Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Merry Christmas versus Happy Christmas

I've always been intrigued why the British say "Happy Christmas" and we in the US say "Merry Christmas." An internet search revealed that, prior to the 1830s, “Merry Christmas” was the more popular salutation. The term “Merry Christmas” dates to at least 1565, when it appeared in The Hereford Municipal Manuscript: 
And thus I comytt you to god, who send you a mery Christmas...

The phrase “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” appeared in a 1699 letter from Admiral Frances Hosier to Robert Smith, a storekeeper at the Deptford dockyards in Woolrich, England. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol solidified the phrase in 1843 when, at the end of the story, Ebenezer Scrooge wished Cratchet, “A merry Christmas, Bob!”
In terms of oral tradition, “Merry Christmas” was around in the 16th century West Country carol, “We wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”
A little tougher to track is “Happy Christmas.” It isn’t an entirely British phrase, however. In 1823, New Yorker Clement Clark Moore wrote the classic Christmas poem, A Visit From St. Nick/Twas the Night Before Christmas which concludes with:
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
(It is interesting to note that, in some later editions, the phrase was changed to “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” For what reason, no one is sure.)
By the late 19th -- early 20th centuries, “Happy Christmas” had become the more popular phrase in England. Perhaps for the same reason Queen Elizabeth II prefers it. “Merry Christmas” implies drunkenness and a bubbling over of festivity.
The association of merriment with Christmas can be found as far back as Sir Thomas Elyot’s 1548 Dictionary:
.…as the vulgare people saie, Reste you mery.

That sentiment is echoed in the Christmas carol, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” first published in William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern in 1833.
The word “merry” didn’t start out associated with revelry. It derives from the Anglo-Saxon word myrige which meant pleasant and agreeable rather than jolly. Or perhaps Happy Christmas gained in popularity for the simple reason that greetings in general begin with the word “happy” – happy birthday, happy holiday, happy new year. To say “Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year” just doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like the other. But as a stand-alone phrase, "Happy Christmas" is consistent with long-standing salutatory customs.

The First Christmas Card
As the above image demonstrates, the first commercial Christmas card sported the phrase, “Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year.” It made its appearance the same year Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published. Sir Henry Cole, a British civil servant who had no time to pen personal greetings to family and friends, commissioned the English painter, John C. Horsley to create the triptych card. One thousand of them were printed in black and white, then hand-colored. (Horsley’s card was based on the 18th century custom of schoolboys creating “Christmas pieces” for their families. This elaborately decorated stationery sported written messages that showcased the boys’ penmanship.)

But no matter which phrase you prefer—the one another Cole by the name of Nat so aptly crooned in 1946:
Although it’s been said
many times, many ways,
Merry Christmas to you.”
Or the great John Lennon sang in 1971:
And so happy Christmas
we hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young…
Wishing you and yours all the best of the season. And God bless us, every one!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Bonfire Bangers on Guy Fawkes Night

Halloween is a collection of traditions that have come down from pagan harvest festivals with a layer of Christian icing spread over the top. The secular aspects of the holiday often are overlooked. Perhaps the most important is the Gunpowder Plot.

When Elizabeth I took the throne in 1533, England was wracked with religious upheaval. Her successor and sister, Mary, had attempted to reimpose Catholicism on their subjects. Elizabeth restored the Church of England but religious unrest continued to simmer for seventy years. It boiled over in 1605 when a dozen Catholic revolutionaries attempted to blow up King James I and his entire government.

Gunpowder Treason and Plot
The plan was simple—pack an abandoned coal cellar beneath Westminster with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder the opening day of Parliament, November 5, 1605. It was enough to level nearby Westminster Abbey and most of the buildings in the Old Palace complex. Everyone was scheduled to attend that day, including James I and members of the royal family. His children, however, would not be there. The conspirators planned to kidnap them and set up nine year old Princess Elizabeth as their puppet queen.

The man chosen to lay the charges and light the fuse was an explosives expert from York, Guy Fawkes. Fawkes had spent ten years fighting for the Catholic cause in the Dutch Revolt.
On November 4th he took to the cellar beneath Westminster and patiently awaited the dawn of what he believed would be a glorious Catholic coup.

Alerted to the plot by an anonymous letter, government officials searched Westminster and the buildings around it. They found Fawkes in the cellar guarding what looked like a pile of iron bars, stones and timber. When questioned, he claimed to be the servant of the man in whose name the cellar had been rented.

