Oh, no you won’t: A quick history of the British panto

Nothing except the curry is as British as the panto. 

I’ve made that claim about a lot of things, and it’s true of every last one of them. And I didn’t even make up the comparison, so lots of people have made the claim about lots of things.

Nothing is as unoriginal as comparing an British / English whatever to a curry.

But if I’ve destroyed my own opening thoroughly enough, let’s move on and talk about the panto. Having grown up in the US, I thought pantomime meant silent acting. You know: Marcel Marceau. That kind of thing. We call it mime for short.

But for the British–well, they grabbed the opposite end of the word, we hung onto ours and between us we broke the thing. So forget mime. What they do is panto, and it’s full of words.

How British is it? Exactly as British as the curry: In other words, it came from someplace else–in the case of the panto, Italy and from there, France–and embedded itself deeply in British culture.

Irrelevant photo: No fall–or autumn, if I’m pretending to be British–is complete without a photo of gorse and heather. They’re everywhere. They’re behind you, probably.

It started as sixteenth-century Italian Commedia dell’arte, which was traveling street theater, although the better troupes weren’t above performing in a palace if one wandered past. The shows involved music, dance, dialogue, and a heavy dose of mayhem. 

Italy wasn’t a united country at this point, and it had many very different dialects. So how did they handle dialogue when the troupes traveled? According to one source, they made a virtue of the differences. One character spoke Spanish (no, that’s not Italian or a dialect, but somehow it’s on the list). One spoke Bolognese. One spoke gibberish. And so on. What pulled it all together was the physical communication–clowning, acrobatics, dance, music. One character, Arlecchino (are-lay-KEY-no–he’s the origin of our word harlequin), had two sticks that were tied together so they’d make a loud noise and he whacked everything available with them, including the scenery and the other characters. And that, children, is the origin of our word slapstick

The women’s roles were played by women, and since the European tradition had banned women from the stage, this was radical.

The sets were basic–they had to travel–and many elements were predictable, including the characters, which were fixed types, recognizable from play to play, from troupe to troupe. A lot of them were played in masks. (The lovers–because what’s a play without lovers?–weren’t.) So forget deep characterization. What mattered were the tumbles, the slapstick, the chases, and the jokes, which were also recognizable from play to play. 

All of that, though, was scaffolding for the improvisation. The actors played off each other and the audience, so the play would never be quite the same twice. 

From Italy, the form moved to France, and from France it moved to England, and from the sixteenth century time moved to the seventeenth. In England, Commedia dell’arte collided with masques, which had started in the 14th century as musical, mimed, or spoken dramas put on in grand houses. By the seventeenth century–or so says one source–they were basically an excuse for a theme party. 

Commedia d’etc. may also have had a small collision with a medieval (or Tudor, depending on who you want to believe) Christmas tradition, the Feast of Fools, which was run by the Lord of Misrule, because before too many centuries had passed the panto became as tightly connected to Christmas as brussels sprouts (don’t ask–it won’t get us anywhere). 

In the eighteenth century, the word pantomime took hold and the form began gobbling up existing stories–Aladdin, Robinson Crusoe, Cinderella, you name it. 

By the Victorian era, the principal boy’s role was played by a woman. In the Victorian era, that would’ve been pretty racy stuff, involving ankles and legs and all sorts of body parts no one knew women had. The dame was enthusiastically overplayed by a man. If you were inclined to take anything too seriously, that would knock the idea out of your head.

Then they added some dancers and an audience, which got to yell out some stock phrases: He’s behind you. Oh, no you won’t

It’s an odd thing, but after you repeat those a few dozen times, they begin to be funny. In fact, they’ve cut loose from the panto and become free-floating punchlines in real life.  

In some stories, they got to add a pantomime horse–two people in a horse costume. Hold onto that thought.

These days–or before the pandemic, anyway–pantos were performed in grand theaters with professional or semi-professional actors and in village halls with hangdog ten-year-olds who delivered their lines as if they’d been strong-armed into taking part because they had been.

Many theaters relied on pantos for a heavy portion of their year’s income. The could reliably fill the seats.

By the time a panto ends, good has conquered evil and the lovers have been united. And where I live, until there’s been a raffle. You don’t get to leave a village event until you buy a ticket, and if you win something you want look happy with your prize, no matter how odd it is.

Why am I writing about this in September? In part because the British government’s running like a badly written panto:

“We will get control of the corona virus.” 

“Oh, no you won’t.”

“Oh, yes we will.”

“Oh, not unless you get your act together you won’t.”

But also because a bit of the panto has broken loose, abandoned the Christmas season, and become the panto horse race: pairs of people in horse costumes in a race. Ask Lord Google about it and he’ll tell you they take place (at the very least) in Colchester and in Catterick. Here’s one that was won by a cow. 

The London panto horse race seems to be the same as the Greenwich one, and it goes from pub to pub, stopping at each one. By the end, the horses are looking a little the worse for wear. Or possibly for beer. The front end of one horse was having a drinking problem that had to do with the length of a horse’s muzzle and the size of a pint glass of beer.

For the best of the videos, I couldn’t find anything outside of Twitter or Facebook, but if you enjoy pictures of people falling over, horses coming apart, and scenery being destroyed, it’s very funny. 

Go on, click the links. You know you want to.

Oh, yes you do.

The City of London: Where medieval silliness meets modern finance 

English place names strew confusion with all the restraint of a four-year-old trapped in a confetti barrel, so let’s start by sorting out what we’re talking about: The City of London isn’t the same as the city of London. Give city a small first letter and you’re talking about the place the world (sillly thing that it is) knows as London. Give it a capital letter and it’s not London but a square mile of high finance, non-resident voting, and that all-around oddity that the English do so gloriously. 

That capital-letter City calls itself the City, as if it was the only city the world ever knew. It’s also called the Square Mile because it’s not a square mile, it’s 1.2 square miles.

