Tag Archives: england

Simnel Cake or Judas doesn’t get a marzipan egg for Easter

S is 54, he lived in England where his mother is from for the first ten years of his life before his family moved to California. He is soft spoken and pauses thoughtfully while speaking. He told me about this Easter tradition of a cake his mother used to bake.

“And then this is something my mom did… I’ve never heard it done anywhere else… for Easter she would bake a cake and make eleven marzipan eggs and put them on top of it… and it represented each of the disciples… except for Judas (laughs). I think it was a white cake… or I think a plain yellow… we always went outside and took an Easter picture with one of us five kids holding the cake.”

When I researched this, I found that this is a traditional cake known as a Simnel Cake. This tradition goes back to medieval times and started out as something more like bread than cake. Simnel comes from the Latin Simila – a fine white flour. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was something more like pudding. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it became recognizable as cake and the marzipan eggs don’t appear until the 20th century. It is described as a fruit cake, but lighter than the traditional Christmas version. S didn’t mention fruit in the one his mom used to make, but the white cake would have been in line with the original use of fine white flour. For more information and a recipe please see https://britishfoodhistory.com/2018/03/19/simnel-cake/

An Orange in your Christmas Stocking

S is 54, he lived in England where his mother is from for the first ten years of his life before his family moved to California. He is soft spoken and pauses thoughtfully while speaking. He told me about this tradition of receiving an orange in his Christmas stocking and carrying it on with his family.

“An English tradition I like is that you would always get an orange in your stocking at Christmas time… because oranges were exotic I think… especially during the winter. That was something my mom shared with me and my siblings. And it was just for the kids, so… that made us feel special… I still do it… only it’s a chocolate orange now… Terry’s chocolate orange because I like chocolate! It’s a good feeling from my childhood…it’s a good memory from my childhood… and even though my family is diabetic now, I feel happy giving the chocolate orange now because it reminds us all of happy Christmases.”

According to an article in Smithsonian magazine (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-we-should-bring-back-tradition-christmas-orange-180971101/), the tradition of an orange in Christmas stockings started in the 19th century and may be related to a legend about the real Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra and three gold balls (bags, bars, or coins?) known as “the Miracle of the Dowries.” The orange was an affordable stand in for the gold, yet still a rare treat. In the early 1900s, the citrus industry incorporated the tradition in marketing campaigns featuring a cartoon Santa offering oranges as a healthy alternative to candy. Later, during the Great Depression, oranges took on renewed importance as an exotic and rare treat during hard times. The trajectory of this tradition reveals interesting intersections with the focus of Christmas moving away from a religious focus to a consumer one.

Folk Belief: It’s Good Luck to Kill a Scotsman

Main Piece: 

Informant: “There’s a law in England that in York on Sunday, you’re allowed to kill a Scotsman with a bow and arrow. So- I mean, this was put in place in the 1700s when England was at war with Scotland and it was never repealed, so it still exists. So, apparently, some people think that if you do this— Of course, there are like law kinda hierarchies, so the murder law I think also applies. I mean, it’s apparently supposed to give you luck if you do kill a Scotsman. I mean, I’ve never tried it but…”

Collector: “Is there any like traditions or things that people do on a Sunday to celebrate this law? Besides killing Scotsmen.”

Informant: “Well, you know, I don’t know. I heard, you know, a thing once. This might be one guy. I heard people like treat the Scotsperson as an animal and they left, you know, a bowl of haggis outside as bait. And they would wait in the bushes. I mean, this is England, so…”

Collector: “Do the Scotsmen like this?”

Informant: “I don’t think so. I don’t think they go to York on a Sunday.”

Background:

My informant had not personally partaken in any of the rituals surrounding this law. From the way he presented it, it was up to individual interpretation how to personally engage with this law, hence the singular person hiding in the bushes. No set rituals necessarily exist in any official or widely known capacity. My informant said he understands it as the good luck associated with the killing is what is well known. He also made it clear that these efforts were obviously facetious and the repetition of “it’s good luck to kill a Scotsman in York on Sunday with a bow and arrow” is something of a running joke.

Thoughts:

There are direct ties between this piece of folklore and intercultural tensions. At the time of the laws establishment, there was an active war between England and Scotland. However, in the modern United Kingdoms, there is a different sort of tension. The Scottish Independence Movement is largely championed by Scots and largely blocked by British government. As such, while the two cultures are within the same nation, there is a tension between the Scots’ desire to leave and the relative power that the British have. I think it’s possible that this folklore is a piece of malevolent humor shared between the Brits. It serves primarily to denigrate the Scots as a group but is obviously facetious enough not to be too egregious for public.

Conkers – English Children’s Game

Description of Informant

NV (75) is a retired school teacher born in Abadan, Iran. She went to boarding school in England from 1956-1963, moving to American for college afterward. She always remembers her arrival in the states, as it was the day before Kennedy was assassinated. Currently, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, California.

Context of Interview

The informant, NV, sits on a loveseat, feet planted on a brightly colored Persian rug. She is opposite the collector, BK, her grandson.

