Twelfth Night, Candlemas, and ‘the greener box for show’

I know what you’ll be doing on Sunday morning! Half of you will struggle down to the garden centre with the Christmas tree to have it chipped and the other half will be wondering how the box has shrunk by three inches since you got the tree out a month ago. All of you will find that one glass ornament has been broken, and all pet owners will find a stretch of tinsel that has had all the dangly bits chewed off it.

Bukszpan wiecznie zielony (Buxus sempervirens). Zdjęcie wykonane 26.06.2006 w Miejskim Ogrodzie Botanicznym w Zabrzu Autor: Tomasz Górny

Buxus Sempiverens (copyright Tomasz Górny)

Popular lore has it that Christmas decorations have to be taken down on the evening of Twelfth Night ( ie. the evening of 5th January, before Twelfth Day, 6th January) or you will have bad luck in the following year. I assumed this was several-hundred-year-old folklore, but it seems not. I started on a trail to the truth when I was listening to a Christmassy CD1 by the folk singer, Kate Rusby, and was surprised to see a song called ‘Candlemas Eve’. ‘Ho!’ thought I. ‘Someone doesn’t know their history, or was one song short of an album’. But I was wrong. It seems that for a large stretch of history you didn’t take decorations down until Candlemas Eve, that is, the evening of 1st February.I also found the words quite strange, to the extent it took me quite a while to work out what they were. It turns out they are a 17th-century poem written by Robert Herrick. Continue reading

“A Mass of Indecent Vulgarity” : Christmas Mummers in 1820s Whitehaven

‘The comedians, of which there are many companies, parade the streets, and ask at almost every door if the mummers are wanted. They are dressed in the most grotesque fashion; their heads adorned with high paper caps, gilt and spangled, and their bodies with ribbons of various colours, while St. George and the prince are armed with ten swords. The mysterie ends with a song… I am satisfied you will join me, in surprise, that for so great a number of years, such a mass of indecent vulgarity as “Alexander and the King of Egypt” should be used without alteration.’

The doctor revives the patient - Mummer's play

The doctor revives the patient – Mummer’s play

(Letter from William Hone of Whitehaven to The Every Day Book; dated 4th September 1826.)

‘On the eve of the 25th, a party of mummers, dressed in most fantastic costume… were admitted to the Continue reading

Fortune-telling, Iron-age style: The Crosby Ravensworth spoons

I never cease to be amazed by the wonderful, rare and beautiful objects from the distant past that have been unearthed in Cumbria. Here we sit, at the end of one of England’s cul-de-sacs but our ancient ancestors were up to all sort of interesting things.

Crosby Ravensworth spoons, copyright British Museum

Crosby Ravensworth spoons, copyright British Museum

They look like spoons, don’t they? And indeed archaeologists call them spoons. They’re between 2,200 and 2000 years old, and they were found at Crosby Ravensworth in the Eden Valley in 1868.

According to the 1869 edition of The Archaeological Journal1,

‘”They were found by a farmer in this parish near a spring of water, Continue reading

The Danger of Charms: 18thc Hawkshead spells

If you cut your hand in 21st century Britain, you’d be fairly surprised if someone seized it and started chanting verse about Judea, Jesus, the Holy Ghost and Bethlehem. You’d think a) that’s no substitute for Savlon and a packet of plasters and b) how extraordinarily devout. And yet for much of the 16th and 17th centuries, what sounds like a prayer to modern ears would have been seen as evidence of a pact with diabolic forces. Just a few miles north over the border in Scotland, it could have had you burnt at the stake1.

The Witch by George Walker, 1892

The Witch by George Walker, 1892

In the third quarter of the 19th century, this charm2 was found Continue reading

Lailoken, or Myrddin, or Merlin

Six hundred years after the death of a wild man in the woods of southern Scotland, Geoffrey of Monmouth assembled some scraps of poetry written in the intervening years and added him to his History of the Kings of Britain as King Arthur’s right-hand man, Merlin.

Merlin and Arthur by Gustave Dore

Merlin and Arthur by Gustave Dore

There are several different sources in old Welsh literature for Myrddin, or as we usually spell it, Merlin. Some, referring to events in Wales itself, mention Merlin Ambrosius or Merlin Emrys, and these took place at the end of the Roman era. Others were linked to the Cymry of northern Cumbria, entangled as a by-line in the story of the Battle of Arthuret, which took place a couple of hundred years later. This Merlin was Merlin Wyllt, or Merlin Silvestris, or Merlin ap (son of) Madog Morfryn. Continue reading

The Cumbrian Halloween round-up!

Whilst I cook up some new spooky posts for Samhain, I thought you might like to revisit the oldie-but-goody spooky posts previously explored by Esmeralda!

How about Armboth: Cumbria’s Most Haunted : the story of a drowned bride, poltergeist-type activity and spectral lights at the house under Thirlmere. Continue reading

Here come the girls… a 3rdc ‘Celtic’ head

Pottery female head, Tullie House, Carlisle

Pottery female head, Tullie House, Carlisle

I’m sorry to say I really do only have time for the picture, not the story, this time but I wanted you all to know I’m still here! This female head is pottery and was probably on a jug handle. It dates to the 3rd century CE, and was found at Burgh-by-Sands. Good, eh?

She is on display at Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum alongside some other heads that are just as interesting but not as female. Go on, pay them a visit.

© Diane McIlmoyle

PS. I had permission to take this photo!

Penrith’s 10th-century Futhark Brooch

Just a quick one this time so you know I’m still here! My recent post on the Kingmoor Ring got me thinking about a number of things. Firstly, whilst people in southern England probably expect to find anglo-saxon archaeology, it’s a bit of a novelty in Cumbria. Secondly, why are we surprised to find an inscription that is a variety of good luck charm? And thirdly, why does this ring get a fancy name with capitalisations – actually, it gets two because it’s sometimes known as the Greymoor Ring – when other fabulous, and magical, things do not?

Norse Brooch from Penrith, copyright British Museum

Norse Brooch from Penrith, copyright British Museum

Let me introduce this unnamed brooch. It was found near Penrith and acquired by the British Museum twenty years ago Continue reading