Vikings at Sherwood Pines 2019

This past weekend saw Viking reenactors from Regia Anglorum groups across the country gather at a place known as Thynghowe in Sherwood Pine Forest Park for the annual event known as ‘The Spring Thing’.

At 3,300 acres, Sherwood Pines is the largest park in the East Midlands of England. Lying close to the historic village of Edwinstowe in Nottinghamshire, it is a part of the ancient Sherwood Forest and was originally known as Clipstone Heath. It was acquired by the Forestry Commission in 1925 and replanted with pine trees as part of a response to a shortage of wood following the First World War. Today, activities are offered throughout the year, including cycling, mountain biking and segway, camping, walking, jogging, a park run, orienteering and bushcraft, a children’s adventure trail, tree climbing and ranger activities. There is also a Robin Hood hideout and Kitchener’s Trail, a café and visitor centre, and the site is perfect for a family day out – even when no event is scheduled (which in addition to the Viking Spring Thing, include various concerts and musical events as well as outdoor activities).

So, why is this spot in Sherwood Pines a perfect site for Viking gatherings and reenactments every year, and what is Thynghowe?

Thynghowe, meaning ‘thingsite’, is the name given to an important Viking Age open-air assembly place situated at the top of Hangar Hill on the western edge of Sherwood Forest, so is very close to the site where this event is held. It was (re)discovered in 2005. Vikings met at such sites for their annual ‘Thyng’ – which generally lasted for several days – during which time disputes were settled, laws were signed, punishments for crimes decided upon, marriages arranged and such like. Each community had its own Thyng/Thing/Althing, most likely dominated by a local, powerful family or families. Thyngs were often festive affairs, with tents, stalls/booths set up so goods could be bought and sold, including plenty of ale and mead.

Several such sites are known across the Viking world, including the famous Thingvellir in Iceland and Tinwald in the Isle of Man, both of which I’ve visited, plus others in the Faroe Islands, the Shetland and Orkney islands, the Scottish Highlands (Dingwall), the Wirral in England… In other words, wherever Vikings chose to settle.

The gathering at Thynghowe was an equally festive affair, with lots of tents and stalls set up to demonstrate the Viking way of life, including cooking methods and a number of important occupations and crafts. These are a selection of photos we took around the camp as we walked round:

Here is a very short video we made of the wood turner, who was making spokes for cartwheels, while the stall next door made the actual wheels.

The stall holders/reenactors were only too happy to answer questions and chat in general. The happy-looking man in the picture below spent some time explaining not only about how Viking shields were made, but about the fabulous reenactment goup, Regia Anglorum.

This delightful, hard-working lady below also deserves our thanks for taking the time to explain and demonstrate how she was creating bast from lime wood for use in rope making. Rope made from lime bast fibre was not only important for many things around the village, but the fact that it didn’t shrink when wet (unlike rope made from hemp) made it perfect for use in the building of ships. In the photos she is stripping the bark off lime tree trunks to obtain the strands of fibre behind. After a good soaking in water, the bast is rendered soft enough to twist and plait together to make rope.

And this Viking warrior was obviously having a bad hair day. His hairdresser/friend was giving his hair a good comb, while he complained about his unruly, frizzy hair. Oh, the vanity of men! Naturally, I just had to have a feel of such frizz.

In the morning we were treated to preparatory bouts and skirmishes before the big battle planned for the afternoon. The commentary was excellent throughout, with explanations of the moves and battle tactics of the warriors, weapon use and so on. In the afternoon, there were three arena events to watch. The first was a demonstration of horsemanship.

The second an archery competition and finally, the actual battle.

To finish off, here’s a cute mini-warrior who made me smile:


A Night at the Pantomime

One of the Christmas traditions we still hold on to in the UK is that of the yearly pantomime – or ‘panto’, as it is often called. Last year, we decided to make our first visit to the pantomime in many years, and headed into Lincoln to see Aladdin at the New Theatre Royal.

Having enjoyed it so much, we decided to see if this year’s production, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was as much fun. We weren’t disappointed. Unfortunately, as last year, we weren’t allowed to take any photos once the production had started, but we were told it would be okay to take photos from around the theatre once all the spectators had left. This photo of the stage screen (for want of the correct name) was taken before the show started, and because it doesn’t show any people, I decided it should be okay:

These are a few more  photos from around the theatre and foyer:

The New Theatre Royal is a very special place to the people of Lincoln. The Victorian theatre was built in 1893 on the site of a previous theatre built in 1806 which had been destroyed by fire. (The old, 1806 theatre was, in turn, a rebuild of an even older Lincoln  theatre built in 1764 – though not on the same site.) The 1893 theatre was falling rapidly into a state of disrepair when the current owners bought it in 2016. After extensive refurbishment and modernisation, this Grade II listed building now looks fabulous.  Snow White is the third pantomime produced here since the theatre was restored – the interior design created to resemble the 1893 interior as closely as possible. We didn’t take any photos of the outside, but I found this one on Wikipedia:

Frontage of the New Theatre Royal, Lincoln. 2 Feb. 2017. Source/Author: New Theatre Royal

We were also told we could take photos from the brochure, so here are three of the cast – a mix of professional actors and comedians, resident stars and local groups.

So, what exactly is a pantomime, and what can we expect when we go to see one?

