The English Festivals by Laurence Whistler

This book was actually written more than seventy years ago, but fortunately, it has recently been republished, with a new a new Foreword. Even more fortunately, a copy was given to me as a gift and, though it is not specifically focused on the Regency, or even the Georgian period, it has been a delight to read and it certainly has informed my understanding of the ancient holidays of England. For that reason, I believe that many authors of stories set in the Regency will want to be aware of this charming history of England’s cyclical calendar of holidays, as they may find within it historical details with which they can embellish their tales.

A glimpse into The English Festivals by Laurence Whistler . . .

Laurence Whistler was an artist, a poet and an architectural historian. Whistler’s artistic medium was glass, on which he engraved his own designs. He even engraved a glass goblet as a wedding gift for Princess Elizabeth, probably just before, or maybe during the time he had begun writing this book. Whistler had become concerned, particularly after the devastation of World War II, that the ancient flow of traditional life in England was being lost. He was especially distressed by what he perceived to be the abridgement, or even the abandonment, of the traditional holidays and festivals of England. Some of those holidays and festivals had been celebrated for millenia. Whistler intended his book as not only a record of those ancient festivals, but also an homage to them, and his attempt to encourage his fellow countrymen not to allow them to slip away and be forgotten.

Whistler has ordered the chapters in his book according to the calendar of holidays celebrated in England. Naturally, he begins with the Christmas season, which was perhaps the most important holiday of the year. A general chapter on the season is followed by three chapters explaining the specific celebrations related to Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Whistler notes that though the Christmas season was considered a religious holiday in the mid-twentieth century, many of the celebratory activities had ancient and pagan origins. One of the most surprising aspects of these chapters is that Whistler shows that the Christmas tree, which many people believe was introduced into England by Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria, in 1841, had actually appeared several decades earlier. The first recorded use of a Christmas tree was by one of the German members of Queen Charlotte’s household as part of the decorations for a children’s Christmas party. And, in 1829, the Russian Princess Lieven, set up a Christmas tree for a children’s party while she was a guest of the Cowper family at their country home, Panshanger, during the Christmas holiday.

The chapter on New Year’s Day, that is, 1 January, comes next. For those of us living in the twenty-first century, it is important to remember that it is perfectly appropriate for the New Year’s holiday to come after Christmas, even though this book is in calendar order. What we often forget is that, until 1752, the first day of the new year in England fell on 25 March (Lady Day), not 1 January. This chapter is followed by one on Twelfth Day, which I discovered was a popular holiday during the Regency and the reign of George IV. Not only were there "Twelfth Cakes," decorated with a host of wonderful sugar figures, but the shop windows of most pastry cooks were brightly lit and filled with scenes of the Epiphany, all made from icing sugar. People took to the streets on Twelfth Night to view all these windows filled with light and icing sugar scenes.

The next chapter discusses a holiday related to Twelfth Day of which I was completely unaware, Plough Sunday and Plough Monday. This holiday fell on the first Sunday and Monday after Twelfth Day. In theory, at least, Plough Monday was supposed to be the first day back to work for farmers after Twelfth Day, though Whistler reveals that they typically did not actually return to the fields until the Tuesday of that week. On Plough Monday, the young, single farmers in rural areas did rise very early, but not to till the fields. Their primary goal was to get their plough staff, hatchet, or whip placed near the kitchen fireplace before the morning kettle was put on. The first to do so would be promised a cock at Shrovetide, the period just before Lent. However, it is not clear if this cock was to become a feast for the young man or if it was to be used in cock-fighting, which was a sport common to Shrove Tuesday. In any case, rushing one’s tool of choice to the fireplace was only the first part of the celebrations on this day. The young men were joined by the young women of the village and took part in a wild and raucous parade and dance in which a freshly scrubbed and beribboned plough was employed. Whistler calls this day the "New Year’s Day of agriculture" in England.

