Sticking to old calendar dates

Wassail! Taunton Deane Morris Dancers wake up the apple trees in January 2012
Wassail! Taunton Deane Morris Dancers wake up the apple trees in January 2012

Written by Heather Elvidge

After so much rain, what a relief it was to have a spell of dry days. And before too long the heralds of spring will be in flower: snowdrop tips are spearing through the soil.

But we mustn’t get carried away. An old saying warns, “As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens.” This is true, because by January the sea around Britain has lost the stored warmth that normally takes the sting out of cold winds.

It’s difficult to be grateful for dull, grey days when we’ve had so many, but weather lore is firm on the subject: “In January if the sun appear, March and April will pay full dear. If January calends be summerly gay, it will be winterly until May.”

January 13, St Hilary’s Day, is supposed to be the coldest day of the year. This belief arose when we were using the Julian calendar, which was abandoned in 1752. Adopting the revised Gregorian calendar brought us into line with Europe, although to achieve this we had to “lose” 11 days. Allowing for that means that the old St Hilary’s Day would equate to our January 24.

That reasoning led to some curiosities in our calendar of customs, as rural communities stuck to “Old-style” festival dates. This remained a tradition in some families until the 20th century, 150 years after the calendar change.

As the years passed, most customs adjusted to the new calendar. However, some die-hards dug in their heels over Christmas.

On Foula, a small island west of Shetland, a few families still celebrate Old Yule on January 6 and “Newer Day” on the 13th. In Wales, residents of the Gwaun 
valley near Fishguard keep Hen Galen (new year’s eve) on the 12th.

In England January 17 is Old Twelfth Day. This is the last of several days for wassailing apple trees, a custom that almost died out in the last century, but which has been successfully revived in many places.

Make a date with your apple tree, and share your cider or apple juice by pouring a little on its roots.

Old Twelfth Day also gives laggards another chance to take down the decorations. Then again, some say that greenery should be kept up all through the season of Christmas and Epiphany, which end with Candlemas on February 2.

Bless the plough

The first Monday after January 6 is Plough Monday, which used to mark the start of the agricultural year.

From the fifteenth century onwards there are records of “plough lights”, candles kept burning in church to bring a blessing on local farm workers. This custom ended with the Reformation. But after the Second World War, the Royal Agricultural Society got together with the Church of England to revive what they saw as the old Saxon agricultural feasts, including Plough Sunday. As a result, plough blessings were re-established in some rural parishes.

At Goathland, near Whitby, the church of St Mary will hold a blessing of the plough on Sunday, January 13. Goathland has its own folk dancers, the Plough Stots, who will perform the village’s traditional longsword dance on the following Saturday. There’ll be more about that next week.