Easter is a period packed with custom and ritual. How could it not be so? It is, after all, another one of those marvellous pagan revels, snitched from the 'Old Religions' and put to jolly good use by the cunning, dastardly, and commercially aware Christians. 'Life is a cavalcade, old chum' someone said.

Even the name of this festival shows its heathen origin. Easter comes from Eastre, or Eostre. She was, still is perhaps, the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of spring and dawn. Her festival celebrating the renewal of life is held on the Vernal Equinox, or to put it another way, on the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

From antediluvian times the disparate heathens of the known world have held spring festivals to perform magical and religious fertility rites. The crops grow and prosper as a result. At least that's their story and they're sticking to it.


The festivals were a great success, attracted large crowds, and made inspirational profits. The promoters were delighted that they had created several good little earners. Give the people what they want my son, was the common wisdom of profitable times. Ongoing marketing campaigns, regular poster pasting, and the word-of-mouth of satisfied customers ensured that the celebrations grew in size and splendour. The heathens were on a roll.

The good business going places inevitably attracted the attention of the corporate sharks. The movers and shakers at the big end of town got the message. Quicker than you can say Dominus Vobiscum the fix was in.

There is no doubt that the Global Marketing Division of the Universal Church of Rome, a smooth as silk operation in its early days, saw an opportunity and seized it by adopting the old pagan customs and giving them a very "Christian" feel.

The Babylonian rites connected with the death and resurrection of the gods Tammuz, Osiris, and Adonis, were the precursors of the ‘Christian’ Easter. It was a simple matter to take over the ancient regeneration myths and to remodel them as the celebration of the death and resurrection Jesus. Christ Mass and New Year also came from this handy reservoir of folklore.

The corporate marketing strategy of the UCR was a simple but brilliant trinity of cardinal rules.

1. Read the demographic and identify the target market.

2. Differentiate your product from other products in the market.

3. Deliver the desired benefits on time and in full.


The rest is history. They praised the Lord and hosanna'd all the way to the Vatican Bank.

The Pagans smile from the shadows because they know that they still have a piece of the action. You can't keep a good Pagan down. Look at the British Tradition or any other for that matter, the old and the not-so-old march together into the confused infinity of the future.

The Brits, of course, have cherished their old customs since cabs were two groats a flag-fall. Pace Eggers, Coconut Dancers, Tuppenny Starvers and Tuttimen lurk, so to speak, in every deep shadow throughout the length and breadth of the green and pleasant land. They stand ready to come when called.

Please bear in mind though; it's not just the serf in the street chasing the parade. The never-miss-a-trick 'Royals' also love to get in on the act. After all, the looked down upon must have someone to look up to, looking good Kate, looking good Harry, looking good William and good onya Charles, Phil and Queen Liz II.


Easter, a traditional time of sacrifice, is a good time for the dispensing of traditional largesse. If you have it, flaunt it. What is the point of being rich if you can't tantalise the poor with it? The trick is to give them just enough to make you feel good and to make them feel really angry.


Who knows, the camel may just scrape through the eye of the needle after all? Personally, I don't find the odds inspiring. Neither does a local, truculent, pulpit raging incumbent. ‘Give 'till it hurts’ he booms, as the collecting basket comes around each Sunday. Then he drives off to bless the golf course in his new Volvo.

If the giving of aid and comfort to the poor and needy is an article of faith passed down by the famous Nazarene, and I do not doubt that this is so, why are so many of the demonstrably holy so well off? Why are there so many poor and needy? Is it because simply paying lip service to charity is an art form, or to put it another way, a well-tried confidence trick? After all, being poor is not a socially acceptable condition.

Superstition, custom and poverty have always been the sharp edged tools of the grasping, powerful, politically astute. However, within the ritual tradition, dire warnings of test and retribution are also given.

The Lyke Wake Dirge is just such a warning. It comes from Scotland, and from the north of England as far south as Yorkshire and Pennine Lancashire. You will find it in Aubrey's 17th century manuscript, and in numerous folksong collections. The nineteen sixties folk revival made much of it in live concert, on long-playing record [a large black circular thing with a hole in the middle] and later on compact disc.

The belief demonstrated in the Lyke Wake Dirge, that the soul of the departed must go on a hazardous journey to purgatory has its parallels throughout Indo-European folklore. Hardly anybody in any culture can truly embrace the proposition that when you are dead, you are dead. The concept of life everlasting appears hard-wired into the brain. Doing good works in this life will bring rewards in the next, is also a popular construct.


The belief that alms given to the poor, with good grace, during life will bring rewards to the departing giver at the beginning of the long, hard and dangerous journey of the soul is still strong.


For example: If you give a pair of shoes and a sturdy coat to a needy person during your lifetime then assistance will be given to you at the point of death. This largess will enable your soul to cross the prickly, 'Whinny Moor' without injury. Conversely, the mean-spirited and stingy are guaranteed a right rough trot.

