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Subject: ‘Customs’

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The Dunmow Flitch – an Essex custom revived by a C19 novelist

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History on Friday, 14 March 2014

This edited article about English customs first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 589 published on 28 April 1973.

Dunmow Flitch custom,  picture, image, illustration
Thomas and Ann Shakeshaft claiming the Flitch of Bacon

The year 1855 is important in the history of Dunmow in Essex. On 19th July, 1855 the ancient tradition of the Dunmow Flitch was revived after lying forgotten for over one hundred years.

William Harrison Ainsworth, a Victorian novelist and author of “The Flitch of Bacon,” a story about the romantic adventures of the landlord of the local tavern and his attempts to win the flitch, was the chief advocate for the rebirth of the custom in which a side, or “flitch,” of bacon is awarded to any man and woman who can swear “a year and a day after their marriage that during that time they had never once offended each other in deed or word, or ever wished themselves unmarried again.”

Originally the prize could only be claimed by a man. The first recorded prizewinner was Richard Wright of Bradbury, Norfolk who won the bacon in 1445. It is, however, believed that the custom dates from 1104 when Lady Juga Baynard founded the Augustinian Priory of Little Dunmow. The successful claimant was carried through the village on the carved oak chair of the prior. The chair is no longer used but it can still be seen in the chancel of the village church which was originally part of the priory.

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Saint Boniface gave pagans the first Christmas tree

Posted in Christmas, Customs, Historical articles, History, Religion, Saints on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about Saint Boniface first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.

Saint Boniface,  picture, image, illustration
Saint Boniface, Saxon Missionary, shown cutting down "Thunderer's Oak" which was sacred to the god Woden, by Michael Godfrey

There is no doubt that many of the customs which we observe around Christmas time belong to religions that are much older than Christianity. In the bleak northern lands, from which so many of our ancestors came, Midwinter’s Day, which falls in the same week as our Christmas, was always a time of strange rites and festivities. Some say that it is from the old Norse legends that the popular figure of Father Christmas comes, for he is really a memory of the old god Woton (who we also remember in “Wednesday” – Woton’s day) driving across the winter storm clouds in his sleigh! The decoration of the house with evergreens, the lighting of candles, the burning of the yule log, are all signs of the promise of the returning Spring, and the hope of longer days of sunshine.

All this has since been linked up with our Christmas festivity, and is as harmless and enjoyable today as it was long ago. But these old pagan religions had a darker side which, happily, we have long since abandoned. In very ancient times people had the idea that the gods and goddesses who controlled such vital things as the sun and rain, thunder and lightning, or a successful harvest, were often jealous and angry. They had to be soothed and coaxed, and even fed with delicacies, and the best way of doing this was by offering them sacrifices. Of the offerings made to the gods, the most terrible of all was that of living people, for there were some who believed that only the death of a human person was enough to win the favour of these terrible forces. Many a family must have gone in terror of losing one of its members in this way, through the mistaken demands of their priests and rulers.

Human sacrifice lasted far longer in Northern Europe than it did in the lands to which Christianity had spread. Not much more than a thousand years ago it was still being practised in parts of Scandinavia and Germany. These were still wild, uncivilised lands, which neither the law of the Roman empire nor the influence of the Christian religion had yet reached.

It was no wonder that the bravest of men hesitated when they were asked to go to such places and preach the Christian message of peace and love. It was left in the end to an Englishman from Devon to make the “breakthrough.” Born at Crediton in about 680 A.D., his original name was Wynfrith. “Boniface” was a nickname, and had nothing to do with his appearance; it is the Latin for “doer of good.”

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Father Christmas receives thousands of letters from children

Posted in Christmas, Customs on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about Christmas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.

Victorian Christmas Card,  picture, image, illustration
Victorian children posting letters to Father Christmas

“Dere Santa Claus, please could you bring me a pram for my doll Patsy, what you brort me last Krismas. She is growing now, and I can hardly carry her.”

That letter was just one among the many thousands addressed to Father Christmas last December. Indeed, the immense amount of mail handled by post offices all over the world, just before Yuletide, invariably includes a substantial number of requests intended for him.

