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Tradition is the simple matter of doing something once because it’s the right thing to do, and then doing it again (and again) for no good reason at all. And traditions that have withstood the warping effects of hundreds of passing years are even harder to explain than those with a clear mandate from the recent past.
The British Isles are riddled with traditions like these, especially around Easter, when superstitions around crops and growth get muddled up with Christian imagery and a sudden glut of rabbits and eggs. Some of them are eccentric, some are downright dangerous, but to the people involved in them on a year-by-year basis, they’re as natural and normal a way to commemorate the season as chocolate eggs and a magical rabbit.
The Nutter’s Dance
Should you find yourself in the little down of Bacup in Lancashire on Easter Saturday, and suddenly surrounded by people dressed oddly, with dark makeup on, bells on their legs and dancing in formation, do not be scared, you’ve just witnessed the Nutter’s Dance.
Since 1857, a strange parade has taken place in the town. It’s a kind of social exorcism, led by a man cracking a whip—he’s called the Whiffler, or Whipper-In—to fend off evil spirits, and followed by men in black, wearing red and white skirts and darkened faces, which are intended to disguise them and keep them free from devilish repercussions.
You may have heard of conkers—the schoolyard game whereby two horse chestnuts on strings battle for supremacy—but you may not know that the same basic idea can be, and is, applied to eggs at Easter. To people living in the North East of England, egg jarping is the simple matter of bashing one hard-boiled egg on another egg to see which one wins.
There’s even a World Jarping Championship in Peterlee, Durham in which contestants do battle in twos, holding their eggs pointy-end-up and ready to be biffed by an opponent. The winner of each bout is the one with the uncracked egg.
In Leicestershire, Easter is not only the time of eggs and chocolate, but also a further spat in a (not entirely serious) 200-year-old bitter rivalry between the villages of Hallaton and Medbourne, which takes place on Easter Monday. Legend claims that two ladies from Hallaton were about to be gored by a charging bull when a hare appeared, distracting him and saving their lives. They thanked God for their lucky escape, and bequeathed a surprisingly insensitive feast of hare pie, 12 loaves of bread and two barrels of beer to the village, every Easter. One year, this feast was invaded by jealous Medbourne toughs, sparking a big fight over the beer that was eventually won by Hallaton.
This has now been codified into a tradition, involving a procession through both villages of a hare pie (no giggling, smut fiends, this is culture), and three barrels, called bottles. Two contain beer, and one—the dummy—is solid wood and painted red and white. The vicar of Hallaton blesses the pie, some of which is thrown to the crowd—this bit is called the scramble—and the rest is put in a sack and carried up Hare Pie Hill with the barrels. This is where things get nasty.
Representatives of the two villages face each other on the bottle kicking field—a mile-and-a-half wide no man’s land, riddled with hedges and fences of barbed wire, and bordered on either side by streams. The object is to take your barrel down past the stream towards your village before your opponents take theirs, and you can stop them by any means necessary—eye-gouging is banned, but broken bones are common. The winning team keeps their barrel, and then the game is played again using the dummy. The winner of that bout gets to keep the other barrel, assuming they have enough limbs left to raise a glass to their lips.
Inspired by the tale of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples on the day before Good Friday, it used to be fairly common in Christian countries for leaders to embark on an act of public humility on Maundy Thursday. The British royal family being no exception, gifts of money and clothing (and a free foot wash) were handed out to the poor by reigning monarchs, as part of a wider tradition that dates back to the fourth century.
The washing of feet lasted a remarkably long time, well up into the 1700s, but eventually was replaced by a simple gift of money, albeit using coins that were specially struck for the purpose. The first monarch to do this was Charles II, who ordered special four, three, two and one penny pieces to be struck for the Maundy service in 1662. Since 1670, fresh, dated coins have been used for each Royal Maundy service.
Henry IV introduced a refinement in the 1400s that the amount of people lucky enough to receive donations would increase in direct proportion to his age, and this continues in two forms. On Maundy Thursday, elderly men and women who are considered to have given Christian service to their community—one for every year of the Queen’s life—receive two leather string purses, one white, one red. The white one contains normal British currency for food and clothing, and the red one contains Maundy coins, the amount given corresponding to the current Queen’s age in pence.
This year’s Royal Maundy service takes place tomorrow in Blackburn, Lancashire.
There’s Something About Parsley
The very Christian Good Friday is considered the best day to plant parsley (and potatoes, curiously enough), and this is partly because there has been a folk connection between the herb and evil that dates back to Roman times. It was even believed that parsley goes seven times to hell and back before germinating, and there are all manner of strange customs and beliefs associated with the herb, depending where you are and who you talk to.
Jeremy Clarkson voice: “Some say that new parsley should be planted by a woman on Good Friday, some say it’s an offense to the spirit of the herb to transplant a parsley bed and that a decent parsley crop will mean your family will only have daughters, while others claim the herb needs to be planted in rows running north to south or it will not thrive.
“All we know is, it’s called the sprig.”
British Good Friday Traditions: Pace-Egging, Toss Pot and St. George
Easter Is Coming: Let’s Make a Simnel Cake
10 British Ways to Ring in the New Year
Why Do The English Have A Problem With ‘Trick Or Treating’?
Five Birth Traditions of the British Isles (Some Of Which Are Disgusting)
See more posts by 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