However, how many people realise that the origins of these drunken, hedonistic orgies are firmly rooted in religious festivities?
Hard to believe, we know, but this is what happens when puritanical do-gooders impose their doctrines on the over worked, underpaid classes and expect them to behave. (Ahem…excuse me…that’s what’s known as a socialist burp.)
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Then Christianity happened.
The pagan gods, originally accepted by the new Christian doctrine, soon became frowned upon and eventually regarded as something to be stamped out at all costs.
Pagan festivals became replaced by Saints days, each local church having its own particular saint and, therefore, its own particular day.
From such ‘holy days’ sprang the modern word ‘holidays’, proving if nothing else that you can take the religion out of paganism, but you can't take the paganism out of religion.
During the summer these holy days were known as wakes, the name being derived from having to staying awake the entire night beforehand in prayer. Of course, with that sort of sanctimonious ‘not-exactly-a-party-is-it?’ attitude, the Christian church found it almost impossible to stamp out some of the older customs entirely.
Rush bearing, for example, had originally been a pagan fertility rite, similar to the May Day custom of sticking boughs down people’s chimneys.
You’ve never heard of that custom? Okay, here’s William Thornber describing the events of May Day in Poulton several centuries ago: “On the morning of the first of that month many a May-bough ornamented the village and town, inserted by some unlucky youngsters, at the risk of life or limb, into the chimnies (sic) of their neighbours’ houses.”
Each bough was, apparently, different, depending on the nature of the woman who lived there. Elder represented a scold, ash symbolised somebody who swore a lot, and nettles, thistles, and sloes basically meant you couldn’t stand the sight of the nasty old bag.
Anyhow, rush bearing, as we were saying before being diverted, had similar origins, although it wasn’t without its practical uses as far as the church authorities were concerned. Because floorboards were expensive, rushes were used, allegedly, to keep the floors from being churned up. Unfortunately the practice wasn’t very hygienic. Erasmus, an Oxford professor during the reign of Henry the Eighth, informs us that: “The floors are commonly of clay strewed with rushes; under which lies unmolested an ancient collection of beer, grease, fragments, bones, spittle and everything that is nasty.”
Add to that the fact that the aristocracy had a habit of taking their dogs into church with them and, to put it simply, the whole building must have stunk to high heaven.
So the ancient pagan custom of rush bearing was kept alive as a way of renewing the stinking mounds of pulped green slush that constituted church floors.
Unfortunately for the clergy, if the rush bearing ceremony was to be conducted properly (as far as the much-oppressed congregation saw it at any rate) then the whole pagan kit and caboodle needed to accompany the occasion.
On the morning of ‘rush bearing’ day, the maidens of the village (and by maidens, we really do mean ‘maidens’) would disappear into the local woods to gather the rushes for the upcoming events. Always remembering that this was originally a fertility custom, it’s hardly surprising that not all of them returned the maidens they set out as. Here’s what one commentator in 1626 said of the activity: “All the recompense I can make those maydes that brought rushes, is to wish them good husbands.”
It might have been Terry Pratchett who once commented that, those who went gathering nuts in May often ended up bearing fruit in August.
Whatever the case, the members of the congregation left standing following the morning’s events went on to “build themselves huts of boughs” and, as Porter informs us in his ‘History of the Fylde’: “The rush cart, decorated with flowers and ribbons, was paraded through the village streets, accompanied by morris-dancers and others bearing flags or banners.
One of the mummers, dressed in a motley suit, somewhat resembling that of a circus jester, jingled a horse-collar hung with bells, and kept up a constant succession of small jokes at the expense of the bystanders.”
(You can almost picture Edward Woodward screaming, “Killing me won’t save your apples” from inside a wicker man here, can’t you?)
At which juncture we’re going to unexpectedly end this section of the article, for no other reason than we felt like a break ourselves. If you want to know more, you’ll just have to come back next week.