Archive for the ‘New Year’s Day’ Tag

All Fools – Origins, 450 years ago this year!   5 comments


The first of April, some do say,

 Is set apart for All Fools’ Day;

 But why the people call it so,

 Nor I, nor they themselves do know.

 Poor Robin’s Almanack, 1760

All Fools’ or April Fools’ Day celebrates its 450th Anniversary this year, since it began in France in 1564. The name, given to the first of April, refers to the custom of playing tricks on other people or sending them off on ‘fools’ errands’. It appears to owe its origins to the ‘vernal equinox’ or beginning of Spring, since April 1st used to be New Year’s Day until 1564 in France. Then King Charles IX decided to change this to 1 January. However, the change in the calendar wasn’t followed until the seventeenth century in Britain, and there used to be some confusion among historians about events that happened before it was adopted, like the execution of Charles I in 1648, or was that 1649?!  Then the cards and gifts that used to be given out on the day were transferred to January 1st. However, not everybody went along with this change, and continued to celebrate in April, as they still do in some countries, including Afghanistan.

It then continued as a joke in England, with mock gifts and cards being sent, becoming customary in the eighteenth century. Since, as New Year’s Day, it had been an unofficial half-day holiday, with workers expected to report for work at mid-day, this was also the time when all the fooling around had to stop. Hence the need to play the trick or make the joke before 12. In Scotland the fooling is sometimes referred to as ‘hunting the gowk’ or cuckoo, and April Fools were known as ‘April Gowks’.

The ‘silly season’ lasts from midnight to midday on 1st, and the object is to make the victim feel a little uncomfortable and sometimes to send him or her on a fool’s errand. Children might be sent to buy pots of striped paint, for example! Some people play little jokes on their friends and family; perhaps they change the clocks (though this won’t work in 2014, since the clocks are changing anyway at midnight!), or they put salt in the sugar bowl so someone’s tea tastes terrible. With the advent of radio, TV and now social media, some try to play tricks on thousands or even millions of people on this day.  More ambitious, contrived errands have been recorded, such as in 1860 when a large number of people received invitations to a reception at the Tower of London – ‘To admit bearer and friend to view the annual ceremony of washing the white lions’. Many people attended, apparently! Today, some people play little jokes on their friends and family

One of the great hoaxes of all time which involved millions of TV viewers was Richard Dimbleby‘s BBC report about the spaghetti harvest in Italy in 1957.  Dimbleby was taken very seriously as a broadcaster, having commentated on the end of the War in Europe and the Coronation among many other national and international events. In 1957, not many people ate spaghetti in Britain, and very few people knew much about it. The film showed long strips of spaghetti being collected by farm workers from the trees and put in the sun to dry. Dimbleby reported that the following autumn’s crop was threatened by a rare fungal disease! Many thousands phoned in offering to donate to a famine fund.

In 1998 a ‘new hamburger’ was launched on the US market by Burger King. This was a left-handed hamburger! Thousands of extra people went to Burger King to get one, and many more insisted on having the traditional right-handed one! In 2005 another British TV programme informed people about ‘fruitshakes’, a new milk drink straight from the cow. The cows were given fruit to eat and they then produced milk which tasted of fruit! Every year there are new jokes – on TV, in the newspapers, and on the radio. Every year millions of people ‘fall for’ these jokes and tricks.

However, it’s important to remember that, at twelve noon, all is over, and any trick played after that falls back on the head of the jester. In these circumstances, the proposed victim uses the age-old formula:

April Fools’ Day’s past and gone,

You’re the Fool and I am none.

Fools are not always figures of fun, however, especially when you consider those in Shakespeare’s plays.  Touchstone in As You Like It  is no fool with his ‘great heap of knowledge’. The Fool is always a victim, only funny up to a point. Religious fools run right through the literary tradition in English, from the medieval Everyman’s  ‘Five Wits’ through to Jesus and his disciples in Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, in which even Judas is portrayed as a clown, perhaps the saddest of all. Even pop songs refer to ‘the Tears of a Clown‘.

‘Wes Hal!’ The final four days of Christmas to ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘Epiphany’ (Jan 5th/6th)   6 comments

Journey of the Magi

Journey of the Magi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the ‘Octave of Christmas‘ now over and having celebrated Jesus ‘the light of the gentiles’, non-Jews, we look forward to the ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’ to those people, as represented in the journey and visit of the ‘Magi’, or ‘wise men’. Of course, it has become traditional and convenient to place them in the crib scene on Christmas Eve, three of them, but they didn’t arrive until some time after the visit of shepherds arrived at the manger and probably visited Jesus at Joseph’s family home in Bethlehem. We don’t know how many there were of them, only that they presented three types of gift. Only Luke mentions the ‘manger’, simply a feeding trough for animals, and the story of the magi’s visit to ‘a house’ is found only in Matthew’s gospel, along with the escape into Egypt along the Via Maris, the Sea Road, to the south of Gaza, and Herod’s killing of the children of Bethlehem.