The next two chapters cover Candlemas and Valentine’s Day, both of which fall in February. Candlemas had become a church holiday it did have pagan origins. On the other hand, though Valentine’s Day began as a day to honor one or more Catholic saints by that name, it had become an essentially secular holiday. Whistler records that people were giving valentines to one another in England in the seventeenth century, and probably as early as the Middle Ages. In addition, he related that hand-made valentines dating from 1750 are held in the Hull Museum. However, the practice of sending valentines to loved ones in England became popular in the 1780s and 1790s. Authors of Regency romance novels may be particularly interested in this chapter, since Whistler offers many details on valentines from that period. He notes that it was the advent of the two-penny post which enabled people from all economic levels to send valentines to those they loved. I was amazed to learn that by 1825, the London Post Office handled 200,000 more letters on Valentine’s Day than they did any other day of the year. And that number continued to increase though the century.

There is a brief chapter on Shrove Tuesday, the last day of plenty before the deprivation of the Lenten season. Whistler provides details on Shrove Tuesday practices. Next comes a chapter which Regency authors can ignore, since it deals with the history of Mother’s Day. This holiday was originally founded in the United States, in the early twentieth century. When the holiday eventually made its way across the pond, it became known as Mothering Day and was celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent in the United Kingdom. It must be made clear that there was no such holiday as Mothering Day during the Regency or at any time though the nineteenth century.

April Fool’s Day is the subject of the next chapter. One of the new things I learned about this holiday was that the fooling or pranking was only to take place from midnight to noon on that day. Once the clock struck twelve at mid-day, the pranks were to stop. There would be severe consequences for anyone who played a prank after noon. Whistler notes some of the standard pranks which were traditionally played on children, like sending them to the dairy for a pint of dove’s milk, or to the local book shop for a copy of The Life of Eve’s Mother. However, my favorite was a traditional London prank which had been played on unsuspecting adults since the seventeenth century. The victim was sent an official-looking invitation admitting them and a friend to the annual ceremony at the Tower of London for the washing of the white lions. Though I do not believe there were ever white lions in any zoo in London, the Royal Menagerie was housed in the Tower of London throughout the Regency. Perhaps a Regency author may send an invitation for white lion washing at the Tower to a newcomer to the metropolis in an upcoming story.

Next are a pair of chapters, one on Palm Sunday, and one on Good Friday, which preceded a more substantial chapter on Easter. Certainly the most important religious holiday of the spring, Easter celebrations included traditions which originated in pagan times. Unfortunately, one of my favorite Easter traditions, colored and decorated Easter eggs, is relatively modern. Even so, Whistler notes that eggs were as a symbol of the renewal of life which is the foundation of Easter from the reign Edward I, when eggs were boiled, stained and decorated for members of the royal household. However, it seems this practice did not become widespread among the Easter celebrations of the general public until the second half of the nineteenth century. Which is not to say that some character, perhaps a scholar of medieval English history, might introduce colored and decorated eggs into a Regency Easter celebration in a story yet to be written. As an engraver of glass, Laurence Whistler decided to employ his skills on deeply colored Easter eggs and illustrations of four of them are included in this book. Regardless of whether or not colored Easter eggs could be justified in a Regency novel, Whistler has provided several details on how eggs were colored and or decorated in years past. Readers might want to employ some of these traditional methods for their next Easter celebration. Another interesting fact which is explained in this chapter is the origin of that whimsical creature, the Easter Bunny. According to Whistler, this creature is more correctly known as the Easter Hare. He relates that children in Germany were told that Easter eggs were laid by hares, while French children were told that hares went to Rome to fetch their Easter eggs. In England, hares hid the Easter eggs, providing children with the thrill of seeking out their Easter treats.

April is chock full of holidays in England, as the next chapter addresses St. George’s Day, which falls on 23 April. (Serendipitously, that is also the birth date of William Shakespeare.) Though it is not clear exactly which St. George is being celebrated, he is cited as the patron saint of England, despite the fact that there are no St. Georges of English nationality. St. George’s Day was celebrated from at least the seventeenth century, often with fireworks. However, it seems this traditional celebration had faded by the eighteenth century, so there does not appear to have been any St. George’s Day celebrations during the Regency. Nevertheless, St. George, was not forgotten, as he was the patron saint of the English Order of the Garter, which is the foremost order of chivalry in England.