The actual word pantomime is formed from two words: panto+mime, which means ‘all kinds’ of ‘mime’. It is a type of musical comedy designed for family entertainment. In many countries outside of Britain, pantomime usually refers to mime alone, whereas here it includes songs, bawdy jokes, slapstick, topical humour and dancing, all wrapped around the telling of a story, loosely based on a well-known fable, fairy story or folk tale. Some of the most popular stories include Cinderella, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, Dick WhittingtonJack and the Beanstalk, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Babes in the  Wood and Peter Pan. They are performed over the Christmas and New Year season in many towns and cities across the UK, as well as a few other English speaking countries and France. Some of the larger, city theatres employ professional actors, but there are many pantomimes produced by smaller theatres and amateur dramatic societies.

Pantomime has a long history in Western culture, dating back to the classical theatre. It is generally accepted that British pantomime stems from the masques of Tudor and Stuart times. In the 14th century, masques were performed in the large houses of the rich and were either spoken dramas or musical mime. The timing of the British pantomime at Christmas – with the principal  boy played by a girl and the Dame by a man – may have originated in the Feast of Fools in Tudor times. This was presided over by the ‘Lord of Misrule’ and involved much drinking and rowdy merrymaking.

Hare chasing, riding a dog. Medieval tile found at the Friary Derby, UK. Source: The Reliquary, vol 3 no.2 Oct 1862. Author: Llewellynn Jewitt. Public Domain

The idea of the selection of the Lord of Misrule himself is thought to have originated in the days of mighty Rome, when masters allowed servants to be in charge for a while during the mid-winter festival of Saturnalia. The result? Chaos reigned.

There is so much more to the history of pantomime than I have outlined here – from the days of Roman pantomime at Saturnalia to the origins of a 17th century French comic genre called the Harlequinade. The latter is the part of a pantomime in which the characters of the Harlequin and Clown play the main parts. Until the 19th century, the harlequinade was an important part of British pantomime. For anyone interested, there are many online sites to delve into.

Pantomime F Warne & Co. 1890. Author: User Wetman on en Wikipedia. Public Domain

Pantomime contains certain key elements that spectators expect to see in every performance. In addition to a strong story line, slapstick (custard pies, silly costumes etc.) and music and dance, a few of those elements are:

        • Audience participation. This usually includes the audience booing the villain every time he/she appears, shouting out ‘He’s behind you!’ when a wolf or villain arrives on stage and taking part in the two-way argument: ‘Oh yes he is!’ .  . . ‘Oh no it isn’t!’
        • Goodies and baddies – and the villain is always defeated by the end of the show. Baddies include characters like Captain Hook in Peter Pan and the Wicked Queen in Snow White. The goodies all live ‘happily ever after’.
        • A group of juveniles, generally as singers and dancers, but not always. It the version of Snow White that we saw, youngsters played the seven dwarfs, although there were a few older ‘teenagers’ amongst the dancers.
        • Comical fights and chases, during which the audience warning shouts of ‘He’s behind you’ come into play.
        • Role reversal/gender-crossing actors – men dressed as women and women as men. Examples of men dressed as women are Widow Twankey in Aladdin , and the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella. Also in Cinderella we have a woman playing a male called ‘Buttons’.
        • A key, gender-crossing character in every pantomime is the ‘Dame’, a man outrageously dressed as a woman and whose performance is exaggerated and extravagant. Widow Twankey in Aladdin and  and Nurse Flossy in Snow White are examples, as is this ‘large’ female from an 1887 production of Babes in the Wood. I’ll make no comment regarding the appearance of the ‘child’ other than, ‘Oink, oink’!
          Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell in costume for the 1897 pantomime, The babes in the Wood at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Source: The Sketch, Illustrated London News, 19 January 1898. Public Domain.
          • The Dame is generally played by an oldish, unattractive man who interacts with the two principal characters and is instrumental to the plot and the happy ending. It is thought that role reversal may have also evolved from the ‘Feast of Fools’ of Tudor times, in which the Lord of Misrule created an unruly, raucous event involving role reversal, a lot of drinking and noisy festivities. As I mentioned above, the whole idea probably originated in the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

The New Theatre Royal continues to be a popular venue in Lincoln. There are shows during the year, and in 2019 they kick off with The Variety Show on January 26 and The Wizard of Oz over the Easter period (April 13-23). And next Christmas, we can look forward to the pantomime, Robin Hood, for which bookings can already be made! Yes, pantomime continues to be a popular as ever in Lincoln – and by no means is the New Theatre Royal the only place to see one – but it is nice and comfortable, and full of old world charm…

A Celebration of Christmas Trees at Doddington Hall

Doddington Hall is situated in the Lincolnshire village of Doddington, about seven miles from the city of Lincoln. It was built between 1593 and 1600 by Robert Smythson, one of England’s most renowned architects.  The Hall has a large estate on which Christmas trees are grown and a careful programme of planting/replanting is carried out. We have bought our tree from here for many years now.

For the past six or seven years Doddington Hall has opened its doors for the Christmas season, this year from November 25 to December 23. The rooms are decorated to a particular festive theme each year, this year ‘s being simply, Christmas at Doddington. Last year the theme was Christmas in Wonderland, which can be seen here  and the previous year’s was A Fairytale Christmas, here. Both were a delight to see.
Christmas trees were first planted at Doddington 60 years ago and this year’s theme in is celebration of that, with decorations inspired by the carol O Christmas Tree. A great selection of Christmas trees adorn the rooms and hallways, all different in size and shape, and each decorated differently by using an incredible array of objects and materials. Some of the ‘trees’ are actual trees, others are created from either natural vegetation or seasonal/festive items such as drinking glasses and wine bottles. It’s all very colourful and in keeping with the Georgian ‘feel’ of the hall – the period in which Doddington was refurbished in the style it still looks today. And once through the front door, passing a tiny ‘tree’ decorated with good old Brussels Sprouts!. . .

