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New Year’s Day

Shrove Tuesday

Kissing Friday

April Fool’s Day

May Day


Mischief Night

New Year’s Eve

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Here are a number of British customs that you may or may not have heard of. Some of them are rather unusual and only kept in certain parts of the country. We have also provided some ideas for you to use this in the classroom. Click on the links to see the Classroom Activity and Teacher's Notes.

A. New Year’s Day: 1 January

The year should begin happily, they say, so that it will end happily, and on the first morning of the new year children in Scotland, Wales and the English border counties rise early so that they may make the round of their friends and neighbours. ‘On January 1st,’ writes a 13-year-old Scottish girl, ‘I always go New Year's Gifting with my sister and friends, about four of us. I get up about 7 o’clock and call for my friends and go round the houses and farms.’ They sing (although Christmas is seven days old):

I wish you a merry Christmas,
A happy New Year,
A pocket full of money
And a cellar full of beer,
A good fat pig
To last you all the year -
Please to give me a New Year’s Gift
For this New Year.

‘We do not always get money, we sometimes have mincepies or apples.’ Nevertheless they collect ‘nine or ten shillings every year’, although gifting must be finished by midday. ‘You must be gone before twelve o’clock or they will call you a fool and the people won’t give you anything, and when the people see you next time they will all shout fool at you.’ In some villages, such as Bleddfa and Llangunllo, the girls save their gifting money and keep it for a special outing.

Across the border in England, children also call at houses, visiting as many of the scattered homesteads as they can, reciting:

Happy New Year! Happy New Year!
I’ve come to wish you a Happy New Year.
I’ve got a little pocket and it is very thin,
Please give me a penny to put some money in.
If you haven’t got a penny, a halfpenny will do,
If you haven’t got a halfpenny, well -
God Bless You!


B. Shrove Tuesday (the day before ‘Ash Wednesday’)

For centuries Shrove Tuesday has been a day of high festival for apprentices and schoolchildren. It has been a day of feasting, cock fighting, and throwing at cocks, a day for football, rowdiness, and rebellion. And it is pleasing to find that it is still a special day for children in some parts of England, where ‘Pancake Day’, as they call it, is kept as a school holiday.

A 13-year-old girl writes:

‘My special day is Pancake Day, every child has a holiday. Sometimes a fair comes to Longton and I think that everyone goes. Some children make up rhymes about pancake day such as -

Pancake Tuesday, mother’s busy baking,
We are helping, lovely pancakes making,
Pancake Tuesday, mix them up and fry them,
When they are done you can come and try them.’

A 14-year old girl writes:

‘A day that I always remember is Shrove Tuesday. On this day as we all know we have pancakes. We have the whole day off from school and the thing I remember about it is that all the children sing -

Pancake day is a very happy day,
If we don’t have a holiday we’ll all run away,
Where shall we run, up High Lane,
And here comes the teacher with a great big cane.

All the streets are crowded with children, running, skipping, and jumping.’

At Toddington in Bedfordshire when the traditional Pancake Bell is rung at twelve noon, the children rush out of school, as they have done for generations, and flock to Conver Hill to put their ears to the ground to hear ‘the Old Woman frying her pancakes’ underneath.

At Scarborough where a Pancake Bell is also rung (as at many other places), the special joy to the young, and even to the not so young, is the mass-skipping on the Foreshore, an exercise which has been traditional at Scarborough on Shrove Tuesday for 200 years. By the afternoon, even in frosty or snowy weather, the Foreshore is alive with skippers and the roadway becomes utterly blocked to traffic. Townsmen and people from the surrounding villages bring great lengths of clothes-line with them, and skip ten and even fifteen abreast in each rope.

Away in the West Country children still sing:

Tippety, tippety tin,
Give me a pancake and I will come in.
Tippety, tippety toe,
Give me a pancake and I will go.

‘If your doors are left open,’ writes a correspondent, ‘the children with blackened faces will creep in and throw a load of broken crocks all over the floor and try to leave unseen. If the householders chase and catch them they further black their faces with soot, and then give them a cake before letting them go.’

C. Kissing Friday

A teacher writing to the Yorkshire Post tells how after Ash Wednesday, comes Kissing Friday. A few years before, when she arrived at a country school and was taking a mixed class of 13-year-old children in country dancing, she saw the leading boy suddenly lean across and kiss his partner, who showed no sign of embarrassment. When, as teacher, she expressed her surprise, the boy said, ‘It’s all right, Miss. You see, it’s Kissing Friday’, and explained that on Friday following Shrove Tuesday any lad had the right to kiss any girl without being resisted.

‘And so it proved. For at each break in lessons every girl was soundly kissed by any boy she encountered. It was useless for me to expostulate, so I did not try. But each year as Kissing Friday came round, the school was in turmoil.’

A correspondent to the same paper recalled that when he was a boy he and his fellows used to pinch each other's ears. A Yorkshireman broadcasting in January 1955 recalled that, when a boy, on Kissing Day, the boys would challenge all comers, their girl friends in particular, by putting a rope across the road on the way to school and demanding either a kiss or a forfeit.

