Category Archives: Folklore

Simnel Cakes

Simnel cakes have a long history. The 1799 edition of Johnson’s Dictionary gives the simple definition of ‘simnel’ as ‘A kind of sweet bread or cake’, but one of the earliest mentions is in the short poem by Robert Herrick, first published in 1648:

To Dianeme.

A Ceremonie in Glocester

I’le to thee a Simnel bring,

‘Gainst thou go’st a mothering:

So that when she blesseth thee,

Half that blessing thou‘lt give me.

The reference is to Mothering Sunday, which is traditionally the fourth Sunday in Lent, also known as Mid-Lent Sunday, Continue reading

Christmas Bells

CHRISTMAS BELLS

Images and customs

One of the perennial symbols of Christmas and New Year are church bells. Images of bells appear in Christmas card designs and as Christmas decorations, and the sound of bells forms part of many television and radio programmes (and, of course, advertising). For centuries, bells were sounded to welcome in Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and in 1824 the Gentleman’s Magazine reported the ringing of Christmas bells in Yorkshire:

‘Christmas-eve is, in Yorkshire, celebrated in a peculiar manner. At eight o’clock in the evening, the bells greet “old father Christmas” with a merry peal, the children parade the streets with drums, trumpets, bells, or perhaps, in their absence, with the poker and shovel, taken from their humble cottage fire; the Yule candle is lighted.’

This custom was probably thought worth noting because it was different to the practice of Continue reading

The Pillars of Hercules

The stretch of water between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean is known as the Strait of Gibraltar, separating Spain and Gibraltar from north Africa (Morocco). The southernmost tip of Spain (and of Europe itself) is at the town of Tarifa, and here the African coast is only 10 miles (16 km) away. Gibraltar lies some 15 miles (24 km) north-east of Tarifa, and the African coast is almost 14 miles (22 km) away. Even though the distance to Africa is greater here, the promontories of Calpe (Gibraltar) and Abyla (Ceuta in Africa) were significant in Greek and Roman mythology, as they were believed to be the mythical ‘Pillars of Hercules’.

This picture shows the Strait of Gibraltar, looking westwards. The African coast with the promontory of Ceuta is on the left. Next comes the seaway of the Strait of Gibraltar that opens into the Atlantic. The right-hand half of the picture portrays the coast of Spain, with the distinctive darker outline of the Rock of Gibraltar in front.

Gibraltar StraitThe Pillars of Hercules looking westwards from the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic

The myth of the Pillars of Hercules originated with the ancient Greeks and was adopted Continue reading

Penny for the Guy

Begging for money

In Sussex in the closing years of the 19th century it was customary for children to carry round an effigy of Guy Fawkes chanting the rhyme:

‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot;
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.’

As late as the 1960s, the same chant was still being used in Berkshire and elsewhere. School half-term once coincided with ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ or ‘Bonfire Night’ on 5th November, and children spent their holiday making an effigy of Guy Fawkes, dressed in old clothes, which was paraded round the streets, while passers-by were accosted with ‘Penny for the Guy?’. The money that was collected was spent on fireworks and the ‘guy’ was burned Continue reading

Corn Dollies

TOURIST CRAFTS

Probably due to the mechanisation of harvesting cereal crops, the tradition of making straw shapes and figures (‘corn dollies’) largely died out by the early years of the 20th century in Britain. From about the 1960s, the craft was revived, particularly for tourist souvenirs. The term ‘corn’ referred to cereal crops such as wheat, though nowadays corn can also mean ‘corn on the cob’ or maize. Many of the traditional and revived ‘corn dollies’ bore no resemblance to dolls or figures.

Corn Dolly A simple corn dolly, made in the 1960s

THE LAST STRAW STANDING

Before the 20th century, local harvest customs were widespread throughout Britain, and although they differed from place to place, various elements were common to most. When the final patch of corn was cut, Continue reading