The officials went on with their search but came up empty-handed. Around midnight, they returned to Fawkes and discovered he had in his possession a tinder-box and a dark signal lantern. When they dug beneath the pile he guarded, they found the barrels of gunpowder.

Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London where a confession was tortured out of him. He eventually named his co-conspirators. They all were tried and executed in January, 1606.
Parliament subsequently decreed that parish churches conduct a thanksgiving service every November 5th. (The tradition lasted until 1859.) Given the association with gunpowder, as well as the closeness to the pagan fire festival of Samhain on November 1st, Guy Fawkes Night was soon marked with bonfires and fireworks.

During the week leading up to Bonfire Night, children constructed effigies of Guy Fawkes out of old straw-stuffed clothing. The effigies were then burned on the bonfire. Before the event, the children went around the community begging “a penny for the guy.” Money collected was spent on fireworks.

And what celebration could be complete without food? Bonfire Parkin—a cake made of oatmeal, molasses and ginger, and Bonfire/Plot Toffee became popular Guy Fawkes Night treats. But no Fireworks Night party was complete without the Englishman’s favorite—bangers (sausages) and potatoes roasted in the bonfire.

Today, every opening session of Parliament is preceded by a symbolic search of the basement by the Yeoman of the Guard. In 1834, fire damaged the actual cellar in which the gunpowder was discovered. The cellar was totally destroyed when Westminster was rebuild in 1840.

Please remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy, guy, guy
Poke him in the eye
Put him on the bonfire
And there let him die.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Jane Austen: Sleeping with the Saints

July 15th is St. Swithin’s day, the patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. He was bishop there at the time of his death in 862 A.D. Swithin was dedicated to the building of churches and bridges and spent much of his time on construction sites, visiting with the workers and local residents. On his deathbed, he requested burial in the churchyard rather than a cathedral crypt so that his body “might be subject to the feet of passers-by and to the raindrops pouring from on high.”

St. Swithin earned his reputation as a weather saint when his body was moved to a shrine inside the Cathedral on July 15, 971 A.D. This “translation” is said to have been delayed by rain which continued for forty days, giving rise to the saying:

St. Swithin’s day if thou does rain
For forty days it will remain
St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair
For forty days will rain no more

Swithin is also the patron saint of apple growers. Rain on St. Swithin’s Day is said to be a blessing on the crop. Tradition states no apples should be picked or eaten before July 15th.
Winchester Cathedral
Many early Saxon kings and clergymen are buried in Winchester Cathedral. The Viking conqueror Canute and his wife Emma are there, along with William I, son of William the Conqueror. Izaak Walton lies in the Fishermen’s Chapel. But by far the most well-known is Jane Austen.

In May,1817, Ms. Austen was so ill she took up residence at No. 8 College Street in the city of Winchester so she could be near her doctor. She died in her sister Cassandra’s arms in the early hours of July 18, 1817. Her body was interred in the Cathedral’s north aisle just before prayers on July 24th. Austen’s stone reads:
In Memory of
youngest daughter of the late
formerly Rector of Steventon in this County
She departed this Life on the 18th of July1817,
aged 41, after a long illness supported with
the patience and hopes of a Christian.

The benevolence of her heart,
the sweetness of her temper, and
the extraordinary endowments of her mind
obtained the regard of all who knew her and
the warmest love of her intimate connections.
Their grief is in proportion to their affection
they know their loss to be irreparable,
but in their deepest affliction they are consoled
by a firm though humble hope that her charity,
devotion, faith and purity have rendered
her soul acceptable in the
sight of her

Adjacent to her grave is a brass memorial plaque erected by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, from the proceeds of his Memoir of Jane Austen. The Jane Austen Society sees to it fresh flowers are place there every week.
-->Jane Austen
known to many by her
writings, endeared to
her family by the
varied charms of her
Character, and ennobled
by Christian Faith
and Piety, was born
at Steventon in the
county of Hants, Dec.
xvi mdcclxxv and buried
in this Cathedral
July xxiv mdcccxvii
“She openth her
mouth with wisdom
and in her tongue is
the law of kindness.”
Prob xxxi xxvi

