Thursday 29 December 2011

New Year - A new take on an old custom?

Did you know, in the UK, New Year's Day was only declared a public holiday in 1974?

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Rich with the symbolism of the old year passing and welcoming the new, it seems right to see the New Year in - as a time for fresh starts and resolution.
Be it full-blown celebration or quietly 'staying up to see the New Year' what will you be doing this year? Here are just a couple of the traditions associated with New Year.

Allendale guisers. - an new take on an old custom?

The term "guiser" is likely derived from the word "disguise" and used widely in English customs, denoting people dressed up to adopt another persona. The Northumbrian town of Allendale has a tradition on 31st December, whereby forty fancy-dressed guisers parade through the streets, carrying barrels of burning pitch on their heads. They are accompanied by a brass band and the ceremony culminates at midnight with a large bonfire lit in the Market Place.

            The barrels are cut down to a depth of 12 inches and filled with rags and shavings soaked in paraffin, although originally tar would have been used, and set alight. The more romantic traditionalists say this custom has its roots in ancient fire worship carried out by the Vikings, Celts and Druids - whereas the truth is slightly less exciting!

            It seems in the mid 1800's someone came up with the idea of burning tar barrels to light the path for the band that traditionally walked the streets on New Years Eve. Nearly a hundred years later, during the second World War, it seems the villagers were so proud of their tradition they were reluctant to stop it when blackouts were imposed.

            "When war broke out and many of the guisers were called up for military service, blackout regulations enforced the cancellation of the bonfire. To maintain continuity of the custom, the local carpenter, Launcelot Bell, designed a…small tar barrel which he carried unlit…On the customary site of the bonfire he placed it inside a tin trunk, set fire to it and closed the lid. All the local people then danced around the trunk."
A New Year's Gathering - the tradition.

            The tradition of large crowds of strangers gathering together on New Year's Eve is widespread and most cities have a focal spot where this takes place. In London, the Illustrated London News (1897) records significant numbers collecting outside St Pauls Cathedral to hear the newly installed bells ring in the New Year. All went well for the first few years until the crowds became over large and 'uproarious' and cathedral authorities stopped the New Year bell ringing. Undeterred, the crowds still gathered.
            A letter to the Times in 1935 voiced the opinion that there was nothing inherently wrong with mass-gathering but they should be better organised - especially the singing, as recorded below:

            "In England we seldom sing en masse, except at football matches. In this respect our failing on New Year's Ever are particularly deplorable….emotion finds no orderly outlet….Leaderless, they make no united musical effort. Instead, individuals and small groups sing. The strains of a dozen banal and tuneless ditties intermingle depressingly."

So how will you see the New Year in? Any "banal and tuneless ditties" for you…or something altogether more uplifting? Do comment and tell us about your New Year traditions...and dont forget there's a giveaway prize for one lucky person!!

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Wednesday 21 December 2011

Cancel Christmas!

Yesterday, I finished my Christmas shopping and so, at last, I'm beginning to feel quite festive.  Love it or hate, Christmas is going to happen!
But this wasn’t always the case.
Oliver Cromwell
In the mid 17th century, England entered an unstable period of civil war. Statesman and General, Oliver Cromwell led his armies to fight against the monarch, Charles I - and ultimately had the king beheaded. Cromwell's supporters were Puritans, a group who, amongst other things, believed it was their mission to purge the country of decadence.
The Puritans believed you would ascend to heaven so long as you lead a blameless life on earth, and with this aim frivolity and excessive behaviour were banned. Woman had to wear a long black dress, white apron and headdress and no makeup. The men required to have short hair and dress head to toe in black.
Small wonder then that the heady excesses of Christmas day were frowned upon. December 25th was traditionally a public holiday, businesses closed, people attended church as well as exchanging presents, dancing, singing and drinking. The Puritans saw this as a frenzy of disorder:
'More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides ... What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used ... to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.'
Philip Stubbes. 

On 8 June 1647, Protestant Puritans were in power and passed, "An Ordinance for Abolishing of Festivals." - You guessed it! They cancelled Christmas.
"Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, that the said Feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter and Whitsuntide, and all other festival days commonly known at Holy-days be no longer observed …within the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales."

Olde Father Christmas.
Predictably, this was an unpopular move with the majority and the fate of Christmas became a rallying cry. "Old Father Christmas" became spokesman for those opposed to the new law and pamphlets soon appeared with his jollity contrasted against the gloomy piety of the Puritans.
People rebelled in their own way - some refused to open their shops on December 25th, others continued to cook a special roast meal and others attended secret services - although not always without consequences.
"I went with my wife to London to celebrate Christmas Day. Mr Gunning preaching in Exeter Chapel…as he was giving us the holy Sacrament, the chapel was surrounded with soldiers…"
John Evelyn 25 December 1657.
Charles II.
The Puritan campaign against Christmas lasted until 1660 when it was swept aside by the Restoration and the fun-loving Charles II.
So whatever your opinion on the excesses of Christmas, just be glad we live in times where we have the option to celebrate!

Grace x

Wednesday 14 December 2011

'Twas The Night Before Christmas.

"Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,
                                 Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."
                                 Clement Clark Moore (1779 - 1863)


At this stop on the Virtual Advent Tour, to get you in the Christmas spirit I'm posting about some of the traditions surrounding Christmas Eve.

In modern times it seems Christmas decorations go up as soon as the Halloween ones come down, but this would have been unheard of for our great-grandparents. In their day it was considered unlucky to decorate the house before Christmas Eve and a busy time was had by all putting up greenery and trimming the tree, buying in fresh food (there were no fridges or freezers!) and visiting church. Holly, mistletoe and pine were the most popular decortaions.The Victorians are widely attributed with the introduction of kissing under the mistletoe, but in fact the tradition dates back to the 16th century. An interesting but little known twist to the mistletoe tradition is:
"… once kissed under the mistletoe should be burnt, or those couples who kissed beneath it would be foes for the rest of the year."

It was said that any girl NOT kissed under the mistletoe would not be kissed in the forthcoming year, and to put mistletoe under a young woman's pillow would cause her to dream of her future husband.  
Incidentally, any holly brought into the house at any time other than Christmas was believed to result in death.
A table being readied with Christmas fare.
For farmers, Christmas Eve was a time to give extra food to the animals - not just as a treat, but in the hope that they needed less attention on Christmas day itself.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Christmas eve was also a popular time for traditional 'performers' to visit, such as carol singers, or sword dancers (if you lived in North East England), the Hooden Horse (a Kentish tradition) or guise dancers (a Cornish tradition) Not only were the performers likely to find people at home but they would likely be filled with good cheer, and even if no money was forthcoming, they would likely welcome strangers with food and drink.

The Gentleman's Magazine of 1824 records some Christmas Eve celebrations in Yorkshire.
"At eight o'clock in the evening, the bells greet 'old Father Christmas' with a merry peal. The children parade the streets wth drums, trumpets, bells or…even a poker and a shovel, taken from the humble cottage fire."
Christmas Eve was also said to be a good night for an unmarried woman to divine the identity of her future husband. Apparently this good time to meddle in the dark arts because ghosts and other spirits were said to be powerless on this night. The method of doing this was recorded by Sidney Addy in 1890.
"If a girl walk backwards to a pear tree, on Christmas Eve and walk around the tree three times, she will see an image of her future husband."
And finally, at the midnight hour church bells would ring and many people would open their doors to welcome Christmas in. It was said that on the stroke of midnight cattle would kneel down in their stalls and bees hum the Old Hundreth Psalm in their hives.

Do you have any Christmas Eve traditions - do leave a comment and share them.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Monumental Vertigo!

I'm not good with heights - in fact, that's something of an understatement. The number of historical buildings that I have exited on my bottom, for fear of open staircases and exposed battlements is a long one. Numbered amongst these is The Monument in London - but for once it seems I am in good company.

James Boswell, writer, visited The Monument in 1762. Half way up the 311 stone steps he suffered a panic attack (can't say I blame him. The Monument feels like a tall stone tomb inside with a dizzying spiral staircase - I got less than half way before I froze and could go neither up nor down - stuck against the wall while people pushed past…but that's another story.) Boswell did better than me and overcame his fear to reach the top to see what was to be seen from what was in the 18th Century the highest viewpoint in London.

His opinion was less than glowing:
"Horrid to be so monstrous a way up in the air, so far above London and all its spires."
A rash of suicides meant the viewing platform was caged in 1842.

So what is the Monument?

As well as being the tallest isolated stone column in the world, at 202 feet. It stands as tall as it does distant from the start of the Great Fire of London, in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane, 2 September 1666. Built on the site of St. Margaret's Church (the first church to be destroyed in the fire), Fish Street, it commemorates the Great Fire.
Designed by Sir Christopher Wren (designer of St. Paul's Cathedral) and Robert Hooke, Wren wanted to put a statue of King Charles II at the top. But king declined pointing out:

"I didn’t start the fire."
Instead, a flaming urn of gilt bronze placed on the summit.

During the Great Fire itself surprising few lives were lost but 13,000 homes destroyed and great swathes of London raised to the ground. However, the damage was more extensive than necessary because superstitious people refused to fight the fire, Charles Mackay explains in his 1841 collection, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and quotes from eye-witness accounts:

"The writer, who accompanied the Duke of York….through the district between Fleet-bridge and the Thames, states that their efforts to check the progress of the flames…were much impeded by the superstition of the people."

It appears there was a widely held belief at the time that Mother Shipton prophesied that:
"London in sixty-six will be burnt to ashes."

Those that should have known better even convinced others to do nothing.
"A son of the noted Sir Kenelm Digby…persuaded them that no power on earth could prevent the fulfilment of the prediction, for it was written…that London was to be destroyed."
So people stood back and watched, instead of acting to prevent the disaster.

"Hundreds of person, who might have rendered valuable assistance and saved whole parishes from devastation, folded their arms and looked on. As man …with less compunction, gave themselves up to plunder the city."
Charles Mackay.

So finally, harking back to my abortive attempt to climb the Monument, who else has had an embarrassing experience in a public place?