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.

More Strange British Traditions: The Honiton Hot Pennies

Unlike Whoopity Scoorie, whose origin is so uncertain that it might date back to the beginning of time but also might date back to the nineteenth century, whichever came first, the Honiton Hot Pennies celebration has a clear beginning: It started in the thirteenth century, when Honiton was given a royal charter.

What’s a royal charter? It’s the oldest form of incorporation in the U.K., according to the Chartered Insurance Institute, which is an institute with a charter, not an institute that deals with chartered insurance. Having a charter of its own, it’s in a position to explain what that means. And also to explain why you should be impressed with them.

Irrelevant photo: Watching the sea in mid-February.

Charters are given by the monarch on the advice of the privy council.

The privy council? That’s–actually it looks boring. Let’s say it’s a topic for another time, when I’ll see if I can’t find a bit of spice for it.

The point of a charter is to “create and define the privileges and purpose of a public or private corporation such as a town or city. Although still occasionally granted to cities, today new Charters are usually conferred on bodies such as professional institutions and charities that work in the public interest and which are able to demonstrate financial stability and permanence and pre-eminence in their field.

So there.

You’ll notice (or you will now that I’m making a fuss of it) that the Chartered Insurance Institute capitalizes the word charter. It’s a British thing. You capitalize words you think are important. Especially Nouns. Charters are important. Because the institute has one. And because it’s explaining them.

That non-system of capitalization drives me Nuts.

The earliest royal charter in Britain dates back to 1066, which makes it sound like charters came over with the Norman hordes, but they didn’t. The first chartered town was in Scotland, which was cheerily Normanless in 1066 and remained so for some time to come.

The Normans? They invaded Anglo-Saxon England and became its rulers.

England?

Oh, stop it. If you can’t find England on a map, go offer your soul to Lord Google and he’ll explain it.

The earliest charter in England was given to Cambridge University in the thirteenth century.

But I believe we were talking about hot pennies, which are not pennies that have been stolen but pennies that have been heated.

Why were they heated? Because it amused the hell out of the gentry to throw pennies to the peasants and watch them burn their hands trying to pick up as many as they could before someone else got them.

Desperation and poverty are so amusing.

By that way, that interpretation of the gentry’s motivation isn’t the product of my leftish mind twisting the available facts. It’s what the Honiton Town Council’s website says, although I’m responsible for “amused the hell out of.” The website says they “took great delight in seeing the peasants burn their fingers whilst collecting them.”

Whilst? It’s a British thing and completely apolitical. You’re not likely to find me using it.

These days, when we’ve all lost our sense of humor and become so fearful of being criticized, the pennies are warmed but not heated enough to burn anyone’s fingers.

Sad, isn’t it? That’s what political correctness brings us to.

The celebration is held on the first Tuesday after the 19th of July. Which is as convoluted a date as the one when the U.S. votes–the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

The Hot Pennies celebration also involves a glove being hoisted on a garlanded pole. The town cryer announces, ““No man may be arrested so long as this glove is up.” The idea was to make sure no one would stay away for fear of being arrested for their (or as stated, his) debts.

*

My thanks to Bear Humphreys for sending me a couple of links about the celebration, which I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. 

Great British traditions: the queen’s tweeter and runners in fancy dress

Madge, as my friend R. calls her royal Madge-esty, was recently looking for someone to handle her Twitter account.

You didn’t think the queen would do her own tweeting, did you? Those royal fingers have to be protected so she can cut ribbons.

If you check @britishmonarchy, as I just forced myself to do, you’ll find that the official MonarTweeter doesn’t try to impersonate the queen, because that would get into a whole tangle of decisions about whether to have her say I or one, as in “One has finished one’s breakfast and is off to a busy day of cutting ribbons.” Which might be too long for a tweet but I can’t be bothered counting. And more to the point, it would quite probably violate some law about impersonating a monarch. But anyway, the job of the MonarTweeter is to speak on her behalf.

I’d quote a few tweets but they’re really, really boring.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Ruin in the Firth of Forth, by Ida Swearingen. Don't you just love saying "Firth of Forth"?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: An island in the Firth of Forth. Don’t you just love saying “Firth of Forth”? Photo by Ida Swearingen.

The same person will also be—or by now quite possibly is—in charge of her Facebook page and her YouTube channel, which are probably just as fascinating as the Twitter account. And will get paid between £45,000 and £50,000 per year. One of the requirements of the job is that you have to stay awake through all the dreary stuff you try to graft some excitement onto. And you not only have to keep a straight face about it all, you may even have to look reverent. Or at least preserve some small pocket of reverence deep inside.