Bearing such fanciful addresses as Icicle Palace, Fairyland, Reindeer House, or Toyland, as well as less imaginary places like the North Pole, Greenland, Lapland, or Eskimoland, the correspondence comes from children who are not content with the old custom of calling to him up the chimney. Instead they write to him, describing the gifts they would like him to bring on Christmas Eve, and then pop the letter into a postbox.

The London headquarters of Britain’s postal service alone deals with about 10,000 such items each Christmas. They are even more widely known in the U.S.A., and the post office regulations there include definite instructions for dealing with Father Christmas’s fan mail.

All these letters are opened and read. Any which indicate poverty are handed to charities founded for its relief. Private benefactors, as well as members of the charities, are asked to assume the role of Santa, ensuring that no needy child writing to him shall have its hopes go unanswered.

Altogether, about 250,000 requests of this sort are found in the mail throughout America each December. A separate section of the postal laws requires every postmaster in the country to take all due care of the correspondence, and to see that it is dealt with in the way just described.

In other words, every postmaster in the U.S.A. is an official agent of Santa Claus, and no matter what the address on a letter intended for him, delivery is usually effected.

In Britain, the fate of Father Christmas missives depends on whether they bear the sender’s address or not. If they do, they are returned as “undeliverable.”

The remainder are usually destroyed, but this doesn’t mean that the post office staff are heartless. When an exceptionally pathetic letter to Santa Claus has been opened, postal workers have jointly bought the wanted gift and delivered it with a note “from Santa,” if the child has quoted his or her address.

Returned letters often achieve their purpose, too, for in this way parents are made aware of the present which will give the most delight.

Correspondence addressed to Father Christmas sometimes contains advice to help him. One young “fan” feared that Santa might enter the wrong chimney, so a carefully drawn picture of the house roof was enclosed, with an arrow pointing to the correct one!

Another thoughtful boy finished his letter with a little sum showing clearly the total cost of the presents he wanted.

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The American professor who reinvented a jolly Santa Claus

Posted in America, Christmas, Customs, Historical articles, History, Literature, Saints on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about Christmas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.

Dr Clement Moore,  picture, image, illustration
Dr Clement Moore reading his Christmas poem to his children

Yuletide without Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, as we often call him, would be a sorry festival indeed. Many people believe that this famous character is named after Saint Nicholas, who was born in Patara, Asia Minor, and who became Bishop of Myra, in Turkey, 16 centuries ago.

His generosity was renowned, and he travelled widely distributing gifts to the poor without revealing his identity.

The best-known of these missions was the occasion when he dropped three bags of gold down the chimney of a peasant’s hut, to provide a wedding dowry for each of three daughters living there, thus enabling them to marry.

Yet this is only a part of the Santa Claus story. In fact the Father Christmas of today differs considerably from the Santa Claus of old.

Only in comparatively recent, times has he assumed the jolly appearance he displays nowadays. For centuries he was represented as a staid old gentleman who handed out Christmas presents in the manner of a guest-speaker at a school prize-giving event.

He had no reindeer or sleigh to take him on his round on Christmas Eve, and did not live in the Frozen North.

Oddly enough it was an American professor who “re-made” Santa and to whom the whole world is indebted for transforming him into a jovial, red-cloaked character beloved by countless children.

It was in 1822 that Dr Clement C. Moore, of Columbia University, New York, set out in a horsedrawn sleigh to deliver Christmas presents to friends around the snow-covered city.

As he drove through the crisp night air, he recalled that his nine children had long clamoured for a poem about Saint Nicholas, and by the time he reached home again he had mentally composed a string of verses beginning:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.
In hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.

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The magic ritual of bringing in the Yule log

Posted in Christmas, Customs, Historical articles, History, Religion on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about Christmas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.