D. April Fool’s Day

The first day of April ranks amongst the most joyous days in the juvenile calendar.

‘It is a day when you hoax friends of yours with jokes like sending them to the shop for some pigeon’s milk, or telling them to dig a hole because the dog has died; when they come back and ask where the dead dog is you say "April fool" and laugh at them.

Teachers come in for their share of the fooling, and according to a 12-year-old girl are the most exciting prey:

‘The best joke I ever saw was in school when one of our girls brought another girl dressed as our new needlework mistress into the form room. She was introduced to the mistress who was taking us, and she was completely taken in. She even told us to stop laughing at the new mistress. Then we shouted "April Fool" to her and we all had a good laugh.’

And parents, of course, are not exempt. ‘We have a lovely time ‘ says an 11-year-old Swansea girl, ‘as there are so many jokes to play such as sewing up the bottom of Daddy’s trousers.’ And a 9-year-old Birmingham boy writes:

‘Last year I fooled father by glueing a penny to the floor and saying "Dad you’ve dropped a penny on the floor.’ He couldn’t get it off the ground because it was stuck firm, then I shouted "Yah, April Fool".’

In Scotland the day is generally known as ‘Huntigowk Day’. Thus a 12-year-old girl in Edinburgh writes:

‘Huntigowk is a day I love. I like to put a basin of water at the side of my sister’s bed and hear her let out a yell when she puts her feet into it. I also put an empty eggshell in an eggcup so that when she opens it she finds that there is nothing inside it. I played a joke on my aunt once. She has a good sense of humour and can take any kind of a joke. When the butcher rang for the order I told my aunt that it was her boy-friend (my aunt is only in her twenties). So she rushed to the telephone and asked where he would meet her tonight. She did get a fright when the man said,

"Madam ! What is the order for the butcher?"
"I’ll go and ask," she stuttered, and when she walked into the kitchen to ask my mother I shouted "Huntigowk!"’

E. May Day: 1 May

On the first of May, in country districts, young maidens rise early and go out into the dawn, as they have done for centuries, to wash their faces in the May dew. In Somerset children call this ‘kissing the dew'. In most places, the girls do so to ensure that they shall have a beautiful complexion for the rest of the year. In some places the girls pat the dew on their faces to rid themselves of pimples. In others the dew is thought a certain cure for freckles. A 13-year-old girl states that the rite is customary there because it is said to bring luck. And an 11-year-old says that it is believed that if, on the first of May, a girl washes her face in the morning dew she will marry the first man she meets thereafter.

The traditional custom of shouldering little maypoles round the streets or visiting houses with may-garlands is still practised in some districts.

A teacher writes from near Oxford:

‘I have made enquiries among my children in school and I find that ... little groups are formed and a May Queen is chosen. A small maypole is made and decorated with a garland a-top, and the Queen carries a stool upon which she sits for the ceremony, which is performed at intervals along the streets. She, by the way, wears a lace curtain and a ring on her finger, if possible. The rest of the company dance round her singing:

Round and round the maypole
Merrily we go,
Tripping, tripping lightly
Singing as we go.

O, the happy pastime
On the village green,
Dancing in the sunshine -
Hurrah for the Queen !

Here they all kneel on one knee and the Queen stands up and sings:

I’m the Queen, don’t you see,
Just come from the meadow green;
If you wait a little while
I will dance you the maypole style.

My hair is long, my dress is short,
My shoes are laced with silver,
A red rosette upon my breast
And a guinea gold ring on my finger.

Then all the company rises and, oddly enough, begins to hop round the maypole singing:

Hop, hop, hop, to the butcher’s shop,
I dare not stay any longer,
For if I do my ma will say
You naughty gin to disobey.’


F. Halloween: 31 October

Many children attend Hallowe’en parties. ‘The best thing about the party,’ says one girl, ‘is that you should go in fancy dress. The most popular dress is a Witch’s outfit, or something to do with lucky charms. It is said that one of the luckiest things at a Hallowe’en party is for a person to come in with a lump of coal.’

The games traditionally played at Hallowe’en are mostly peculiar to this night.

Duck Apple. A large bowl or tub is filled with cold water (sometimes soapy water) and a number of apples float in it. One or two players at a time get down on their knees and, with their hands behind their backs (not infrequently with their hands tied behind their backs), try to get hold of one of the apples with their teeth. ‘When they have done this they must lift the apple out of the basin. If they do this they may eat it.’

‘If you take a bite of the apple nothing will happen to you, but,’ exults an 11-year-old, ‘it you miss, your head goes into the water with a splash.’

Forking for Apples. This is similar to Duck Apple but when the player’s hands have been tied behind his back a fork is placed between his teeth. He has to kneel on or lean over a chair beside the tub, and must try to stab one of the floating apples and lift it out.

