By Owen Ferguson
Halloween is a great festival. What other holiday lets you distribute apples full of razor blades to the neighbourhood children? Certainly not Lent. But if you think mutilating children is a great way to pass a dull October evening, just wait until you read about some of the ways they used to pass the other 364 evenings of the year, back before the tradition of drinking beer and whacking off to Baywatch reruns was invented. (Who said a classical education was worthless?)
Dog Whip Day – Oct. 18
In medieval English churches, the dog whipper was responsible for whipping any dogs that barked during the church service, and also any parishioners who fell asleep. Every year the local aristocracy would appoint a new dog whipper from among the peasants. T he nobles would walk around town on St. Luke’s day, while the peasants ran around whipping every dog in sigh. The peasant who whipped the best was hired as the parish dog whipper.
Agnus Dei – the Thursday after Easter
Only celebrated in the first and seventh year of a pope’s reign — Agnus Dei are small wax hearts with lambs on them, made from used candles, that the pope would bless before distributing to the masses. “Just what I wanted for Easter — one of the pope’s used candles.”
Isupercalia – Feb. 15
In this Roman festival, young noblemen would go out into the woods and sacrifice a dog and some goats. The men would then strip and put on loincloths made from the bloody skins of the dead animals. Any skin that remained was fashioned into small whips. The men would run around town, whipping anyone they came across. Young Roman women would make a point of being available to be whipped, as they believed the process made them fertile and made childbirth easier.
Battle of flowers – the first week of April
On the Isle of Wight during this week, everyone who rode around town in a carriage was expected to buy a bouquet of flowers from the local street children, and to throw it as violently as possible at the carriage travelling in the other direction. Flowers that fell by the wayside were then picked up by the children and sold again. Alas, with the arrival of cars the custom died, and street children were forced to become smack-shooting squeegee kids.
Burial of the Sardine – Ash Wednesday
A Spanish ceremony in which a small fish or piece of sausage was put in a coffin and paraded around town, with all the ceremony of a great funeral, before being buried as though it were a great public hero. The ceremony was regarded as symbol of the burial of all worldly pleasures in anticipation of the upcoming fast.
Lam Ale Festival – Whit Monday
Alas, no ale was actually involved in this quaint English custom, although it was fun to watch nonetheless. On Whit Monday a fat lamb was let go in the village green, and all the young women of the town, each with her thumbs tied together, were allowed to chase after it and try to catch it with their teeth. The lady who finally caught one was named Lady of the Lamb and has the slaughtered lamb served for her in a feast the next day.
Lamb Mass – Aug. 1
On this day, members of the church of St. Peter in Vinculis at York would bring young lambs with them to high mass. No one seems to have written down a satisfactory explanation as to why.
Almanac Day – Nov. 22
Ever read the Farmer’s Almanac? It’s a collection of uninspired tripe often kept by the toilet, where uninspired tripe tends to make great reading. Well, almanacs used to be a big thing, and Nov. 22 was the day on which almanacs were distributed to the (we can assume) anticipating public, with cries of “Almanacs for the ensuing year!”
Celebration of the Ashton Fagot – Christmas Eve
No it’s not what you’re thinking. A fagot (in England) was a bundle of sticks and branches, bound with twine. The Ashton Fagot was bound numerous times, and quite tightly. It was tossed on the fire no Christmas Eve and every time one of the binds snapped, everyone in the house had to drink a mug of cider. Real cider, none of this pansy “Ontario’s Finest (No Alcohol) Cider.” Much drunken depravity tended to ensue.
Barring out – Shrove Tuesday
A custom that may be of some interest to you bored university students. Starting on Shrove Tuesday, British schoolboys were to attempt, by any means possible, to keep their teacher from entering the classroom for the next three days. IF they were successful, they could dictate when their holidays and study periods would be for the next year. If, however, the teacher made his way into the room, he was allowed to decided when the holidays and study periods would be. Although a practice like this would be nice at Ryerson, it simply wouldn’t work. Our bunker-like buildings are too easy to defend, and most of the students (and staff, for that matter) carry guns.
Procession of the Herring – Wednesday of Holy Week
After celebrations in the church, all members of the clergy went outside to perform the stations of the cross. A man bearing a crucifix led the way, while each member dragged behind himself a piece of string with a herring tied to it. The object was to try to step on the herring that the man in front of your dragged, while preventing the man behind you from stepping on your herring. Try to picture 50 guys in ecclesiastical robes doing that. Pretty damn funny.
Burning of the Clavie – Jan. 11
All the fishermen in small English towns gather together at dusk. They go to the town store and force the owner to give them two barrels and some tar. One of the barrels is stuck on a five-foot pole, filled with tar and set on fire. The other barrel is broken up and fed into the first one, where it burns fiercely. The fishermen then take turns running the burning barrel through the streets of town, until every street has been run through. The Clavie (as it is called) is then taken to the outskirts of town and left to burn itself out. Pieces of it are then distributed as charms against witchcraft. Ever hear of a stranger custom? Me neither.
Butcher’s Leap – The Monday before Lent
All the butchers in Munich gather together at the church. After the service, they proceed across town to a fountain, into which they leap. A tug-of-war match follows. Sorry guys — you’ll never be as strange as English fishermen.
The Boy-Bishop – Dec. 5 to Dec. 25
All the altar boys and choir boys in the parish would get together and elect, from among themselves, a boy-bishop who would serve from the 5th to the 25th. He would be de-facto bishop until his time was up, saying the mass, giving benedictions, etc. and all his chums would assume the other roles of the clergy. The clergy, then, was forced to paly the roles that the boys often did. I promised myself I wouldn’t say anything about child sex in reference to any of these holidays, but I guess it’s too late for that.