The Magi Journeying

The Magi Journeying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, in the final days of Christmas we can think about the journey of the magi, their visit to Herod, and their search for the child. Much has been written about this, in both words and music, perhaps the most well-read passage being from

T S Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi‘:

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey.

In my family, there are three brothers, and when my Baptist Minister father was still alive, we would gather round the piano, each singing a solo verse of ‘We Three Kings‘ as Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, each explaining the purposes of the gifts. There’s a story that when the three wise men first met on their journey to Palestine, the first was convinced that the child was to be a great King and that it was fitting to take a gift of gold. The second was equally sure that the child they were going to greet was to be a great High Priest, to be worshipped over all the world and for him the symbol of praise, incense, would be appropriate. The third wise man said that they were both wrong and that the child would grow up to be the one who would, by sacrifice of his own life, save the world. For such a person, myrrh was correct.

They journeyed together. As they neared the home of the infant Jesus they heard Mary singing The Magnificat. They listened to the words, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. ‘Ah,’ said the first wise man, ‘I was right. He will be a great Lord, a King.’ They paused as Mary continued her song with ‘My spirit doth rejoice in God‘. ‘There you are,’ said the second,  ‘He is to be a great High Priest, a God.’ Then Mary added, ‘My Saviour’, and the third wise man congratulated himself on his prophecy that Jesus would be both sacrifice and saviour. Of course, they were all correct in their prophesies and all three gifts were significant and appropriate to celebrate the birth of the whole world’s King, High Priest and Saviour.

Malvolio and the Countess

Malvolio and the Countess (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Twelfth Night, the night before Epiphany, is not marked in Britain with the ceremonies accorded to it over a century ago. Some Churches still have their ‘Christingle’ services or ‘Crib’ services at this time, placing the three wise men, together with pages, or servants, in their positions in the stable, to complete the Christmas scene. All that remains in most homes on Twelfth Night in Britain is to take down the Christmas decorations, including the tree. However, four hundred years ago, the Night was important enough for Shakespeare to write a play about it, since parties were held in almost every household. As evening closed in, pastry cooks’ windows gleamed and good trade was had in the sale of ‘Twelfth Cakes’, large and small, decorated with stars, castles, dragons, kings, palaces and churches in white icing with varied colours. At each party a king or queen had to be discovered. This was a kind of lottery, for in each cake was hidden a pea or a bean. The child who found the bean became king, and the one finding the pea became queen. If the bean was first found by a girl, or vice versa, the finders had to choose a partner. Sometimes the peas and beans were replaced by silver coins. At some parties a complete court was appointed, and due honours paid to its various members.

In apple-producing areas of the West Country, until the late nineteenth century, men and women went out after dark, the men armed with shot guns and one of them carrying a bucket of cider which was then set down among the trees. Each man took a cup of cider and after drinking some, poured the remainder over the roots of the tree. He then placed a piece of Twelfth Cake in the fork of the tree ‘for the robin’. The company then called out, ‘Wes hal’ (‘wassail’) meaning ‘good health’. The men then raised their guns and shot into the air. The ceremony was intended to secure a good crop of apples in the coming year, and the final days of Christmas in these areas were known as ‘wassailing’ days, with each county developing its own song, the most famous of which are the Gower (south Wales), Somerset and Gloucestershire ‘wassails’. Naturally, there’s often a lot of overlap between them in both words and music:


Wassail (Photo credit: Celtic Myth Podshow)

Wassail, and wassail, all over the town!

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown;

Our cup it is made of the good ashen tree,

And so is our malt of the best barley:

No harm boys, no harm; no harm, boys, no harm;

And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm.

‘We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear,

So that we may have cider when we come next year;

And where we have one barrel we hope you have ten,

So that we may have cider we come again:

For it’s your wassail, and it’s our wassail!

And its joy be to you and a jolly wassail!

Perhaps the carol, ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ was an attempt to transform these ancient customs into Christian symbols. Certainly, following Twelfth Night, we look forward to the childhood of Jesus, about which we know very little. The only story the gospel-writers give us is Luke’s story about his second visit to the temple in Jerusalem at twelve years of age, in which we see him as a lively lad noted for the way he went on asking questions. Luke also tells us twice that he grew strong in body and wisdom, gaining favour with both God and men. Rather like the apple trees, having God’s blessings upon him. So, may…

7 pints of brown ale, 1 bottle of dry sherry, ...

7 pints of brown ale, 1 bottle of dry sherry, cinnamon stick, ground ginger, ground nutmeg, lemon slices (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘God bless the master of this house,

Likewise the mistress too;

And all the little children,

That round the table go:

Love and Joy come to you,

And to you your wassail too,

And God bless you and send you

A happy New Year!

‘And all your kin and kinsfolk,

That dwell both far and near;

I wish you a Merry Christmas,

And a happy New Year:

Love and Joy….!

From Ritson’s Ancient Songs and Ballads, 1829, copied from a seventeenth century manuscript.

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