Follow me through the looking glass, kiddies. Let’s find out about the City of London. I’ll tell you everything I know. And much more. The sign that I’m telling you more than I know is that I quote big chunks of text from people who do know. Trust them. Ignore me.

Irrelevant photo: I have no idea what we’re looking at here, but I do know it’s a wildflower.

History

We pick up our tale in Anglo-Saxon England, at a time when London was England’s biggest city. It wasn’t the capital, but it was a center of trade and commerce. Which are the same thing but doesn’t it sound more important when I use both words? 

The city was important enough that Edward the Confessor–the almost-last of the Anglo-Saxon kings–thought it would be a good place to build a castle, not to mention a church that became known as Westminster so it wouldn’t get itself confused with the east minster, a.k.a. St. Paul’s. 

Then the Normans invaded, and even though William upended the box that was England and gave it a good hard shake, rattling everything and breaking some of it, he was careful not to break London. He granted it a charter and promised its citizens that they’d live under the same laws they’d had under Ed the almost-last Anglo-Saxon king. 

That’s important, because its special status continued under his successors and London grew to be wealthy, self-governing, self-taxing, self-judging, and surprisingly independent of the crown. It had its own militias, called the trained bands, which played a pivotal role at assorted turning points in the country’s history.

Fascinating as that is, though, it’s a tale for another post. I tried to work it into this one but it’s a rabbit hole. It was when I found a bottle labeled “Drink Me” that I realized how much trouble I was in. 

In 1100, London had a population of 18,000. By 1300, that had grown to 80,000. (That’s from the Britannica. WikiWhatsia says it was 100,000. Fair enough. Nobody was counting noses.)

Nearby Westminster had also grown, but not as much. Westminster was for the bean counters and administrators. You wouldn’t have wanted to move there. London was where the action was.

Within London, guilds formed and gained charters from the king. Their role was to defend the interests of their members, set prices and standards in their industries, settle disputes, control apprenticeships, and limit their membership (which just happened to limit competition). By 1400, the City had 100 guilds, and at least some of them were powerful beasts indeed. When a monarch needed money–and rich as they were, monarchs always needed money–the guilds could bow a few times, then finance a war or two and buy themselves and their city increased freedom from royal meddling.

Some of the guilds took to wearing livery–basically uniforms for their trades–and called themselves livery companies. Make a note of that. It’ll be on the test.

With all that history, though, there’s no piece of paper we can turn to that marks the City’s beginning. According to an article by Nicholas Shaxson in the New Statesman, “No charter constitutes [the City] as a corporate body. It grew up beside parliament and the crown, not directly subordinate to either but intertwined with both.”

 

More History

Around London, a patchwork of settlements grew up. In 1550, three-quarters of Londoners lived in the City. Among other things, this means the definition of a Londoner is getting hazy already. By 1700, only a quarter of them did. By 1800, that was down to a tenth. 

Even so, the City was crowded–enough so that at one point the Court of Common Council (that’s a fancy phrase for the City government) tried to stop houses from being subdivided into smaller, even more crowded units in a process called pestering. That doesn’t have much to do with our tale, but I had to sneak it in. It’s a very shallow rabbit hole. We’ll climb back out now.

In the seventeenth century, the crown asked the Corporation–that’s also the City government, and please don’t ask me to explain why it needs two names–to extend its jurisdiction to the new settlements. If it had said yes, London would be one city, but it refused. That’s called the great refusal of 1637 and it set up the odd, two-city structure London still has. Inside the large city that we naive fools think of as London sits the City of London, like the pit inside a peach. It left the sprawling settlements outside to solve their own problems so it could continue as it always had.

This decision eventually turned around and bit it on the ass. The guilds that had controlled competition by limiting their membership? They had no sway outside the City, and competitors were free to offer cheaper goods and services. 

Time passed, and we’ll let the Financial Times article provide a bridge to the present day: 

“Even as Parliament displaced the Crown as the fundamental unit of sovereignty and democracy displaced the Divine Right of Kings as the principle of legitimacy, the state still refused to subordinate the Corporation of London to national laws and practices. Its assets and its ancient privileges remained untouched. . . . The Corporation’s assets, its property inventory and financial portfolio remain unpublished.”

 

Government and Independence

So here we are in the modern City of London. How’s the place governed? 

The guilds have been central from the start, and they still are. The lord mayor, who heads the City of London Corporation, has to belong to one of the livery companies. And he or she has to have been a City sheriff. Both positions are elected by the senior members of the livery companies, who also elect bridge masters, auditors, and ale conners. 

Ale conners? They’re essential. They taste the ale. Also the beer. It was a fairly standard medieval position that most towns and cities have been happy to let sink into quiet obscurity. Not the City.

The livery companies also approve the candidates for alderman. 

After the livery companies have made sure the alder-candidates are acceptable, what happens? Why, the people get to vote, of course. It’s a democracy, isn’t it?

Who are the people? That’s where it gets interesting. Some 8,000 people live in the City, but almost 19,000 people vote there. And it’s all legal

How? If a business has up to nine staff members, it gets one vote. Up to fifty, it can appoint one voter for every five staff members. Above that, it gets ten voters plus one for every additional fifty. 

Anyone want to place bets on how independent those voters are?

The City has twenty-five wards, but the residents are concentrated in four of them, which limits resident impact even more.

As a City spokesperson explained,“The City is a democratic institution. All of its councillors are elected.” 

They pay people a lot of money to say things like that with a straight face.

The spokesperson also said, “As the local authority we provide public services to both 7,400 residents and 450,000 City workers. Therefore to reflect the needs of the workers who come to the City each day, businesses located in the City can appoint people to vote in our local elections.”

Okay, we now have an elected government. What’s its purpose? According to several non-radical sources, its purpose these days is to represent international finance.

An article in the New Statesman says, “By the 1980s, the City was at the centre of a great, secretive financial web cast across the globe, each of whose sections–the individual havens–trapped passing money and business from nearby jurisdictions and fed them up to the City: just as a spider catches insects. So, a complex cross-border merger involving a US multinational might, say, route a lot of the transaction through Caribbean havens, whose British firms will then send much of the heavy lifting work, and profits, up to the City. . . .