There is much speculation about why Ms. Austen wasn’t buried in Steventon or her beloved Chawton, but in Winchester Cathedral--an honor afforded only the most important personages. Clearly, from the wording of her headstone, she'd not yet achieved notoriety as the great author we know her to be today. In a February 22, 2003 article for the Jane Austen Society of Australia (Jane Austen and Winchester Cathedral), Paul Henningham postulates she was interred there because anyone who died within the Cathedral Close had a right to be. (The “close” is the buildings attached or appended to a church. In this case, the Winchester Cathedral precinct wall ran along the north side of College Street.) Ms. Austen’s brother Henry had recently undergone his ordination exam and likely petitioned the Bishop. In addition, Jane’s friend Elizabeth Heathcote, (widow of the Rev. William Heathcote, a Cathedral Canon) also lobbied to have her buried there.
Perhaps the reason they wanted Jane buried there was because her parents were married at "old" St. Swithin's in Bath in 1764, and her father was buried at "new" St. Swithin's in 1805. It must have seemed like Providence when she passed away under the auspices of St. Swithin in Winchester.
Ms. Austen was the last person interred in the Cathedral because of a rising water table.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Another Winning Historical from Sandra Sookoo

Today I am deviating from my normal posts about British customs and holidays to welcome romantic fiction writer, Sandra Sookoo. Sandi stopped by for a visit and I am thrilled, not only because she is a fellow historical author and Classic Romance Revival member, but also a Hoosier!

Sandra’s portfolio includes historical, contemporary, and paranormal romances. She has recently embarked on writing mysteries. Just like the heroines in her books, she uses sarcastic wit and humor to make people laugh.

When not immersed in creating new worlds and interesting characters, Sandra likes to read and travel. Her favorite place to spend vacation hours is Walt Disney World. It’s where dreams come true and that suits her just fine. Writing is her ultimate dream job.

Welcome, Sandi!

Thank you so much for taking the time out of your own busy schedule to interview me. I appreciate it.

Your book, Winner Takes All (Desert Breeze Publishing) is set in Indianapolis during the early 1900s:

Lily Henderson’s greatest passion is knowledge. Christopher Farnsworth thrives on order and decorum. But Lily’s penchant for Suffragette rallies and logical reasoning soon clash with Christopher’s quiet, controlled ex-military lifestyle over a bowl of potato soup.
The two agree to a wager and love is the intended outcome. The premise? A suitable match by Easter. If he loses, he’ll attend Easter church services dressed in one of his aunt’s outrageously colored and beaded gowns. If she loses, she’ll ride, Lady Godiva-style, around the heart of Indianapolis.
The problem is neither Christopher nor Lily can find matches as good as themselves. Romantic sabotage is the order of the day. The original wager is forgotten when the only thing the pair gamble with is their hearts.

What was your inspiration for Winner Takes All? How did you come up with the idea?

My inspiration for the book was the product of watching too many romantic comedies. I love the idea of a couple being thrown together under trying circumstances and having to relate to each other even though the initial meeting is less than ideal. The idea came to me during the Halloween season last year as I wracked my brain for something to write about for the NaNo project in November. The opening scene with the missing engagement ring originally belonged to Lily but at the last moment as the book took shape, I changed it to her best friend.

What kind of research did you have to do?

I'm always careful about doing research before a project, even if that project is not a historical novel. I do alot of pre-lim research online and in books. If I'm still uncertain about an event or place, I lean on the great people at the Indiana Historical Society. I can email them with my question, and they get back with me in a few days with all sorts of information. I'm really grateful for their help.

What did you learn during that research?

One of the most fascinating things I dug up was that the city of Indianapolis had segregated hotels, even though African-Americans were allowed to fight for their country in the military. I wanted to be sure and make one of my supporting characters, Hodgins, a strong, self-confident person in his own right even though he faced huge odds during that time in history. The rest of my characters may be taking great literary liberties with how accepting of him they are, but I firmly believe that throughout history, there were people who flaunted the rules and used their brains to form opinions for themselves.

Did you research change your initial ideas about the book?

No, but it did solidify my love of the Indianapolis area. Rich in history, the residents of the early 20th century were really movers and shakers that formed a strong groundwork for the city I now call home. Touring the city's historical landmarks makes me appreciate those who came before to inspire me and give me a great backdrop for my stories.

Did you base Christopher and Lily on real people?

Christopher and Lily are not based on real people. I try not to do that if I can get around it. Why? Because it complicates my already complicated life and I don't like to have a fixed image of what a character might look like since the image is not who the character is. I've only done it one time in the history of my writing, and really, I doubt if I'll do it again. I may base a certain gesture or speech pattern, but that's about it.

What are you working on now?

