The Legendary Frost Fairs of the River Thames, London

Thomas_Wyke-_Thames_frost_fair.jpg

Thomas Wyke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com as London Folklore: The Legendary Frost Fairs of the River Thames by zteve t evans on December 27, 2018

The legendary frost fairs on the River Thames are depicted in a number of works of art that show just how cold, icy and severe the weather became during winter, in comparison to the weather experienced in London in modern times.

The idea of a frost fair on the icy surface of the River Thames in London may seem a flight of fantasy today, especially when one appears, or is mentioned several times in one of the UK’s favourite sci-fi television series, Dr Who.  In one of the scenes set during the 1814 Thames frost fair, the doctor encounters an elephant walking across the frozen surface of the Thames.  In another episode the doctor takes River Song to the same event to celebrate her birthday. The Thames frost fairs are also featured in two tracks on Snow on Snow, by The Albion Christmas Band, a beautiful collection of Christmas and winter songs on CD.  Today, the idea of such a novel event with crowds of people, stalls, entertainments and all the fun of the fair on the frozen River Thames may seem surreal, but it did happen several times in the past.  Here we look at some of these times and see how it affected Londoners; what they did and how they coped in those frigid times.

The Little Ice Age

The River Thames has long been an important trade and transport route, and many kinds of businesses, large and small, flourished around it.  The river swarmed with large and small boats, manned by watermen who ferried people and goods up, down and across the river.   Many people lived, worked and died around the river and a rich culture of folklore and legend evolved, some of which remains today.

With the great river of such importance to Londoners, how would they cope when it suddenly froze solid, allowing no ships or boats to travel up, down or across it?

Although it is written in legends and folklore, it is also historic fact that the River Thames has frozen over a number of times, hard enough for the usual daily commerce to be brought to a halt.  These extreme cold events happened during a period known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ that some people believe lasted from 1300 to 1870.  (Expert opinion varies on this subject,  and is not dealt with here.) During the winter of 1536, Henry VIII was said to have enjoyed a sleigh ride to Greenwich from the centre of London on the Thames ice and in 1564, Elizabeth I strolled upon the ice and practiced archery on the frozen river.

The worst of the big freezes occurred between 1550 and 1750. During the winters of 1683 – 1684 and 1715 – 1716, the Thames was frozen for three months, but most events were usually much briefer.   When it did freeze over it not only brought the river to an abrupt halt, it brought the every day business of the city and its people to a standstill too.  However, Londoners, being innovative and enterprising, adapted.   In its frozen state, the river effectively became a highway that wagons and coaches could traverse while the boats were stuck in the ice.  Furthermore, it became an extension to the land, offering new opportunities not just to make money but also to have fun. Londoners like to have fun.

The First Frost Fair (1607-08)

In 1608, the first recorded London frost fair took place on the icy surface of the River Thames. During December, 1607, the ice was thick enough to walk upon from Southwark to the City, and by January 1608 the ice was thick and strong enough for a whole host of activities on its surface.  A small town of stalls, booths and tents sprang up selling many different kinds of food and drink.  Tradesmen such as shoemakers and barbers set up stalls selling their wares and services and even lit fires on the ice to keep warm and use for cooking.  Among them, skittles and bowling and many other sports and activities took place to the enjoyment of the people, including “folk“ football. This was not like the modern game of football where two teams compete and rules are followed.  This competition was between two mobs with virtually no rules and they often became free-for-all, no holds barred, riotous events.

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Cornish Folklore: The Legendary Tom Bawcock of Mousehole

Cornish Folklore: The Legendary Tom Bawcock of Mousehole

The sea and the rugged Cornish coastline dotted with fishing villages and harbors is a fertile breeding ground of many legends and traditions.  For many of the Cornish folk living around the coast, the sea provided them with a means to make a living by fishing.  As well as selling their catch for small profits it was the basic ingredient of their diet.  To catch the fish they needed suitable weather so their livelihoods were inextricably linked to the sea and the weather.

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Georges Jean-Marie Haquette (1854 – 1906) – Public Domain

Stormy Weather

Tom Bawcock was a legendary fisherman in the 16th century who lived in the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole. Like many other local people, he made his living from fishing the seas around Cornwall.  According to legend during one wintertime the area was afflicted by a series of storms and bad weather which prevented the local fishermen from putting out to sea.  This is said to have happened around Christmas time and the fishing boats remained stationary in the harbor. This bad weather continued over a prolonged period and the local people could not catch the fish that consisted of their main diet and began to starve.