. . . we’re straight into the large dining room. Here are some photos of how it looks this year. Most of the small ‘trees’ are along the dining table, others sat on smaller tables or window ledges:

By the entrance to the hall from the dining room is a little room in which we found another ‘tree’ made of bottles, these containing varying amounts of liquids – presumably of the original wine, spirit or liqueur:

Also on the ground floor was the parlour, an interesting room, in keeping with Victorian  entertainments and parlour games, as played following the popularising of the Christmas tree by Prince Albert in 1840.

Waiting in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs was a very smiley and welcoming ‘Head Elf’. . .

. . . who we had a little chat with before heading up the impressive staircase. . .

. . . to reach the first and second floors – with Christmas trees hanging on the landings between:

On the first floor landing itself was… yes!… another tree! A real spruce this time:

 On this floor there were three rooms open to the public, although we took no photos in one because it was too dark, and we assumed flash photography wasn’t allowed. One room was a small child’s bedroom, in which was a Scots Pine Christmas tree:

The other room on this floor served is the drawing room (or, withdrawing room) – to which genteel ladies would retreat after dinner, leaving the men to talk politics – or whatever! This room was very unusual, in that a number of ladies’ dresses had been created out of… yes, again!… Christmas trees (real ones), along with other bird-inspired decorations:

Eventually we got to the second/top floor, passing on the landing en-route a Christmas tree hanging from the ceiling to display its roots!

There are two rooms on view at the ‘ top’. One was decorated to show the inside of an Egyptian tent – a real one, too. The tree was lovely, displaying colourful roses, made of  thin card, as far as we could tell. We wondered whether the ‘roses’ were to represent  ‘sand roses’ found in desert environments:

This is a little bit about the actual tent (not the roses) from a much longer piece in the room:

The tent was made around 1880 in Cairo, where similar tents are still used today for weddings, festivals and fairs. It was given to Doddington by Viscount Harry Crookshank, who was MP for (nearby) Gainsborough for over 31 years, until 1961. He was born in Cairo, where his father was Surgeon General and the tent was part of his father’s ‘Eastern Curiosities’.

Lastly is the largest upstairs room, This year it displayed models of a village and nearby railway on a Christmas Eve.

Doddington  Hall at Christmas is a delight for people of all ages to soak up the historic, Christmassy atmosphere. At £11 per adult and £5.50 per child (under 3 years free and  family entry £29) it isn’t particularly cheap. But for the time and energy that the staff put into these displays, it’s well worth a visit. Bookings can also be made for children to visit Father Christmas in his grotto on certain days.


Christmas in Wonderland at Doddington Hall

Doddington Hall is a large mansion or ‘prodigy house’ built between 1593 and 1600 by Robert  Smythson, one of England’s most renowned Elizabethan architects. It is situated in the village of Doddington in Lincolnshire, just outside the historic city of Lincoln. The hall is complete with a gate house and lovely gardens, including a walled garden, and has remained in the same family for 400 years. The Hall itself is surrounded by the extensive Doddington Estate, part of which is devoted to the sustainable growing of several species of Christmas trees which are sold on the site every year.

This year, Doddington Hall is once more open to the public for the festive season, decorated with another Christmassy theme. It is open from November 25 – December 22 and, for the first time, it will also be open on December 28 and 29. Last year the theme was A Fairytale Christmas (which I wrote about here) and the 2017 theme is Christmas in Wonderland – meaning the Wonderland from the Lewis Carroll story of Alice in Wonderland.

Alice Falling Down the Rabbit Hole. Image from Shutterstock

On our approach to the hall was an unusual sleigh pulled by unicorns.

This is not as strange as it may seem, considering that unicorns are on the family crest, and there are topiary unicorns to welcome visitors at the front entrance. On the front door was a Christmas wreath, in keeping with this year’s theme, in which TIME plays a dominant part, thanks to the White Rabbit’s obsession with it.

Once through the door, we were straight into the Great Hall, which this year is devoted to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Image courtesy of Pixabay

The long table in the middle was set out with colourful foods, and sleeping in a teapot we found the Dormouse. Side tables displayed a variety of decorative objects associated with the tea party, some of them created from newspaper:

The next room we entered on the ground floor was decorated with all things pertaining to the White Rabbit. Watches and clocks seemed to dominate the room, not to mention the wonderful  papier maché version of the White Rabbit himself:

From there we headed out to the ground floor hall, where a table invited us to eat and drink…

Naturally, we declined the kind offers of refreshment and headed for the stairs, all aptly decked out with roses and playing cards, all the way up to the top floor:

The first room we entered on the first floor was the Queen of Hearts’ bedroom, complete with the necessary jam tarts:

Also on this floor was  what we called the Roses Room. Painting the Roses Red is a song featured in the 1951 Disney film of Alice in Wonderland.

We carried on up the stairs to the top (second) floor, where we found a dodo waiting for us. The photo is a bit ‘glary’ but it’s the only one we took.

One room on this floor was dedicated to the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, known for repeating the question Whooo Are Youuu?

