ANTIQUITIES AND CURIOSITIES OF THE CHURCH.
Shrove-tide and Lenten Customs.
BY THE REV. J. HUDSON BARKER, B.A.
THE husk is oft-times kept when the kernel is thrown away. There are many old customs in connection with Shrove-tide and Lent which are still observed, though the essential parts of them are lost.
The penitential confessional of Shrove Tuesday, and the strewing of ashes crosswise on the heads of penitents at the chancel step by the priest on Ash Wednesday, with the words, “Remember dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” which two customs gave these days their names, are lost, but still Shrove Tuesday is universally observed as the last day of Carnival, the feast of pancakes; and Ash Wednesday is still the first day of the Lenten Fast.
At Chester-le-Street, in the County of Durham, there is a strange custom in vogue on Shrove Tuesday. All the tradesmen close their premises, a football is thrown into the streets, sides are taken, and the whole afternoon the ball is kicked 79 with no little horseplay, and with no apparent object in view. It is not scientific football. It is merely the relic of the times when full vent had to be given to the “feelings” on the day before settling down to the solemnity of the Lenten Fast.
A similar custom prevails also at Sedgefield and Alnwick, and was formerly common at Rothbury and Wooler.
At Durham Cathedral on this day there is a yet quainter and more grotesquely explained custom. Little children from the city, where all the schools have holiday, come and play within the precincts of the Cathedral. They run, and try in vain to raise the fixed knocker of the dragon’s head on the north door, and they say they expect their pancakes to fall from its opening mouth. How comes this thought? Very simply. In early days, doles of pancakes, and perhaps other food, were given by the Benedictine Monks of Durham on this day to the poor who came and knocked for them on this selfsame knocker. The knocking is still kept up, though the pancakes are no longer given. This Shrove-tide custom of the children is a standing witness to the kind-hearted generosity of the much-beslandered monks of the Middle Ages.80
There is an old rhyme in the North Country which forms a popular mnemonic for the last Sundays in Lent and Easter Sunday. It runs thus: —
“Tid, Mid Miser—a,
Carling, Palm, and Paste Egg day.
Every Sunday has a name
Tid, Mid come again.”
It is a quatrain well worth explaining. “Tid” is undoubtedly the old Anglo-Saxon “teoþa,” tenth, from which comes tithe, and as the first ten days of Lent are just over on the second Sunday in Lent, it is called Tid Sunday. Counting from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before Tid Sunday, are just ten days. We must omit the first Sunday in Lent from count, since in the forty days of Lent Sundays are not reckoned.
“Mid” is the shortened form of Mid-Lent, Reflection or Refreshment Sunday, concerning which Aelfric has a very interesting homily in Anglo-Saxon on the Gospel for the day taken from the account of the feeding of the Five Thousand — hence “Refreshment.” The French call it Mi-carême, and hold a carnival on it.
It is also called “Mothering” Sunday, for which several reasons are assigned. The Epistle 81 for the day speaks of us as being the children of our mother, the free woman, Jerusalem above, which is the mother of us all. Another reason is found in the custom, once prevalent among people belonging to outlying churches and chapels of ease, of paying a visit to the “mother” church on this day. A third reason is found in one of those simple and affectionately-filial customs which shed such sunbeam rays upon the stern harshness of olden times. When the parents’ roof had been left, and the children had formed homes for themselves, it became in olden times a custom of natural piety to visit their parents, and especially to see their mother, who, in days when women went abroad but little, would have no opportunity of going to see them. This was called “Going a-mothering,” and was the practice on Mid-Lent Sunday. Of course in these annual visits to their mother, the grown-up children would naturally take some little present, such as a cake of better quality than usual. These cakes were called “simnel” cakes, a name of German origin, though the derivation has been given from Latin simila, that is, fine flour, from this fact that the presented cakes were of richer materials than usual.82
Much of the beauty as well as the antiquity of this custom may be indirectly gathered from Herrick’s allusion to it in his graceful little poem to Dianeme: —
“I’ll to thee a simnel bring
’Gainst thou go a-mothering;
So that when she blesses thee
Half that blessing thou’lt give me.”
After all, we believe that these two last customs of visiting the mother church and the parents’ roof are closely connected, and probably the suitability of this day for both was suggested primarily by the teaching of the Epistle.
The simnel cake is still made in various parts of the North Country, but its religious significance, as well as filial purpose, was attested to in earlier times by the fact that it was marked with a figure of Christ or the Virgin Mary.
These simnel cakes may after all belong to some still older custom of pagan origin, for our Anglo-Saxon ancestors were particularly fond of eating consecrated cakes at their religious festivals. This naturally brings our thoughts to the still more universally kept custom of eating hot cross buns on Good Friday.