Interview

BK: What are some childhood games from your time in either England or Iran?

NV: I know something called Conker. It’s these things that grow out of the trees and we would take it and put a nail in it and tie a string on it. We’d have to borrow the hammer. And then we would have a battle with it and hit it [our Conkers] and try to break them— that you know have it hanging and you go whack! Hit it, and see how many hits would take to break that— like a fruit. It was a hard fruit that grew. You don’t eat it. It’s just something like this *makes a ball with her fist* called Conker, or something. That was in England.

NV: Boys and girls played it. So it wasn’t just for the boys, the girls played it too. It was fun because sometimes it would hit your face or fly all over the place. A lot of the time the nail would fall off and you’d have to start all over making another one.

BK: Were there winners and losers?

NV: Sure! Your Conker would hit the other person’s Conker, to see who’s broke first. And when you won you’d be so excited and crying with laughter, “I got it, I got it!” and all that nonsense.

Collector’s Reflection

The nut used in Conkers is the seed of the horse chestnut tree, native to the UK. Thus, the game was prevalent only in Great Britain and Ireland, as the tree was not common elsewhere in the world. The nickname for these seeds is actually derived from the game, not the other way around. Conkers comes from a dialect term for “knock out,” though there are several possible origins for the name.

There are many rules and scoring procedures for Conkers which vary from region to region, school to school. However, the informant was not able to recall any complicated scoring mechanism. This may be due to memory loss, but it is just as possible that her school played a more rudimentary version of Conkers.

— 

For more information on Conkers, including rules and variations, please see:

“All About Conkers”. worldconkerchampionships.com. Ashton Conker Club. Retrieved 24 April 2021.

LINK: https://web.archive.org/web/20161025235221/http://www.worldconkerchampionships.com/html/conkers_about.html

The Prep-work Behind The Elderflower Festival

Interviewer: So how did it get started in your home town?

Informant: My parents started off just making a couple of gallons with a couple of friends, I’m not sure exactly who they picked it up from. And I think they may have done that in the house before the Bury. Or right around that time, anyway. Probably around 60 years ago (2020). There have been more Elderflower Festivals than my parents have been present for.  There was one in 1967? My parents went on sabbatical to America and their friends broke in and made Elderflower anyway. There was another one when they sailed one of their boats down to the south of France and my brother and me hosted it on our own. I’m pretty sure my brother has been at every Elderflower Festival.

Interviewer: Does it only happen one time a year?

Informant: It has to take place when the flowers are in bloom, usually in the first or second week of June. It cannot be delayed, the flowers do not stay out for very long. It is an event driven entirely by natural forces and the need for alcohol.

Interviewer: What typically goes into the festival preparation wise?

Informant: Well the deal is something around 40 guests are invited and they’re asked to pick Elderflowers so when they arrive they can deliver their flowers. We spread the tarpaulin on the backyard and lay the flowers on it to dry and be shredded. And in return for their labor, the guests are fed a huge buffet lunch. There are a number of elements of that lunch that are obligatory. Coronation Chicken, Roast Beef, Deviled Eggs, Roast Turkey, Potato Salad, and Garlic Bread and there’s always a rice of some sort. There’s a late morning snack of sausages done on a barbecue because we have a late lunch, because we don’t have lunch until we reach a quota of flowers. After lunch, the afternoon is devoted to games, ‘gassing’ (talking), and drinking wine. Because my parents were teachers a lot of the guests were faculty or students. It’s just a thing a lot of Cambridge educators do.

Interviewer: Is there a recipe then that one has to follow to make Elderflower wine?

Informant: There is a certain amount of citrus fruit that needs to be peeled and squeezed and that is combined with boiling water poured through the flowers in a muslin shiv. With a large amount of sugar to feed the yeasts. My father used to be the viter but now my brother does it. Fermentations takes place in large Demi-johns and it takes about 3 months to the point where the wine can be decanted and bottled. Elderflower wine has an unusual ‘nose’ which takes some getting used to, but the taste is very pleasant.

Background: This festival takes place either the first of second week of June, it is a time sensitive celebration that must occur during that time or not at all. Luckily it is also during the summer break for most British educators, so it is an excuse to see each other outside of work and get drunk together.

Context: My informant and I were discussing whether or not there would be an Elderflower Festival this year due to the Corona Virus. This would be the first time since it’s conception that the Elderflower Festival would not be held, but my informant believed it would be for the best since a majority of attendees are rather old and would be at risk.

My Thoughts: I’ve attended the Elderflower Festivals before and they are a riot! There’s a lot a family and friends who attend and at the end, people are gifted a bottle of last year’s batch. The festival has grown over the time I have attended from just 30 people to closer to 60 or 70. People keep bringing friends to come celebrate, which means a lot more time is put into prepping the meals and getting a supply of flowers to shred.

While not directly a festival celebrating life cycles, the festival is based entirely on the production of turning blooming flowers into wine, so there may be some form of symbolism there.