Changing customs

Changing customs – 2022

Changing customs – let’s start with very recent times!

Christmas this year seems to have started before Bonfire Night. 

Hallowe’en was a wash-out, with heavy rain – but also seems to have fallen out of favour post-pandemic. (It only become ‘a thing’ in the UK in the 1990s, when British kids started to copy what they saw on American television series). Stores did sell Hallowe’en costumes this year, but very limited – and other side of their ‘seasonal aisle’ was filled with early Christmas goods. Including lots of mince pies with a shelf life way short of December 25!

I have known Christmas card catalogues drop through the letter box in July. Hot-cross buns seem to be on sale all year round, not just at Easter. And the ad reps at my old newspaper put decorations up in September, to get them in the mood to sell Christmas advertising space. But this year, it seems more pervasive, somehow.

Anyway, with the radio playing Christmas songs, it’s time for a seasonal post on Cumbrian Characters. Which means looking back for some customs even older than 1970s pop songs and watching films about neglected children inflicting violence on criminals!

School’s out

A lecture given by a Mr F Harrison, in Penrith,  in 1886, also referred to changing customs. It referred to one ‘which had gone, he feared never to return’.

‘About Christmas time, in most Cumberland villages, the scholars got inside the school early in the morning, and barred the master out until he had made arrangements as to the length of holidays etc. 

‘The master, who always expected the barring out at the proper time, used to adjourn to the village alehouse and treated the biggest boys to mulled ale’

In case you were wondering: 

‘in the winter season, plenty of big fellows 18 and 20 years attended the schools’.

It would seem ‘the recent Education Act’ and the School Board system ‘gave the death-blow’ to this time-honoured custom.

Changing customs 1856

In the Kendal area in 1856, it was apparently still the custom to go from house to house on New Year’s Day, seeking gifts. 

Some dressed as mummers, but others made no effort at all.

To neet is New Year neet

To morn it is the day

We’ve cum’t to lait our New Year gift

Wid a hag-me-na.

There are a LOT more verses. One about a ‘lile nag’ (small horse) bringing turfs ‘that beyak’d my breed, as heavy as leed, as clam as clay, as rough as hay’.

Another is about a calf called Ralf being blown off the fell by hail and snow.

The householders would perhaps have been glad to give the singers a gift to make it stop.

A Christmas carol

Children knocking on doors, one verse of ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’, then silent expectation of payment. Another custom that seems to have fallen by the wayside in the 2020s.Tho’ the mangled lyrics of ‘to you and your king’ would actually work this year!

But surely carol singers were popular in times gone by? TV series/movie makers seem to think so.

Maybe not.

In December 1865, a writer in the Kendal Mercury muses on ‘waits’. First (s)he ponders on ‘where to they go the rest of the year?’.

He describes how:

‘some experience pleasurable sensations from the familiar airs that came soughing on the night wind, they turn on their pillows, listen for a minute or two to the dulcet strains… and fall asleep again, soothed and gratified.’

But then again… 

‘There exists another class of persons, happily not very numerous, but still possessing some influence, who, from their morose and splenetic dispositions, not only object to the ‘-Waits” nuisances, but hold them in possitive and active hatred.

‘These are the unhappy individuals who empty the water jug on the heads of the nocturnal musicians below’.

Christmas rejoicings

One changing custom fell into abeyance in the early 1850s, only to be revived at least once, in 1855.

‘of Westmorland and Cumberland it has been custom, from time immemorial, for the fiddler to go round and visit each house on the 12th day, accompanied by a number of young men..

‘In Martindale in particular this has been a custom of very ancient standing..’

The Kendal Mercury continues:

‘During the last few years the innocent old custom… had almost fallen into disusetude.’

But was happy to report that this year (1855), it had been revived ‘in all its vigour’.

‘Mr Mounsey went round as usual on the eve of Christmas and new year; and on the 12th day he was accompanied by nearly all the young men of the valley, amounting at times to 20 or upwards. 

‘The minstrel and his band of volunteers were received at each house with every demonstration of hearty welcome, and in the evening a ball was held at the Star (inn)… more familiarly known as the “Cwoat How.” 

‘The evening was spent in the most agreeable manner—the young men and damsels of the dale joining in the mazes of the contra-dance—tripping the same old fashioned tunes, which had resounded amongst the timbers of the same old place generations before they were born. The ball was amost agreeable one, and the whole proceedings went off with eclat.’

However you spend it, Cumbrian Characters hopes you have a very happy Christmas.

  • You can read about Christmas in Carlisle in 1854 here.
  • For other posts on changing customs, use the magnifying glass to search for eg ‘Christmas’ or ‘customs’.