By Michelle J. Hoppe

Spring arrives in England, and with it, customs and ceremonies that have perhaps survived centuries. Each village/town had its own special ceremonies, of course, but rather than focus on one region or county, below are the customs common throughout all of England in the Spring.

Lady Day (25 March)
Lady Day is one of what are known as "Quarter Days" in England. Quarter days, called such because they fall at three-month intervals throughout the year, are the four days in the year that quarterly payments and rents are due the landowner, and agricultural tenancies are begun or ended. Village Fairs were often held in conjunction with Quarter Days. Fairs were times of entertainment and trade, and this may also have been where the landowner hired his servants. Maids, farmhands, grooms and more would line the streets while prospective employers looked them over and interviewed them regarding qualifications. The servants would then move on to their next job, sometimes taking with them the new bride they met at the fair.

Lent and Easter holidays (dates vary from year to year)
Shrove Tuesday--This day falls on the eve of the Lenten season. In early times, Christians made their pre-Lent confessions or shrifts on this day, hence the name 'Shrove' Tuesday. This was also the last opportunity to eat the foods prohibited during Lent.
Lent--Lent is the forty-day period of fast and meditation before Easter. Meat, butter and eggs were stricken from the diet, a carryover from medieval times. Before improved food storage, a pantry's stores were often lean after a long winter. Thus, what had been a necessary fast of sorts, became church law. With Lent being a time of fast, other things were forbidden also. Sexual relations and wedding ceremonies were taboo before the Reformation, thus resulting in a superstition that carried well into the 19th century that it was bad luck to marry during Lent.
Easter--The greatest of all Christian festivals, Easter celebrates the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the full moon which happens on or next following the Spring Equinox (21 March). This is a holy day of obligation and Roman Catholics and Anglican Christians should attend church and receive communion. Bells are rung and churches are decorated with lilies. For good luck, one should wear some bright new piece of clothing like a bonnet or gown. This follows the practice of wearing new garments at baptism, Easter being the traditional time for baptisms and renewed life. The classic Easter food is the egg, a symbol of spring re-awakening and of fertility. People dyed the eggs and exchanged them with family and friends for good luck.

April Fools' Day (1 April)
Practiced throughout the country, this is the day for making fools of others, rather than oneself. The origin of this custom is unknown, but two rules have always governed this holiday. First, no one is exempt until noon. And second, after twelve noon, the joking must cease, or the hoax rebounds on the hoax-giver.

May Day (1 May)
One of the most important festivals of the year was May Day. It signified the arrival of warm weather after a dreary winter. Merrymaking lasted throughout the day, including dancing around the Maypole, attendance on the queen and her court, games and sports. Mayday actually lost popularity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, having been banned during the Commonwealth. But many of the customs and rites were absorbed by Oak Apple Day (29 May) when King Charles II made his triumphal return to England.

Other customs associated with Spring involved rituals, not dates.

A superstition connected with flowers relied upon finding the first bloom of the season. If one found the first flower of Spring on a Monday, it was good fortune. If found on a Tuesday, one's greatest attempts would be successful. On Wednesday, it denoted marriage, Thursday, a warning of small profits, Friday, wealth, Saturday misfortune and Sunday indicated luck for many weeks to come. The type of flower figured into the superstition also. Once one determined the species of flower--daisy, buttercup, lily, etc.--one used the initial of that flower to see who would be interested in them in the coming year. Thus, if a young lady found a Buttercup, someone whose name started with a 'B' would soon begin to court her.

Spring Cleaning--
Another ritual associated with Spring was cleaning. After months of sooty fireplaces warming the manor home, carpets, furniture and draperies had to be cleaned and aired. As soon as the family moved to Town for the Season, the staff stayed behind to attack this chore. Public rooms would be dismantled and scrubbed. Walnut covers were placed on glass tabletops, white cloths covered the chairs, and blinds hung over the windows, only to be removed when the family returned. Heavy drapes were sometimes stored for the summer, replaced with lighter window trimmings that would allow the summer breezes to cool the house.

There are many more celebrations associated with Spring in England, some involving anniversaries of important dates in history, others surviving the centuries as carry-overs of pagan rituals. And while they may vary from village to village, they are still celebrated with the same childish enthusiasm as when they first appeared.

For more on Customs and Ceremonies, I suggest the following reference:

The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain: An Encylopaedia of Living Traditions by Charles Kightly, 1986, Thames & Hudson

Also see the Researching the Romance page of Literary Liaisons for more suggestions.

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Copyright 1999, M. Hoppe