I apologize for how slow I’ve been in getting this onto the blog. I know you’d have loved to apply. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have recommended using me as a reference. They wanted to hire someone who could “liaise with a broad spectrum of stakeholders” and I foam at the mouth when I’m around people who think stakeholder is a part of actual human speech. (As I type that I can’t help picturing a scene from a vampire movie. I’m the person holding the stake. Did you bring the hammer?)

And as long as we’re on the topic of British traditions, I can’t leave you without talking about the—. Umm. Is this a tradition? A habit? A thing?

Yes. The British thing about running races in costume—or fancy dress, as they call it here. A recent news article—.

Or, well, no. This isn’t really news. It’s the filler newspapers run to keep their readers from going suicidal over the real news. And it seems to work, because I’ve noticed lately that I’m still alive.

We all need stuff like this, and lately we need a lot of it.

So here, if you’ll be so kind as to follow the link, we have photos of people who’ve run races dressed as the Gingerbread Man, a dinosaur, a lobster, and Spiderman. Tragically, the print edition’s picture of a man dressed as a water faucet (or in British, a water tap) is missing from the online edition. But weep not, because by way of compensation you can follow this link and see a runner dressed as—or more accurately, in—a telephone booth, another one carrying a refrigerator, and some others dressed as a hippo, a telephone, and a large bird, possibly a parrot but I’m no expert. And yet another wearing a cardboard fig(I think)leaf and a bad wig. And not much else.

I don’t know what the temperature was when that last one was taken, but this country doesn’t over-indulge in warm weather. Let’s hope the running warmed him up.

Don’t you just love how ancient tradition survives in this modern world?

The Mother of Parliaments and the mother of all silliness

After I promoted a post on political absurdity, a Google+ user, Andrew Knighton, wrote to say that “when Caroline Lucas [Member of Parliament for the Green Party] became an MP she received a ceremonial dagger on a ribbon days before she received the computer equipment she needed to do her job. I love absurdity as much as the next man, but as a Brit I’d really like to see the traditions swept up and replaced with decent processes.”

I can’t disagree—what happened is completely batty and I’m sure politics would make more sense if they stopped handing out ceremonial daggers and started handing out computers—but you have to admire the sheer insanity of it all. Or at least, I do.

Before I go on, I should either remind or inform you that Parliament likes to call itself the Mother of Parliaments. I’m not enough of a historian to know if that’s a fair claim, but it does at least explain the title I used.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher (left) and Fast Eddie

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Minnie the Moocher (left) and Fast Eddie

With that behind us, I should tell you that I tried to confirm that whole dagger business by googling variations of Caroline Lucas, ceremonial dagger, and so forth. I ended up with articles on Sikh ceremonial daggers, The Vampire Diaries (I’m sure there’s some connection but I didn’t click through and try to figure out what it is), fracking as a dagger pointed at I didn’t click through to find out what—the heart of England, if I had to guess—and so forth. I did click through to something about the City Remembrancer, whose role dates back to 1571 and who does I didn’t read enough to find out what but damn, wouldn’t it be fun when someone asks what you do to say, “I’m the City Remembrancer”?

Anyway, I can’t confirm that the thing about Lucas and the dagger is true, although I’m sure it is. It’s too batty not to be. What I did find was an article by Lucas on what no one tells you before you enter Parliament.

Among other things, she reports that although the parliamentary smoking ban dates back to 1693, snuff is available at taxpayer expense. She’s never seen anyone dip in, but she did try it once, just to see what it was like. She says Parliament is like Hogwarts meets Gilbert and Sullivan. In the old palace, “The wood panelling is gloomy, the carpets have come straight from a 1970s pub, and there’s a pervading smell of school dinners.” Ah, the majesty of it all.

MPs don’t refer to each other by name when they’re speaking in the chamber. They call each other “the honorable member from [wherever]” or if the person being talked about is of higher status “the right honorable. . . .” She capitalizes all of that. There’s probably a rule about that too. These people can talk in capital letters. Me, I can manage italics once in a while, but I’m sparing with capital letters.

She also writes that most MPs have no idea what they’re voting on, so they have to follow party discipline and vote the way they’re told.

She doesn’t mention daggers, but I recommend the article anyway. Whether you agree with her politics or not, this woman can write. And she’s got a sense of humor.

