- 1) Wakes, feasts, and revels are regional terms for the same type of event. In most parishes in pre-Reformation England, the day dedicated to the patron saint of the local church was set aside for major celebrations, as most 'holidays' were linked to religious observance. The word 'wake' derives from the custom of sitting up and watching (or 'waking') in the church overnight, and then spending the next day in revelry. In medieval times, these celebrations would have included processions led by images of the saint, as well as general sports, games, and feasting. However, the Reformation brought in different ideas and the festivities were gradually toned down, although many places still kept them up as a day of jollification. Many parishes whose patronal festivals occurred in winter moved the celebration to *Whitsun or September, and the change of calendar in 1752 also confused the pattern of feast days. When some industrial towns adopted the system of closing down the factories or mills for a particular week, the term 'wakes' was adopted. Some wakes gradually turned into full-blown fairs, others faded away during the 19th century, while the ones which still had a religious base became attenuated into garden fetes or small-scale church celebrations.In the industrial areas, such as the cotton belt of Lancashire, the wakes took on a much higher profile in the festival year, and became the major celebratory occasion for the semi-rural communities and newly urbanized workers. They were often linked with the rushcarts (see *rushbearing), featuring *morris dancers, fairground amusements and stalls, and, by all accounts, a great deal of drinking and fighting. During the 19th century they increasingly became the target of a combination of reforming employers, local middle-class citizens, and respectable working-class leaders, who argued that the workers' spare time should be spent in rational and 'improving' pastimes or healthy sport, rather than the hard-drinking, fighting, and dancing for which wakes had become infamous. Admittedly, this roughness was only the more visible part of the celebrations, and there were plenty of other features which were less objectionable, but their days were numbered and one by one they either faded away, were suppressed, or transformed.■ J. K. Walton and Robert Poole, 'The Lancashire Wakes in the 19th Century', in: Storch, 1982: 100-24; Hole,1975: 154-7; Kightly, 1986: 113-14.2) Until well into the 20th century, it was usual for the dead to be kept at home until the funeral. Since the body should never be left alone, family members would keep watch beside it, but the organized 'wake' attended by many relatives and neighbours, as in Ireland, virtually vanished from England soon after the Reformation. Only two records of it remain. One comes from Aubrey, who noted the mixture of prayer, drinking, and games so characteristic of wake customs:At the funeralls in Yorkshire, to this day they continue the custome of watching & sitting-up all night till the body is interred. In the interim some kneel downe and pray (by the corps), some play at cards, some drink & take Tobacco: they have also Mimicall playes and sports, e.g., they choose a simple young fellow to be a Judge, and then the Suppliants (having first blacked their hands by rubbing it under the bot-tome of the Pott), beseech his Lordship and smutt all his face. They play likewise at Hot-cockles. (Aubrey, 1686/1880: 30-1)He gives a glimpse of popular ideas about the ordeals awaiting the dead: 'The beliefe in Yorkeshire was amongst the vulgar (perhaps is in part still), that after the persons death the soule went over Whinney-moore' (i.e. a moor of gorse). 'Till about 1616', some hired woman would come to the wake to sing the *Lyke-Wake Dirge, about the soul's journey. It must pass Whinney-moor and the Bridge of Dread to reach Purgatory fire; those who have given shoes to the poor can cross the moor unhurt, and those who have given 'milk or drink' can pass through the fire, but the uncharitable will be pricked and burnt 'to the bare bone'. The second reference is a late 16th-century letter cited by Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. This too describes women singing round the corpse about the dead coming to 'a great launde full of thornes and furzen', where an old man will meet them with the very shoes they once gave away, so they can cross unhurt (Scott, ed. T. F. Henderson (1902), iii. 163-4).This type of wake, mixing prayer-vigil, hospitality, and entertainment, left no later trace. Occasionally, however, something similar was reinvented for practical reasons; thus, Victorian London costermongers wanting to raise money for a funeral would visit the widow's house in groups, make donations, and gather round the corpse in a deliberately jolly mood (Binder, 1975: 42-3).
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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