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

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

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

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

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

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

Irrelevant photo: love-in-a-mist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you figure that out

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

Did you get that?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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