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Monday, February 24, 2014

Spring Holidays in Regency England

Spring is in the air--almost. It's certainly coming and spring holds many holidays for Regency England. But let's look first at the very important quarter days and the overall English calendar year.

The most ancient of calendars are based on solar and lunar events. This gives us, in England:

            * Winter solstice, also known as midwinter, Yule, or Alban

            * First cross-quarter day, also known as St. Bridgid’s Day, Imbolic, or Brigantia

            * Vernal equinox

            * Second cross-quarter day, also known as May Day, Walpurgis, or Beltaine

            * Summer solstice, also known as midsummer, or Samradh

            * Third cross-quarter day, also known as Lammas, or Lughnasadh

            * Autumn equinox, also known as Mabon

            * Fourth cross-quarter day, also known as All Hallows or Samhain

These dates were important for farming and rural life since they were based on the seasons; religious holidays were formed around these dates, including those of the church.

In March, Lady Day, March 25, was the traditional day for planting, and hiring farm laborers for such work. In the church calendars, this day was set as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary to tell her about her upcoming role. This was also the traditional day for when yearly agreements might end or need renewal—it was the old day for the first day of the year. This made it one of the main quarter days.

The quarter days were when servants were hired, rents were due, and assizes were held in the Assizes Towns, over Assizes Week. Assize comes from the Old French and meant that judges travelled the seven circuits of England and Wales, setting up court.

The English quarter days (also observed in Wales and the Channel Islands) are:

March 25       Lady Day
June 24         Midsummer Day
Sept 29          Michaelmas
Dec 25            Christmas

Cross-quarter days that fall between the quarters, adhere to older Celtic holidays:

Feb 2              Candlemas
May 1             May Day
Aug 1             Lammas
Nov 1             All Hallows

In Ireland, prior to 5th century AD, the old Celtic quarter days were observed:

Feb 1              Imbolc
May 1             Beltaine
Aug 1             Lunasa
Nov 1             Samhain

The old Scottish term days, and the quarter days in northern England until the 18th century, were:

Feb 2              Candlemas
May 15          Whitsunday
Aug 1             Lammas
Nov 11           Martinmas

(For more information on quarter days and cross-quarter days, visit:

St. David's Day, the Welsh patron saint, came on March 1, and tradition held that all good Welshmen should wear a leak—a vegetable readily available from winter fare.

March also brought Lent, and very often Easter (in March or April).


You may think that colored eggs and rabbits are modern inventions, but these are actually ancient traditions associated with Easter. (It’s only the chocolate Easter bunny and the bunny with eggs in its basket that are new.)

Eggs are associated with fertility and new beginnings. And the hare is also an ancient symbol used since the Middle Ages by the Church. In 1290, King Edward I of England actually ordered 450 eggs to be gold-leafed and colored for Easter gifts.

Pace Eggs are hard boiled eggs with patterned shells, and are traditional made in northern parts of England.

At Biddenden in Kent at Easter, the Biddenden Dole—bread, cheese, beer, and cake—is distributed. Since the late 1700’s, the cake given out bears an image of two women said to be the founders of this charity, a pair of Siamese twins who were born in 1100 and died within a few hours of each other at thirty-four.

Hot Cross Buns are also an old tradition in England. It is said they were made by Saxons to honor their goddess Eostre, with the bun represented the moon and the cross the moon's quarters. But at Easter, the cross symbolizes the crucifixion. They’re traditionally served warm on Good Friday.

In Shropshire and Herefordshire, Simnell Cakes made with saffron were made for the Easter season. But in many parts of England, the Simnell Cake is made at the end of Lent, the period of forty days before Easter (starting with Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday).

In the 17th century, Mothering Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, became the day when those in service were allowed a day off to go and visit their mothers. Girls would bake their mothers a Simnell cake as a gift.

I’ll to thee a Simnell bring
‘Gainst thou go’st a mothering,
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give to me
            --Robert Herrick, 1648

In England, Maundy Thursday, is the beginning of Easter celebrations and commemorates the Last Supper. The name comes from the Latin, mandatum (relating to Jesus’ commands to his disciples).
Up to 1689, the king or queen would wash the feet of the poor in Westminster Abbey. Food and clothing were also handed out to the poor. Maundy coins—specially minted—were also given out to pensioners.

From the fifteenth century on, the amount of Maundy coins handed out, and the number of people receiving the coins, was tied to the years of the Sovereign’s life and given to celebrate specific events. The Yeomen of the Guards carry the Maundy money in red and white leather purses on golden alms trays on their heads.

Of course spring also meant a return to London for the start of the Season and all it's social whirl.

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