Brave Tom Bawcock

According to local folklore this state of affairs continued for some time and by the 23rd of December with the village people in dire straights, one man decided something had to be done.  Tom Bawcock decided he would chance the weather and take his boat out to try and make a catch. Bravely he took his fishing boat out in the most appalling of weather and horrendous seas but good fortune was with him.  He managed to drop his nets and haul in a huge catch of fish.  When he returned he found he had several different kinds of fish all mixed together.

baked_stargazy_pieBy KristaBaked stargazy pieCC BY 2.0

Stargazy Pie

These were all placed together in one big pie with egg and potatoes providing enough to feed the entire village.  They called the dish stargazy pie.   In this dish, some of the fish heads are deliberately placed to poke through the pastry as if looking at the stars and the tails protrude as well so that it looks like the fish are leaping in and out as they would in water.  Placing them this way is also said to let the fish oils run back into the pie improving the taste and nutritional value.

Tom Bawcock’s Eve

Naturally, the villagers were delighted and Tom became their hero. A festival has been held on 23rd December which became known as Tom Bawcock’s Eve ever since in the village of Mousehole. During the evening of the 23rd, a huge stargazy pie is the centerpiece of a parade through Mousehole accompanied by villagers carrying lanterns and the pie is then eaten.  But even the Cornish weather can affect this and sometimes the lantern parade is postponed if the weather is particularly bad.

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The lantern parade for Tom Bawcock’s Eve – Public Domain

There was once an older festival held in the village during the end of December which also featured a fish pie made with several varieties of seafood and it may be that Tom Bawcock’s Eve has evolved from that. Over the years the festival has grown and since 1963 the famous Christmas festive illuminations of Mousehole are included adding extra color and sparkle.

The origin of Tom Bawcock

There are alternative theories as to how the festival originated.  One proposed by a nautical archaeologist, Robert Morton Nance (1873–1959) an authority in his time on the Cornish language and one of the founders of the Old Cornish Society put forward the idea that the name Bowcock  was derived from the French Beau Coq. He thought the festival was from an era that pre-dated Christianity and thought the cock in pagan times was the bringer of light or the sun in the morning with its crowing.

Another explanation is that the name Bawcock in Middle English is a nickname for someone who is regarded as a good fellow and Tom a generic name used to describe any man.  So Tom Bawcock would mean any good fellow and perhaps, in this case, any good fellow, who was brave enough to risk his life to feed the village.  It could have been a kind of Harvest Festival celebration in honor of any or all of the village’s brave fishermen if read like this.

The Devil in a Pie!

There is a tradition that the Devil never went to Cornwall.  According to Robert Hunt, after the Old Nick crossed the River Tamar he noticed the Cornish people liked to put everything in pies.  Not fancying his chances he decided to hightail it back  before they decided to place him in one!

References, Attributions and Further Information

Copyright zteve t evans

 

How the Modern Christmas Evolved

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The Evolution of Christmas

Christmas is for many people and not just children, the highlight of the year.  Even though we may spend far more money and time than is really necessary it is still a time that people plan and work hard to provide for their families and themselves.  It is the most important date in the calendar for many businesses ranging from retail stores, manufacturing, provision of food and beverages and many more. Indeed it seems to get more frenzied, stressful and expensive with every passing year. This article looks at how Christmas evolved through the ages through various cultures to the present date.

The Birth of Jesus

In Old English the word for Christmas is “Cristes Maesse,” meaning the Mass of Christ.  Today we celebrate Christmas Day on the 25th of December as the birthday of Jesus Christ.   The Western world has used the 25th of December as a nominal date to celebrate the birth of Jesus since 345 AD, before that his birth was celebrated on 6th January.   The fact is that no one knows the exact day or year that Jesus was born on.

Many biblical scholars and historians point out that the Bible tells of shepherds tending flocks of sheep on the night Jesus was born and that it unlikely that they would be out in December because of the coldness of the winter in Judea. Some scholars think that Jesus was born in the spring, between March and May. Others argue for September.  It is doubtful if we will ever know for sure unless some hidden knowledge is ever found.   The important thing is that his birth is remembered and celebrated and the message kept alive.