“Thus, the role of the City of London Corporation as a municipal authority is its least important attribute. This is a hugely resourced international offshore lobbying group pushing for international financial deregulation, tax-cutting and tax havenry around the world.” 

To make sense of how a city can be a tax haven when it’s inside a country that isn’t a tax haven, we have to go back to the City’s independence. Parliament (and I keep checking this because I can’t entirely believe I have it right) doesn’t have authority over the City. The City functions, basically, as an autonomous state within the U.K. International banks can do things within the City that the governments of their home countries don’t allow. Even if their home country is Britain.

According to a paper called “The City of London Corporation: The quasi-independent tax haven in the heart of London,” “Parliament has powers to make legislation affecting the City of London; however, any suggestion brought forth to the Corporation of London falls within its discretion, without liability of enactment. [No, I didn’t get that the first or third time around either. It has to do with parliament not having authority over the City.] To keep a watchful eye on all legislation passing through Parliament, and to safeguard its exclusive rights and privileges, the City of London has a permanent representative, called the City Remembrancer, who sits in Parliament beneath the Speaker’s chair to observe House of Commons proceedings. The Remembrancer is the City of London’s envoy. Should Parliament contemplate any legislation against the City’s interests, the Remembrancer is duty-bound to communicate such matters to his peers, whereupon it shall lie within the Guildhall’s purview to engage a City Sheriff to petition Parliament against any unsavoury bill.”

To explain how this happened, the New Statesman article says, “Over centuries, sovereigns and governments have sought City loans, and in exchange the City has extracted privileges and freedoms from rules and laws to which the rest of Britain must submit. The City does have a noble tradition of standing up for citizens’ freedoms against despotic sovereigns, but this has morphed into freedom for money.”

Britain being Britain, the City’s independence plays out in outdated costumes and obscure ceremonies that everyone performs as if they made sense. Again, the New Statesman:

Whenever the Queen makes a state entry to the City, she meets a red cord raised by City police [the City has its own police force; London’s police have no authority there unless they’re invited] at Temple Bar, and then engages in a col­ourful ceremony involving the lord mayor, his sword, assorted aldermen and sheriffs, and a character called the Remembrancer.” 

The surviving livery companies include the Worshipful Company of Mercers (its coat of arms looks like it was drawn by a twelve-year-old obsessed with blond-haired princesses; I looked for a unicorn but didn’t find one), the Worshipful Company of Tax Advisers, and the Worshipful Company of International Bankers.

No, I didn’t make any of that up. 

More than one government has tried to democratize the City. So far, they’ve all failed.

Strange British Customs: The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival

Can any country without a straw bear festival claim to have a culture? 

Well, possibly. I hesitate to throw whole cultures into history’s extensive trash can. Especially since, no matter how much I try, they never do stay thrown. 

But either way, let’s talk about the Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival. Because it exists. Because it takes place (when the country isn’t in lockdown) in January and this is June, and that makes it an obvious topic right now. And because I thought a quick break from the serious stuff might do us all good.

The festival started before Whittlesea’s collective memory kicked in, so no one knows how far back it goes. Britain’s full of events like that. This one involves what an 1882 newspaper called the confraternity of the plough. That sounds like an organized group but the writer was probably just trying for a cute and condescending way of talking about farm workers.

Irrelevant photo: No flower this time, just sunlight and leaves.

What does seem to be known–and remember to take everything with a teaspoon or two of salt because of that problem with collective memory–is that each year they’d pick a man or boy to be the bear. Then on Plough Monday (British spelling because what the hell it’s their holiday) they’d drag a plow (American spelling because I can only be well behaved for just so long) through town and lead the bear around, with lots of singing and dancing. 

And drinking.

We’ll get around to the Plough Monday part later. 

The newspaper article describes the straw bear dancing in front of  “the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread of beer, tobacco and beef.” So basically, the well-to-do got entertainment and the badly-off got roaring drunk and went away with their bellies (and lungs) filled, and a good time was had by most.

Until the next morning. But there’s me spoiling the fun again.

As a counterbalance to that above-it-all description, let’s quote a book by Sybil Marshall about life in the fens in the 1890s. This isn’t specifically about the straw bear, but it’s close enough to be useful.

“Living where we did and how we did, we used to make the most of anything a bit out o’ the ordinary, and we looked for’ard from one special day to the next. Looking back on it now, I’m surprised to see how many high days and holidays there were during the year that we kept, and we certainly made the most of any that children could take part in at all. . . . The Molly Dancers ‘ould come round the fen from Ramsey and Walton all dressed up. One would have a fiddle and another a dulcimer or perhaps a concertina and play while the rest danced. This were really special for Christmas Eve, but o’ course the dancers cou’n’t be everywhere at once on one day, so they used to go about on any other special day to make up for it. They’d go from pub to pub, and when they’d finished there, they’d go to any houses or cottages where they stood a chance o’ getting anything. If we ha’n’t got any money to give ’em, at least they never went away without getting a hot drink.”

Whittlesea’s straw bear tradition lapsed in the early twentieth century, when a police inspector (speaking of spoiling the fun) decided the whole festival was a form of begging. Then it was revived in 1980, by (I’m taking a wild guess at this) either a group of guys who’d had too many beers or a group of promoters who decided it would bring the tourists in. 

Or a group of promoters who’d had too many beers. Why have two groups when one will do?

These days the festival involves a procession with the bear and a team pulling a plow (or a plough, which with all those extra vowels has got to be heavier) through the streets, and of course music, dancing, and (I’m guessing, since I haven’t been to the festival) a lot of drinking. The festival website’s FAQs includes the question, “Can I drink on the streets?” 

Answer: No. The cops are watching. Drink in the pub. Drink outside the pub but use a plastic glass. Play more or less nice.

The bear’s led around the town to dance in front of pubs, which is no mean trick because the costume weighs 5 stone.

