused in Victorian times. Have fun.

British Easter eggs: it’s the price that counts

It’s almost Easter, so let’s drop in on those good folks who find themselves with an excess of money at this and every other time of year. Yes friends, with inequality on the increase and income being redistributed upward, it can be hard to figure out what to do with all that annoying cash (and its virtual equivalent), so when a few of the holidays come around I like to make a few useful suggestions. Because I do so want to be helpful.

What do I do with my cash? As a rule, I drop it on the floor of the village store while I’m wrestling change out of my pocket. I tell you, I can’t get rid of the stuff fast enough.

Anyway, welcome to the world of luxury Easter eggs. Let’s see how much money we can spend. And before someone else mentions it, let me be clear that what follows in no way represents the way 99.99% of British people live, or even what interests them; 99% of British Easter eggs sell for supermarket-type prices, at a rough guess £10 at the top end, three for £10 in the middle, and small eggs and chocolate rabbits for £1. I mention that because I want to be clear that I won’t be talking about the world most of us live in here.

Irrelevant and ever so slightly odd photo: This is Fast Eddie in motion. He doesn’t eat chocolate.

Ready?

For a mere £85, you can get a single-origin milk chocolate egg, boringly decorated with cherry blossoms, or the same thing in dark chocolate, only the dark chocolate’s from Madagascar, which may mean it’s more singular than single origin or may mean it’s less singular. We’re not told the origin of the milk chocolate, only that it’s singular. Maybe wherever it came from doesn’t sound as exotic as Madagascar. Maybe it’s from New Jersey.

Do they grow cacao in New Jersey? Not last I heard but it calls itself the garden state, so we can’t rule it out.

Which is better, single origin or Madagascan? Who cares. They cost the same.

The eggs weigh in at 800 grams of chocolate, which (in case your brain is wired non-metrically) is way the hell more than a pound of the stuff.

On the other hand, for £5 less (that’s £80, and aren’t you just proud of me that I figured that out?), you can get an ostrich Easter egg that’s half milk and half dark, filled with smaller chocolates and accompanied by a tray of chocolates that didn’t fit inside because those damned ostriches never did learn to plan ahead. They don’t really stick their heads in the sand to hide from danger, but you still can’t count on them to plan.

Is there a difference between planning and planning ahead? What else could you plan for if not something that’s ahead?

The egg is more than a kilo of chocolate, which translates to more than 2.2 pounds in non-metricality. How much more? They’re not saying. And you get zero decoration on the egg.

A bit further down the scale, for £57.50 you can get a milk chocolate egg “stippled” with dark chocolate and decorated with multicolored flowers. It’s not as expensive as the one with the cherry blossoms, but it is more colorful and more care went into arranging the verbiage. It’s not just stippled, it’s sumptuous. It “started life as the finest Swiss Grand Cru milk chocolate,” which makes me think that as a vegetarian I probably probably shouldn’t eat it. I don’t want to bite into something whose life was cut short because I wanted a snack.

Whether or not it was once alive, it now weights 600 grams.

Since I brought up the verbiage, I might as well say that I wouldn’t pay extra for it, no matter how carefully it’s arranged. You can’t eat the stuff.

And by way of full disclosure, I should say that I don’t want an Easter egg myself—especially an expensive one. I used to work in a candy factory and it cured me. I lost interest in almost all candy, although I do sometimes want good, plain dark chocolate—the kind most people think it meant for cooking.

But enough of that. As I was researching this post (I googled “easter eggs, luxury”—and yes, I included the comma; I can’t help myself), predictive text offered me “easter eggs the devil’s testicles.” And although—sorry, gents—testicles don’t interest me and I feel roughly the same way about the devil, the combination was too much to pass up. I’m here to tell you about parts of the world you might not stumble into yourself, right? So I clicked a few links and found that someone’s written a book that asks the burning question, “Are your children playing with Lucifer’s testicles?”

You thought they’d gone kind of quiet in the back bedroom, didn’t you?

[A late addition: Mikedw and Ubi Dubium (a) read the site more carefully than I did and (b) are more knowledgeable than I am, and both pointed out that it’s a satirical site. You can see their comments below. So I tripped on my own feet there. That’s particularly embarrassing since a blogger or two believed some of the more bizarre things I’ve said, including that Druids worshiped the Great Brussels Sprout, linked to them, and commented on them. But there’s no cure for embarrassement like admitting to it, so here you go. Read the rest of this with that in mind–I haven’t changed it.]

Now, I’m not so dedicated to this blog that I’m going to read the book for you, and no way in hell would I encourage the author by parting with money for it—I’d rather set the money on fire, thanks. So I’m limited to what the website told me, but it sound like the author recommends telling your children that their little heathen friends celebrate Easter the way they do because “in the old days, deluded pagans would gather round and hump like bunnies on Easter Sunday because they thought it would make their tomatoes grow faster.”

By way of extreme generosity, let’s assume (although it doesn’t say this) that you’re supposed to tell them about humping like bunnies in the most tolerant and age-appropriate way. You might also want to tell your kids why the pagans celebrated Easter on a Sunday, being as how they were pagans and all.

A quotation from the book says, “Pagan kids didn’t have anything to do on Easter Sunday because their mommies and daddies were stuck in a false temple all day, naked and writhing around with their neighbors in Satanic orgies of the flesh. You see, parents had to come up with a way to occupy their children while they were away from home, praying and fornicating under the altar of Satan. And since they didn’t have babysitters back then, they gave their kids eggs to play with and sometimes paint.”

And if that doesn’t teach me not to click random links on the internet, nothing will. It should also teach us all not to obsess about other people’s sex lives. It never leads anywhere good.

In spite of my better instincts, I’ve got to give you a link. How else will you know this isn’t the product of my diseased mind instead of someone else’s?

I need to get that out of our minds, don’t I? So let’s talk about chocolate again. When I’ve posted about overpriced Easter eggs in the past, I’ve waited until a newspaper or two runs an article about the most outrageous ones, then I ride on their research. But this year I thought I’d run the post a bit early, so we’ll have to make do with what I can find online.

Why don’t I call a few fancy store and do my research the way genuine journalists do? Because that works better when you write for some real publication instead of having to say, “Hi, I’m a blogger no one ever heard of. What’s the most ridiculous thing you’re selling this season?” So the internet it was.

Harrod’s is a reliable source of overpriced goodies, so I checked their website and found that they’re “partnered” with “artist Camille Walala,” who turned out a limited edition of twelve eggs. They say the “eggs are highly-prized; a fitting marriage of an exciting London designer with our [ahem; due modesty here] world-famous store.”

In the department of expensive verbiage, they could have saved some money by deleting the first hyphen, since it’s wrong anyway. And while I’m at it, the semi-colon began life as a comma and should probably return to that happy state of being before it gets mistaken for something edible, although it’s still going to be a clunky sentence for reasons I’m not going to get into.

The website doesn’t mention how much the eggs cost. I think it’s one of those “if you have to ask you can’t afford it” things, but if you insist on knowing how much money it’s humanly possible to spend on chocolate, you can look elsewhere on the site and order an assortment of truffles for £350, even though the assortment’s not specific to Easter. There’s no mention of how much it weighs, but the verbiage is weighty if not creative. It includes perfect, special, abundance, luxurious, mouth-watering, bespoke, and exquisite. Which—I’m sorry to be critical—strikes me as a bit ho-hum for that sort of money.

It also says the selection will leave you wanting more. At £350 a box, that might not be a good thing, but I suppose it depends on how much cash you’ve dropped on the floor of the village shop. If they ever move the freezer, they should have enough to buy a couple of boxes. Given what I contributed, I’m owed a taste.