calendar customs


calendar customs
   Those which take place once a year, at a particular date or season; also called seasonal customs. Examples are bonfires on *November the Fifth, *wassailing apple trees on *Twelfth Night, or sending *valentine cards on 14 February. They are thereby distinguished from *life-cycle customs and *occu-pational customs.
   The folklore calendar is complex, since it is a combination of several historically independent systems. Scientific calculation plays hardly any part; even *Midsummer Day, 24 June, is not identical with the astronomical solstice, while the midwinter festivities have always stretched across a range of dates in late December and early January, and the equinoxes are totally ignored. From the mid-13th century there is evidence that 1 May (*May Day) was regarded as marking the beginning of spring in England, as it does over much of Europe; its counterpart, 1 November, is more composite, since it seems to draw part of its significance from the start of an old Celtic cattle-rearing year, and part from two major Church festivals, *All Saints Day and *All Souls.
   One extremely important factor is the annual cycle of food production, which itself varies according to the crop and the climate; arable farming sets a different pattern from stock-breeding or fishing or fruit-growing. Each of these generated festivals to mark the beginning of major activities (ploughing), or more often their ending (* sheep-shearing, *harvesting). The cycles of dearth and abundance, of hard work and leisure, also affected festivals, both positively and negatively; for instance, the abundance of corn, beer, and meat in late autumn favoured them, whereas in summer they were impossible until the vital work of harvesting and haymaking was finished.
   Equally important was the Church calendar, supplying not only the major cycle of Advent, *Christmas, *Shrove Tuesday, *Lent, *Good Friday, *Easter, *Ascension, *Whitsun, and
   Corpus Christi, but also (especially before the Reformation) a series of saints' feasts on fixed dates. These determined the patronal feast of the local church (see *church ales and *wakes), and/or the date of the local fair. Some saints were the patrons of particular guilds or trades, so their feasts were celebrated by these craftsmen throughout the country; thus, cobblers observed *St Crispin's Day and blacksmiths *St Clement's, and were still doing so late in the 19th century. Other saints' days were the occasion for 'visiting' and 'display' customs which continued after the reason was forgotten; *catterning, *thomasing, and *grottoes are examples.
   Superimposed on the natural and the ecclesiastical calendar come the turning-points of the legal year (*New Year's Day, the Quarter Days); the official commemorations of national events, of which at least two (*Oak Apple Day and *November the Fifth) developed folkloric traits; civic and academic celebrations; and *Bank Holidays set on arbitrary dates but attracting traditional pageants, sports, etc., to themselves. It should also be remembered that the reform of the calendar in 1752 caused the 'loss' of eleven days; this led some people to claim that 6 January was the 'real' or 'old' Christmas Day, and to transfer certain beliefs and customs to that date. A dating which now looks arbitrary can sometimes be better understood by making an eleven-day adjustment (see *blackberries, *grottoes).
   At present, the traditional calendar is undergoing exceptionally rapid changes. Many customs have been moved from their traditional dates to the nearest weekend, or even to the nearest Bank Holiday, for the convenience of performers and spectators. May Day and Whitsun are both threatened by the establishment of Bank Holidays on nearby Mondays; Whitsun has succumbed, but so far popular attachment to May Day itself remains strong. Traditional foods once linked to one special day, such as hot cross buns, chocolate Easter eggs, and mince pies, now appear in the shops about two months ahead of time. On the other hand, some new dates are becoming prominent, and new ways of celebrating old ones are devised.
   Apart from considering their dates, calendar customs can be usefully classified in a number of ways. One is to identify the people involved as participants or performers: does the performance involve everyone in the village, or a particular age-group, sex, occupation, area, religion, or interest? A further method is to analyse the characteristics of the performance itself - drama, singing, disguise, display, and so on - and of the place where it occurs.
   'Display' customs are those where the participants have made or gathered something which they display to a potential audience, usually in the hope of receiving something for showing it; children's *grottoes, *garlands, or *poppy shows are examples.
   In 'visiting' customs, the participants visit people's homes or other buildings (e.g. shops, pubs) to carry out their performance, either indoors or outside, depending on the type of custom. They thus give the same performance over and over again at different locations, but the journey from one place to another is not part of the performance. *Mumming plays, *souling, and *clementing are examples. In some cases the visit itself is explicitly claimed to bring luck, either generally (e.g. *first footing) or for specific items (e.g. wassailing trees, cattle, crops), but by no means always. The performance can be of many kinds, including drama or display, but in most cases the visitors sing a song and hope for money, food, or drink in return. In a few customs, such as thomas-ing, it is simply the visiting which elicits generosity, for no real performance is involved.
   'Processional' customs are those in which the performance continues while moving from place to place, as in a parade, though the performers may also halt at certain points to perform particular static actions. *Helston Furry Dance is a good example, since the dance itself processes through the town, as does the *Padstow Hobby Horse. The *Bacup Coconut Dancers are another example because even though they perform static dances they also dance on their way from one place to another. The *Abbots Bromley dancers sometimes walk normally as they go from farm to farm, or sometimes progress in a winding single file, i.e. processionally.
   'Static' customs are stationary, so that the audience comes to the custom rather than vice versa; *well-dressing is an example, as are children on a street corner asking for 'a penny for the Guy'.
   All books on regional folklore include a section on calendar cusoms. For an extensive collection of illustrative texts, historically arranged, see Wright and Lones, 1936-40; for a thorough historical analysis, see Hutton, 1994 and 1996. For introductory accounts of major customs, see Hole, 1976; Pegg, 1981; Shuel, 1985. Sutton 1997 combines detailed recent fieldwork with archive material for a single area.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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