A stone? It’s one of those insane, traditional British measures and it equals 14 pounds. Because who doesn’t like to multiply by 14? So 5 stone is–

Will you give me a minute here? I’m working on it.

It’s 70 pounds. Or 31.7515 kilos, give or take a gram. In other words, heavy enough that we should all be impressed by someone wearing it for long, never mind dancing in it. 

At the end of the festival, the bear costume is burned.

And of course, the festival includes morris dancers. Love ‘em or hate ‘me, you can’t hold a traditional festival in England without morris dancers. 

It also involves molly dancers, and I thought we’d get to take a break from anything serious, but I never do know where a topic will lead me, so buckle up, kids, ‘cause it’s about to get serious.

According to the Morris Ring website, molly dancing traditionally involved white men blacking their faces and dressing in women’s clothes. The blackface may have been to disguise themselves or it may be good old-fashioned racism. It could easily have been one twisted around the other. At this point, I doubt anyone can unpick the threads. 

The winds are blowing hard against blackface these days, and some molly dancing groups have dropped it. Others defend it on the grounds–and this is an argument I’ve never heard outside of Britain–that it isn’t (or wasn’t) meant to be racist, and so it isn’t racist. I’ve argued that through with more than one person and have yet to change a single mind.

The website of a molly dancing group called Pig Dyke explains its decision to drop blackface: They don’t want to be linked to the minstrel show tradition, where whites blacked their faces and played out a grotesque image of black people. It says, “Molly dancers in the past blacked their faces for disguise, weirdness, and loss of personal identity: we achieve that” without blackface. 

I looked through the Whittlesea website photos hoping to find that all the groups had dropped blackface. They hadn’t. If I was around to ask the dancers why they still do it, I’m sure they’d tell me it’s not racist because it was never meant to be racist. And because they’re not racists. And I’d try to convince them that their intent (or the originators’ intent–take your pick) isn’t the center around which the universe pivots–that our intent doesn’t control our impact. 

I’d leave wondering why I bothered. 

I won’t take a guess at what they’d be thinking. I don’t expect it’d be flattering. So let’s leave them to be unflattering and talk about the dressing in women’s clothes part. 

Pig Dyke connects the word molly to London’s molly houses, which were eighteenth-century gay and transvestite brothels. Whether they’re right to make that connection is anyone’s guess. There’s a strong British tradition of straight, non-transvestite men cross-dressing, and it’s widespread enough to make me think it was independent of the molly houses, although they may share a common root. But that’s guesswork. Let’s just chalk it up to another one of those collective memory blank spots.

I promised we’d get back to Plough Monday. The Molly Dancing website says it fell on ”the first Monday after Epiphany (or twelfth night) and was the first day after Christmas that farm-workers were meant to return to work, so they didn’t! Instead they decorated a plough and pushed it round the village, calling at the houses of the well-off villagers to beg for money. If the householders weren’t forthcoming with donations then they threatened to plough up the garden, or if there wasn’t a garden, the doorstep.”

That accounts for why the Morris Ring website says molly dancers ”could be destructive, drunk and disreputable.” 

These days, no one plows up gardens or doorsteps, drinking on the streets is only allowed outside the pubs, and storytelling groups gather the kids around so that they can take home something wholesome–something full of mental fiber and emotional green vegetables.

English Traditions: May Day

Any May Day celebrations that were planned this year have been canceled, so what better time could we find to look into the tradition itself, and to the festivals we can’t go to?

May Day starts, depending on who you want to believe, with either 1) the Romans celebrating Flora, the god of flowers and spring (or goddess, if you like male and female endings for your gods), or 2) the Celts, celebrating Beltane, a fire festival of–

Let’s start a new paragraph here, because this is too complicated to dangle off the end of an already convoluted sentence. In fact, it’s going to take more than one paragraph, so let’s start an extra new one. What the hell, they’re free and I don’t have to go out of the house to get them. 

Relevant photo: Any flower can pass as relevant to a post about May Day. These are, I’m reasonably sure, an ornamental cherry.

The Celts had a god named Belenus. That ending sounds suspiciously Latin, so what we know was probably filtered through the Romans, who had a habit that the Celts didn’t at that point: They wrote things down, and so we turn to them for information on people they understood at best imperfectly. The people who really knew about Belenus? They didn’t leave us a record.

Belenus, if you believe a random sampling of enthusiastic but non-authoritative online sources, was a sun god. If you believe the Brittanica, he wasn’t. He was “widely associated with pastoralism” and Beltane was celebrated on May 1 with fires where cattle were purified before being put out in the pastures for the summer. 

The holiday was also associated with fertility, as anything in the spring would be. If stuff doesn’t start growing right about now, you’re not going to make it through the winter.

I’m going to put my money on the Brittanica, which goes on to say that there’s no evidence the Celts worshiped the sun, although they used sun images a lot. Images aren’t proof of worship. Give me a piece of paper and a good chunk of boredom and I draw images of snails. I don’t worship them. The damn things eat my lettuce. They’re just something I’m able to draw.

So, we’ve got two origins, and it’s entirely probable that the two met sometime after the Romans invaded Celtic Britain and that they got along fairly well. The Romans had no objection to new gods as long as the locals agreed to nod politely to the Roman ones when they passed on the street. 

When the Anglo-Saxons came, they introduced the maypole to whatever celebrations the Celts and the Romans had negotiated.

Then, bit by bit, what’s now England was converted to Christianity, which did not nod politely to other gods when they passed on the street. It’s an exclusive religion. It allows for one god and considers all others either devils or superstitions. But when you’re trying to make converts, sometimes practicality wins out over theory, and it quietly absorbed a lot of the old ways. By way of an example, churches were often built on the sites of holy wells, keeping the sense that the spot was holy but changing the form and the content. And many of the old religious festivals continued, shedding bits of their history, power, and context as time went on, until outsiders could look at them and see them as nothing more than the superstitions of the ignorant. 