Bringing in the Yule Log,  picture, image, illustration
Bringing in the Yule Log by Angus McBride

The Elizabethan household had, for months, seen a bustling team of servants busily preparing for the forthcoming festivities. Huge quantities of food and drink had been brought into the house to be stored up for all the feasting that was to take place. Joints of beef and venison, peacocks, geese, swans and capons, cakes and sweetmeats had been carefully prepared and cooked by worried-looking cooks, anxious to make a perfect feast.

Giggling, excited housemaids had collected holly, ivy, rosemary, firs and laurels in bundlefuls and had decorated the main rooms of the house with them.

Now, after the seemingly endless list of preparations, Christmas Eve had arrived, and all was ready to start the celebrations. As darkness fell, the housemaid kindled a fire in the open hearth, and the master, mistress, their children, and all the servants assembled in the main hall. It was time to go out into the forest and collect the huge tree trunk that had been cut the previous winter and left to season in the sun. They had selected the largest piece of wood that the huge hearth could accommodate. Suddenly, as the team of servants went out of the house, everyone felt that the excitement and rejoicing of Christmas time had truly begun.

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Ancient customs and modern laws co-exist in Britain

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Institutions, Law on Wednesday, 19 February 2014

This edited article about the British legal system first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 558 published on 23 September 1972.

Peter de Sibley,  picture, image, illustration
Peter de Sibley had to wade into the sea in search of a ship as proof of the fact that he was serious in his attempt to leave the country, in accordance with the coroner's instructions, by Angus McBride

Peter de Sibley ran until his lungs were bursting and his breath came in a series of choking gasps. His legs began to feel like lead weights but still he forced himself to stagger on for the noise of his pursuers was never far behind and he was running for his life. At last he reached the great Abbey church and, flinging himself at the great oaken door he pounded against it until the bolts were drawn back and he was confronted by a grave-faced monk. Peter had only just time to whisper “I seek sanctuary” before the motley crowd of soldiers and spectators also reached the church door. But he was just in time, for now the monk and the full authority of the Church stood between him and his pursuers. Making the sign of the cross the monk stood firmly between the hunters and the hunted and, for a time at least, Peter de Sibley was safe.

Over six hundred years later three children were fishing in a brook near Ormskirk in Lancashire. The fish were uninterested in their bait and so they turned their attention to the stream bed. One large stone seemed strongly bedded-in but when at last they managed to overturn it the effort had been well worth while. For underneath lay a hoard of Roman coins – 100 silver denarii – worth thousands of pounds and now kept safely in a museum.

The link between Peter de Sibley’s escape and the hoard of treasure-trove discovered so much later is the Coroner, an ancient law-officer whose duties certainly date back from before 1200 A.D. and whose Courts still exist today. Her Majesty’s Coroners have a strange and colourful history and even now they help to administer the law of the land in their own particular way.

For Peter de Sibley, like many others in medieval times, the sanctuary he had obtained would only give him temporary respite. He had thirty days in which to confess his crimes, or face a number of alternatives. In the days when the power of the Church was even greater than the power of the King pursuers would not normally dare to cross the threshold of the church, but they could (and often did) besiege the place until he surrendered or was starved. In the meantime, the Coroner would explain that he could either stand trial or abjure the realm and the offender would have to make his choice.

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The macabre theatre of a Victorian family funeral

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Religion on Monday, 17 February 2014

This edited article about the Victorians first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 555 published on 2 September 1972.

Victorian funeral,  picture, image, illustration
A Victorian family funeral by Peter Jackson

In the eyes of the 19th Century every decent person was not only very surely destined for Heaven, but must be seen by one and all to take the first stage of the journey with sombre pomp and circumstance. The Victorian funeral was the biggest and gloomiest show which could possibly be put on for the money. It was said in the 1850s to cost £100 to bury a tradesman, £250 for a gentleman and at least £500 for a nobleman. For the Duke of Wellington, whose cortege was the greatest which London has ever seen, greater, even than that of Queen Victoria, the cost was estimated at £20,000. In 1852 that was real money in the pockets of the rapidly expanding profession of “Undertaking.”