I'm currently working on another historical novel, and yes it's set in Indianapolis in 1900. However, this one will have a bit of a paranormal twist, and no, you can't have a hint. Don't want to give too much away up front.

Thanks again for stopping by, Sandi!

Be sure to check out her website.

And now for an excerpt from Winner Takes All:

“I’d be willing to wager I can find you a suitable husband by Easter.”
She spun around so quickly her skirt twisted about her legs. “I beg your pardon?”
The man stood and made certain all eyes were on him before he continued. “I’d be willing to take any wager that says I can match you with the perfect man by the Easter holiday, six weeks from now.” He downed the last of his wine then rested the empty glass on the table. “I just assumed your problem regarding men is the simple fact you can’t find one good enough, but now I realize the problem also rests in your attitude.” He shrugged, a wicked gleam in his eyes. “Why not let me take that anxiety from you and do the dirty work.”
She frowned. “What does that mean?” She didn’t like the intense way his eyes held hers. It made her insides warm and faint tremors dance through her stomach, and reminded her of when she was a child and would swing on a rope from a tree limb in their yard. She glanced at Samantha, but from the amused half-smile on her friend’s lips, Lily knew she wouldn’t get much help in that quarter.
Christopher flicked an invisible piece of lint from his immaculate black suit coat. “Let me interview a few men, find their strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes. I’ll put them through a screening process and once they pass the test, you can have a few outings with them.” He flashed a confident smile to her parents. “By Easter, I’m certain one of them will be to your liking.”
She lifted a brow. “You must have a high opinion of yourself to think I’d accept any man you endorsed. And I might remind you I’m not looking for a mate.”

Winner Takes All purchase links:

Desert Breeze Publishing

All Romance eBooks

Monday, June 1, 2009

Historic Preservation: Safeguarding Scenes from the Past

This month I’m doing something different. As a participant in Classic Romance Revival’s blog carnival, I’m supposed to address the topic, Settings: Simply Scenic or Something Significant? (be sure to visit CRR blog carnival central June 5-13th.)But, like my website, this blog is devoted to history so I thought I’d approach the subject of setting from a different angle—that of historic preservation.

Those who love learning about the past are natural advocates of historic preservation. Whether collecting antiques or snapping photos, we all are engaged in preserving scenes from the past. Too many of those scenes, however, have disappeared, or are about to. Check out efforts to save Hougoumont Farm at historic Waterloo Battlefield in Belgium. And the struggle to protect Little Green Street in London--one of the last Georgian neighborhoods of that great city. (Structures along this seven foot wide cobblestone lane survived the Blitz of WWII but now are threatened by construction trucks that will quite literally will pass inches from the front doors of houses built in the 1780s.)

I was particularly saddened by the destruction of the Cutty Sark in 2007. Six years before this tea clipper ship caught fire, I was lucky to tour it while visiting London. Fortunately, most of the bow and stern portions of the ship survived. The good news is that the sixty figureheads on display had been removed because of ongoing restoration work.

The Cutty Sark was built in 1869 and dry-docked in Greenwich as a museum in 1954. “Cutty sark” is a Scots term for chemise. It’s the nickname of the witch Nannie Dee in Robert Burn’s poem
Tam o’Shanter.

To the right is a photo of the ship’s figurehead. The linen draped below Nan’s breasts is the “cutty sark.” She’s holding the tail of Tam’s horse which came off in her hand as she pursued him.

Click here to learn more about the Cutty Sark Conservation Project

Best-selling author David McCullough postulates that history is about who we are and why we are the way we are. He says: The pull, the attraction of history, is in our human nature…history ought to be a source of pleasure…it's an enlargement of the experience of being alive…

Preserving scenes from the past—whether in the physical sense or through the written word—is how we ensure that experience for future generations.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Bel's Fire and Little Green Men

Beltane, May 1st, is a cross-quarter day on the Celtic calendar. That means is lies halfway between a solstice and an equinox. The Celts divided the year in two—Samhain marked the start of winter and the new year, while Beltane denoted the beginning of summer.

The festival is named for Bel, the Celtic god of heat and healing springs. Known as "The Shining One" because of his association with the sun, fire is Bel's sign. To the Welsh, he was also the god of cattle and sheep. Animals were driven between Beltane fires in a ritual of purification prior to their release into summer pasture.

Like most cultures, the Saxons began their May Day games and feasting the evening of April 30th. Torch bearers wound up mountain paths and ignited wooden wheels which they then rolled down into the fields, symbolizing the cyclical nature of life.