So after enough time passed, no one remembered how some of the festivals started or what they used to mean. They became just something we do on a particular date because we always have, and anyway, they’re fun. You know: quaint folk traditions. Does anyone know when and why they started chasing wheels of cheese down a heart-stoppingly steep hill in Gloucester? I doubt it was ever religious, but who’s to say? 

So May Day continued, but without the religious elements. 

By the time we get to Henry VIII (or possibly earlier, in the full-on medieval period), we’re talking not just about May Day but about May games, which spilled over into the rest of the month and somehow or other picked up a link to Robin Hood. And to morris dancing. 

You can’t do anything for long in England without morris dancing coming into it. It’s one of those mysteries that no one understands except morris dancers, and they keep trying to explain it, but the rest of us never do understand.

Then the Puritans came to power under Oliver Cromwell, and they were always ready to spoil the fun. Any fun. They shut May Day down and banned maypoles, since they were “a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness.” 

Don’t try to make too much sense of that “abused to superstition” thing. They talked like that then. Or at least they wrote as if they did. It may have been a plot to keep people so busy trying to make sense of the words that they didn’t have time for fun.

Then the monarchy was re-established and Charles II had a giant May pole set up in London. Let’s assume he wanted to prove that his was bigger than Cromwell’s. It stayed in place for 50 years.

Do I really want to make jokes about that? I still haven’t decided.

May Day made a big comeback in the Victorian era, but the Victorians didn’t want to hear about that fertility stuff, so they put kids on the end of ribbons and taught them to dance around the Maypole and look innocent. 

The Victorians reinvented a lot of traditions, with questionable accuracy. The early Maypoles may have involved flowers or kerchiefs and banners, but they also involved  drinking, less aggressively innocent dancing, and general carrying on. 

In recent decades, assorted groups of people have gone back to the early religious practices and reinvented them. If we’re desperate for something to squabble over, we can argue over how accurate they are and what it all means. The comment box is always open.

We can’t leave without acknowledging the political May Day, an entirely different holiday that falls on the same day and just to confuse things has the same name. It began in 1890, during the fight to limit the working day to eight hours, when marches and demonstrations often turned out tens–and sometimes hundreds–of thousands of people. After the Russian Revolution, it became heavily associated with the Soviet Union, although periodically it gets reclaimed by other left-wing groups. 

That’s it for the history. What events aren’t happening in Britain this year? 

Obby Oss Day in Padstow, Cornwall. This involves music, dancing, crowds, flowers, ritualized battle between the red Oss and the blue Oss, and if you know where to look (and sometimes even if you don’t) a stunning amount of alcohol. 

Sometimes that’s spelled ‘Obby ‘Oss. Your choice. There’s not a maypole in sight.

Beltane in Edinburgh.  I’m cheating on this one since it happens on the evening of April 30 and it’s in Scotland, which would be happy to remind me that it’s not England. It involves fire, drumming, and body paint. It is, I think, one of those modern recreations.  

The Jack-in-the-Green festival in Hastings. This involves costumes, a procession, poetry, music, the release of the Jack and then the slaying of the Jack to release the spirit of summer. 

And morris dancing.

The Rochester Sweeps festival in Kent. It runs for three days and doubles as a folklore festival. It involves a Jack in the Green, music, dancing, and morris dancing, which gets its own mention (that wasn’t my decision, she said defensively), separate from dancing-dancing.

The Jack in the Green part of it dates back to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, according to a local website.

Originally it was a May Day celebration where people would make garlands with flowers and greenery. The garlands became increasingly elaborate as work’s guilds would compete against each other, eventually so extravagantly that they covered the body entirely. The garlands were originally carried by milkmaids during May Day Parades – They became larger and more intricate to the point where they would balance them on their heads whilst the rest of their bodies would be adorned with silver houseware.

“The Chimney Sweep’s guild, not to be outdone by this and also to earn more coins from the watching crowds, upped their game to the point of covering their whole bodies in a framework covered in foliage and flowers. This became known as The Jack in the Green, a familiar participant in May Day Parades. The garlands are made out of a framework usually conical or pyramid in shape, covered in different types of fauna and flora.

“May Day was traditionally a holiday for the Chimney Sweeps and became known as ‘Chimney Sweeper’s day.’ . . . Jack in the Green became known as a practical joker associated with licentious and bawdy behaviour which soon became disapproved of in Victorian England.”

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that history anymore than I can vouch for the skill of the person who edited it, but with a lot of folk traditions all you have to go on is the stories that get passed down from one generation to the next. I can confirm that the internet’s awash in connections between chimney sweeps and May Day.

That’s a sampling. Calendar Customs lists more.

Hot cross buns at the Widow’s Son pub

I’m not a fan of religious holidays, but it’s Good Friday and that happens to coincide with one of those odd, localized British traditions that are always worth dropping in on. 

Every Good Friday, a sailor comes into the Widow’s Son pub in Bromley-by-Bow, in London’s East End, and adds a hot cross bun to a net of aging hot cross buns strung above the bar. 

And that’s it. 

Okay, that’s not quite it. It’s not one sailor, but a group of sailors from HMS President, which is docked nearby, and they climb on each other’s shoulders to get to the net, with the youngest being the designated bun-putter-inner. 

Or possibly smallest. It depends on who you believe.

Then that’s it. 

Irrelevant photo: heather

Or it used to be. In recent years, though, a few hours of free drinks and loud music have been added, along with a buffet that includes hot cross buns. This year, of course, all bets are off. Pubs are closed, gatherings are banned, and flour’s hard to come by. Someone will probably scan a bun and email it into the net. 

In recent years (and no, I don’t know how recent recent is), the buns are shellacked before they’re put in the net so they’ll last as long as possible.

What’s it all about? Legend has it that a widow and her son lived in the cottage where the pub now stands. The boy went to sea, and every year he came back on Good Friday and she’d made him a hot cross bun. 

One year, he didn’t return. She kept the bun and baked a new one for him every year. 

Or else, he never did come back, even that first year–he’d drowned at sea. I’ve read two versions of the tale and if I kept going I’m sure I’d find more. 