Bob Apple is also known as ‘Snap Apple’, or ‘Apple on the Line’. ‘First of all some sort of hook or nail must be available over a doorway. An apple is cored and the end of a length of string about a yard long is tied through the centre of the apple. The other end of the string is tied to the hook or nail. The string is twisted and the apple is sent spinning round on the end of the string, and people in turn try to catch the apple with their mouths and eat as big a mouthful as they can.’

Hallowe’en is the night above all others when supernatural influences prevail.

‘At Midnight,’ says a 14-year-old in Aberdeen, ‘all the girls line up in front of a mirror. One by one each girl brushes her hair three times. While she is doing this the man who is to be her husband is supposed to look over her shoulder. If this happens the girl will be married within a year.’

‘After they have done this,’ continues the young Aberdonian, ‘each girl peels an apple, the peel must be in one piece, then she throws the peel over her left shoulder with her right hand. This is supposed to form the initial of her husband-to-be.’

Nuts are also in requisition. ‘A person has to place two nuts side by side near the fire,’ says a Golspie boy. ‘One represents oneself and the other stands for the person one hopes to marry. If the nuts, when they catch fire, burn quietly beside each other, the two will be married: if they burn vigorously and jump apart, the two will have a row and part.’

G. Mischief Night: 4 November

From coast to coast across northern England the 4 November has become ‘Mischief Night’, a night of humour and hooliganism. On this night children are half under the impression that lawlessness is permissible. Householders’ front doors are repeatedly assaulted with bogus calls, their gates removed, their dustbin lids hoisted up lamp posts, their window panes daubed with paint, their doorknobs coated with treacle, their evening newspapers (projecting from letter-boxes) exchanged, their milk bottles placed so that they will be tripped over, their house numbers unscrewed and fixed on to other houses, their windows tapped, their backyards turned upside down and possibly ransacked for tomorrow’s bonfires, their drainpipes stuffed with paper and set alight. Both in villages and in great cities youngsters bent on mischief roam the streets in happy warfare with the adult world.

‘On Mischief Night.’ writes a 12-year-old, ‘my friends and I do many strange, mischievous deeds. We knock at a door offering a woman cabbages, meanwhile somebody climbs on the roof with a bucket of water. If the person will not buy she gets wet through.’

‘On Mischievous Night,’ writes another, ‘one of our tricks is to collect some old tin cans, and tie them together with string. Then we fill them with ashes, tie a loop at the other end of the string, and put that on a door knob. Somebody knocks on the door an d everybody hides. When the door is opened in flies the ashes, and then all sorts of language is heard.’

‘A favourite trick,’ say several lads, ‘is to tie two door knobs together with a length of string, and knock at both doors at the same time.’ The boys run and hide in a place where they can see both doors, and ‘watch the occupants tugging against each other’. Sometimes, as the householders tug more and more strenuously, they creep out of their hiding places and cut the string, ‘and both people’ - so they hope - ‘fly backwards as the doors fly open’. Alternatively, says a 12-year-old, ‘a rope is tied to a door handle, and one of the boys knocks on the door. Some more boys hold the rope firmly, and when the man or woman attempts to open the door he cannot. Only when he pulls with all his strength do the boys let go of the rope. The man falls flat on his back.’ 

H. New Year’s Eve: 31 December

In Wales and in the north of Britain almost all children are allowed to stay up until midnight, or are woken up then, so that they can watch the customs which let the Old Year out and bring the New Year in. Just before midnight, the ashes are cleared from the fireplace so that the year will be begun afresh. In several places, both the front door and the back door are opened to assist the Old Year’s departure and the arrival of the New. Money, especially silver money, is placed outside the door, and bread and a piece of coal are put out as well to ensure health, wealth, and happiness to the household when fetched in the next day. In many English homes, as well as Scottish, they await the first-footer who, when he arrives, is welcomed with the warmest hospitality. It is a good thing everywhere if he is a man ‘tall, dark-haired, and handsome’. He should ‘cross the threshold with wood, coal, and silver coins in his hands to ensure the well-being of the household for the coming year’ (in some places). He should have ‘a glass of wine in one hand and a lump of coal in the other’. In others, where he is known as the ‘lucky bird’, he should have a lump of coal and, if possible, a sprig of evergreen. ‘A few minutes before twelve o’clock,’ writes a 14-year-old Scots girl, ‘all the doors of the houses are opened to allow the spirit of the old year to depart. Then the clock strikes twelve, the church bells ring, the siren of the local mill is sounded, and everyone wishes everyone else ‘A Guid New Year". Then toasts, kisses, handshakes and usually ‘Auld Lang Syne" is sung. With the advent of the New Year groups of people go ‘first-footing’" armed with black bun, their "bottle", and perhaps a piece of coal. It is essential that the first man to cross the threshold in the New Year is tall and dark, to bring luck to the household. The rest of the night is spent in eating, drinking. singing, and dancing.’

   Reading Games, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd,
Jill Hadfield and Charles Hadfield 1995

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