St. David’s Day (1 March) is the national day of Wales. St. David
(c.520-588), the patron saint of Wales, was the founder and first
abbot-bishop of Menevia, now St. David’s in Dyfed, South Wales. The day is
commemorated by the wearing of daffodils or leeks by patriotic Welsh
people. Both plants are traditionally regarded as the national emblems of
day is St. George’s Day (23 April). St. George is the patron saint of
England. A story that first appeared in the 6th century tells that St.
George rescued a hapless maid by slaying a fearsome fire-breathing dragon!
The saint’s name was shouted as a battle cry by English knights who fought
beneath the red-cross banner of St. George during the Hundred Years War
(1338-1453). This is immortalised in Shakespeare’s play Henry V in the
Today the red cross of St. George still flies
above every English parish church to mark the saint’s
||“I see you stand like
greyhounds in the slips,|
Straining upon the start. The game’s
Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry ‘God for
Harry! England and Saint George!’”
St. Patrick’s Day (17th March) is an official Bank
Holiday in Northern Ireland. The work of St. Patrick (c.389-c.461) was a
vital factor in the spread of Christianity in Ireland. Born in Britain, he
was carried off by pirates, and spent six years in slavery before escaping
and training as a missionary. The day is marked by the wearing of
shamrocks (a clover-like plant), the national badge of both Northern
Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
10 How do the
British celebrate traditional and religious holidays?
In Britain, Christmas Day is normally spent at
home, with the family, and it is regarded as a celebration of the family
and its continuity. Preparations start well in advance, with the sending
of Christmas cards and installation of a decorated Christmas tree in a
prominent place in the home. Although it is now a firmly established
tradition, the Christmas tree was first popularised by Queen Victoria’s
husband, Prince Albert, who introduced the custom from his native Germany
Some houses are decorated with evergreens (plants which do not
lose their leaves in winter); a wreath of holly on the front door and
garlands of holly, ivy and fir indoors. Bunches of mistletoe are often
hung above doorways - any couple passing underneath must exchange kisses!
Traditional food is prepared: sweet mince pies, a rich Christmas cake and
the Christmas pudding. Everyone has their own favourite recipe, but
they’re all packed full of spices, nuts, dried fruit and
Presents are bought and wrapped, and traditionally placed under
the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. Christmas is both a secular and a
religious holiday, and many families like to attend a midnight service at
church on Christmas Eve, or celebrate Christmas in church on Christmas
The excitement begins for children on Christmas Eve, when they hang up
their stockings (an old sock or, more ambitiously, pillow cases) around
the fireplace or at the foot of the bed for Father Christmas to fill with
presents. The English Father Christmas or Santa Claus is first recorded in
his traditional red and white outfit in a woodcut of 1653, but the story
of Santa arriving in his reindeer-drawn sleigh and descending down the
chimney to fill children’s stockings with presents derives from the
Practically everyone sits down to a Christmas dinner in the early
afternoon of Christmas Day, traditionally roast turkey, but some families
prefer goose or roast beef. The turkey is followed by the Christmas
pudding, brought to the table flaming hot. Brandy is poured over the
pudding, then lit. The day ends with everyone relaxing, watching
television or playing guessing-games like charades.
Boxing Day (26 December) is so-called because it’s a time when
tradespeople receive a ‘Christmas Box’ - some money in appreciation of the
work they’ve carried out all year. Traditionally a time for visiting
family and friends and indulging in more feasting, Boxing Day is a popular
day for football matches and other sporting fixtures. The day is a public
holiday, so shops and banks are closed. More recently, some shops have
broken with tradition and now open on Boxing Day to encourage shoppers who
can’t wait to spend their Christmas money!
is often launched with a party - either at home with family and friends or
a gathering in the local pubs and clubs. Merrymaking begins on New Year’s
Eve and builds up to midnight. The stroke of midnight is the cue for much
cheering, hooting, whistling, kissing and the drinking of
Tradition has it that the first person over the threshold on
New Year’s Day will dictate the luck brought to the household in the
coming year. This is known as First Footing. At midnight on 31 December,
particularly in Scotland and northern England, ‘first footers’
(traditionally a tall, dark, good-looking man) step over the threshold
bringing the New Year’s Luck. The first footer usually brings a piece of
coal, a loaf and a bottle of whisky. On entering he must place the fuel on
the fire, put the loaf on the table and pour a glass for the head of the
house, all normally without speaking or being spoken to until he wishes
everyone ‘A Happy New Year’. He must, of course, enter by the front door
and leave by the back.