Alice in Wonderland by Arthur Rackham: Advice From a Caterpillar. Public Domain

Lastly, we had a look in the Long Gallery which is also on the top floor. Last year this room was dedicated to the Ice Queen. The snowy woodland scene was similar this year, minus the purple lights, but instead of the Ice Queen’s throne was a display of flamingos. Small flamingos also hung on the trees in place of Christmas baubles. (Flamingos are the birds used by the Queen of Hearts in a croquet game).

One room wasn’t open when we were there as some of the ‘elf helpers’ hadn’t arrived. Perhaps some of the characters from the story that we couldn’t find were in there – including the Cheshire Cat. But as we were going on to see the pantomime, Aladdin, later on, we hadn’t time to wait and see.


Some Well-Dressed Wells in Derbyshire

Well dressing involves the dressing, or decorating, of wells and springs with flower petals, and, as such, it is sometimes known as well flowering. The custom is an ancient one and seems to be unique to England. It is particularly associated with the limestone villages of the Peak District of Derbyshire and parts of Staffordshire (which I’ll say more about in the next few posts) although one or two other areas also practise the tradition.

Map of the Peak District National Park, UK. Source: Office of National Statistics Geography. Ordnance Survey OpenData. Author: Nilfanion, created using O.S. data

The origins of the custom are still uncertain. Some maintain it could have developed from a pagan custom of sacrificing to the gods of wells and springs in order to ensure the continuing supply of fresh water. As many other traditions, it was later adopted by the Christian Church as a means of giving thanks to God for supplies of drinking water. A tradition of well dressing in the Malverns (a range of hills in Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucester) dates from the 12th and 13th centuries.

Some sources hold that the practice began following the Black Death (plague) of 1348-9. A third of the population of England was wiped out at that time, although a few of the villages were untouched.

The Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) by Michael Wolgemut in 1493. Public Domain

The people of those fortunate villages attributed their luck to the clean fresh water supply from their wells and started dressing them as a way of giving thanks. Still other people believe the custom arose during a prolonged drought of 1615 when people celebrated their own wells’ reliability. Then there are those who attribute the custom to the time of another plague – the Great Plague of 1665 – during which time many Derbyshire villages, including Eyam, were decimated. Yet some villages had remained untouched, like nearby Tissington, and the people gave thanks at their wells for their deliverance.

Whatever its origins, well dressing seems to have disappeared for some time in most Derbyshire villages, with only a few still celebrating it in the 19th century. The main one of those villages was Tissington, as mentioned by Ebenezer Rhodes in his book ‘Peak Scenery’ in 1835. The custom was introduced in the town of Buxton in 1840 and was  recorded as being followed in Wirksworth in 1860. With the arrival of piped water supplies, the tradition was extended to include the dressing of not only wells, but taps, too.

The custom of well dressing rose and fell in popularity over the following years. Then, in the 1930s, the Shinwell family of Tideswell made considerable efforts to revive it. Well dressing has since been restored in many villages and small towns and, throughout the summer months, it is one of the attractions that draws people from all over the world to Derbyshire.

Today, the first well dressings are in May, with Tissington village being the first. Naturally, the flower petals don’t last for long, so the villages follow a regular calendar each year. While we  were in Derbyshire last week, we managed to visit four of the five places with newly dressed wells for that week.

Our first view of well dressings was in Buxton, a spa town which has the reputation of having  ‘the highest elevation …. of any market town in England’. These are a few ph0tos of the three ‘dressed’ wells in the town:

The next well dressing we visited was in the busy village of Hathersage. (Little John of the Robin Hood stories is said to have been born in Hathersage and buried in the churchyard there.) These are photos of the well we found. The theme of this one, as can be seen on the board itself, is ‘Give Peace a Chance’.

Peak Forest was the third of the well dressing villages we got to. It’s a small village and its one ‘well dressing’ was beside a tap. The theme was a very rural one:

On the last day of our stay in Derbyshire we headed out to the small town of Chapel-en-le-Frith (which translates from the Norman French as Chapel in the Forest). We found seven well dressings here, all with the theme of ‘Famous Britons’. Some had been created by children’s groups.

The construction of a well dressing is a long and skilful process which can take up to ten days. It often involves the whole population of the village. First, wooden frames are constructed and wet clay is spread to a depth of a couple of inches across the wooden backing board. The required design is sketched out on paper and ‘pricked out’ onto the wet clay.  The picture is then filled out with natural materials such as flower petal and leaves, entire flower heads, moss, sheep’s wool, wheat or barley straw, berries and nuts e.g. beech nuts, as on the Buxton Children’s well, and even immature fruits like the tiny apples on the Isaac Newton well dressing in Chapel-en-le-Frith. Coloured (or painted) stones, pebbles and gravel are sometimes used, too.

Throughout the well dressing season, some of the villages hold festivals or galas and decorate the streets with colourful and fun models. These are a few we came across in Hathersage:

It was very enjoyable visiting all these wells and looking at how they’re constructed. I think next year we’ll try to get out to Tissington in May. It’s a very quaint village, only a couple of miles from where we were staying, and we met some lovely ‘locals’ there. We’re looking forward to going back.

April Fools’ Day

April Fools’ Day, or All Fools’ Day, as it was originally called, is observed throughout the Western world and is generally celebrated by playing pranks on people, sending someone on a ‘fool’s errand’, looking for things that don’t exist or getting them to believe ridiculous things. It has been celebrated for several centuries, although its origins still remain a mystery.

