Traditions of Carlin Sunday

A pollen-coated bumblebee.
A pollen-coated bumblebee.
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Written by Heather Elvidge

Blackthorn was flowering last week, earlier than usual. Its snowdrifts of tiny flowers usually usher in a cold spell known as the blackthorn winter, and indeed the weather obliged with easterly winds and showers of hailstones.

We shouldn’t be surprised, for early spring is when hailstones are most likely. Happily, spring hailstones are soft, and soon melt. But folklore warns, “A storm of hail brings frost in its tail.” April 11 to 14 is usually a cold spell according to Victorian meteorologist, Alexander Buchan, so don’t go casting any clouts yet.

Spring is the time for catkins, and these are early this year too. Sallows, or pussy willows, have been sporting golden catkins for a couple of weeks now.

Sallows depend on bumblebees to pollinate their furry “kittens’ paws”. So it’s lucky that the first bumblebees have emerged from hibernation. Black and gold buff-tailed bumbles, and black, red-tailed bumbles have been foraging among the daffodils.

These large bees are queens, searching for a safe place to lay their eggs. A hole in an old wall, or among the roots at the bottom of a hedge, would be ideal. Although their size makes them look slightly alarming, these bumblebees are harmless if left alone.

April 6 is Passion Sunday, the fifth in Lent. Two happy customs arose during those 40 days of hungry contemplation; one was Mothering-day, and the other was the eating of carlins on Passion Sunday.

These customs originated in different areas. Carlin Sunday was kept in Cumberland and from the Humber to the Scottish borders, places where Mothering-day was not observed.

Carlins are dried maple peas. Legend tells how barrels of them were washed up on Filey beach following a shipwreck. The pre-soaked peas were fed to pigs, until someone discovered how tasty they were. The same tale is told along the Humber and the Tyne. So how did the carlin, or carling, custom arise?

It’s hard to imagine it now, but in ancient times pulses symbolised immortality and ritual dishes of beans were served to guests at funerals. Carlins were appropriate fare for Passion Sunday; carling is thought to derive from care, which used to mean sorrow and grief. Passion Sunday and the following Care Week is a solemn period for Christians, who are contemplating the approaching death of Jesus.

Then again, peas and beans had always been traditional Lent foods, because they were cheaper than fish. On Carlin Sunday, hard-up folk conjured their staple food into a feast.

Maple peas were soaked overnight in salted water, rinsed, boiled, and finally fried in lard. For more flavour, they added whatever they had – herbs, vinegar, onions, a drop of rum, or perhaps a little chopped bacon.

Carlin Sunday survived into the 20th century in less affluent villages and urban areas, where pubs served carlins in paper cones to drinkers spending their “carling groat”.

That’s probably why the custom nearly died out; as people became better off, they didn’t want a reminder of hard times. Yet in recent years there’s been a revival, as people rediscover the nutty flavour of maple peas.