Custom: The Lighting of the St Paul’s Christmas Trees
About: A special annual service in which the crib is blessed and the Christmas trees are lit. It’s hard to find anything concrete about its history – but it’s not as old as you’d expect. In fact, even as late as the 1930s, one writer states that the chapter of St Paul’s felt uncomfortable introducing the Christmas tree lights ‘innovation’.
Custom: The Ceremony of the Keys
About: It’s said to be the oldest military ceremony in the world, performed nightly for 700 years. At 9.53pm, a 7 minute long, faultlessly choreographed tradition takes place, as the Yeoman Warders and Queens Guard lock up the tower for the night. Tickets to watch it are free, but they go 12 months in advanced. Nonetheless, on the night I saw it (the 21st December) 40 people didn’t show up – so the ten of us that made it were treated to a private tour of the tower and the guard room by the very generous beefeater, Moira.
Custom: The Boxing Day Mummers Play
About: Mummers plays are one of the oldest surviving traditions of the British Christmas. This one, performed outside Gloucester Cathedral on Boxing day, has been going for about half a century. It follows the traditional structure – two characters engaging in combat, revived by a quack doctor. Several Morris sides also perform (including my Grampy’s old side – Lassington Oak).
Custom: The Boar’s Head Ceremony
About: One of London’s oldest traditions – it’s been traced back to 1343. Like several of these city traditions, it has its roots in land rental. A group of butchers in London got into trouble washing meat and disposing of entrails near a local monastery. To settle the issue, the Lord Mayor of London gave them some land to use, in exchange for a boars head every November. The boar’s head was paraded from Butchers Company hall down to Mansion House, but they now use a model (with the real boar’s head in place, ready for carving, at Mansion House.)
Custom: The Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary
About: Said to have started in the 17th century, barrels coated in tar are set alight and carried through through the streets on villagers’ backs. Thousands of people turn out around November 5th, to dodge the flames as the barrel carriers run at the crowds.
Custom: The Lord Mayor’s Show
About: Over 800 years old, and still going strong, the Lord Mayor’s Show is a huge spectacle. It’s the longest and old procession in the world, accompanying the newly elected Lord Mayor as he or she travels to Westminster to swear allegiance to the crown and begin their year in office.
Custom: The Festival of St Cecilia
About: An annual celebration of the patron saint of Music, St Cecilia, and all musicians in general. All proceeds and donations goes to Help Musicians UK, that helps thousands of musicians in hardship each year.
Custom: Braughing Old Man’s Day
About: A man called Matthew Wall, in the 16th century, supposedly had a lucky escape from being buried alive, when the pallbearers slipped on some wet leaves as they were carrying his coffin to Braughing church. The fall jolted him awake, and he lived to be an old man. A bequest left in his will commemorates that day – local school children sweep the path down to the church, and the current owner of his cottage paying the church £1 every year.
Custom: Harvest of the Sea Festival Service
About: Traditional harvest festival ceremony near the old site of Billingsgate Fish Market. A fishmonger stall is set up inside the church, and the wares are blessed by the pastor. The service itself is carefully curated, with fishy verses and songs about the sea.
Custom: London Bridge Sheep Drive
About: Exercising their centuries-old right (as freemen of the city) to drive sheep across London Bridge, the Worshipful Company of Woolmen annually herd a flock back and forth. Unfortunately health and safety precludes it from being a fun public event, with it happening behind big barriers and many security guards, so this picture will have to do.
Name: Cherry Chard Wild Rice
Chef: Jamie Oliver
Recipe: Cook the rice in a pan, steaming chopped chard in a colander above it. Finely chop the cherries and mix with rice wine vinegar and red wine vinegar. Slice the walnuts, then the chard. Drain the rice, add the cherry dressing with the chard and crumble in the feta. Toss, season, and sprinkle over the walnuts.
Custom: Pearly Kings and Queens Harvest Festival
About: Charitable cockney folk, dressed in black suits and hats covered in pearly buttons, welcome the changing of the seasons with an afternoon of morris dancing, maypole-ing, and ‘Maybe its because I’m a Londoner’-ing.