Ancient Pagan Influences

Over the centuries Christians have changed the meaning and significance of many ancient pagan customs, traditions and festivals adapting them to suit Christian beliefs.  Some may argue that it was an attempt to eradicate paganism while others say that it was a way of compromise that allowed old beliefs to be replaced by new in a less confrontational way.

In Egypt and Babylon both had mid-winter festivals and fertility festivals were also celebrate at this time of the year in many parts of Europe.  In Phrygia the 25th of December was the celebration of the birth of the sun god, Attis and in ancient Persia they celebrated the birth of their god, Mythra.

The Origins of the Chinese Dragon Dance

The Chinese Dragon Dance is an extremely colorful and spectacular event that is traditionally performed at Chinese festivals around the word today. This article looks briefly at how it originated and evolved into the spectacular performances we see today.

A divine beast

In ancient Chinese culture the dragon was revered and venerated as a divine beast.  It was regarded as auspicious creature that brought good luck and enhanced the well being of people.   It became the symbol of honesty and decorum and was thought to control the waters of the earth especially rivers and the rainfall.

Chinese New Year celebrations

The Dragon Dance spectacularly expresses the vibrancy and energy associated with the dragon by the Chinese people.   This has become a popular celebration around the world where ever enclaves of Chinese people are found and is performed from the Spring Festival until the Lantern Festival and is the centre point of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

The Dragon Dance is also known as the ‘Dance of dragon lantern’ or as ‘Playing dragon lantern’.  Traditional dragons are constructed from bamboo, cloth and grasses and other materials found locally.  The dragon dance is a much-loved folk dance performed during the Spring Festival and the Festival of Lanterns.

Origins of the Dragon Dance

The Dragon Dance is generally believed to have originated in the time of the Han Dynasty (180-230 AD).  At the time, and still today, the Chinese people were very much an agrarian society depending for survival on their farming and agriculture for their daily needs.

Performing the Dragon Dance was a means of appeasing the dragon so that rain would fall in the right amounts for a good harvest and there would not be too much hot weather which brings drought, hunger and disease.    During the Song dynasty it had become more of a folk dance that was performed during the major festivals.

The dance is performed by a team of dancers who move in a flowing way in imitation of way the dragon causes a river to move.   The performers need to be very fit and move in a very coordinated way.  They need to time their movements perfectly as a mistake by one dancer can have a domino effect on the other dancers ruining the performance.

The Dragon Dance today

The Dragon Dance celebrates the old year’s ending and welcomes in the New Year bringing the people good luck and blessings and banishing evil spirits.

Today it is performed all around the world where ever Chinese immigrants have settled and is a spectacular highlight to their celebrations and also enjoyed by millions of other people who are not of Chinese origin.

© 04/12/2012 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

This article was originally published on Triond titled The Chinese Dragon Dance on Dec 4, 2012 by zteve t evans – Copyright December 4, 2012, zteve t evans

Legends behind the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon boat racing is a spectacular and exciting event and the highlight of the Dragon Boat Festival. In China and many other countries in south-east Asia, the Dragon Boat Festival, or more correctly the Duanwu Festival, is a traditional and national folk festival originating in China over 2000 years ago. It is one of the most popular and widespread of Chinese festivals and officially recognized. The festival is held on the fifth day of the fifth month by the Chinese lunar calendar and the last one was held on 5th May 2009, by western calendars.

Qu Yuan – Public Domain

The Legend of Qu Yuan

Its origins are shrouded in history and there are different theories on how it began. The most popular account is that it was derived from the remembrance of Qu Yuan, the great Chinese poet and patriot.

Qu Yuan was a loyal minister to Emperor Huai, in the state of Chu, between 475 BC and 221 BC, which was known as the Warring States period. He was much respected for his patriotism, wisdom and integrity.  Read more

Festivals: The tradition of eating zongzi at the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival, or more correctly the Duanwu Festival, as well as being identified with dragon boat racing, is also strongly associated with other traditional Chinese customs and practices. Probably the most widespread and participated in is preparing and eating a customary rice dish called zongzi. It should be noted there are various ways to spell this and may vary with region.