Some historians have linked April Fools’ Day to ancient festivals such as that of Hilaria in Rome, when people would dress up in disguises. It is also thought that the day could have been part of the celebrations of the spring/vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. The reasoning here is that this was a time of the year when Mother Nature fooled people with the unpredictable and variable weather  – something she continues to do in this part of the world!

Then there are historians who believe the custom originated in France in 1582, when the the old, Julian Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar, as ordered by Pope Gregory XIII. The new calendar involved a shift of the date of New Year’s Day from the end of March to January 1st. People who continued to observe the former, end of March date, were labelled as ‘fools’ and as such, had jokes and hoaxes played on them. One of these hoaxes involved ‘fools’ having paper fish stuck on their backs and being labelled poisson d’ avril (April Fish). The title is said to be the symbol of a young, easily caught fish – and a gullible person.

The tradition continues today in France, as well as other French-speaking areas, including Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland and Canada.

Unfortunately there are problems with the theory that April Fools’ Day started at the time of the change in calendars, the first being that there is no definite historical evidence for it, only conjecture – which seems to have been made relatively recently. Another problem lies in the fact that it doesn’t fit in with the spread of April Fools’ Day in other countries. In England, the Gregorian Calendar wasn’t adopted until 1752, but April Fools’ Day was already well established here by then.

In most parts of the Netherlands, the origin of April Fools’ Day is attributed to the Dutch victory at Brielle in 1572. During this encounter the Spanish Duke Alvarez de Toledo was defeated. The Dutch proverb, Op 1 avril verloor at Brielle translates to On the first of April, Alva lost his glasses. The glassses – or bril in Dutch – serve as a metaphor for Brielle. This date continues to be celebrated every year in the Netherlands with mock battles…

Ready for battle geuzenarmy dressed for attack Brielle. 1 April 2015. Author: Peter van der Sluijs. Creative Commons

…and a tradition called Kalknacht (Lime Night) in which people use lime chalk to write slogans and draw pictures on windows. Kalknacht stems from the actions of locals who painted chalk on the doors of those who were loyal to the Spanish. Unfortunately, as with the French theory, this story gives no explanation for the celebration of April Fool’s Day in countries elsewhere either.

During the 18th century, April Fools’ Day spread throughout Britain. In Scotland it became known as Huntingowk Day, the celebrations lasting for two days. Gowk is a Scottish word meaning cuckoo, or foolish person. The first day started with running the cuckoo. The prank involved asking someone to deliver a sealed message, supposedly asking for some kind of help. In reality, the message read Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile. On reading this, the recipient explains he can only help if he contacts another person, and sends the ‘victim’ on with an identical message. And so it continues.

April Fools’ Day jokes and pranks are played on people in many countries today, but I don’t intend to do them all! So I’ll just outline a little about the day in the UK and allow everyone else to have a think about how the day is celebrated (if at all) where you live.

An April fool in Denmark, regarding Copenhagen’s new subway. It looks as if one of the cars had an accident and has broken through and surfaced in the square in front of the town hall. In reality, it was a retired subway car from Stockholm, cut obliquely, with the front end placed on the tiling and the loose tiles scattered around. Public Domain

Here in the UK, the earliest association between April 1, pranks and general foolishness, can be found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in 1392. Over the years, jokers, jesters and jokesters have  become the images associated with April Fools’ Day.

In modern times, people have gone to extremes to create really elaborate hoaxes (and not just in the UK). Newspapers and the media in general have all taken part in a variety of these. Perhaps the most well-known and outrageous hoax ever pulled in the UK was in 1957 on BBC TV (in the days when all British newsreaders and presenters spoke with a very ‘posh’ accent – which became known as a BBC accent).

This film was shown on Panorama, a current affairs series which was, on this occasion, supposedly showing Swiss farmers picking freshly grown spaghetti. The programme was called the  Swiss Spaghetti Harvest. Following the programme the BBC was inundated with requests as to where spaghetti plants could be bought! 

Despite being very popular since the mid-nineteenth century, April Fool’s Day is not a public holiday in the UK. And in the UK and countries whose traditions derive from the UK, the pranks and hoaxes cease at midday. After that time the person attempting to make an April Fool of someone becomes the April Fool him/herself.

Today, there are mixed opinions regarding the practice of April Fool pranks. Some people see them – especially the ones orchestrated by the media – as a terrible duping of the public. April Fools’ Day hoaxes are seen as manipulative, creepy, deceitful and altogether nasty. The adverse effect of the media hoaxes is that “When genuine news is published on April Fools’Day, it is occasionally misinterpreted as a joke”.

Others see the day as being good for the health in that it brings the benefits of laughter, which include stress relief and the reduction of stain on the heart.

And on that positive note, I’ll finish off.

April Fools’ Day History

What is Burns Night?

Robert Burns, 1787. Source unknown. Author originally Alexander Nasmyth, 1758 - 1840. Public Domain
Robert Burns, 1787. Source unknown. Author originally Alexander Nasmyth, 1758 – 1840. Public Domain

Burns Night is held on or near the birthday of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796) on January 25th. It is a celebration of the poet’s life and poetry – and is celebrated in countries worldwide, generally wherever Scottish people have settled over the years. It’s a night for celebrating Scotland’s national poet, Robert (Rabbie) Burns, by eating a lot, drinking a lot of whisky and partying! Celebrations range from ceilidhs to whisky tasting and Burns Suppers.

