When the fes­tive sea­son just kept on giv­ing!

Black Country Bugle - - FRONT PAGE -

THESE days, Twelfth Night sig­nals the end of Christ­mas – down come the tree and dec­o­ra­tions – and it’s back to nor­mal­ity.

But in ear­lier times, our fore­bears were still par­ty­ing, as sea­sonal fes­tiv­i­ties ran right through to the end of Jan­uary.

For us, Jan­uary means more spend­ing at the sales or on gym mem­ber­ship! But, our an­ces­tors were more in tune with the old tra­di­tions and en­joyed them­selves for as long as pos­si­ble.

They also kept the time hon­oured cus­tom of of­fer­ing hos­pi­tal­ity to any­one who turned up at their door. From the start of Novem­ber, through Ad­vent and Christ­mas, un­til the end of Jan­uary, there was con­stant par­ty­ing – and giv­ing fes­tive treats to a con­stant stream of vis­i­tors de­mand­ing food, drink, money – or all three! Any­one re­fus­ing risked bad luck and pub­lic sham­ing as skin­flints.

Start­ing with All Souls on Novem­ber 2nd, groups of boys and men went round door to door ask­ing for fruit or spe­cially­baked ‘soul cakes’. In the Black Coun­try, the cus­tom was es­pe­cially pop­u­lar in Wal­sall and Bil­ston, where ‘soulers’ made their de­mands in a spe­cial song:

“A soul, a soul, a soul cake,

Please good Mis­sis, a soul cake,

An ap­ple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,

Any good thing to make us all merry.

One for Peter, two for Paul,

Three for him who made us all.”

At the end of Novem­ber folk went out ‘Cle­ment­ing’ and ‘Cat­tern­ing’ for their cus­tom­ary dues.

On St Cle­ment’s Day (23rd Novem­ber) the song went:

“Cle­meny, cle­meny, year by year,

Some of your ap­ple and some of your pear ...”

Two days later, on St Catherine’s Day, they re­turned with sim­i­lar de­mands.

Of the two saints, St Cle­ment seems to have been more pop­u­lar in the Black Coun­try, tra­di­tion­ally be­ing as­so­ci­ated with me­tal work­ers, black­smiths and col­liers. In his book, The Folk­lore of the Black Coun­try (Lo­gas­ton Press, 2007) Roy Palmer says Cle­ment­ing oc­curred in Kingswin­ford, Old­bury, Penn, Wal­sall and Wolver­hamp­ton – the Cle­ment­ing rhyme above still be­ing sung in 1912, by chil­dren in Enville.


With the fo­cus on fruit, games in­volv­ing ap­ples were also pop­u­lar, sim­i­lar to those played at Hal­lowe’en. Hence, the day was also known as ‘Bite Ap­ple Day’. In Sed­g­ley, it was called ‘Ap­ple and Can­dle Night’ af­ter a game where play­ers tried to bite ap­ples hung on strings – dan­gling over a lighted can­dle. Ouch!

On St Cle­ments Day in Wal­sall, gram­mar school boys were al­lowed into the court ses­sions in the Guild­hall, where they scram­bled for ap­ples thrown from the mag­is­trates’ bench. Out­side, crowds also jos­tled to catch nuts and heated cop­per coins thrown by the town crier. An­other cus­tom where you could end up get­ting your fin­gers burned!

The next band of rev­ellers ar­rived on 21st De­cem­ber, the feast of St Thomas. This was the last chance be­fore Christ­mas for poor folk to se­cure some sea­sonal cheer as they went out ‘thomas­ing’ or ‘good­ing’. Cler­gy­men had to give a shilling to each per­son, while house­hold­ers stumped up more food and drink. The Thomas­ing song went: “Well a day, well a day, St Thomas goes too soon away,

Then your good­ing we do pray,

For the good time will not stay.

St Thomas Thomas grey,

The long­est night and the short­est day,

Please to re­mem­ber St Thomas’s Day.”

