Five Birth Traditions of the British Isles (Some Of Which Are Disgusting)

A posset pot

A posset pot

As the U.K. is fairly baby-focused right now, it seems a good time to take a look over some of the more unorthodox traditions associated with birth that have evolved, and then devolved, within the British Isles (including, as will shall see, Ireland) over the years.

Subfumigating
Back in Anglo-Saxon times, long before the invention of hygiene, there were a few incredibly disgusting traditions associated with birth, but nothing quite turns the stomach like subfumigating. It’s a process by which cat feces, horses hooves, fish eyes and other animal products would be burned on a fire to make a bad smell, and the mother-to-be would be ushered in. The Saxons believed that the womb would somehow be so appalled by the stench that it would contract and help the baby come along.

No one, as far as we know, thought to check with the baby and see what he or she may have thought.

Hanselling
A Scots tradition in which a new born baby is given a silver coin to bring good luck. However, if the little mite grasps the coin with an iron fist, that would suggest he or she would grow up to be a miser, if the coin is dropped quickly, you’ve got a shopaholic on your hands.

Drinking Posset
Ladies, can you tell me something? During birth, do you feel like drinking hot milk with alcohol and spices in? It’s just that, had you been giving birth in medieval times, that’s exactly what you’d be encouraged to drink. There were even specially-shaped posset kettles with a drinking spout, although they were for general use. The milk would replenish the mother’s flagging energy, and the alcohol numb the pain. This was later replaced by the warm wine called Caudle.

And no matter what you may think of British health-care, you’ll be pleased to know these are not still available on the NHS.

Sprinkling The Baby With Cake
This one is a personal favorite, from Ireland. As a symbol of the circular nature of family life, it’s popular to use some of the top tier of the family wedding cake — a fruit cake with marzipan and icing, in case you thought it was a big stack of profiteroles — to sprinkle over the baby’s head at the christening. Naturally, the cake was soaked in whiskey for the wedding, and the rest goes to the people who can actually eat it.

So you don’t just wet the baby’s head*, you get to make it sticky too.

The Howdie
A version of a midwife from a time before midwives, in Scotland. The Howdie, or “handy woman” would come around when the baby was due, and enact certain superstitious rituals during labor, to ensure a safe delivery. So, any knots, belts or ties in the mother’s clothing would need to be untied – and all onlookers would be instructed not to sit with crossed legs or arms, and all doors and windows would need to be unlocked (even in cities). This would help the baby find its way into the world. And to be sure the baby’s soul remained free, all mirrors would be covered up, and all bottles left opened. Then a potion made of Rowan berries — to repel fairies — would be given to mum.

And even after the baby arrived, the Howdie would attend to it, to ward off the evil eye. Some would put whiskey in its mouth, some butter, and some salt, depending on location. Then all the women there would eat three spoons of oatmeal (made with water, as is the Scottish way), to fortify the baby and bring it luck.

* If you’re not sure what this means, it’s the practise of the men raising a drink to the birth of a child, named with reference to baptism. If you are sure what this means, you don’t need to read this footnote.

What’s your baby tradition? Tell us here: 

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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