In Scotland and Wales, branches and trunks of trees were piled in the center of a sacred circle. "Heavenly fire" was ignited by rubbing two pieces of wood together. Fire brands were distributed to rekindle household hearths that had been extinguished prior to the celebration. Ashes from Beltane fires were kept for luck.

Ritual sacrifice seems to have once been a part of Beltane observance. In Wales and Scotland, an oatcake was divided into equal parts and one piece blackened. All were then placed in a container and every man drew a piece. The fellow with the blackened bit had to jump through the fire three times, or pass between two ritual fires, to assure healthy animals and a bountiful harvest.

In England, villagers went into the woods at midnight on April 30th to gather branches and flowers. At dawn, everything was dragged back to town. Of the girls who went "a-maying," Stubbs in his 1585 Anatomie of Abuses says, "scarcely a thirde parte of them returned home againe undefiled." Licentiousness has always been a hallmark of May Day in an echo of ancient fertility rituals.

Houses and gates were decked with flowers. Girls washed their faced with May dew in the belief it had the power to restore beauty and remove freckles. (This practice may be an outgrowth of Bel's association with sacred wells, the waters of which were believed to possess healing powers.)

In addition to Bel, there are several other gods and goddesses associated with May Day. In France, Abelio was the god of green growing things. The Greeks called him Abelios. The Romans honored Flora, the goddess of flowers and vegetation in a celebration held between April 28th and May 3rd. Theatrical presentations, games, dancing and lascivious behavior marked the festival. Floral wreaths garlanded animals and were worn in the hair. Offerings of milk and honey were made to Flora.

The Romans also venerated Maia Maiestas (Maia the Majestic), goddess of spring, warmth and increase. Pregnant sows were sacrificed to her on the first day of May. It is for Maia the month was named.

The Virgin Mary and Lady of the May/May Queen
As was its wont with pagan holidays, the Catholic Church appropriated May Day for its own. On May 1st, statues of the Virgin Mary were crowned with floral wreaths. Nevertheless, the old ways persisted.

A May queen--usually a virgin dressed in white—was chosen to preside over the celebration. As a stand-in for the goddess, the May queen represented life, rebirth and fertility.

Lord of the May: Cerrunos/Robin Goodfellow/Hood
Cerrunos, the Celtic horned god of fertility, life and animals, is associated with Beltane. Over time, his name was shortened to Cerne, the "c" softened and changed to "h," until he became Herne. Cerrunos/Herne is depicted wearing the antlers of a stag. Born on the winter solstice, he marries the goddess on Beltane and dies at the summer solstice.

Because of the horns, Christians equated Herne with devil. He morphed into the character of Robin Goodfellow—a Puck-like nature sprite likely taken from the Greek god, Pan. The earliest known references to Robin Goodfellow are from the 16th century. He is immortalized by Shakespeare in A Midsummer's Night Dream.

It is from Robin Goodfellow that stories of Robin Hood were spawned. Reenactments of these tales became an important aspect of the May Day tradition. It is interesting to note the earliest references to Maid Marian didn't appeared until 1280 in a French romance entitled Jeu du Robin et Marion. In this story, Robin is a shepherd and Marian a shepherdess.

No symbol of May Day is more blatantly sexual that the maypole. Traditionally the trunk of a tall birch or ash, villages vied to erect the tallest. Decorated with leaves, wildflowers and ribbons, revelers sang and danced around this phallic symbol. Often, it stood permanently on the village green.

"The tallest maypole is said to have been erected in London on the Strand in 1661; it stood over 143 feet high. It was felled in 1717, when it was used by Isaac Newton to support Huygen's new reflecting telescope." (British Life and Culture: Project Britain)

To the Celts, trees were sacred. Each of the thirteen months of their calendar was identified with a specific kind and god. It is interesting to note that, in France during the revolution, the maypole became the Tree of Liberty.

Jack in the Green/Green Man
As a May Day character, Jack in the Green didn't become popular until the 18th & 19th century. A man would dress in pyramid of green foliage and, accompanied by musicians, make his way to a place where he was ritually put to death.

Likely he is personification of the Welsh god Gwrddni, which translates as "verdure"—a reference to the greenness of vegetation. The Romans in Britain called him Viridios/Viridius.

To the Celts, he was Cylenchar, "the hidden one," son of the goddess of birth and renewal and the god of life and death. He is depicted with vines growing out of his mouth.

