When the festive season just kept on giving!
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’