- The arrival of cuckoos is the signal that spring has come; various April dates are called 'Cuckoo Day' in different parts of the country: 14th in Sussex, 15th in Hampshire and Northamptonshire, 20th in Worcestershire, and so on. These are dates of local fairs, and there is often a tradition that an old woman goes to the fair and lets a cuckoo out of her bag or apron (Wright and Lones, 1936: ii. 177-8).A good deal of light-hearted rivalry surrounds the question of when and where the first cuckoo is heard, and many letters on the topic have been published in The Times over the years. *Omens were drawn from the first call heard: lucky if to your right, unlucky if to your left or behind you, or if you have not yet eaten; if you have money in your pocket at the time, you will have plenty all year (especially if you turn it or jingle it), but if not, you will stay poor; if you are in bed, this forebodes an illness, unless you start running at once; if you are standing on grass, that bodes well, but if on earth or stones, you will be dead before next spring. The number of calls you hear shows how many more years before you die, or before you marry. Another divination, first mentioned in 1579, was to look inside your shoe on hearing the first call, for in it would be a hair of the same colour as that of whoever you were fated to marry.There was a custom among some 19th-century workmen, especially Shropshire colliers, to stop work on hearing the first cuckoo, claim the day as a holiday, and go off to drink ale or beer out of doors, to welcome the bird. This custom was called 'Wetting the Cuckoo', or 'Cuckoo Foot-Ale' (Wright and Lones, 1938: iii. 20). It was kept up at Hoffleet Stow (Lincolnshire) within living memory:In the 1920s and 30s it was the custom to welcome in the spring. When we heard the first cuckoo of the spring call we would take a barrel of beer into the spinney or wood where it was calling that's where the ale was drunk, in the centre of the wood There we drank the health of the cuckoo with the new cuckoo ale. (Sutton, 1997: 80-1)At Mere (Wiltshire) in the 16th century the *church ale was held in spring and its master of ceremonies was entitled 'Cuckoo King' (Folklore 18 (1907), 340-1).The cuckoo's habit of laying eggs in the nests of other birds explains why its cry was regarded, in medieval and Elizabethan times, as mocking cuckold husbands - they would have to bring up another man's child. In folksong, 'cuckoo's nest' is sometimes a term for a woman's genitals.Cuckoos are also associated with stupidity; in northern dialects 'gowk' means both 'cuckoo' and 'fool', and *April Fools are often called April Gowks. 'You're cuckoo' is still a slangy way of saying 'You're crazy'. Or it may be the humans who are stupid, as in the old joke about the men of Borrowdale (Westmorland/Cumbria), who are said to have built a wall to imprison the cuckoo, so that summer would never end; the bird flew out, skimming the top, at which one exclaimed, 'By gow! If we'd nobbut laid another line o' stanes atop, we'd 'a copped him.' The same is said about the people of *Gotham; also of Wing (Leicestershire), which has a pub called the Cuckoo Inn, offering further opportunities for wit.■ James Hardy, Folk-Lore Record 2 (1879), 47-91; Swainson, 1885: 109-22; Opie and Tatem, 1989: 112-14.
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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