The wakes and feasts of country parishes

In pre-modern England, the anniversary of the dedication of the community’s church to its tutelary saint was marked yearly with great celebration. The following accounts of such festivities give an indication as to how far removed the Christianity of ordinary rural people was from the staid church-going of today.

Celebrations in the South West:

Then the inhabitants deck themselves in their gaudiest clothes, and have open doors and splendid entertainments, for the reception and treating of their relations and friends, who visit them on that occasion from every neighbouring town. The morning is spent for the most part at church, though not as that morning was wont to be spent, not in commemorating the saint or martyr, or in gratefully remembering the builder and endower. The remaining part of the day is spent in eating and drinking. Thus also they spend a day or two afterwards, in all sorts of rural pastimes and exercises, such as dancing on the green, wrestling, cudgelling, &c.[1]

Festivities in Lancashire:

The eve of such anniversary was the yearly wake (or watching) of the parishioners; and originally booths were erected in the churchyards, and feasting, dancing, and other revelry continued throughout the night. The parishioners attended divine service on the feast day, and the rest of that day was then devoted to popular festivities. So great grew the excesses during these prolonged orgies, that at length it became necessary to close the churches against the pageants and mummeries performed in them at these anniversaries, and the churchyards against the noisy, disorderly, and tumultuous merry-makings of the people. Thenceforth the great seal of the revels was transferred from the church and its grave-yard, to the village green or the town market-place, or some space of open ground, large enough for popular assemblages to enjoy the favourite sports and pastimes of the period. Such were the general character and features of the wakes and feasts of country parishes, changing only with the name of the patron saint, the day of the celebration.[2]

References:

[1] John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Vol. II (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.5. Citing Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares, Or The Antiquities of the Common People (1725).

[2] John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson (1867) Lancashire Folk-Lore (London: Frederick Warne and Co.), p.213.

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