The first day of May is a holiday with decidedly pagan origins. It was a celebration in which young people, both men and women, were granted more latitude in their behavior together than they were on any other day of the year. Music and dancing was often an important part of these observances. The specific details of the celebrations seem to have varied by region. According to Whistler, this holiday was considered rather naughty by many, but the general public loved it and continued to celebrate it. The most self-righteous and Puritanical did their best to discourage the celebrations, including trying to remove the Maypole in their local village or town, but few seem to have been successful. I was amused to learn that the tallest Maypole in all of England was grabbed by Sir Isaac Newton, in 1717, to support his new telescope. May Day celebrations were beginning to fall out of favor in urban areas by the Regency, but they were still observed in more rural areas during that period.

Rogationtide is the subject of the next chapter. The period of celebration was the fifth week after Easter, though there is nothing religious about this holiday. Whistler states that it was introduced into England in the eighth century and it was an annual event which revolved around each landowner verifying the boundaries of his land. It is not clear whether or not this practice was common during the Regency. However, Whistler does record that Rogationtide was still observed in some form in the twentieth century, and, if it survived that long it may well have been observed during the previous century, including during the Regency. The next chapter covers Whitsun, which was the seventh Sunday after Easter. Though this was also a religious holiday, it had been spiced up with some ancient pagan practices, primarily associated with liberal eating and drinking as well as charity to the poor. Whitsun was widely observed well into the nineteenth century, and thus, also in the Regency.

Midsummer Day gets a lot of attention in the next chapter. It is an ancient pagan festival strongly associated with the Summer Solstice and Stonehenge had been the site of many observances there for millenia. Whistler goes into great detail on the many aspects of the celebrations for this festival. However, this chapter is thin on dates, which makes it difficult to determine which particular details of these celebration might have been popular during the Regency. The following brief chapter deals with Lammas, a solely religious holiday which focuses on harvest time. This is followed by a longer chapter devoted to the more secular aspects of harvest festivals. These celebrations vary from region to region, and again, specific dates are thin here, making it difficult to pinpoint which specific activities might have been included in harvest celebrations during the Regency. Nevertheless, the chapter is rich in historic detail which an astute author can weave into a story set during harvest time.

Brief chapters on Michaelmas and All Hallows Eve precede a more detailed chapter on Guy Fawkes Day. This purely political holiday was celebrated in England since the early seventeenth century, when the Gunpowder Plot was foiled. It would have been observed during the Regency, though the specific details of the celebrations common during that period are not noted in this chapter. But Whistler does provide a list of different observances which could be used to enhance a story set in the Regency during the time of Guy Fawkes Day. The next chapter is devoted to St. Cecilia’s Day which falls on 22 November. St. Cecilia was the patron saint of music and her day seems to have been celebrated in a rather hit or miss manner, primarily by musicians of a religious turn of mind. Certainly, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a committed musician, or a group of them, might decided to celebrate St. Cecilia’s Day in a Regency story.

The last few chapters in the book are devoted to those personal celebrations which Whistler classes as "The Wheel of Life." This section is devoted to christenings, weddings and birthdays. Next comes two appendices, one, a table of when Easter falls, from 1948 to 1975, as well as the other feasts which follow Easter each year. The second appendix provides information on carols traditionally sung at Christmas, Whitsun and May Day. A selected bibliography and an index round out the book.

Laurence Whistler writes with a lyrical turn of phrase and he clearly loved the old customs of England, but he could be critical where he thought it was necessary. Anyone interested in the social and cultural history of the holidays and festivals of England will find this book a delight to read. As noted above, it is not specifically focused on the Regency period. It covers the complete history of the holidays which are discussed within its pages. However, that gives the reader a nice sense of the continuity of the celebration of the important annual holidays of England. Copies of the first edition of this book, published in 1948, can be fairly expensive, especially if they are in good condition. Fortunately, the reprinted edition of this book can be found used at fairly reasonable prices. This reprint was published by Dean Street Press, a publisher of which I was previously unaware, and it was probably printed from digital scans of the original book. But very clean scans were used, and this is nothing like some of those reprints one encounters which are printed from sloppy scans found somewhere online. At least a few Regency authors may want to add a copy of the book to their library.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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5 Responses to The English Festivals by Laurence Whistler

