In late March this year the weather suddenly warmed up. Spring seemed to burst out of everywhere here at Moonbrook Cottage, to cries of goshawks, chiffchaffs, skylarks and the later promise of the cookoo. Celandines, or star-flowers, cheered up the woods and moon-flowers, more commonly wood anemones, graced the shadows and verges.
It was during this time that I was approached by BBC’s Countryfile program regarding ideas for their feature on Easter traditions of Herefordshire. The Reformation led to goodness knows how many ancient customs dying out, banned for their perceived links to idolatry and ‘heathen’ ways. Thankfully some adapted and were transformed into folk traditions. The writings of medieval clerics are useful resources for early traditions, many now obsolete, and later accounts of antiquarians who made it their business to record the rather ‘quaint” customs of the ‘rustic’ countryfolk. As condescending as these sometimes may appear they remain useful. It is the Herefordshire folklorist, Ella Mary Leather from Weobley, who we can most rely on, a reliable curator of customs she collected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In the Middle Ages Maundy Thursday was also known as ‘Scher’ or ‘Sharp’ Thursday’. Writing in the14th century the Shropshire canon John Mirk stated that men would ‘dodde hor heddyus & clyp hor berdys’, that is shave their heads & trim their beards. This was done in penance or as an act of symbolic renewal before ‘Astyr- day’, Easter Sunday before which a priest should shave his crown so that ‘there schall nothing be bytwene God almyghty and hym’.
Writing in the eighth century, Bede asserted that ‘Easter’ (OE Eostor-monath) was so called after a spring goddess, Eostre. There is little corroboration for this but Easter does falls at a time of year that vibrates with the energy of new life and possibilities. The Anglo-Saxons referred to it in Old English as Ēastron or Eastre. King Alfred the Great declared a holiday for workers seven days either side of Easter Sunday, the celebration of Christ’s rising from the dead. The great festival of Easter likely echoed pre-Christian celebrations at this auspicious time of renewal when nature is flourishing in woods and fields: it is a time of hope and fresh starts and remains a time for celebration.
Here are a few other traditions.
In 1822 the Gentleman’s Magazine published a letter about a visit to Herefordshire where ‘the rustics have a custom called corn-showing’. It was described how they gathered in the fields at Easter to pick out ‘cockle’, a type of infestation, from the wheat. They took with them cake and cider and ‘a yard of toasted cheese’; the first person to pick out the cockle got ‘ the first kiss of the Maid, and the first slice of cake’.
Corn-showing took place on Easter Sunday. Later accounts tell how the farmer, his men and their families took plum pudding and cider up to the fields for a picnic . They would raise a toast for the health of the surrounding crops and a good harvest. Sometimes a small piece of cake was buried in the field, with cider poured on as a libation. The party would join hands and march around the field chanting
Every step a reap, every reap a sheaf
And God send the master a good harvest
It was still practiced during the late 19th century in parts of Herefordshire such as in the Golden Valley under the shadow of the Black Mountain. A libation of cider and cake was also taken to the orchards at Peterchurch. This all sounds like a spring wassail, an opportunity to gather together and to appeal for a good and fruitful harvest
Good Friday Bread
Bread baked on Good Friday was marked with a cross and kept as medicine for ‘dumb animals and Christians’. It was believed bread baked this day would never go mouldy & was sometimes hung in the house as a protective talisman.
Good Friday, once known as ‘God’s Friday, was considered so holy that the devil would not put in an appearance that day so the bread was sacred.
In Bredwardine & Much Marcle little loaves were baked, ground to powder and mixed with hot water to be used as a remedy.
This took place on either Easter Monday or Tuesday, men on one day, women the other. The idea was to catch those of the opposite sex, put them in a chair and lift them high into the air while singing ‘Jesus Christ is risen again’. The chair was often highly decorated with ribbons and flowers with the participants rewarded afterwards with food and drink, sometimes even kisses! In Ludlow and some other areas the ‘lifters’ carried water and flowers to sprinkle at the feet of the person in the chair before they were lifted.
Heaving seems to have been most popular in the 18th century, a chance for a bit of fun between the sexes perhaps, but by the 19th century it had degenerated into an unpleasant and intimidating experience for many. There are reports of people being harassed and chased and women locked their doors against ‘heavers’ who operated in gangs, exhorting money from their victims. By 1869 it was forbidden in Herefordshire and soon died out elsewhere.
Flowering Sunday, or Sul y Blodau in Welsh, was a tradition of decorating graves with flowers at Easter time. In Wales this was usually on Palm Sunday and in Herefordshire, Easter Sunday. There are references to the Welsh tradition of Sul y Blodau going back to the 12th century.
In the medieval period there was a widespread custom of decorating churches and churchyards for Palm Sunday in memory of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. In the absence of palm leaves they used branches of willow, box or yew which were blessed by the priest and used as talismans for their protective qualities.
There are later accounts from the 18th century onwards of people ‘going a – palming’, collecting willow and especially catkins, to decorate their homes, sometimes also local landmarks. This is an example of religious practices morphing into a folk custom that may, according to historian Professor Ronald Hutton be traced back to the medieval period as above.
There are other references of grave dressing across the centuries in Wales and along the Marches. Roy Palmer wrote it continued at Ross and Hereford until the 1970s. Primroses were especially popular and other flowers including Easter roses, pussy willow, clematis, anything in season, would be used.
The 19th century curate Reverend Francis Kilvert wrote in his diary an account of grave dressing taking place on Easter Eve at the church just over the Herefordshire border at Clyro:
When I started for Cefn y Blaen only two or three people were in the churchyard with flowers. But now the customary beautiful Easter Eve Idyll had fairly begun and people kept arriving from all parts with flowers to dress the graves. Children were coming from the town and from neighbouring villages with baskets of flowers and knives to cut holes in the turf. The roads were lively with people coming and going and the churchyard a busy scene with women and a few men moving about among the tombstones and kneeling down beside the green mounds flowering the graves…
Eggs were banned during Lent and so an important part of Easter when the Lenten fast was broken. After the solemnity of the week leading up to Easter Sunday this was time for celebration and fun.
My mum remembers wrapping hens eggs in nettles and boiling them until they emerged hard and yellow. The eggs were taken to be rolled downhill, the last one to crack was the winner. These were called pace-eggs or peace eggs from pasche confused with pax for peace.
Which bring us onto the unusual custom of Pax cakes, a feature on BBC’s Easter edition of Countryfile. Pax cakes are actually biscuits given out to the congregation after the service every Palm Sunday in a few villages near Ross-on-Wye in south Herefordshire. This tradition started at the pretty church of St Tysilio at Sellack at the instigation of its 15th century priest, Thomas More. They were originally buns and given out with ale. The ale is no longer provided but the 15th century salutation ‘peace and good neighbourhood’ is echoed by all that partake in this custom.
So that’s a small basket of Easter traditions. There are many more and many forgotten but however we choose to celebrate Easter, despite it’s shifting date, it always occurs at a time of year brimming with the promise of new life and rejuvenation.
Its a time for hope of better things and a kinder gentler world.
Ps. By the way the filming was great fun and John Craven was lovely, a true professional. Tamsin Abbott, also featured on the program previously, is also appearing in this Easter special.
The Gentleman’s Magazine Library. Manners & Customs (1883)
Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun (1996)
Mary Ella Leather, The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire (1912)
Roy Palmer, The Folklore of Shropshire (2004)
Mirk’s Festival: A Collection of Homilies, c1403
Countryfile, Easter Treats for Easter Sunday, 17 April at 8pm. Also featuring Tamsin Abbott, stained glass artist and other contributors from Herefordshire