2nd century images of this god have been found in Lebanon and Iraq. His likeness appeared in 8th century Jain temples and was carved in Templar churches in Jerusalem during 11th century. Labeled the "Green Man' in the 19th century, his customs can be found in Africa, India. His image is seen in Moslem and Buddhist temples, even in pre-Columbian temples in Mexico.

There is disagreement over why early Christians included such pagan images in their architecture. The Green Man is often paired with the likeness of Sheela-Na-Gig, a pagan mother goddess. Perhaps the masons who built the early churches thought to cover all bets as they transitioned from the old ways to the new religion.

Some believe Green Man representations are symbols of the divine presence in nature. Others think his image is more autumnal than vernal, signifying the sin of lustfulness and death—the devil. Exeter Cathedral is filled with Green Man imagery. A mask of the Green Man dating to 50 B.C. was discovered in France in the late 19th century.

May Day celebrations have been alternately outlawed and reinstated throughout British history. The Calvinists in Scotland banned them in 1555. Parliament prohibited maypoles in 1644 as a "heathenish vanity". When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, maypoles reappeared as a demonstration of loyalty to the Crown.

During the Victorian period, Britain witnessed a nostalgic return to the days of "merrie olde England." May Day was stripped of its blatantly sexual overtones and became a day for frolic. Milk maids dressed in their finest and stacked ribbon and flower-adorned metal cooking utensils atop their heads. Accompanied by bagpipes or a fiddler, they went from door to door dancing, singing and begging money from their customers. Chimney sweeps smeared their faces with brick dust and, pounding coal shovels with their brushes, capered about.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Siamese Twins, Bottle Kicking and Heaving Day -- More British Easter Traditions

The custom of bequeathing money for the feeding of the poor was a common one in early England. Lenten doles were especially prevalent. Two of the more unusual ones occurred in Biddenden, Kent and Hallaton, Leicestershire.

The Biddenden Dole

According to legend, Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst were Siamese twins born in 1100 A.D. at Biddenden, Kent. Joined at the hip and shoulder, they are said to have lived to the ripe old age of 34. When they died, they bequeathed to charity twenty acres called the Bread and Cheese Lands. Rents from this farmland were to be applied toward feeding the poor.

On Easter Monday every year, local widows were given a loaf of bread, a pound of cheese and some beer. (During the Victoria Era, a pound of tea was substituted for the beer.) And everyone in the village received a rock-hard biscuit onto which was stamped the twins’ likeness.

These so-called Biddenden Cakes didn’t begin appearing until around 1740, so this part of the story seems doubtful. And according to historian Edward Hasted, the true benefactors were two maiden ladies by the name of Preston. Documentation does indicate the charity has existed since the mid-1500s. It’s believed a family by the name of Chalkers originally owned the Bread and Cheese Lands (Chalkers sounds very much like Chulkurst when spoken). However, no record of the Biddenden Maids--Eliza and Mary Chalkers/Chulkhurst--has been found.

Hare Scramble and Bottle Kicking

Hallaton’s “bottle kicking” custom is believed to date from at least 1770. According to legend, two women were saved from a raging bull when a hare darted across its path. In thanks, the ladies donated a piece of land to the church with the proviso that, every Easter Monday, the rector would provide “hare” pies, ale and bread to the village poor out of the money generated from the lease of the land.

The food was blessed in church, then paraded through the village after which the pies and bread were broken up and thrown to the crowd. The “bottle-kicking” custom may have come into being as people scrambled for the food and bottles of ale. At some point, the bottle kicking moved to Hare Pie Bank about a quarter mile south of town. Men from the villages of Hallaton and nearby Medbourne would gather there to tussle over possession of a large bottle of ale.

The object for the Medbourne lads was to kick the bottle across the boundary between the two villages, and for the Hallaton fellows to keep it on their side of the line. The winning team got to drink the ale. Over time, as the number of participants increased, a keg (or two, then three) was substituted. The kegs are still referred to as “bottles.”

There is some question about the origins of this tradition. The name of the land donated was Hare Crop Leys which refers to a fallow piece of land with tall grass, suitable habitat for hares. Another telling fact is that hares are out of season at Easter. The “hare” pies distributed in Hallaton actually are made of beef or mutton. Are they called “hare pies” after the donated land? Check out this YouTube video of modern day “bottle kicking” in Hallaton.