When she died, they found a net of buns hanging from the ceiling. For 80 years, the pub kept up the tradition, adding a bun a year. 

In 2015, the pub closed and the collection of buns disappeared. Or else a fire destroyed most of them fifteen years ago. Or possibly both. We’re in the land of legend, where what actually happened doesn’t weigh much. The stories, though? They’re what carry the weight.

When the pub sold, the new owners, under pressure from locals, revived the tradition.

End of story and we still haven’t reached 400 words. Surely I owe you something more, so let’s talk about hot cross buns.

According to one belief, hot cross buns baked on Good Friday will never go stale. Or moldy. That surely has something to do with the legend of the widow’s immortal buns. Another belief holds that if you hang a bun from your kitchen rafters on Good Friday it won’t go bad. The next year, you replace it with a new one. 

Back when people took this stuff seriously, they’d break up the year-old bun, mix it with water, and use it as medicine. If the patient recovered from whatever was wrong, they credited the bun. If the patient didn’t–well, medicine was like that in those days.

I haven’t read that anyone bit down on it and said, “Hey, guys, it tastes like it was baked this morning.” On the other hand, I can’t prove that they didn’t.

The bun was also supposed to protect the kitchen from evil spirits, prevent kitchen fires, and ensure that the bread you made there would be glorious.

If you took a hot cross bun to sea, it would prevent shipwrecks.

Sharing a hot cross bun ensured a strong friendship.

Writing about hot cross buns ensures that you’ll visit some very silly websites, along with some serious ones.

Legend dates hot cross buns back to a twelfth (or in one telling, eleventh) century monk. Or to the Saxons, who baked something along those lines even before they became Christians, with the cross symbolizing the four quarters of the moon. Or to the early Greek Christians, or to the ancient Greeks, who lived before there were Christians. But the first recorded mention of them comes from a sixteenth and seventeenth century text: “Good Friday comes this month, the old woman runs, with one or two a penny hot cross buns.”

In 1592, Elizabeth I banned the sale of spiced buns on any day but Good Friday. (Or possibly any day but Good Friday and Christmas. Or Good Friday, Christmas, and burials. Take your pick.) I’ve seen two explanations: One, they were too special to be eaten on any other day. Two, they smacked of popery and she wanted to set a limit on them. 

These may have been what we know as hot cross buns and may have been some other kind of spiced bun. Either way, people could–and apparently did–bake them at home to get around the law. If they were caught, though, they had to give all the buns they had on hand to the poor.

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By way of philosophical balance, Alf Dubs, a Labour member of the House of Lords, is scheduled to send out a secular Good Friday message to prisoners in British jails via the prison radio system. (Britain’s a strange and complicated place and I won’t explain why the Labour Party has members in the Lords–it’d take too long.) It’s aimed at atheist and humanist prisoners on behalf of an organization that offers them pastoral care, Humanists UK, offering hope at a time when the prisons are locked down and prisoners can’t see their families.

Dubs escaped Nazi Germany as a child, coming to Britain on one of the Kindertransports. In recent years, he’s become an advocate for refugees.

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I owe someone thanks for pointing me in the direction the Widow’s Son. I took all the information I’d need to thank him or her, put it someplace safe (since I know better than to trust my memory–effectively, I don’t have one), and have never seen it again. Whoever you are (1) forgive me and (2) remind me so I can post a link to your blog.

Strange British Traditions: The Tichborne Dole

March 25 is Tichborne Dole day, although if you get too far from the village of Tichborne not many people will have heard of it.

The tradition started in the thirteenth century with what we can pretty safely assume was a miserable marriage between the unfortunate Mabella and the insufferable Roger Tichborne. 

Am I biased? Of course not. I’m just telling you how it was. But we should probably call the unhappy couple Lady Mabella and Sir Roger at least once, because that’s what other people would’ve called them. 

Good. Now that we’ve done that, we’ll go back to plain ol’ Mabella and Roger. But as long as we’re correcting my carelessness, let’s add that the tale may start in the twelfth century, not the thirteenth. From this distance, it doesn’t much matter, but it should remind us to take the story with something between a grain of salt and a cup of it. Good storytellers are seldom to be trusted with the truth, and this story was good enough that it stuck around. Let’s tell it as if we trusted every last detail:

Irrelevant photo stolen from an old post: California poppies. Californians or not, they grow well in Cornwall and once you get a few going they’ll self-seed. Generally in places where you didn’t want them but they don’t object to being moved.

Mabella was dying of a wasting disease, and she worried what would happen to the poor of Tichborne village without her charity, so she asked her husband to give them food every year. He pulled a piece of wood out of the fire and said he’d hand out the grain from as much land as she could crawl around before the chunk of wood stopped burning.

Why did she have to crawl? The disease had left her crippled. Although in another version of the tale, she walked. Like I said, storytellers.

Either way, she made the circuit of a twenty-three acre field, now known as the Crawls. But she knew her husband, so she laid on a curse on top of the request. If the dole was ever stopped–even after his death–first the family would have seven sons, then in the next generation it would have seven daughters and the Tichbourn name would die out. Plus the house would fall into ruins.

Take that, Roger. 

It’s worth noting that rogering is British slang for having penetratiive sex. No one claims this story as the origin of the word–it probably comes from the name’s link to spears and lances–but all the same we could say that Roger got rogered.

Anyway, Sir R. was intimidated into keeping his end of the bargain. He had bread handed out every Lady Day–March 25. And that went on until 1796, when local magistrates decided that vagabonds and vagrants were taking advantage of the situation. How? By not being local. This was a time when the deeply settled in place distrusted vagrants–people desperate enough to take to the road. Think of vagrants as the era’s equivalent of refugees: the folks no country wants to take in. No one knew them, no one trusted them, and if they’d had any decency they’d have stayed where they were born, even if it meant dying there.

So rather than waste good bread on them, the dole was ended. Because you know what its like when you give good food to the desperate: They’ll only go and eat it. And desperation’s such a disturbing sight.