Strange British traditions: cheese roll and flaming tar barrels

The other day, Wild Thing and I were talking with friends about the Gloucester Cheese Roll. Unlike an egg roll, which in Britain is an egg on a roll and not (as it is in the U.S.) Chinese veggies and sometimes meat or seafood deep-fried inside a wrapper, this is not cheese on a roll but an event where people chase a wheel of cheese down a very steep hill. (The event is also called the Cheese Rolling and the Cheese Race, but let’s stick with the more confusing name, please.)

In Britain, what Americans call an egg roll is called a spring roll. In the U.S., a spring roll is an unfried egg roll and in case you need to know, I like them better. That’s all as irrelevant as it is confusing, which is why I include it.

For endless images not of an egg roll but of the cheese roll follow this link.

Irrelevant photo: Launceston Castle, with a church in the foreground

Irrelevant photo: Launceston Castle, with a church in the foreground

But back to the event: The winner of the race gets to keep the cheese. The ambulances at the bottom get to carry selected losers to the emergency room, which in Britain is called Accident and Emergency.

That business about the ambulances? That’s not a joke.

“Why,” I asked (and you may need to be reminded at this point that I was sitting around with Wild Thing and our friends), “do people do this?”

“Boredom,” D. said.

Both friends, irrelevantly, have names that begin with D.

“Think of it as a Saturday night in February in a small-town Minnesota bar,” Wild Thing said. “A couple of people go outside and punch each other, then they come back inside and everybody keeps drinking.”

I never lived in small-town Minnesota, but Wild Thing did, so I’m going to have to take her word for this. I do understand boredom, but my way of dealing with it doesn’t usually involve hospitals. So I told D. and D. about our village’s earring fishing contest, which is an ordinary enough fishing contest except the contestants have to use an earring as a lure. It’s been running for a few years. I told them about the Boscastle raft race, in which the teams build rafts but can’t use anything nautical. Last year was its first year. My favorite entry lost. In fact, it sank. It was a picnic table on beer kegs, with a parasol that blew off either before the race started or right after. If I remember correctly, the raft was paddled with skateboards. Still, no ambulances were harmed in the making of either the race or the fishing contest (although the contest didn’t amuse the fish particularly), so I have less trouble understanding them.

From what I’ve seen on the internet, the official cheese roll ended a few years ago, when it couldn’t get insurance, and it’s now organized by an informal (and presumably un-suable) group. The mention of insurance reminded D. (well, one of them) of the flaming tar barrel race in Ottery St. Mary, which went on safely for years, even though people were racing around with, yes, flaming tar barrels, until some idiot tossed an aerosol can into one, and the can did what aerosol cans do when exposed to flaming tar: It blew up. No one—as far as I know—was hurt, but I’m willing to bet a lot of people were scared shitless.

The race continues. I don’t know what they do about insurance. Or aerosol cans and idiots.

The events we talked about fall into two categories: new and ancient. Many of the ancient ones seem to reach back to pre-Christian times and then piggyback themselves onto more recent holidays—May Day; Guy Fawkes Day. You can see the echoes of spring fertility celebrations, of the fall equinox. The tar barrel race is in the fall and you get fire, and days growing shorter. It’s insane, but I do see a connection. The cheese roll, though? It’s in the spring and I may be missing something, but it doesn’t strike me as an obvious way to celebrate the earth’s fertility.

What does it say about a culture that it creates these wonderful, lunatic events? I don’t have a clue, but I do know that they’re not commercial inventions, and they’re not the synthetic creations of a bunch of people nostalgic for the good olde days when knights were bolde and old crones knew the use of every weed that grew in the hedges. They’re created by real people, in place after place. Sort of like weeds, since I just mentioned them. No one plants them; they just grow. If you want folk culture, you could do worse than look here. And I can’t help imagining that they all start in the pub. Go back to Wild Thing’s February small-town Minnesota bar. Boredom plus beer. What could be more powerful? But instead of a simple brawl, these are elaborate events that demand months of planning. Commit-tees. Meetings. Ambulances. Delayed gratification, if you like. Which may be a good thing and may not be. If what you really want is the adrenaline of a fight, you probably fall on the not side. You end up starting a war. Or running through the streets with a flaming tar barrel. Or getting someone else to do it while you stand on the sidelines with a starter’s pistol, you clever devil.

In the interests of learning more about my new home, I hope to get to this year’s cheese roll, and to report back. If all goes well, we’ll discuss the tar barrel race. I make no promises.

The cheese roll is in May and I’m keeping my eye on the calendar.