Before I go on about what happens at a Burns Supper, here’s a cute little YouTube video about Robert Burns himself from aboutscotland:

The video is nice and simple but it does leave out a lot of detail about Burns’ life and poetry – and the fact that in 2009, Burns was chosen as the greatest Scot by the Scottish public in a vote run by Scottish TV channel STV – narrowly beating William (Braveheart) Wallace. Nor does it tell us that Rabbie Burns was the eldest of seven children. (Only one brother is mentioned in the video.)

The first Burns Supper was held at Burns Cottage (where the poet was born) by Burns’ friends on the 21st July 1801 – the fifth anniversary of his death. They have been a regular occurrence ever since. Suppers can be simple gatherings to big formal dinners.

Burns Cottage in Alloway. Transferred to de. Wikipedia by Malisin. Creative Commons
Burns Cottage (now a museum) in Alloway. Transferred to de.Wikipedia by Maksim. Creative Commons

A formal dinner often involves a piper to welcome the guests until the high table is ready to be seated. This is followed by a round of applause and the chairperson’s welcome and outline of the evening’s entertainments.  Next comes the Selkirk Grace, also known as the Burns Grace at Kirkudbright (pronounced ker-koo-bree). These are the words to the prayer:

The Selkirk Grace

Some hae meat and canna eat

And some wad eat that want it

But we hae meat and we can eat

And sae the Lord be thankit.

The prayer is followed by the piping in of the haggis:

RCMP Pipes and Drums Band piping in the Haggus (not a typo!) at their annual Burns Supper. Author Gleniarson. Creative Commons
Haggis at a Burn’s Supper. Author: Kim Traynor. Creative Commons.

The address is in the form of a poem (aptly called Address to a Haggis) written by Burns in 1786. During the recital, the reader has a knife poised ready, and he cuts the casing along the length, making sure to spill out some of the gore. The recital ends with the reader raising the haggis in triumph during the final line as he yells, ‘Gie her a haggis!’ (the ‘her’ in this case being Scotland).

Cutting a haggis at a Burns Supper. Author: Kim Traynor. Creative Commons
Doctor Bob Purdie addressing the haggis during Burns Supper, Columba’s United Reformed Church, Oxford, 20004. Author: Kaihsu at English Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

The following video, uploaded to YouTube by Richard200sx, shows the piping in of the haggis, followed by quite a lengthy address. I’m sure many people, other than Scots, will have a hard time understanding what the ‘reader’ is saying, but as the poem is eight verses long, I’m only putting a translation of verse one here, with a link to the Wiki page for the rest for anyone interested.

 Address to a Haggis

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s me arm.


Nice seeing your honest, chubby face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Belly, tripe, or links:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.

Link to full translation here.

So now we all know that a haggis is just a big sausage!

A toast is then made to the haggis: ‘The haggis!’ At some of the larger events, the piper leads the procession carrying the opened haggis to the kitchen for serving to the appreciative clapping of the audience.

So what, exactly, is haggis is made of?

Although recipes vary slightly, the main ingredients of this Scottish dish seem to be a sheep’s stomach or ox cecum (found at the junction of the small and large intestine) for the outer bag. The inner stuffing is made up of the heart and lungs of a lamb (or calf’s offal) mixed with oatmeal and sometimes suet, and seasonings.

Not something  everyone would love – but there are many who do.

Haggis on a garnished platter with a knife used to cut it open in the "Address" to a haggis at a Burns Supper in Rochester, Minnesota. Author: Jonathunder. Creative Commons
Haggis on a garnished platter with a knife used to cut it open in the “Address” to a haggis at a Burns Supper in Rochester, Minnesota. Author: Jonathunder. Creative Commons

The actual meal consists of various courses, each served with plenty of wine or sometimes ale.  It generally starts with soup. This can be a Scottish broth, or sometimes cock-a-leekie. The main course, the haggis, is served with ‘tatties and neeps’ (potatoes and turnips):

Haggis served with tatties and neeps (turnips) at an Edinburgh Burns Supper in 201. Author: Kim Traynor. Creative Commons
Haggis served with tatties and neeps (turnips) at an Edinburgh Burns Supper in 201. Author: Kim Traynor. Creative Commons

The haggis itself is served with a whisky sauce, which is actually neat whisky!

Dessert is usually a typically Scottish recipe, such as cranachan  – made of whipped cream, whisky, honey and fresh raspberries, with toasted oatmeal soaked  in a little whisky.

"The Best Scottish Dessert" - Cranachan. Author: Saskia van de Nienwenhof from Edinburgh. Creative Commons
“The Best Scottish Dessert” – Cranachan. Author: Saskia van de Nienwenhof from Edinburgh. Creative Commons

Another popular dessert is tipsy laird (whisky trifle). Whichever is chosen, it is followed by oatcakes (bannocks) and cheese, all washed down with ‘uisge beatha’ – the water of life (i.e. Scotch whisky) and often coffee.

The rest of the evening is filled with entertainments, including singers and musicians performing Burns’ poetry. A speech is given on the life and literary genius of Rabbie Burns – and of course, his nationalism.

Further toasts and readings of Rabbie’s poems follow, as well as an ‘Addresss to the Lassies’. Originally, this was a short speech given by a male guest to thank the women who had prepared the meal. Nowadays it often includes the male speaker’s view on women – in an inoffensive and amusing way, of course. It is promptly followed by a response from a female speaker called an ‘Address to the Laddies’. This is delivered in similar, humorous vein to the male address.

