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Nostalgia: Rituals and superstitions

West Sandgate, Scarborough.
West Sandgate, Scarborough.

Apart from the door-to-door carol singing of street boys, which was still universal, by 1800 Scarborough had retained some of its medieval Christmas customs. For several weeks before Christmas day, women and girls went round the town with square boxes surrounded by holly berries and ivy leaves, flowers, apples and oranges. These boxes were called “Vessel Cups”. At each door the girls sang a well-known carol and were usually rewarded with at least a half-penny. To send them away empty-handed was to risk bad luck for a whole year.

On Christmas Eve each household hoped to hold a special supper or Frumity, apple-pie, cheese and peppercake. Frumity, Frumentie or Frumety was composed of creed wheat boiled in milk, sweetened with sugar and spiced with cloves or cinnamon, sometimes strewn with currants.

Before midnight a large block of wood, the so-called Yule log, was put on the fire and the Yule candle, specially decorated for the occasion, was made ready. It was considered ill-luck to begin the supper or light the candle before midnight. Both the remains of the Yule log and the Yule candle were kept for the following Christmas.

On Christmas day no one was permitted to leave the house until the entrance threshhold had been crossed by a dark male, known as “the lucky bird”. Females were not allowed to take part in this particular ritual: however young or pretty, a woman who was the first to enter the house on Christmas or New Year’s day was regarded as an omen of death in the family! If for some reason all the menfolk were absent, a dark-haired lady might be permitted as an exception to the rule. On New Year’s day the hearth had to be swept clear and clean before a new fire could be lit. This curious mixture of pagan superstition and Christian ritual was how many of our ancestors celebrated the principal festivals of the year before Charles Dickens and Prince Albert added new ones. What must have been baffling to them was when New Year’s day was moved from 25 March to 1 January and the calendar was brought forward eleven days in 1752!

Some old customs performed at Scarborough were, it seems, unique to the town and defy either Christian or pagan explanation. For example, at Easter, young men tried to take as many shoes as they could from the feet of young women.

The following day, the girls retaliated by taking hats, bonnets or any headgear from the heads of young men. Subsequently, both sides agreed to meet, return their prizes and join together in a “hearty repast”. Since young working people had few opportunities of seeing each other, the exchange of shoes and hats was one means whereby they could “date” respectably.

Ship-building was Scarborough’s chief source of employment, investment and income and there were many stories associated with it. The carpenters had a peculiar custom called the “caulking kiss”. When the seams of a new wooden ship in its frame were being caulked, that is sealed with oakum, the carpenter working on the stern of the boat had the right to demand a kiss from any woman, resident or visitor, passing by on the dock. If she refused, she was expected to compensate the carpenter with a donation to buy oil for the “riming iron” which was used to separate the seams. Those females who chose to pay money rather than kisses “seldom estimated the value of a kiss at less than a shilling”. Here, it seems, was a custom aimed at female spawers, rather than locals, and intended to supplement a carpenter’s wages.

Scarborough was also a seafaring community of fishermen and their families whose traditions, vocabulary, superstitions and jokes operated in what was almost a closed society. Men born and raised “below the pump” at the top of West Sandgate rarely ventured beyond it to mix with “up-town” strangers.

One tradition followed by fishermen was to catch fish for themselves over the side of the boat by hook as it trawled the herring. This set-aside fish was known as “Wrangham’s” because his shop in East Sandgate had the reputation for selling the best strong spirits. Needless to say, the wives of such old coble fishermen were never told about the source of this private fund for spirits.

Some superstitions amongst the seafaring community persisted for centuries. When a storm blew up and a husband, father, brother, or son did not return home when expected, a female in the family would go down the old pier in the harbour to bring him back. About 40 paces along the pier was “a small, circular cavity” in the stonework into which she would pour “a saline and tepid libation”, muttering words of tender wishes for the safe arrival of her loved one. Nobody was more superstitious than a seafarer. For instance, whistling at sea was feared to raise an unfavourable wind, though if the boat was becalmed it might be allowed.

The captain of one of the pleasure boats in the harbour was said to have refused to allow a lady aboard because she whistled! By coincidence, his vessel was lost on its next voyage.

Though time, tide and wind might all be favourable, seamen would not set sail or launch a new ship on a Friday, the unluckiest day of the week. It was also considered unlucky to enter into conversation before the boat left the harbour or before it even reached the fishing grounds. Fishermen used their own sign language during this time.

Finally, black cats were believed to be very lucky for a household and greatly valued as such: sailors’ wives kept them safely at home, otherwise they were certain to be stolen and then hidden.