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Painting of 'Clipping the Church'

Lost September customs from Great Britain and Ireland

Image: Colourised painting depicting the tradition of 'Clipping the Church' | Public Domain

For hundreds of years across Britain and Ireland, September was an important time of year. Not only was it the end of the harvest and the beginning of autumn nights drawing in, but it also contained a traditional ‘quarter’ day, when rents were due and people would attend ‘hiring fairs’ to recruit new workers.

It was also a time of harvest festivals and the Christian festival of Michaelmas. Many of these old traditions have endured into the modern era in some form, but many are now gone, their origins and practice lost to time.

Here are nine (mostly) forgotten September folk traditions of Britain and Ireland.

1. Clipping the Church - Painswick, England

In the picturesque Gloucestershire town of Painswick, an old custom called ‘clipping the church’ has been practised, since time immemorial, on the Sunday closest to 19th September. This tradition is part of a festival called ‘Feast Sunday’, and has been recently revived in the modern era.

In other rural parts of the country, such as Radley, Berkshire, ‘clipping’ took place over Easter, and in other villages such as Guiseley, Yorkshire, it was observed in August.

In the Painswick edition of ‘clipping of the church’, children (and adults in the 21st century) encircle the church and join hands, moving towards the building and back again three times, singing the ‘Clipping Hymn’ as they do so.

Historically, a booze-fuelled party and feast would take place, and so-called ‘puppy dog pies’ would be eaten. More recently, the dog pie has been plum cake topped with almond and a small porcelain dog inside. However, legend has it that they were originally custom pies made from real dogs, with some theorising that this harks back to the dog sacrifices of the pagan Lupercalia festival.

2. Eccles Wake - Eccles, England

For many centuries, possibly going back to Norman times, an annual festival was held at Eccles, Lancashire. This festival was known as the Eccles Wake, or the Wakes, and it was celebrated from the first Sunday in September for four days.

Throughout the festival, many events would take place, including donkey races, bull baiting, foot races, fiddle-playing competitions and cock fighting.

The Wakes began as a solemn celebration in the parish church, but then moved to feasting, with attendees enjoying the famous local Eccles cakes. Over the course of the 19th century, the Wakes got even more ‘vulgar’ and riotous, with a reputation for rowdy, drunken behaviour. This led to local authorities asking the government to ban the Wakes, which they did in 1877.

3. Chalk Back Day - Diss, England

In the small town of Diss, Norfolk, an annual custom saw local youngsters engage in mischief for a day. This was known as ‘Chalk Back Day’ and was held on the third Thursday of September. On this day, the youth would go around with pieces of white chalk to write, draw and generally mess up one another’s clothes.

4. The Biddenham Rabbit - Biddenham, England

This is one ancient and long-lost ceremony that sounds almost too comical to be true. In bygone days, every 22nd September, the people of Biddenham, Bedfordshire would hold a very formal procession through the village. But at the centre of this curious cortege was not a military hero or local bigwig, but a white rabbit.

In this annual parade the rabbit, festooned with red ribbons and positioned for all to see, would be conducted through the village just before noon. As the rabbit went along the local people would sing a hymn. Even stranger still, as the honoured bunny filed past, any single women it passed would perform a salute to the creature with the first two fingers of their left hands. As they gestured to the lagomorph they would sing:

‘Gustin, Gustin, lacks a bier!

Maidens, maidens, bury him here.’

This remarkable rite is said to have started in 1096 but died out in the second half of the 19th century.

5. Winchester Fair - Winchester, England

For several centuries the Winchester Fair was said to be the second-greatest fair in all of Europe after the one at Beaucaire in the south of France. At the fair’s zenith in the High Middle Ages, it went on for 16 days, during which time it was the only place in the area permitted to carry out any trade activity. The massive scale of the fair, with its many vendors and attendants, formed a ‘temporary city’ and dwarfed any other fair in England.

6. Michaelmas Cake - Ireland

In Ireland during Michaelmas, which took place in late September, it was customary to bake a cake known as the Michaelmas cake. One old custom is when presenting the cake at a large dinner or gathering, to first mix a woman’s ring into the dough. The cake is then duly doled out to the guests at the table. If whoever finds the ring in their slice happens to be single, this was believed to be a sign that they would be married within the next 12 months.

7. Ganging Day - Bishop’s Stortford, England

In the Hertfordshire town of Bishop’s Stortford and its neighbouring villages, a strange night of revelry took place every Michaelmas for generations. It is not known when it started or why, but it was still going strong in the late 18th century and presumably faded away in the Victorian era. This custom is known as Ganging Day.

On the morning of Ganging Day, a mass of local young men and some women would gather in the fields to choose a leader. The group would then proceed through the woods and meadows, deliberately running through ponds, thickets, dykes and ditches, getting wet and muddy. They would call at pubs and demand a gallon of ale which by tradition the landlord was obligated to hand over.

They would ‘bump’ everyone they met on their travels, which entailed grabbing them by the arms and swinging them hard against the body of another person.

Happily, for the local townsfolk and villagers, tradition also dictated that it was strictly forbidden for the nighttime party on Ganging Day to be held anywhere in the town, so the young people would have to confine their hedonism to the fields.

8. Michaelmas Horseracing - Lingay, Scotland

A long-lost practice in Lingay, in the Western Isles of Scotland, was recorded in 1703. Apparently, an old habit, its origins shrouded in mystery and the island is now uninhabited.

On Michaelmas, at the end of September, the men and women of Lingay would all come out together on their horses and meet on a large sandy beach. Here they would have horse races.

By ancient tradition, any local person was, at this time of the year only, immune from the law in stealing his neighbour’s horse in order to ride in the race. This was lawful as long as the rider returned the horse after the race and in the same condition.

When the young men race the custom was for the local maidens to ride behind them, and then the two groups would exchange gifts such as carrots, garters, knives, and purses.

9. Geese and Blackberries - Ireland

It was a long-standing tradition in many parts of Britain and Ireland that a goose was to be eaten on the Christian festival of Michaelmas. After the harvests were done, geese would be fed on the stubble in the fields. The plump birds would then be scoffed on 29th September amid celebration and festivity.

In Ireland, the eating of goose at this time stemmed from a legend in which a King of Tara was holding a feast. The king’s son choked on a bone and died. The queen brought St Patrick in to help. St. Patrick prayed for St. Michael, who brought the prince back to life. The king decreed that every Michaelmas a goose would be sacrificed in St. Michael’s honour.

Another widespread Michaelmas custom from bygone days involved blackberries. It was always considered bad luck to eat blackberries after Michaelmas, and different stories were passed down and told to children as a warning not to pick them after Michaelmas. One legend states that the Devil fell from the sky into a blackberry bush after being defeated by St. Michael. In revenge, Satan defecated on the fruit.