In Wales the back door is opened to
release the Old Year at the first stroke of midnight. It is then locked up
to ‘keep the luck in’ and at the last stroke the New Year is let in at the
In Scotland the New Year remains the greatest of all
annual festivals. Called ‘Hogmanay’ (a word whose meaning has never been
satisfactorily established), it’s marked by an evening of drinking and
merrymaking, culminating at the stroke of midnight when huge gatherings of
people at Edinburgh’s Tron Kirk and Glasgow’s George Square greet the New
Year by linking arms and singing ‘Auld Lang
Halloween (31 October) and
its associations with witches and ghosts derives from the Celtic Old
Year’s Night - the night of all witches, when spirits were said to walk
the earth. Witches and supernatural beings are still remembered all over
Britain, when bands of children roam the streets in ghoulish costumes,
carrying Halloween lanterns - pumpkins hollowed out with a ghostly face
cut into one side, which glows when a candle is placed inside.
In recent years the custom of ‘trick or treating’ has gained in
popularity. Although we commonly associate this practice with America, the
custom originated in England as ‘Mischief Night’ when children declared
one ‘lawless night’ of unpunished pranks (usually May Day eve or
Halloween parties (usually for children) include games such as apple
bobbing, where apples are either floated in water or hung by a string. The
object of the game is for the players to put their hands behind their back
and try to seize an apple with their teeth
Easter day is named after the Saxon goddess of
spring, Eostre, whose feast took place at the spring equinox. Easter is
now the spring feast of the Christian church, commemorating the
resurrection of Jesus. It falls on a Sunday between
22 March and 25
April, according to the church calendar.
Traditionally Easter eggs, dyed and decorated or made of chocolate, are
given as presents symbolising new life and the coming of spring.
rolling competitions take place in northern Britain on Easter Monday;
hard-boiled eggs are rolled down a slope, with the winner being -
according to local preference - the one which rolls the furthest, survives
the most rolls, or is successfully aimed between two pegs! The best
publicised event takes place at Avenham Park in Preston, Lancashire.
Easter parades are also part of the Easter tradition, with those taking
part wearing Easter bonnets or hats, traditionally decorated with spring
flowers and ribbons.
11 What and when are
Many public holidays in Britain are
known as ‘bank’ holidays - so called because these are days on which banks
are legally closed. Most fall on a Monday.
In England and Wales there are six
bank holidays: New Year’s Day, Easter Monday, May Day (not necessarily 1
May), Spring and Late Summer Holidays at the end of May and August
respectively, and Boxing Day. There are also two common law holidays on
Good Friday and Christmas Day.
In Scotland there are nine public
holidays: New Year’s Day, January 2, Good Friday, Easter Monday, May Day
(not necessarily 1 May), Spring and Summer Holidays at the end of May and
the beginning of August respectively, Christmas Day and Boxing
In Northern Ireland there are seven
bank holidays: New Year’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day (17 March), Easter
Monday, May Day (not necessarily 1 May), Spring and Late Summer Holidays
at the end of May and August respectively, and Boxing Day. There are also
two common law holidays on Good Friday and Christmas Day and a public
holiday on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne (12
There are holidays in
lieu of those public holidays which fall at weekends. Shops, museums and
other public attractions, such as historic houses and sports centres, may
close on certain public holidays, particularly Christmas Day. As this
varies, it is advisable to check with the individual establishment
12 What is Pancake
Pancake day or ‘Shrove Tuesday’ (the
Tuesday which falls 41 days before Easter) is the eve of the Lenten fast.
On this day in earlier times all Christians made their compulsory
confessions or ‘shrifts’ from which the name ‘Shrove Tuesday’ derives, and
took their last opportunity to eat up all the rich foods prohibited during
Lent. Thus all eggs, butter and fat remaining in the house were made into
pancakes, hence the festival’s usual nickname of Pancake Day. Though the
strict observance of Lent is now rare, everyone enjoys eating the
customary pancakes and some regions celebrate the day with pancake races.
The oldest and most famous is held at Olney in Buckinghamshire. The race
is run over 415 yards (about 380 metres) by women over sixteen, wearing a
cap and apron. They must ‘toss’ their pancake (flip it over in the frying
pan) at least three times during the race. The winner receives a kiss from
the Pancake Bell Ringer - church bells were traditionally rung to remind
parishioners to come to confession - and a prayer book from the vicar!