  1. some districts had a plough king on plough monday, the ploughboy voted the best ploughsman, who would be dragged round the district riding on a plough, and given small gifts by anyone who wanted to do so, sweetmeats, cakes, a new shirt or whatever.
    He’s wrong about Mothering Sunday, however, though it has nothing to do with the American celebration of the same name. Mothering Sunday is a medieval Christian ceremony and is on the 4th sunday in Lent when it was compulsory for anyone who could to return to their ‘Mother Church’ [nothing to do with their own parents] and servants were supposed to be allowed enough time off to travel to worship in their own church, ie where they were baptised, or the parish church where their birth was registered [and the nearest cathedral was also permitted as the over-mother of the church]. Of course, for many, this would also mean they could visit their parents as well, who likely stayed in the district where their children were born. It was traditional to make Simnel cake, a kind of fruit bread-cake with almond paste [though not, I suspect the latter for the poorer people] nowadays replaced with Hot Cross Buns which are NOT supposed to be sold before the saturday immediately preceding Mothering Sunday, but that’s never taken notice of. It has become Mother’s Day like the American model in recent times, but the original was still observed by the devout until the more recent form usurped it. You can find recipes for Simnel Cake on the web, which varies to some extent by district, and we still have our Mothering Sunday at the earlier date. It confused me no end when I discovered ‘mother’s day’ being mentioned at the wrong time of year on the net!
    the reason that midsummer practices have been so difficult to pin down is because the date of the Solstice has drifted and has become very much associated with New Age stuff. In the 16th century the solstice fell on St Barnabas’ day, the 11th June, and children would chant ‘Barnaby bright! Barnaby bright! The longest day and the shortest night’ [this being in the Julian Calendar, not the Gregorian which wasn’t extant until 1751]
    St John’s birthday was, however, celebrated as Midsummer with the three different St John’s watchfires for the Vigil of St John, a bone-fire [giving us bonfire though the meaning has been forgotten] made of bones; a wake-fire of wood; and a St John’s fire, mixed fire of wood and bone. It was, like Ladyday, March 25th, a rent-day and a good excuse for a feast. There was commonly a hogroast, and the bladder given as a toy to the youngest child present [inflated to make the first balloons]. Sometimes the Maypole was erected again to dance. There would be a Midsummer Queen, and St John’s apples would be roasted in the embers. St John’s Apples are an early ripening variety that can be fairly well guaranteed to be ripe by midsummer [and with modern technology and the global market we tend to forget that fruit had its season]
    hehe the Medievalist strikes again….

  2. gordon759 says:

    Can you please read the whole section in Whistlers book on Mothering Sunday, I just checked with my copy (I have an original 1947 edition but suspect that it has not been altered in the reprint). He mentions the American origin of ‘Mothers Day’, but then goes into some detail about Mothering Sunday, which began as a religious requirement to visit your ‘Mother Church’, this practice ceased at the reformation but by then it had become traditional for servants and apprentices to take time off to go home to visit their mothers with gifts etc.

    May Day – A common urban practice at the time was the ‘Jack in the Green’, a figure covered in vegetation that went round collecting money for chimney sweeps. They were very notable in towns if press reports are anything to go by.

    Rogationtide – This was when parish boundaries were walked, often termed ‘beating the bounds’, this was done so that members of the parish knew where the boundary was. Accurate maps showing where the boundary lay were few and far between, a national mapping programme began in the Regency, producing incredibly detailed maps. Children were traditionally beaten at particular landmarks so they would remember them!

  3. Previously, I have read about certain Pagan holiday and their origins, including the simnel cake via other books and sources. Most of what I have read is that the Pagan holidays did seem to have certain themes, fertility, remembering ancestors, etc. Sort of universal that were adapted and tweaked over the centuries. The details of more of holidays in England and during the Regency period, was very interesting. To note, I have an article about the origin of Mother’s Day in the United States, somewhere in my archives. Apparently it was started by a woman, she wanted it to be more of a day of advocacy/appreciation of the hard work women did washing, cooking, the risks of child birth, etc. And she was horrified it became commercialized with cards, candy, etc., and in her later life worked to abolish it. If I ever find it–I will try to post back and leave the title/author.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      No worries, I have read several articles about poor Anna Jarvis over the years. It was very sad how upset she became with how her view of the holiday was lost over the years.



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