Heaving/Lifting Day

This bizarre custom is said to have originated in pagan times as a parody of the rising spring sun. In more modern times, it’s claimed to represent the resurrection of Christ. Whatever its roots, until the 1890s women were “lifted” on Easter Monday, and men were “heaved” the following day. This was done by means of a chair or by clasping wrists and improvising a seat. The luckless person thus captured was heaved skyward three times amid loud cheers. She/he had to pay a forfeit (a kiss or a sixpence fine) for “leave and license to depart.”

The practice is recorded as far back as Edward I’s reign (1290) when seven of Queen Eleanor’s ladies invaded the king’s bedchamber, tossed him into a chair and didn’t set him down until he paid them a fine of fourteen pounds.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

April 1st -- Feast of Fools

The origins of April Fools Day are obscure. In France during the Middle Ages, they celebrated Festus Fatuorum – Feast of Fools. These festivities centered mostly on parodies of church rituals and the election of a mock pope. But fools or jesters—the Medieval equivalent of stand-up comedians—were extremely popular and easily identified by their multicolored costumes, horned hats and scepters.

One controversial theory is that April Fools Day developed because of the switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar in France in the late 16th century. As this story goes, communication was slow and it took some time for news of the change to get out. People who hadn't heard or refused to accept the change became known as April Fools. (The eight-day new year's celebration was said to begin on March 25th and culminate on April 1st under the old calendar.)

None of this explains how the observation of April Fools Day came to England.

Perhaps Brits continued to follow a tradition brought by the Romans. Rome celebrated the festival of Hilaria around the Vernal Equinox in late March, when the Saxons honored Eostre, the goddess of fertility. Hilaria commemorated the death and resurrection of Attis, son and lover of the Roman mother goddess, Cybele.

Romans donned disguises and imitated whomever they liked during Hilaria. Universal licentiousness was the rule, much the way Mardi Gras is today. As a result, the word hilaria (from the Latin hilaris which means cheerful. and the Greek hilaros which means glad) came to refer to any festival of rejoicing.

April Fools Pranks

In France, paper fishes are stuck on the backs of hapless victims on April 1st. No one knows for sure why. It may be a reference to fish hatchlings which are easily caught in early spring. Whatever the origins, victims with a paper fish on their backs are referred to as Poisson d'Avril—April Fish.

It's interesting to note that when Napoleon married Marie-Louise of Austria, he was given the moniker Poisson d'Avril. Perhaps because everyone thought him a foolish old man for marrying someone so much younger? Napoleon was forty-one and Marie-Louise nineteen. Whatever the reason, French children used to sing:

Napoleon, Napoleon,
We thought you were a nice Italian dish!
Instead we have discovered that you are a small April fish!
Throw him back, since May will get hotter!
But wherever you throw him, don't drink the water!

Hunting the Gowk is a popular April Fools pastime in Scotland. Its US equivalent is "snipe hunting". Gowk is the Scottish name for cuckoo, a bird associated with simplemindedness and tom foolery. Thus "hunting the gowk" is to send someone on a fool's errand.

The Scottish Tailie/Taily Day on April 2nd is similar to the French Poisson d'Avril, only this prank focuses on the backside. Paper tails are attached to victims' rears, much like pinning the tail on the donkey. From this tradition comes the expressions "butt of the joke." The "kick me" sign is also attributed to the Scots.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, a popular English prank was to invite gobemouches (literally, a kind of flycatcher. The word was eventually anglicanized to "gobby" which means someone who is gullible or foolish) to come watch the washing the lions at the Tower of London. No such activity occurred, although wardens there often received gratuities from individuals who wished to see the white bears fed.

In England, jokes are played the morning of April 1st because it's thought to be unlucky to prank in the afternoon.

Village of Fools

At least forty-five communities in England lay claim to being a "village of fools." But only one was immortalized in a 16th century chapbook—Gotham. Under the reign of King John, the English population was taxed close to starvation. Folks did everything they could to hide their wealth from his collectors.

As the story goes, King John was approaching Gotham with his entourage. At that time, any road traveled by the king became a public one. Local towns and villages were taxed to maintain it. To keep the king away, Gotham villagers feigned madness. (In the 13th century, insanity was believed to be contagious.) King John changed his route to avoid contracting the disease.

In another tale, King John planned to build a castle or lodge near Gotham. This would have restricted use of the local forests for wood and game. So the villagers pretended they were crazy and their monarch went elsewhere.