British Popular Customs Present And Past - online book

A calendar of the traditional customs, practices & rituals of the British Isles.

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[Feb. 4
Feb. 4.]                   ASH WEDNESDAY.
Among the Anglo-Saxons Ash Wednesday had its ceremonial of strewing ashes upon not merely the public penitent, but all; and thereby spoke its awful teachings and warnings ufito all—unto the young and old—the guiltless and the guilty. As soon as none-song was over, that is, about mid-afternoon, the ashes were hallowed and then put upon each one's forehead. From their own parish church the people then went in procession to some other church, and on coming back heard mass. Then, and only then, did such as were bound and able to fast take any kind of food.—D. Rock, The Church of our Fathers, 1849-53, vol. iii. part ii. p. 63.
Formerly, on this day, boys used to go about clacking at doors, to get eggs or bits of bacon wherewith to make up a feast among themselves; and, when refused, would stop the keyhole up with dirt, and depart with a rhymed denun­ciation.—Book of Days, vol. i. p. 240. We learn also from Fosbroke's Br1sth Monachism (1843) that in days gone by boys used on the evening of Ash Wednesday to run about with firebrands and torches.
In former times during the season of Lent, an officer denominated " The King's Cock-Crower" crowed the hour every night within the precincts of the palace, instead of proclaiming it in the ordinary manner. On the first Ash Wednesday after the accession of the House of Hanover, as the Prince of Wales, afterwards George II., was sitting down to supper, this officer suddenly entered the apartment, before the chaplain said grace, and crowed " past ten o'clock." The astonished Prince, not understanding English, and mistaking the tremulation of the crow for mockery, con­cluded that this ceremony was intended as an insult, and instantly rose to resent it; when, with 6ome difficulty, he was made to understand the nature of the custom, and that it was intended as a compliment, and according to court etiquette. From that period the custom was dis­continued.
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