The Victorian funeral, and all that went with it, was the family’s final expression of piety and respectability. Even the poor of the land began, as soon as they were earning, to subscribe to the “Funeral Club,” which assured them of a good show at the end with at least a pair of black-plumed horses, a richly carved, glass-sided hearse, mourning clothes and mourning carriages. To be seen to be hand-hauled to a pauper’s grave was the ultimate shame.

As to the last resting places of the middle-classes they are to be seen less in village, or small-town churchyards, than in the vast cemeteries which came into being in and around the expanding cities. The prudent Victorian of means lost no time in purchasing a “plot” to contain himself and as many of his family as he could afford. The wealthier the citizen the larger and more elaborate were his preparations. Graves were one thing, capacious Vaults one better. Best of all was an above-ground Mausoleum with marble columns, double-doors and interior shelving or niches to accommodate several generations of the family.

It was the heyday of the Monumental Masons. Marble angels kneeled weeping over the mortal remains of wealthy manufacturers, or stood upright with outspread wings. Broken columns were very popular, together with urns and weeping chubby cherubs. All beneath them were destined for Heaven, and “Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me” was carved again and again, for little children were frequently carried off by “the consumption.”

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The public and hidden world of Marrakesh

Posted in Africa, Customs, Dance, Historical articles, History, Religion on Monday, 3 February 2014

This edited article about Marrakesh first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 538 published on 6 May 1972.

Marrakesh,  picture, image, illustration
Marrakesh by Ron Embleton

In the market square of Marrakesh, tourists stare in amazement at the dancers and snake-charmers and buy hand-made souvenirs of leather and brass in the market stalls. Yet, in the narrow alleyways and behind the closed doors of this Moroccan city is a strange way of life which is hidden from the visitors’ eyes.

The dancers spin around on their toes and leap into the air. Faster and faster they dance, and their white robes fly out in all directions. The clash of iron cymbals and the insistent beat of the drum become louder and louder. One by one the dancers fall exhausted to the sand and lie there motionless.

These are the “gnaous,” black dancers from Central Africa. In another part of the immense square a young girl is dancing to the beat of a “guedra,” a drum made from a pottery vase with goatskin stretched over its mouth. She is completely covered in a black robe and wears an enormous shawl of brilliant blue.

In yet another part of the square, a man with long hair wearing a long woollen robe or “djellaba” squats on the ground. A small crowd gathers and watches as he reaches into a basket and pulls out a cobra with his bare hands. The man and the snake stare at one another steadily for what seems like hours.

Now a solemn procession of four camels moves into the square. Sitting easily on the camels’ humps are Berber tribesmen who have arrived from the Sahara desert. They wear blue robes and curious black headscarves.

Approaching from another direction, two donkeys are trotting along side by side, linked together with ropes. On the back of one of the donkeys rides a shepherd from the nearby Atlas mountains. With one arm he taps at the donkey’s head with a short stick, with the other arm he holds a lamb. Hung over both the donkeys’ backs are empty wicker baskets. Soon these will be filled with supplies bought in the “souks” or small shopping centres in the main section of the city.

Two odd-looking men walk past us wearing gaily striped “djellabas” festooned with polished brass bowls. Over their shoulders are goatskin bags full to the brim with something which can at times fetch a high price in this part of the world – fresh drinking water.

This is just part of everyday life in the market square or “Jemaa El Fna,” which is “place of punishment” in the Arabic language. Here dreadful things would be done to people committing quite mild crimes many centuries ago. But today about the most severe punishment meted out might be a hearty slap on the rump of some ill-tempered camel!

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Anniversaries of great political events are popular public holidays

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Leisure, London, Royalty on Wednesday, 18 December 2013

This edited article about festive holidays first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 497 published on 24 July 1971.

The Restoration, picture, image, illustration
The Restoration of Charles II was greeted by joyful crowds in the streets of London by Richard Hook

Everyone, every so often, enjoys what we call “kicking over the traces.” It’s a thing which harnessed horses do when they get over-excited and feel a bit wild. It’s escape from routine. It’s freedom, and it’s fun – in moderation.

