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.