History is silent on how the ancient mourners performed the 'Lyke Wake Dirge'. Did they sing, chant or recite over the lately departed. There is no evidence of a tune to the dirge in the collected song stock. The tunes now favoured are relatively recent in origin, but the potency of the warning is in no way diminished. In short, do ‘good’ or get done. I have seen the 'Lyke Wake Dirge' translated into ‘Gradely English’ but it just doesn’t work for me.

This ae nicht, this ae nicht,

Every nicht and all,

Fire and fleet and candle-licht

And Christ receive thy soul.


When thou from hence away do pass,

Every nicht and all,

To Whinny-Moor thou com'st at last,

And Christ receive thy soul.

If ever thou gayest hosen or shoon,

Every nicht and all,

Then sit thee down and put them on,

And Christ receive thy soul.

But if hosen or shoon thou never gav'st nane,

Every nicht and all,

The winnies shall prick thee to the bare bane,

And Christ receive thy soul.

When thou from hence away dost pass,

Every nicht and all,

To Brig o'Dread thou com'st at last,

And Christ receive thy soul.

When thou from hence away dost pass,

Every nicht and all,

To Purgatory fire thou com'st at last,

And Christ receive thy soul.

If ever thou gavest meat or drink,

Every nicht and all,

The fire will never make thee shrink,

And Christ receive thy soul.

But if meat or drink thou never gav'st nane,

Every nicht and all,

The fire will burn thee to the bare bane

And Christ receive thy soul.


This ae nicht, this ae nicht,

Every nicht and all,

Fire and fleet and candle-licht

And Christ receive thy soul.


Do gooders, the kindly and the cunning, it appears, are plentiful. On Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, at 11.30am, Britain's oldest Royal charity, 'The Royal Maundy', is distributed. It has been so since the reign of Edward III. The ceremony has changed a little down the years. Until 1685 the King in person washed the feet of the assembled poor to commemorate Christ's service to the apostles on the day before his death.


Doles or Maunds, from the command or mandatum given by Christ at the Last Super ‘to love one another’, given out in the form of food and clothing - and later money was substituted - are part of the Anglican High Church ritual celebration of Maundy Thursday. In more recent times the custom of minting special Maundy Money has grown up. The present, Elizabeth II, has indicated that the Maundy Service has significance in her religious life as defender of the faith.   

The lovers of rustic ritual also take every opportunity to excite and impress. In the West Ridings of Yorkshire the Midgley Pace Egg play is performed On Good Friday. The Pace Egg play bears a strong resemblance to the Christmas Mumming plays - the action portrays the constant struggle between good and evil.


Traditionally Saint George, who has his own day on April 23rd, represents the forces of good. Toss Pot represents the forces of evil. Other characters include the King of Egypt, the Black Prince of Paradine and the Doctor, who is responsible for repairing all the damage done during the play.

The text is doggerel verse dating from the Eighteenth Century. An older version from the Sixteenth Century has the title 'History of the Seven Champions of Christendom'. The genesis of this work is lost in the olden time.

The Pace Egg play can claim a long mysterious journey out of the past into an active present. To this day by the boys of Calder High School, Mytholmroyd perform the play. They wear brightly coloured costumes and paper headdresses. There are seven performances during the day at different locations in Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge, Midgley, Luddenden and Todmorden. Seven is a magic number.

The Pace Egg play of the northern counties, in its fullest version, includes the folk play of Saint George and the Dragon. In mid Lancashire however, it is more common for a circle or a half circle of men to sing a dramatic version of the Pace Egg song. This Lancashire version is from the singing of Emma Vickers and appears in 'Garners Gay', a collection by Fred Hamer.

I beg your leave kind gentlemen,

And you ladies of renown,

For we have come a-pace-egging,

And we wish to make it known,

Now ladies all and gentlemen,

To you we'll give a song,

We'll call upon our comrades,

And we'll call them one by one.

Because we're jovial lads,

We'll do no harm wherever we may go

For we are come a-pace-egging

You're very well to know.

And so the next that does come in,

He is a sailor brave,

He's new been ploughing the ocean,

And splitting the briny wave,

But now he has come back again,

With money all in store,

He says he'll marry a pretty lass,

And go to sea no more.

Because we're jovial lads,

We'll do no harm wherever we may go

For we are come a-pace-egging

You're very well to know.

Now the next that does come in,

She is our lady gay,

And from her native country,

She's lately run away,

With her red cap and feather on,

And fancy crinoline,

And all her delight is

In drinking red port wine.

Because we're jovial lads,

We'll do no harm wherever we may go

For we are come a-pace-egging

You're very well to know.

Now the last that does come in,

He is a jolly man,

And if he cannot please you right,

He'll do the best he can,

He is a jolly fellow,

And he wears a straw tail,

And all his delight is

In drinking well mulled ale.

Because we're jovial lads,

We'll do no harm wherever we may go

For we are come a-pace-egging

You're very well to know.

And now you have seen us all,

You can think what you've a mind,

But if you give us a pace egg,

We'll think you're very kind,

Now ladies all and gentlemen,

To you we'll bid adieu,

And if we haven't pleased you right,

We'll come in a year or two.


Because we're jovial lads,

We'll do no harm wherever we may go

For we are come a-pace-egging

You're very well to know.