“Hot cross buns” are simply the cakes which 83 the pagan Saxons used to eat in honour of Eostre the Goddess, who has bequeathed a name to our greatest festival.
There is a great deal of truth in what Macaulay says in his Essay on Milton: — “The multitude is more easily interested for the most unmeaning badge, or the most insignificant name, than for the most important principle.” Hence he implies the tendency of Christianity to assume much that was originally pagan, and give it the stamp of consecration. “Patron saints assumed the offices of household gods. St. George took the place of Mars; St. Elmo consoled the mariner for the loss of Castor and Pollux.” For the self-same reason the clergy, no doubt, considered it more politic to Christianise a custom, and make it an instructive object lesson, than to abolish it with much difficulty and much wounding of their people’s feelings. So Eostre’s cakes became marked with a cross.
However, to return to the couplet: —
“Tid, Mid Miser—a,
Carling, Palm, and Paste Egg day.”
Here we are now presented with the difficulty of Misera. Ordinarily it is explained as being a corruption of “Miserere,” and so a term 84 for the whole season of Lent. The “ — a” is probably attached in order to rhyme with “day.” This was an expedient very frequently resorted to in the doggerel verses of mediæval times. Shakespeare himself uses it; for example, in the “Winter’s Tale” we have —
“Jog on, jog on, the foot path way
And merrily hent the stile—a
A merry heart goes all the day
Your sad tires in a mile—a.
So then we may accept “Miser—a” as denoting the season wherein these Sundays come.
“Carling” Sunday is the fifth Sunday in Lent, when “carlings” are eaten. This seems a custom extant only in the North Country, and most genuinely kept up in Tyneside. Carlings are ordinary brown peas fried and eaten with sugar, and some kind of alcoholic liquor. There are several traditional stories given to explain the custom. One is that long ago some vessel belonging to the Tyne was becalmed. The sailors had used all their provisions, and were on the verge of starvation, when suddenly they remembered that their cargo consisted of peas, and on these they subsisted until they reached their anxious, and already despairing friends. 85 Another story runs that some town in the North Country — what town is not exactly stated — was besieged long ago, and the inhabitants were almost starved out, when a vessel forced its way into the harbour with a cargo of peas on Carling Sunday, and this enabled the citizens to hold out until help arrived. These are the commonly-given versions, but doubtless some deeper reason underlies the custom. There must have been something extraordinary to originate a custom that has taken such a hold upon the people. But even allowing that either of the stories is perfectly true, this will account only for the custom of the eating of the peas, and not for the name “Carling.”
Looking at the other names in the quatrain for Sundays, we notice the majority are drawn from the teaching of the day, and that they are Anglo-Saxon in origin. From this analogy we come to the conclusion that this name also is derived from the teaching of the day, and that it is of Anglo-Saxon origin. Carefully examining the word, we see that it comes from Anglo-Saxon “Caru,” grief, pain. But what has this to do with the fifth Sunday in Lent? Why, it is on this Sunday that the teaching is given concerning Christ’s first 86 intimations to His disciples of His coming Passion. The diminutive form is used because they are only the first intimations.
So then “Carling” Sunday is simply the equivalent for “Passion” Sunday, its common name throughout Christendom. The name of the Sunday has been given to the peas, and not vice-versâ.
Palm Sunday, as commemorating the triumphal entry into Jerusalem has always been a marked day in the Christian year. The antiquity of its popular observation is referred to in Sir W. Scott’s “Castle Dangerous,” where we see a deadly feud laid aside for awhile, the combatants meanwhile attending the Palm Sunday service at the neighbouring “border” chapel. The palmers of the Crusade period with their real palms would give the popular demonstrations on the day a fresh fillip. It has been sometimes called “Willow Sunday,” because the willow catkins are then in their spring glory, and are used as decorations, insomuch that to country people they become the “palms.” The exceedingly quaint Palm Sunday custom at Caistor, in Lincolnshire, discontinued about fifty years ago, of the representative of the Broughton estate presenting 87 thirty pieces of silver on the end of a gad-whip after the reading of the second lesson, has reference to the betrayal by Judas for that sum, as narrated in the lesson.
Of “Paste Egg Day,” we need but observe that paste is a natural enough corruption in common parlance of “pasch,” that is Paschal or Easter.
One other important day in Lent must not be forgotten, for it originated several quaint customs. Maundy Thursday, so called from the first Antiphon, “Mandatum novum do vobis,” was celebrated in monasteries by the washing of feet and the giving of food and money to paupers. Of this there is still a vestige surviving in the distribution of Maundy Money by the Queen’s Almoner.