The evening ends with a vote of thanks for the chair – who is often very unsteady on his feet by now. The guests are all asked to sing Auld Land Syne.

I’ve never attended a Burns Supper, but it seems I’ve been missing out here! I’m not sure I could stomach haggis (excuse the pun) and I’d have to request wine instead of whisky (even the smell of whisky knocks me out). But it does look a great evening’s entertainment.

This final picture is of Robert Burns’ house in Dumfries, where he spent the last years of his life. He died in 1796 at the age of 37.

Burns' house in Dumfries. Author: MSDMSD. Creative Commons
Burns’ house in Dumfries. Author: MSDMSD. Creative Commons


Robert Burns signature used for header image, from the above wiki link to Robert Burns. The image is Public Domain.

Here We Come A-Wassailing

Twelfth Night in a Devonshire orchard, (UK) circa 1863. Making noises near to the trees was common during wassailing. Farmers would bang on drums, trays and pots or fire off their guns in order to scare off evil spirits. Author unknown. Public Domain
Twelfth Night in a Devonshire orchard (UK) circa 1863. Making noises near to the trees was common during wassailing. Farmers would bang on drums, trays and pots or fire off their guns in order to scare off evil spirits. Author unknown. Public Domain

Here we are again on Twelfth Night, with no excuse whatsoever for continuing Christmas festivities after today. Very soon we’ll be seeing Easter Eggs in the shops! Oh my . . . Anyway, I decided to reblog this post from last year because I just love the version of the song, ‘Here We Come A Wassailing’ by Celtic Woman and David Archuleta and today is a good day for me to annoy everyone in our house by repeatedly singing it. I also love the whole idea of the Green Man, and have been intending to write a post about him since last January – which I’ll get round to, eventually. So, without another word about that, here’s the Wassailing post . . .

Millie Thom

Prelude to a Wassail. Broadmarsh Morris Men perform outside tha White Horse before heading for the orchard. Author: Glyn Baker. Creative Commons Prelude to a Wassail. Broadmarsh Morris Men perform outside the White Horse before heading for the orchard. Author: Glyn Baker. Creative Commons

Tomorrow is Twelfth Night, January 6th, the date traditionally accepted as the end of the Christmas period. It’s the day our Christmas trees and other decorations come down, to be stored away for another year. Nowadays, with many people returning to work straight after New Year’s Day – if not before – many households pack away all traces of Christmas festivities much earler.

In England, January 6th is also often remembered as the day for ‘wassailing’ – which is what this post is about. I’m posting it the day before so you can all get ready the following items for your own wassailing ritual: a nice big, stout stick; a mug of wassail (generally mulled cider, nowadays); a bucket ot the same wassail, with a good…

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Ring in the New Year!


Nowadays most new year celebrations around the world begin on December 31st, New Year’s Eve, and continue into the early hours of  January 1st, New Year’s Day. But this hasn’t always been the observed date.

The earliest New Year celebrations are believed to have been in Babylon (Mesopotamia) about 2000 BC. They took place in late March, at the time of the first new moon following the spring equinox. The festival was called Akitu, the name being derived from the Sumerian word for barley, which was harvested in the spring. Other ancient cultures celebrated the new year during different seasons: for the Egyptians, Phoenicians and Persians the new year began with the autumn equinox, and for the Greeks it was the winter equinox.

For the early Romans, the new year began on March 1st. At that time, the Roman calendar was only ten months, as created by Romulus,the legendary first king of Rome around 700 BC. January and February were added by the second Roman king, Numa Pomplius who reigned from 715 to 673 BC. The first time the new year was celebrated on January 1st in Rome was in 153 BC. It was moved to January as this was the time when two newly elected consuls began their one-year terms of office. But some people continued the tradition of starting the new year on March 1 – until Julius Caesar changed things by introducing the Julian calendar, which decreed that January 1st became the only observed date.

In medieval Europe the celebrations accompanying the new year were considered pagan and unchristian, and in 567 January 1st was abolished as the beginning of the new year. Throughout this period it was celebrated at various dates, including December 25 (the birth of Christ) March 1, March 25th  (the Feast of the Annunciation) and Easter. This situation lasted until 1582, when the Gregorian calendar was introduced (named after Pope Gregory X111). It was adopted by most Catholic countries almost immediately, but only gradually by Protestant ones. Britain did not adopt it until 1752 and until then, the British Empire, and the American colonies, continued to celebrate the new year in March.

Today, much of the world celebrates New Year on January 1, but there are several cultures that celebrate it on different dates. The Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, starts on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month of the Chinese calendar. It lasts for 23 days and ends on the 15th day of the first lunar month in the following year’s calendar.


The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is celebrated in September, and Diwali, India’s new year is in October. In Japan, the New Year holiday is one of the most important of the year. It is called Oshogatsu (New Years Days) as it is celebrated for three days, from January 1st-3rd. Sending cards to each other is an important aspect of the holiday. The Japanese Post Office holds all the cards back until January 1st when they are delivered, all over Japan!

There are many New Year traditions in different countries around the world and it would be impossible to mention them all, but here are just a few. Eating certain foods features in many traditions:

In Spain, a dozen grapes are eaten, one for every stroke of midnight, symbolising people’s hopes for the twelve months ahead. In other parts of the world, legumes are eaten as they are thought to resemble coins which suggest future financial success. In Italy, lentils are favoured and in the southern United States it’s black-eyed peas.

