In the hard-working lives of our ancestors, celebrations and days off were a rarity and therefore all the more highly prized. If we want to understand more about how our family spent their time, it is worth investigating what special occasions might have been held in their communities. Even market days and fairs were a break from the routine. In England, the rights to hold markets were awarded by charter from the monarch and many of these date from Medieval times. The village and town fairs, that were held two or three times a year, offered a greater opportunity for relaxation, as well as trading and job seeking. It was a chance to socialise and meet prospective spouses. Apart from the opportunity to purchase essential and more luxurious items, there might be competitions and side shows, followed by a bonfire and dancing. Historic directories will often list the days and dates of local fairs and markets and some are still maintained in the twenty-first century.
The year is also punctuated by various feasts and festivals, some of which were nationally celebrated, others that were specific to one town or village. Many of these celebrations, even those that were given Christian overtones, date back to pagan times and are associated with fertility, good fortune or protection from evil. Apple Howling, for example, is a tradition whereby orchards are blessed in a ceremony that is accompanied by the banging of drums, shouting and generally making as much noise as possible, with the aim of driving the devil from the orchard and ensuring a good crop in the forthcoming year. Protection from evil is also the basis for Whuppity Scoorie, celebrated in Lanark, Scotland on 1 March. This involves making a great deal of noise to keep out evil spirits Lentsherd in Clovelly, Devon requires children to run down the street dragging tin cans behind them for a similar reason.
There are other customs that celebrate driving away the darkness of winter and the coming of spring. The 1st of May marks the Celtic festival of Beltane and many May celebrations are associated with fertility. Padstow in Cornwall stages its iconic ‘Obby ‘Oss Day, when the red and blue ‘osses vie for supremacy as their supporters process through the streets to the accompaniment of drums and more accordions than you are likely to see in one place anywhere else.
Harvest Hokeys, or celebrations held by local farmers to thank their workers for bringing in the crops, were secular affairs, accompanied by feasting and dancing. They were not replaced by the religious harvest festival until the nineteenth century. Many communities stage mammoth ball games through the streets, with an unlimited number of players on each team. These are versions of Medieval ‘camp ball’, which later acquired rules and became football (soccer).
Bonfires are common and not just to commemorate Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators’ attempts to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The 5 November celebration in Lewes, Sussex are the most famous.
Folk customs can be identified in all parts of the country. Some have been carried out continuously for centuries and would have been known to our ancestors, others are more recent revivals of ancient traditions, a few are modern inventions. They are well worth investigating as many elements remain unchanged over the centuries.
Excellent lists of British customs can be found at:
Hazlitt, William Carew Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore: Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs Senate Books 1995
Hutton, Ronald The Stations of the Sun: the History of the Ritual Year in Britain Oxford University Press 1996