Holly, a unique Westmorland tradition

A look into a Twelfth Night tradition, involving holly, in Westmorland leads to the story of a worthy Cumbrian Character. But in this post, it’s all about the holly!

Holly, a Brough-under-Stainmore tradition

At Brough-under Stainmore, there was an old tradition on Twelfth Night involving holly. But the details vary, according to the source.

According to an 1838, UK-wide book of customs, a burning holly tree was carried through the village, followed by a band. Everyone then retired to the pub.

Kelly’s Directory of Westmorland (1906) says: ‘On the eve of the Epiphany there was formerly an annual procession, called the Carrying of the Holly or Holy Tree. but it has been discontinued since about 1860.’

Kelly’s doesn’t describe what it entailed.

According to Thomas Gibson’s ‘Legends and Historial Notes on Places of North Westmorland’ (published in 1887), it was called Striving for the Holly.

A prickly tug-of-war?

Gibson again puts it as being on Twelfth Night (Epiphany).

A large piece of holly is placed on the bridge in the middle of the town, and those who are lucky to get it on their side of the bridge have the merry night or dancing in the public house on the winning side of the stream.

Which makes it sound more like a tug-of-war contest between two sides. Though as we are talking holly here, that would be rather painful!

The Westmorland Gazette refers to Carrying the Holly, at Brough, in 1851 and 1852, but is light on detail. 

Scuffling over the holly

However, in 1856, the Kendal Mercury referred to Hone’s Table Book.

Printed in 1827, it included the holly tradition. Saying that on Twelfth Night, at Brough-under-Stainmore, people would carry a holly tree through the town with torches attached to its branches.

So not actually a burning tree, then. Unless one of the torches set fire to it accidentally.

‘The procession set out at eight o’clock, with the band playing, and stopped and cheered at the bridge and “cross”. The crowd separated into two factions, one of them endeavouring to take the tree to one of the inns, another to the other.

An obstinate scuffle ensued and the innkeeper of the successful party was expected to treat his men well.

Hone’s book suggested the custom must have the same origin as the Christmas tree of Germany and Northern countries:

…which is illuminated and hung round with the mutual presents of the family

The preparation of the Christmas tree is carried on as privately as possible, in order to create surprise and pleasure, the young ones believing the presents are from the Infant Christ.

None of your Santa Claus there, then.

The two pubs in 1851/52 were the Black Bull (landlord Joseph Tallentire) and the White Swan.

The Mercury, by the way, thought in 1856 that mistletoe, Christmas candles, yule logs, holly and ivy were dying out as customs. While the Christmas bottle remained. Whatever that was.

‘Discontinued by about 1860’ – or not

In December 1867, the Westmorland Gazette described the custom, saying there were ‘two or three inns’ in the town that took turns in organising it. The torches were composed of greased rushes. And many in the accompanying procession carried lighted branches and let off fireworks (‘flambeaux, rockets, squibs etc’). The tussle on the bridge took place after the torches had burned out.

There don’t seem to be any references to it after 1867, though.

Nor is there any explanation anywhere as to how Brough-under-Stainmore came to have its very own, unique Twelfth Night tradition. Or conversely, why no other Westmorland town or village followed suit.

Druids and warts

After mentioning the holly tradition, Thomas Gibson then talks about using beans to choose a king on Twelfth Night (you can read about Twelfth Cakes in this post.

Before concluding, with puzzling logic, that 

This election by beans leaves little doubt that the practice, although rather different at Brough, is the remains of Druidical or other superstitious ceremonies.

And then switching topic to a belief that, as a doctor, must have had him either laughing or despairing.

For it was a Westmorland belief that if you want to get rid of warts, you should put smooth pebbles in a sheep’s bladder and throw it over your left shoulder.  

Trust me, if you do an internet search on: ‘warts pebbles sheep’s bladder’ it does not pull up any results!

Thomas Gibson

Thomas Gibson is remembered to this day as the author of ‘Legends and Historial Notes on Places of North Westmorland. But when I started looking into who he was, I uncovered a rags to prominent citizen story that is worthy of its own post…

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