Palmer also in­cludes this ‘Wolver­hamp­ton Chron­i­cle’ piece, from the 1870s:

“It was usual fifty years ago, and con­tin­ued for many years af­ter that time, for work­ing boys, dur­ing the four or five weeks be­fore Christ­mas, to join par­ties of about four, five, six or seven, to start out each week­day morn­ing at about four or five o’clock, with tin ket­tles or old iron pans, and beat them as hard as they could along the streets.

“The more noise they made the bet­ter it was con­sid­ered, as their ob­ject was to arouse the sleep­ers in or­der that they might rise early to be­gin work.” This was called ‘beat­ing up’, and was the ‘tin ket­tlers’ way of earn­ing some ex­tra cash for Christ­mas. Palmer says this ‘rough mu­sic’ was wel­comed by work­ers at this dark time of year, as very few had watches or clocks.

As Christ­mas ar­rived, yet more vis­i­tors sought sea­sonal bounty. Born in 1845, local his­to­rian G.T Law­ley, re­called see­ing a tra­di­tional ‘sword dance’ on Christ­mas Eve. Bands of col­liers, some­times twenty strong, turned up at wealth­ier house­holds grey, St “dec­o­rated with sprigs of holly and mistle­toe and armed with wooden swords. Two of their num­ber, called Tommy and Bessy, were usu­ally dressed in an­i­mal skins and masks of the most grotesque fash­ions ... they were ac­com­pa­nied by a fid­dler ... and two or three lads, also fan­tas­ti­cally dressed, car­ry­ing lanterns made of im­mense swedes, hol­lowed out and cut to rep­re­sent grim hu­man faces ...”

Law­ley de­scribes the dancers start­ing off slowly, then get­ting faster and faster “un­til they seemed to be en­gaged in mor­tal com­bat”. Mean­while, the char­ac­ters of Tommy and Bessy per­formed their own dance, “putting them­selves into a va­ri­ety of ridicu­lous pos­tures to rouse the mirth and lib­er­al­ity of the spec­ta­tors.”


The dancers’ an­tics en­sured house­hold­ers gave in hap­pily to the de­mands in their carol:

“Christ­mas comes but once a year,

Give us of your beef and beer. If the beer is get­ting low, And the beef is gone also,

Wine and mince pies give in­stead,

Or money that we may be fed ...”

Along­side sword dancers, there were groups of mum­mers per­form­ing tra­di­tional rhyming sketches and plays. Roy Palmer says this tra­di­tion sur­vived into the 20th cen­tury in Cradley Heath, Pel­sall, Dar­las­ton and Wal­sall Wood. It was also re­ported in Smeth­wick, Wed­nes­bury and Wed­nes­field.

Some­times called ‘guis­ers’ the mum­mers dis­guised them­selves by black­ing their faces. Their plays in­volved stock heroes like Robin Hood, Bold Slasher or St George, bat­tling evil forces, usu­ally per­son­i­fied by the das­tardly Turk­ish Knight char­ac­ter.

There are many ver­sions, but in most the hero is slain by the villain and mirac­u­lously brought back to life, by the Doc­tor char­ac­ter. Such uni­ver­sal themes were en­livened by bawdy hu­mour and satire, aimed at un­pop­u­lar fig­ures of the day.

Through­out Jan­uary, groups of Was­sail­ers, and boys out Hunt­ing the Wren, also ap­peared on your doorstep. And, if you had ap­ple trees, the Ap­ple Was­sail­ers came round to en­sure a good crop. Good luck came at a price – but the con­stant cheer kept those win­ter blues at bay.

Fol­low­ing the two world wars, many of these old tra­di­tions died out. But, dur­ing the 1960s, a folk re­vival led to the emer­gence of many groups across Bri­tain re-dis­cov­er­ing the joys of tra­di­tional folk dance, mu­sic and theatre. To­day, there are many op­por­tu­ni­ties to see sea­sonal Mum­mers’ Plays. In the West Mid­lands, Coven­try Mum­mers are one of the best and long­est es­tab­lished groups in the coun­try.

For more in­for­ma­tion visit: www.coven­try­mum­mers.org.uk

Pub au­di­ence en­joy­ing the bat­tle be­tween St George and the dragon - per­formed by mum­mers in St Al­bans

Young boys out ‘hunt­ing the wren’

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