Probably the greatest nationwide “spree” ever enjoyed was the mood which followed the glum and gloomy years of Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. So-called “Merrie England” had the smile kicked off its face by the jackboots of the Puritan and Military Protectorate. “Never on Sunday” became never at all. No games, no plays, no music, no dancing, no sport of any kind. And then upon 29th May, 1660, the joy-bells rang out as King Charles the Second, returned from exile, rode into a jubilant London.

And what goings-on! The returned King, the “Merrie Monarch,” started up horse-racing on Newmarket Heath. The Palaces of Whitehall and Hampton Court were filled with a laughing, dancing new-style Court.

Britain, fiercely reacting from the five gloomy years, went boisterously gay. Assembly Rooms opened for dancing, clubs for dicing and card-playing. The theatres opened their doors to audiences ready to roar with laughter at the witty, saucy plays of the playwrights of the Restoration such as Wicherley, Congreve and Vanbrugh.

Nobody could have called the reign of Charles the Second a particularly wise or prudent one. But socially he restored the spirit of fun.

In Restoration days there would have been no room, and no need, for that topsy-turvy Carnival character known as the “Lord of Misrule.” He first appeared, as we know, in the ancient Roman Festivals, and for centuries afterwards literally lorded it over occasions when Church and Establishment took a back seat and tolerantly watched the populace go crazy.

The New Year “Feast of Fools” – very strong in France – was a colossal “send-up” of religion in general, and the Church in particular. Clergy were hustled from their stalls by masked buffoons, and the “Lord of Misrule,” impersonating a Bishop, would bawl forth irreverent sermons.

There was of course, a great deal of Morris Dancing. The origins of the “Morris” are a shade obscure, but some fancy it to be a corruption of “Moorish,” a dance which spread from Morocco towards England through Western Spain and Portugal, flourished, and still, flourishes, in the Basque country and found its firmest footing in England. Today Morris Dance Societies grow year by year. Every year towards midsummer Morris Men from all over England meet together in the old Essex town of Thaxted. They dance day-long through the surrounding villages, and upon the Saturday night, when every pub in Thaxted stays open late, they take over the main street and dance, and dance, and dance. The Fools are there, the hobby-horses, the jingling bells, the handkerchiefs, the clashing wooden staves. It is pagan, it is joyous, it is a liberation of modern man through rituals as old as time. The beer flows, the spectators line the street, the singing breaks out. It is, in fact, one enormous spree which comes to its end, as all good sprees should, in church!

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Roman Festivals inspired the musical tone poems of Respighi

Posted in Ancient History, Customs, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 18 December 2013

This edited article about Ancient Rome first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 496 published on 17 July 1971.

Roman festival, picture, image, illustration
Roman revelry at one of the city's many festivals by Richard Hook

It was the Romans who began it all. If we look through the Roman Calendar it seems as though life was almost one long spree, preparing for one “Roman Holiday,” enjoying it, recovering from it, and then getting ready for the next one.

The Roman “festivals” were invariably concerned with the agricultural seasons and the particular Gods or Goddesses who were presumed to watch over them with benevolence. Anything for a party, said the Romans, as during the “Floralia” they drank to Flora, Goddess of flowering and blossoming plants, and in the “Robigalia” they sought to appease a very strange Deity, indeed – Robigus, the Deity of mildew, especially that attacking wheat. Out of town rushed the Romans to sacred groves, carrying old pieces of dead dogs and sheep which they duly handed over to the officiating Priest who mixed them with incense and wine and threw the whole lot on the fire.

The “Parentalia” – nine days of it – was another festival with a solemn purpose which was easily turned into a long family and social party. The “Parentalia” was essentially to “appease the souls of your fathers,” and involved a lot of dashing around to graves with offerings of wine, milk, honey and oil, together with the gayest of flowers to make the tombs look jolly. Naturally enough, everyone going to one family grave bumped into everyone else going to other family graves. Duty to the family dead became duty to the dead in general, and it was laid down that a spirit of “mirth and good fellowship” between the living and the dead be the order of the nine days. In fact, a good time was had by all.

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