13 What is Guy
In 1605 Guy Fawkes, a
Roman Catholic, and his fellow conspirators attempted to blow up King
James I and the Houses of Parliament, as they disagreed with the King’s
Protestant policies. They succeeded in storing some 30 barrels of
gunpowder in a cellar under the Houses of Parliament, but before
Parliament opened on November 5th, the ‘gunpowder plot’, as it has come to
be known, was discovered. Guy Fawkes and his colleagues were executed for
treason. Since then, the 5th of November has been celebrated in England by
the burning on bonfires of stuffed figures of Guy Fawkes, usually
accompanied by firework displays. These may be large organised events open
to members of the public, or smaller, private gatherings of family and
friends held in people’s gardens. ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ is also known as
‘Bonfire Night’ or ‘Firework Night’. In the days leading up to the 5th of
November children traditionally take their home-made Guys out onto the
streets of their town or village and ask passers-by for ‘a penny for the
Guy’. This money is supposedly used as a contribution towards their
14 What is the
significance of the poppy and when is it worn?
The poppy is
traditionally worn on Remembrance Day in memory of service personnel who
lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars and subsequent
conflicts like the Falklands War and the Gulf War.
The red poppies
represent the poppies that grew in the cornfields of Flanders in the First
World War where many thousands of soldiers lost their lives. The paper
poppies that are worn today are made by ex-service personnel and are sold
by representatives of the Royal British Legion,
an organisation of
ex-servicemen and women.
Remembrance Day falls on the nearest Sunday to 11 November - the day
peace was declared. The day is commemorated by church services around the
country and a parade of ex-service personnel in London’s Whitehall.
Wreaths of poppies are left at the Cenotaph,
a war memorial in
Whitehall, built after the First World War.
By tradition, at 11.00am on
Remembrance Sunday a two minute silence is observed at the Cenotaph and
elsewhere in the country to honour those who lost their lives.
15 What are Britain’s national flowers?
The national flower of England is the
rose. The flower has been adopted as England’s emblem since the time of
the Wars of the Roses - civil wars (1455-1485) between the royal house of
Lancaster (whose emblem was a red rose) and the royal house of York (whose
emblem was a white rose). The Yorkist regime ended with the defeat of King
Richard III by the future Henry VII at Bosworth on 22 August 1485, and the
two roses were united into the Tudor rose (a red rose with a white centre)
by Henry VII when he married Elizabeth of York.
The national flower of Northern
Ireland is the shamrock, a three-leaved plant similar to clover which is
said to have been used by St. Patrick to illustrate the doctrine of the
The Scottish national flower is the thistle, a
prickly-leaved purple flower which was first used in the 15th century as a
symbol of defence. The three flowers - rose, thistle and shamrock - are
often displayed beneath the shield on the Royal Coat of Arms.
The national flower of Wales is
usually considered to be the daffodil, which is traditionally worn on St.
David’s Day. However, the humble leek is also considered to be a
traditional emblem of Wales, possibly because its colours, white over
green, echo the ancient Welsh standard.
16 Where can I find out about British folk songs
and folk tales? Numerous books have been written about
British folk tales, and
most libraries in Britain stock a selection of
books on both local and national folklore. Alternatively, contact:
The English Folk Dance and
Song Society have an extensive library, open to the public (please
telephone for details).
||The English Folk Dance and Song Society|
Cecil Sharp House, 2
Regent’s Park Road, London NW1 7AY
Tel +44 (0) 171 485 2206 Fax
+44 (0) 171 284 0523
A further valuable source of
information is the library of the:
Access to the
library is by a day pass issued to visitors, or by membership of the
Society. Please write for details.
||Folklore Society, University College, Gower Street, London WC1E
Tel +44 (0) 171 387 5894
17 What are Britain’s national costumes?
Although England is a country rich in folklore and
it has no definitive ‘national’ costume. The most
well-known folk costumes are those of the Morris dancers. They can be seen
in many country villages during the summer months performing folk dances
that once held ritualistic and magical meanings associated with the
awakening of the earth.
The costume varies from team to team, but
basically consists of white trousers, a white shirt, a pad of bells worn
around the calf of the leg, and a hat made of felt or straw, decorated
with ribbons and flowers. The bells and ribbons are said to banish harm
and bring fertility. Morris dancing was originally an all-male tradition,
but now some teams feature women dancers
Perhaps the most famous national costume in Britain is the
Scottish kilt with its distinctive tartan pattern. The kilt is a length of
woollen cloth, pleated except for sections at each end. The kilt is worn
around the waist, with the pleats at the back and the ends crossed over at
the front and secured with a pin.