Or that–without my editorial comments, of course–is the Historic UK version. The link’s above. In the Alresford Memories’ telling of the tale (that link’s also above), the dole had become rowdy, attracting the dissolute, the dishonest, the (horrors!) Gypsies.

How much distance lies between those two versions? It’s hard to say. A third version  involves vagabonds and paupers from neighboring villages instead of Tichborne. What stays the same in all versions is the distinction between the local poor who the great and good knew and felt (once every a year) good about feeding and the undeserving poor who they didn’t know and don’t like and were afraid they’d be overwhelmed by.

In fairness, the number of poor really could be overwhelming. From 1791 house accounts, it looks like 1,700 loaves of bread were handed out, and the tradition was that if it ran out people got two pence instead. One year, that came to £8–equal to £1,214 in 2020 by one estimate. By another, it was the price of one cow (probably with some left over), or 53 days’ wages for a skilled tradesman. Not, you’d think, an overwhelming amount for an aristocratic family, but the dole’s end followed two bad harvests. The family may have been–or felt, which isn’t necessarily the same thing–hard up. Travelers did record that the house looked like it wasn’t being kept up, and in 1803 part of it collapsed. 

It was rebuilt on a smaller scale. The definition of hard up is relative.

The bad harvests also meant more people and needing bread, so that just when the need was greatest, help stopped being available.

As usual, you can chase up alternative explanations of why the dole ended. It wasn’t that the family was hard it, it was because magistrates demanded that it end. (There’s no record of it, however.) It was because local landowners demanded etc. (There’s no record of that either, but there’s no reason why there would be.)  

Whatever the reason, the dole stopped and a generation of seven sons was followed by a generation of seven daughters, which is convenient enough to make this old cynic wonder if the story wasn’t edited after the fact. 

In the absence of a son (don’t be silly: of course a daughter couldn’t take on such a heavy responsibility), the estate went to a nephew, but he was from a branch of the family that had changed its last name to Doughty. They re-started dole in 1835, but it was restricted to residents of three parishes–Tichborne, Cheriton, and Lane End.

At some point they started handing out flour (a gallon to each person, and recipients had to bring something to carry it in) instead of bread. 

The house is now owned by a family name Loudon–yes, they’re related; the aristocracy keeps its possessions close–and they’re continuing the tradition, but since it is now, they say “a fairly affluent part of the country, we would do something more in keeping with the nature of Lady Mabella’s cause. We decided to ask for a voluntary donation from the villagers for charity, usually collecting about £100.”

I can’t find a date for that quote, but it’s from a 2016 post, so I’m guessing it’s recent. And Lord Google flags Tichborne’s county, Hampshire, as above average in education and income. That’s as close as I could come to data on Tichborne itself, but even so I doubt raising £100 is enough to keep Lady Mabella happy. Especially since the family buys the flour in bulk and says it’s not that expensive, and since the event now involves tourists, who could be persuaded out of a coin or three by a determined fundraiser.

The minute I figure out how, I’m letting Mabella know. 

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.

The Cerne Abbas Giant

How do you look after a 180-foot-tall giant? Every ten or so years, you gather up a herd of humans and you feed him. Not the humans but chalk. You feed him lots of chalk.                       

The Cerne Abbas giant is cut into a chalky hillside in Dorset. It’s a bit of a thing in the British chalk country, carving figures into the hillsides: horses (16, plus one in paint), giants,  one lone kiwi. The Uffington white horse dates back to the bronze age.  

The giant and the (steep) hill on which he lies now belong to the National Trust, which gathered 60 volunteers to dig out the old chalk, re-edge the lines, fill them with 20 tons of fresh chalk, and hammer it into place. It took nine days. 

So much for upkeep. Let’s talk about who the giant is: He dates back at least to the seventeenth century. The earliest mention anyone’s found is from 1694, in a churchwarden’s accounts, when three shillings were paid out for “repaireing the giant.”  

Irrelevant photo: Hydrangeas. But if you follow any of the links concerning the giant you’ll find photos of him instead. No news outlet can resist.

According one theory, he (and he’s most definitely a he; I don’t use the male pronoun generically) was created to make fun of Oliver Cromwell. The dates do make that possible. A detailed 1617 survey of the manor where the giant now lives doesn’t mention him, which makes it likely that he was created sometime between pre-Cromwell and post-Cromwell. 

The manor was owned by Denzil Holles, one of the MPs Charles I tried to arrest–an act that kicked off the Civil War. Holles raised a regiment (that was how it worked then) that fought for Parliament against the king. It was wiped out–a third were killed and most of the rest taken prisoner–and he withdrew from military life.

He later tried to negotiate a peace with the king and came into conflict with Cromwell, who (or whom, if you like) he hated. When the First Civil War ended, he hoped to pay off the Scottish army and send them home (that worked), then disband Parliament’s New Model Army and make peace with the king. That didn’t work. The New Model Army wasn’t going anywhere until it got its back pay, and by then common soldiers had started to look at what they were actually fighting for and to make demands of their own. 

The army petitioned Parliament and Holles called them enemies of the state. The army gave that some thought and decided that being enemies of the state might be a good idea, so it became far more political, aligning itself with the Levellers. (I’ve messed around with the cause and effect there. I don’t know that Holles’s accusation had any impact on the army becoming politicized. An awful lot of things were going on at once. Apologies.)

The Levellers–well, we could argue about whether they were enemies of the state or not. They wanted a more equal, society, one in which all men, at least, could vote. They would have changed the state of the state dramatically if they’d won that.  

So Parliament and its army were no longer good friends. It was an interesting time. You can read a bit about it hereand more about the Levellers here

Holles called up the London militia to oppose the New Model Army. That didn’t  work and he ended up fleeing to France. 

The next year, when it was safe (Cromwell was in control; the army had been purged of its most radical elements), Holles returned to England and again tried to negotiate a peace between Parliament and the king. Among other things, this involved throwing himself at the king’s feet, which isn’t the recommended negotiating position.