On Easter Saturday, in the town of Bacup in Lancashire, the 'Britannia Coconut Dancers' or as they are better known 'The Nutters' perform a strange ritual dance, which is over a hundred years old. Some of the participants must be getting on that way too.


The dancers, traditionally, are all men. They black their faces and dress, from head to foot, in black and white costumes. They attach wooden discs or 'nuts' to the palms of their hands, their waists, and to their knees. Vigorously, they clap their 'nuts' in time with the music. It doesn't bear thinking about.


On Easter Sunday, in some parts of Britain and on Easter Monday in others, particularly in the north, the custom of pace egging or egg rolling still flourishes. The custom of egg rolling represents the rolling away of the stone from Christ's tomb. The eggs are hard-boiled and painted with bright colours - sometimes red, to symbolise the blood of Christ. Sustained by the exuberance of the children this quaint practice is an ever popular part of a holiday ritual.

On Easter Tuesday in Bristol, in the southwest of England, according to custom each choirboy of Saint Michael's On the Mount received a large bun known as a 'Tuppenny Starver' as a special treat after the service. This tradition has morphed somewhat and now all children and adults attending the service receive a spicy 'Tuppenny Starver'. This confection is a two-handed job and at a distance could be mistaken for medium sized pizza.

The origin of the custom is unknown, but the church records show it happening from the middle of the Sixteenth Century onwards. There is a belief that the custom grew during a time when black bread was common fare and white bread was a luxury, made or kept for special occasions such as Easter.  


According to ‘Information Britain’, in 1748 Saint Michael's On the Mount parishioners Mary and Peter Davis fearing a shortfall in church funds left a bequest to support the 'Tuppenny Starver' tradition.


At Hocktide, the second Tuesday after Easter, it is the turn of the Hungerford Tutti-men. It is the custom for the Tutti or Titheing men to visit the houses of Hungerford one after the other. The proceedings start at 9.00am when the Town Crier, in traditional livery of grey and scarlet, sounds a Seventeenth Century horn from the Corn Exchange. This horn is a copy of the original Fourteenth Century horn presented by the Plantagenet John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster and Aquitaine [1340-1399]. After the horn sounding ceremony the gathering elects the officers of the court. They include The Constable, the Portreeve, the Bailiffs, the Overseers of the Common, and the Ale Tasters

The Tutti-men then collect staffs decorated with ribbons and flowers. They dress in morning coats and top hats. On their rounds of the town the Tutti-men demand money from men and kisses from girls. In return the girls receive an orange from the 'Orange Scrambler' who carries a sack of oranges and wears a cock-feathered hat. What the men receive the legend does not disclose.

A Civic Luncheon starts about 1.00pm after which guests and new commoners have to submit to the ceremony of 'Shoeing the Colt'. This ritual involves driving a nail into the heel of the right shoe, and then the appropriate functionary serves a strong, hot punch. Later, the gathering throws pennies and oranges either to or at the crowd of children waiting beneath the windows.


The whole ceremony is to commemorate the granting, by John of Gaunt, of free fishing rights on the River Kennet, and free use of the common lands of Hungerford.


Well, there you go. A sample of Easter events in the Old Dart, there are others of note, Christian and pre Christian, not covered here. The Pax Cakes Ceremony, the Skipping Marble Championship, Burning Judas, Widows Bun Ceremony, Rivington Pike Fair, the Bottle Kicking and Hare Pie Scramble, and the Whitebread Meadow Running Auction all have much to offer. Always leave something for next time that's my motto.

Easter, this ancient festival of faith, hope, love, fertility and renewal with its giving and receiving may seem to have lost its way, the true meaning buried under an avalanche of mass-produced chocolate eggs and rabbits, ludicrously expensive greeting cards, designer-label fluffy bunnies, all day all channel re-runs of Hollywood biblical epics and late-night encore presentations of Easter Parade. But has it lost its way? You tell me. When it's your turn to cross 'Whinny Moor' will you have a pair of shoes and a sturdy coat to help you? If you have, then it hasn't lost its way, at least, not for you.

References and Acknowledgments: Douglas Brice, The Folk Carol of England. Herbert Jenkins, London, 1967. Keith Feiling, A History Of England, Book Club Associates UK 1974. Bob Copper, A Song For Every Season, Paladin, St. Albans, 1975. Peter Kennedy, Folk Song s of Britain and Ireland, (Collection) Cassell, London, 1975. Dermott Ryder, Ryder Round Easter, FM Guide, 2MBS Sydney NSW, 1982. Garners Gay, Fred Hamer, (Collection) E.F.D.S. London, MCMLXVII. Albion - A Legendary Guide To Britain, Jennifer Eastwood, Grafton Books, London, 1985. Dermott Ryder, Easter, Folk Odyssey 2000.


From: Next © Dermott Ryder April 2014



Views: 166

Comment by Tim Entwisle on May 13, 2014 at 9:40

Excellent post. There is so much magic in English folklore.

Comment by Dermott Ryder on May 15, 2014 at 10:19

Thank you Tim



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