Proud Histories: Celebrating an ancient tradition

FESTIVE FRIVOLITY: In the days leading up to new year, even Father Christmas could relax and party, as this illustration from Punch magazine in 1875 shows

Times change but boys in snow will always sledge, as this illustration from Harper’s Weekly of January 1873 shows

BEST FOOT FORWARD: The Goathland Plough Stots perform in 2004 in North Yorkshire

The Goathland Plough Stots looking resplendent for a performance in Ripon in 2001

First published in Teesside & North Yorkshire

New Year... a festival that began as an act of defiance by North-Easterners after they were told: "You can't celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas".

THERE can be few who would argue with the fact that the Scots, and those of us in the North of England, have always celebrated the passing of the old year and the arrival of the new with much more gusto than our Southern cousins.

This was because, following the execution of King Charles I, English Parliament passed laws forbidding people from celebrating the birth of Jesus.

And Northerners, in typical defiance, chose to adopt the Scots tradition of welcoming in the new year with the heartiness they had formerly invested in Christmas.

When, on the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, King Charles II lifted the ban on Christmas celebrations, his subjects in the North simply took the opportunity to mark both events.

The best-known New Year tradition is first-footing, a custom also known in various forms across many European countries.

In County Durham, the first-foot, carrying a piece of coal, a silver coin and a spoonful of salt, is the first person to enter a house on January 1, bringing with him good fortune for the coming year. The coal represents heat and warmth, the coin wealth and the salt guarantees a supply of food.

In Yorkshire, the first-foot was known as the Lucky-bird, but he entered the house on Christmas morning rather than on New Year’s Day.

The physical appearance of both these characters is important, but it differs from place to place.

In some areas, the first-foot should be a male with fair hair, while in others he should be dark. It does not usually matter whether he is married or single, although at Stamfordham, in Northumberland, he must definitely be a bachelor.

Red-haired men were considered to be poor first-foots because Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, was a red-head.

The first-foot should enter the house before five in the morning and one old Yorkshire tradition, still observed, is that all the doors into the house must be locked or even chained to prevent a female from entering before the firstfoot.

As the bringer of good luck, he is greeted by everyone in the house with a handshake or a kiss, and then directed to the fire on which he places his piece of coal and spoonful of salt.

The coin is given to the master of the house and only with all these duties completed may the first-foot speak.

He should not be a family member and must not leave the house by the door through which he entered or without a gift, usually a drink, a piece of spice cake and a wedge of cheese.

Northern families would not allow any rubbish to be removed from the house on New Year’s Day.

MUMMERS’ plays used to be popular all over Britain and in Europe, but were particularly popular in the North of England.

Mummers were sometimes called “guisers” because they disguised themselves in strange clothes, wore masks or blackened their faces and frequently carried with them some sort of representation of a white horse.

In Wakefield, one group of mummers used the actual skull and cured skin of a horse.

The mummers used to enter a house and begin to sweep the hearth, humming as they did so, hence the origin of their name.

The only member of the group not wearing a disguise represented the Norse god Odin, whose white steed was called Sleipnir.

Before leaving the house, the mummers performed their traditional play, which lasted about ten minutes.

Many towns had their own version of a basic play of indeterminate age.

There were seven characters in the Spennymoor play, including King George, who wore a crown, Johnny Funny, who was dressed as a woman, and the Doctor.

In Richmond, North Yorkshire, a boisterous, noisy crowd used to travel around the town on New Year’s Eve accompanying the pinder, who was the man who looked after stray animals in the town’s pound until they were reclaimed by their owners.

At some point in history, the pinder’s role was combined with that of the woodcutter, the “hagman” of medieval times.

The pinder/hagman’s reason for going to houses in the town in this ceremony of “hagmena” was to solicit gifts from those who had used his services during the year and to sing his traditional carol, only a fragment of which remains today:

Tonight it is the New-year’s night, tomorrow is the day,

And we are come for our right, and for our ray,

As we used to do in old King Henry’s day.

Sing, fellows, sing, Hagmanheigh.

If you go to the bacon flick, cut me a good bit;

Cut, cut and low, beware of your maw;

Cut, cut and round, beware of your thumb,

That me and my merry men may have some.

Sing fellows, sing Hagmanheigh.

If you go to the black-ark,

bring me ten mark;

Ten mark, ten pound, throw it down upon the ground

That me and my merry men may have some.

Sing, fellows, sing, Hagmanheigh.

THE tradition of sworddancing teams, not to be confused with mummers, performing over the Christmas and New Year period, has always been strong in the North-East.

The team at Houghton-le- Spring, on Wearside, was composed of nine members. Five were dancers, one the clothes-carrier, two were clowns while the last played the fiddle.

The song they used dated from the middle of the 18th Century but, like those of the other teams, had been altered regularly through the ages to be topical.

The performance by the Houghton-le-Spring team was under way when the first clown appeared and sang:

It’s a ramblin’ here I’ve ta’en, the country for to see,

Five actors I have brought, yet better cannot be.

Now, my actors they are young and they’ve never been out before,

But they’ll do the best they can, and the best can do no more.

Now the first that I call on is George our noble king;

Long time he’s been at wars,

good tidings back he’ll bring.’

One of the five dancers, King George, then stepped away from the other dancers and, holding his sword high, followed the clown around the outside of the ring.

The first clown sang again:

The next that I call on, he is a squire’s son.

He’s like to lose his love because he is too young.

As the squire’s son followed him round the ring, the clown continued his selection:

Little Foxey is the next with the orange and the blue,

And the debts he has paid off, both French and Spaniards too.

Then came more royalty:

Now the next that I call on is the King of Sicily.

My daughter he shall have and married they shall be.

Last to be introduced was a local character:Now the next that I call on he is a pitman bold.

He works all underground to keep him from the cold.

The clown concluded:

It’s now you’ve seen them all,

think o’ them what you will,

Though we’ll stand back awhile till they do try their skill.

Now fiddler then, take up thy fiddle, play the lads their hearts’ desire,

Or else we’ll break thy fiddle and fling thee aback o’ the fire.

THE five dancers then performed, raising their swords to the centre of the ring.

Then the clowns instructed them to link the points of their swords in a knot.

They followed the instructions and then the knot of swords was lifted high in the air by one dancer before the swords were handed back one at a time to each of the others.

Each character in the Houghton-le-Spring dance had his own way of dressing.

The first clown was called the Tommy and wore a chinz dress while the second wore a crinoline dress and a beaver hat. The dancers themselves sported black breeches with red side stripes, white shirts adorned with ribbons and hats from which hung streamers.

On New Year’s Day in some parts of the North- East, children were allowed to indulge in a bit of mischief by running about sprinkling anyone they met with water freshly drawn from a well.

The rhyme they chanted was:Here we bring new water from the well so clear,

For to worship God with this happy new year.

Sing levy-dew, sing levy-dew, the water and the wine,

The seven bright gold wires and the bugles they do shine.

Sing reign of the Fair Maid with gold upon her toe

Open you the West Door and turn the old year go.

Sing reign of the Fair Maid with gold upon her chin

Open you the East Door and let the new year in.

While parts of this rhyme are understandable to us today, others no longer are.

Have a happy new year and please let Echo Memories know of your new year memories.

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