Each Scottish Clan or family has its
own distinctive tartan pattern, made up of different colours, and an
official register of tartans is maintained
by the Scottish Tartans
Society in Perthshire. Contact:
Scottish Tartans Society,
Port-Na-Craig, Pitlochry, PH16 5ND, Tel +44 (0) 1796 474079 or 1350
The kilt forms part of
the traditional Highland dress, worn by Scottish clansmen and Scottish
regiments. In addition to the kilt, a plaid or tartan cloak is worn over
one shoulder, and a goatskin pouch or sporran is worn at the front of the
kilt. Sometimes tartan trousers or trews are worn instead of a kilt. Women
do not have their own distinctive national dress in Scotland, although
tartan fabrics are widely used in clothing, and the kilt is also
The national costume of Wales is based on the peasant
costume of the 18th and 19th centuries. Because Wales was isolated
geographically from the rest of Britain, many of the individual traits of
costume and materials were retained in Welsh dress long after they had
died out elsewhere. Unlike Scotland, the distinctive folk costume of Wales
was worn by the women, consisting of a long gown (betgwn) or skirt, worn
with a petticoat (pais - the favoured colour was scarlet) and topped with
a shawl folded diagonally to form a triangle and draped around the
shoulders, with one corner hanging down and two others pinned in front.
Aprons were universally worn, sometimes simple, sometimes decorated with
The most distinctive part of the costume was the
‘Welsh hat’ or ‘beaver hat’, thought to have originated in
France at the end of the 18th century. The hats had a tall crown,
cylindrical or conical in shape with a wide brim, and were usually trimmed
with a band of silk or crÍpe.
Irish dress, based on Gaelic and Norse costumes, consisted of check trews
for men, worn with a fringed cloak or mantle, or a short tunic for both
men and women, worn with a fringed cloak. This style of dressing was
prohibited in the 16th century under sumptuary laws, passed to suppress
the distinctive Irish dress and so overcome Irish reluctance to become
part of England. In particular, the wearing of the fringed cloak was
forbidden, as was the wearing of trews or any saffron-coloured garment
(saffron yellow was an important feature of Irish costume).
strong tradition of wearing folk costume does not survive in Northen
Ireland today, folk music and folk dancing are very important.
18 What is
Burns’ Night and how is it celebrated? Commemorating the
birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759 -1796), Burns’ Night is a
patriotic festival celebrated on 25 January, wherever Scots gather
First commemorated by the ‘Burns Clubs’ soon after the poet’s
death, the evening begins with traditional food, often with a menu written
in the poet’s ‘Lallans’ (Lowlands Scots) dialect and sometimes in rhyme.
This may include such delicacies as ‘Powsowdie’ (sheep’s head broth);
‘Cabbie-claw’ (dried cod with horseradish and egg sauce) and ‘Finnan
toasties’ (smoked haddock). But pride of place goes to the haggis - minced
mutton, offal, oatmeal and spices boiled in a sheep’s stomach!
meal ends with multifarious toasts, followed by patriotic and sentimental
speeches, Scottish dancing and performances of Burns’ narrative poems,
especially ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and concluding with everybody linking arms and
singing the most famous of them all, ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
The words of
‘Auld lang syne’ which means literally old long since, or ‘long ago’, are:
||Should auld acquaintance be forgot,|
And never brought to
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o’ auld
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang
Roughly, the verses mean:
Should old friends be
and never brought to mind (remembered)?
friends be forgotten,
and days of long ago.
For (the sake of)
long ago, my dear,
for (the sake of) long ago,
We’ll drink a
for the sake of long ago!
19 What are the most common
superstitions in Britain?
There are many superstitions in
Britain, but one of the most widely-held is that it is unlucky to walk
under a ladder - even if it means stepping off the pavement into a busy
street! If you must pass under a ladder you can avoid bad luck by crossing
your fingers and keeping them crossed until you’ve seen a dog.
Alternatively, you must lick your finger and make a cross on the toe of
your shoe, and not look again at the shoe until the mark has
Another common superstition is that
it is unlucky to open an umbrella in the house - it will either bring
misfortune to the person that opened it or to the household. Anyone
opening an umbrella in fine weather is unpopular, as it inevitably brings
The number 13 is said to be unlucky
for some, and when the 13th day of the month falls on a Friday, anyone
wishing to avoid an inauspicious event had better stay indoors.
The worst misfortune that can befall
you is incurred by breaking a mirror, as it brings seven years of bad
luck! The superstition is supposed to have originated in ancient times,
when mirrors were considered to be tools of the gods.
Black cats are
generally considered lucky in Britain, even though they are associated
with witchcraft - a witch’s animal-familiar is usually a black cat. It is
especially lucky if a black cat crosses your path - although in America
the exact opposite belief prevails.
Finally, a commonly-held
superstition is that of touching wood for luck. This measure is most often
taken if you think you have said something that is tempting fate, such as
‘my car has never broken down - touch wood!’