Then Cromwell purged Parliament and Holles fled back to France. 

Like I said, an interesting time.

Holles was later reconciled with Cromwell and returned to England, where he stayed out of politics until Cromwell died and Charles II was be-monarched. Holles joined Charles’s privy council. He became known as the most vindictive of the commissioners appointed to try some of the parliamentarians who’d killed the king. And, just incidentally, he became a baron.

Then he backed the wrong party and was kicked off the privy council. But never mind most of that. The theory goes that he had the giant carved either when he was still in exile or after he returned. 

But all the detail in that story doesn’t stop other theories from circulating. The giant is Hercules. He’s the last abbot of Cerne Abbey, cut into the hillside by pissed-off monks after the abbey was dissolved. He’s a thousand-year-old fertility symbol and childless women who sleep on the penis will get pregnant.

Depending in part, I’m sure, on who sleeps with them, either there or elsewhere. But there is fine. At thirty-six feet long, it offers more than enough room. And, yeah, even in the context of a 180-foot figure, it’s out of proportion. And there’s a story there too: When Victoria was queen, in the interests of general prudishness, the local people who tended to the giant let grass grow over anything they thought might offend anyone. In other words, he became as sexy as a plastic doll. 

After she died, they reinstated it but, hey, they were just coming out of an era of massive prudishness and nobody’d seen a penis for all the many years Victoria was on the throne. They mistook his bellybutton for the tip and ended up adding 2.5 meters–something more than 8 feet. When the Trust used new equipment to survey the ground, they sorted out what had happened and debated whether to tone him down but left him as he was and fixed his nose instead.

I’m relying on an article for that. In the photos, as far as I can see he has no nose. Maybe that’s what they fixed. I doubt anyone noticed the change.

Many people, both visitors and locals, are convinced he’s been there for thousands of years in one form or another. And as the volunteers pounded the chalk into place, they made sure he’d stay there, clean and glowing and wildly out of proportion, for another ten or so years.

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A reader contacted me outside of the blog to let me know she can’t leave comments without going through a massive rigamarole involving passwords and secret handshakes and bad temper. The comments are set–to the extent that I have any control over them–not to ask people to sign in (what is this? an exclusive club?), but the WordPress help crew tells me the problem has something to do with the reader’s settings, the cookies she’s been collecting (give up those cookies, Mardi), and assorted other things I can’t control and have no reason to think she can.

The reason I’m telling you this tale is to ask if anyone else is having trouble leaving comments. If you are–right, you won’t necessarily be able to leave me a comment. Email me, would you? ellenhawley@yahoo.com. Ditto if you’re being asked to sign in. I can’t promise to fix the problem, but if I get enough data to WordPress, it’s just vaguely possible that they’ll be able to. Their help crew actually does help. And more to the point, it exists.

Thanks.

New British Traditions: The Chap Olympiad

The event I’m about to introduce you to has already passed us by, but you might want to look for it next year, so let’s talk about it anyway. It’s a sports event. Sort of. It celebrates British eccentricity. Emphatically. 

The Chap Olympiad’s website says it’s “designed to reward panache rather than sporting prowess and the games require the minimum amount of physical exertion. Not since the days of Bee versus Pigeon Racing during the Victorian times have so many befuddled anarcho-dandies and gin-addled punks been gathered together under one parasol to make mockery of the whole idea of sport.”

Yes, bee versus pigeon racing seems to have been a real thing. It also seems to have happened only once. It wasn’t a major thing.

 

Irrelevant photo: I’m not completely sure what we’re looking at here. Except, yeah, it’s a flower. 

The chap contests this year were (or included–who knows?):

Tea Pursuit. Contestants cycled around the course, transferring a cup of tea from one rider to the next. The amount of tea remaining in each team’s cup decided the winner.

French Connection. Three lumps of French cheese were mounted on poles and contestants tried to knock them off using a baguette as a javelin.

Top Trump Toupee. Contestants tried to knock Donald Trump’s wig off his head with a softball.

Umbrella Jousting. Contestants charged at each other on bikes, brandishing umbrellas and (by way of armor) wearing bowler hats and carrying briefcases.

Riding Crop Rumpus. Participants knelt in a row and a contestant tried to whip them with a riding crop. Why is the word tried in there? Because the participants were defended by a lady in a leather catsuit. Don’t ask me. I’m going to assume this has something to do with British public schools, which are private schools, generally for the elite. And very strange places.

Butler Baiting. A fleet of butlers mixed gin and tonics and pairs of contestants made a three-legged dash for them. If they didn’t make it in one minute, the butler got the drink. 

The olympiad tried to set world records for the most hats worn while riding a bicycle (I’m going to guess that’s hats on one head, since they seem to be talking about one bike, but it’s hard to tell), the most ties knotted in one minute, the fastest 100-yard sprint with a cup of tea, the most hats tossed onto a hat stand, and the most people smoking one pipe. 

Photos? Yes indeed. I have no idea if they’re from this year or some other, but I don’t suppose it matters. I’d tell you how many years the olympiad’s been running but I haven’t been able to find out. What I can tell you is that the sponsor, The Chap Magazine, was founded in 1999, so this isn’t a traditional tradition. 

The magazine, like the event, espouses anarcho-dandyism. 

Anarcho-what? Listen, I didn’t make it up, so don’t ask me to make sense of it. It seems to favor tweed, smoking, facial hair (it’s all about men), a highly ambiguous relationship to upper-class male traditions, and a strong sense of the absurd. I read one magazine article, on boater hats, which describes them as sitting on your head like inedible crackers. It was a good piece of writing, and even if it was about fashion, and upper-class male fashion at that, it was entirely readable. If the article’s typical, the magazine’s well written.

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My thanks to Bear Humphries, who dropped the olympiad on my head. I’ll have to find an inedible cracker to drop on his in return. In the meantime, you might want to check out his photography. He’s doing some work with abstracts that I really enjoy. 

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.

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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.