In Cuba, Austria, Hungary and Portugal, pork features on New Year’s Eve menus because pigs represent progress and prosperity, while in the Netherlands, Greece and Mexico, ring-shaped cakes and pastries are a sign that the year has come full circle. And lastly . . . in Norway and Sweden, rice pudding is served with an almond hidden in it. The person who finds it can look forward to twelve months of good fortune.

Other New Year traditions have nothing to do with food:

A Mexican tradition involves the colour of underwear a person chooses. Those who want to find love wear red, while those who seek wealth and luck wear yellow. In Ecuador they set fire to scarecrows filled with paper at midnight on New Year’s Eve to banish anything bad that happened in the past.

In the USA, the evening is celebrated with both formal parties and family activities and a variety of public events. One of the best known celebrations is held in Times Square in New York and is known as the ‘ball drop’. This involves a huge 12-foot/3.7m ball made of Waterford crystal and weighting 11,875-pound/5,386 kg, being lowered from the roof of Number One Times Square down a 77-foot-high flagpole*. The ball reaches the roof, 60 seconds later and signals the start of the new year.

*I came across three different heights for this. Two different Wikipedia sites gave 70 and 141 foot, respectively, and another site gave 77 foot. I went with the middle one.

New York Ball Drop Event for 2012 at Times Square. Author: Replytojain. Creative Commons
Ball Drop in Times Square, view from the Rockefeller Center, taken in August, 2011. Author: Erik Drost. Creative Commons

In Britain, it is traditional to stay up all night and welcome the new year in. It is often celebrated with parties and family get-togethers, toasts of champagne, singing and dancing and fireworks. As the clock in London known as Big Ben, strikes midnight, people all over the UK cross their arms across their chests, link hands and sing Auld Lang Syne to remind them of old and new friends. Many English homes also continue a custom similar to the first-footing described below as part of the Scottish Hogmanay celebrations. On the stroke of midnight, people open the back door to let the old year out and ask the first dark-haired man to be seen to come through the front door carrying salt, coal and bread. This means that the following year everyone in the house will have enough to eat (bread), enough money (salt) and be warm enough (coal). When I was a child, it was always my dark-headed dad who was booted out with his lump of coal, salt and bread a little before midnight. He generally came back in at midnight, when everyone linked up to sing Auld Lang Syne and wish each other a Happy New Year.  shutterstock_91873745

In Scotland, the New Year celebrations are called Hogmanay. Festivities involve drinking and revelry in traditional Scottish style which lasts for a day or two into the new year. One of the traditions is first-footing, whereby neighbours pay visits to each other at midnight imparting good wishes for the coming year. Traditionally, first foots brought along a gift of coal for the fire, or shortbread. (Some sites also include whisky and a black bun – a rich, dark fruitcake, encased in pastry). It is considered especially lucky if the first person to enter the house after the new year is rung in is a tall, dark, and handsome man.

The Edinburgh Hogmanay celebration is the largest in the country and one of the most famous New Year celebrations in the world. It is focused on a major street party along Princes Street. The cannon is fired at Edinburgh Castle on the stroke of midnight, followed by a large fireworks display.

Hogmanay fireworks in Edinburgh on New Year’s Eve, 1 January 2009. Author: Robbie Shade. Creative Commons

Scotland is also the birthplace of the well-known and well-loved New Year song, Auld Lang Syne. On New Year’s Eve we all gather together to sing the song that has become a part of the night’s festivities in many countries, despite most of us not knowing the words, let alone the meaning of them! So what is Auld Lang Syne all about . . .?

The Scottish poet, Robert Burns, was the first person to write down the lyrics of the poem in 1788, although a version had existed for almost 80 years before that time. Some of the lyrics were ‘collected’rather than composed by Burns. The ballad Old Long Syne, printed in 1711 by James Watson, shows many similarities and is most probably derived from the same old song. Burns is said to have sent a letter to the Scots Musical Museum with a note saying: The following song, an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man. 

The melody we know today did not appear until after Burns’ death and singing the song on Hogmanay soon became a tradition across Scotland. It rapidly spread to the rest of Britain, as well as the US and Canada.

As for the meaning of Auld Lang Syne, there are too many verses for me to add a translation of the whole song here, but the actual words, Auld Lang Syne, mean old long since – or times gone by in the old Scottish dialectThe song focuses on old friends and whether times past will be forgotten. It asks that we remember people of the past with fondness.

Here’s a translation of the first verse and chorus:

The Song

Verse One:
Should old acquaintances be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot
And auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

The Translation:

Verse One:
Should old acquaintance be forgotten
And never remembered?
Should old acquaintance be forgotten
For times gone by?

For times gone by, my dear,
For times gone by
We will take a cup of kindness yet
For times gone by.

To finish, here’s a version of Auld Lang Syne I found on YouTube. I love this version by the Scottish singer, Dougie MacLean. It was uploaded by saminnyc. I really wanted a version with bagpipes, but most versions with bagpipes did not have vocals. So I decided on this one. The Scottish voice more than makes up for the bagpipes:

All that remains for me to do now is to wish every one of you out there a wonderful and Happy New Year!


1. From History Vault:
2. From Info please:
3. From Protect Britain:
4. Various Wikipedia sites for info. and some of the images used in the post (others from Shutterstock or Pixabay).