The Legend of Qu Yuan

Qu Yuan – Painting by Chen Hongshou – Public Domain

The tradition of making and eating zongzi is strongly associated with the death of the great and much loved poet and patriot Qu Yuan. His suicide by drowning in a river was seen as a selfless act of patriotism by the people who loved him and who paid tribute to him by throwing rice balls into the river for his soul to eat. According to legend, his soul materialized before fishermen and began wailing that he was starving because the dragon in the river was eating the rice they threw to him. He told them to wrap the rice balls with lily leaves and asked them to seal it by tying it with silk thread. Eventually zongzi became wrapped in bamboo, or other kinds of leaves depending on region and availability.

Traditional Zongzi

Zongzi is a glutinous, or sticky, rice dumpling, with a filling. It is traditionally wrapped in bamboo leaves, though other leaves may be used depending on availability and region of China. The rice is usually formed around the filling into pyramid shapes, though cylinder and cone shapes can be used.  The leaves are then wrapped around the shape and tied with string with a unique knot used to identify the type of filling. There are many different fillings such as pickled egg, peanuts beans, yam, melon seeds, dates, fruits, walnuts, or yam. The leaves can be palm, banana, wild rice, or bamboo.

Yellow Zongzi by Benjwong – Public Domain

Different regions have their own speciality zongzi. In Beijing the filling is sweet and made from a bean paste. In Guangdong there are two favourites. One has a sweet filling of date, walnut, or bean filling and the other is salty with meats such as chicken, ham duck and eggs, mushrooms, or chestnuts.  An increasing number of shops and stalls sell zongzi on festival days and its popularity grows. Mostly in China the of making zongzi for eating and the giving as a gift is still practiced widely and often regarded as a family activity.

Zongzi Worldwide

Along with the Dragon Boat Festival, the popularity of eating zongzi is now growing around the world with Dragon Boat Festivals being held regularly in South East Asia and many western countries including the UK, USA, Canada, and Europe. Undoubtedly, each country will add something to the tradition and bring new flavours to the dish to be enjoyed.

References and attributions

Copyright July 31, 2009 zteve t evans

The Legend Of Madelon And The Christmas Rose

The legend of the Christmas Rose tells the story of how a young shepherdess named Madelon, through her love and devotion, came to give the baby Jesus a gift more precious than gold, frankincense or myrrh.

Madelon and the Christmas Rose - Public Domain

Madelon and the Christmas Rose – Public Domain

The Christmas Rose

The Christmas rose (helleborus niger) is actually a perennial herb and grows in the cold, snowy mountains and high valleys across Europe. The flowers are white and star-shaped and tipped with pink. It is also known as the Snow Rose and the Winter Rose as it blossoms in the mid-winter season when most other vegetation lies dormant and covered by snow.

The Legend

The tradition tells how the shepherds, while watching their flocks, were visited by an Angel who was leading the Magi to the birthplace of Jesus. The Angel told them of the birth of Jesus who would be known as the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings and the Saviour of their people. Overjoyed, the shepherds left their flocks to visit the new born king taking him such gifts as they could afford and were befitting of their status such as, honey, fruit and snow-white doves.

Madelon

Now on that cold winter night when Jesus was born, the shepherds were not the only ones out on the hillside tending their flocks. A young shepherdess, called Madelon, was also out tending her family’s flock and had witnessed the arrival of the Angel and the Magi and heard what the Angel told the shepherds.

Love And Devotion

Hearing the news, the young girl’s heart became full of love and devotion and filled with faith. At a distance she followed the Angel, the Magi and the shepherds to the stable where Jesus lay in the manger, cared for by Mary and Joseph.

The Magi Give Baby Jesus Wonderful Gifts

She watched as they entered the stable and the Magi laid their wonderful gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense before the baby Jesus. She watched as the shepherds gave their gifts of honey, fruit and snow-white doves. Realizing she had nothing to give she rushed back to the hillside to try and find flowers that she could lay before him.

Madelon’s Tears

Finding none on the snow covered hillside she became full of shame and despair and began crying. As she cried her tears fell down her face onto the snowy ground around her. Seeing this from on high the Angel came down and touched the ground and a bush of the most beautiful winter roses sprang forth at her feet.

A Precious Gift Of Pure Blooms

The Angel told her, “No gold, no frankincense, no myrrh, is as precious, or as fitting a gift for the Prince of Peace as these pure blooms that are born from the pure tears of love, faith and devotion.”