Recently we’ve had some wonderful comments on the blog from Miami Magus, who has shared considerable insights into traditions I know little or nothing about. So, I got in touch, and the result is this blog post and me pointing at things! Jose is a Cuban Magician living in Miami, Florida and writes about a broad array of topics. This is just a small selection.
It’s always a joy to have people sharing their own work and insights in the comments – please do jump in if you see something that relates to something you’re working on. I’m always open to sharing other people’s work where that’s relevant and likely to appeal to regular readers here. If you want to talk to me about possibilities, drop me a line – brynnethnimue @ gmail dot com
The tradition goes that everyone in the household has to stir the Christmas pudding, for good luck, and everyone gets to make a wish. A traditional pudding would have been made weeks ago, but I don’t have anywhere suitable to keep a pudding dry and cool for that long. For some years now, I’ve assembled my pudding on Christmas Eve, or the day before intended consumption, but I keep with the stirring traditions.
Many of the things we think of as traditional at this time of year aren’t actually that old. The first Christmas tree in the UK happened around 1800 and they didn’t really take off until Queen Victoria got into them. The trees are a German tradition.
The whole red and white Santa image is modern, green Santas are older and before that we had a diverse bunch of Gods, saints, Goddesses and spirits associated with midwinter and gifts. Or punishment, if you happen to be a krampus.
There’s no one right way of doing any of this. Real traditions are living things that evolve over time. Harking back to older traditions in the hopes of finding something purer or more authentic is also a really traditional thing to do. At some point, every tradition we have is just something someone made up.
Living tradition should be about passing along the fun stuff, not dolefully re-enacting whatever has been handed down to us. It should always be ok to reject traditions that don’t work.
The capitalist side of Christmas is a terrible tradition, causing financial misery for many and putting extra pressure on our already struggling planet. These would be traditions to reject. It’s all modern nonsense anyway, and there’s no need to keep it going.
I hope that however you relate to this particularly odd day, that it treats you kindly and that you are able to find peace and good things.
At the weekend, I was involved with some alternative festive revels as part of Gloucester Steampunks event at The Folk of Gloucester. It was brilliant, we had mummers and morris, The Whitby Krampus team came down, there were carols, and assorted Father Christmas figures, a Lord of Misrule and a parade. Alongside this, more regular steampunk shenanigans included tea duelling and teapot racing and of course music in the evening which I also contributed to.
The parade was a remarkable thing. There’s a lot of drama when you have a few people in krampus outfits. There’s a lot of noise when you have several morris sides. We had a glorious array of festive figures, and more regular steampunks. As we progressed through the streets, people fell back to watch, photograph and film our progress.
It was good, bringing colour and mayhem to the streets of Gloucester. It felt like re-enchantment. A lot of things do at the moment, for me. It was good to be out there bringing surprise, mayhem and mischief into the streets. It’s also a powerful way of reminding people that change is possible, and when a bunch of people get together with intent, amazing things can and do happen.
(Photo thanks to Susie Roberts, shows James and I at the tail end of the parade.)
It’s widely recognised that crafting is good for your mental health. Doing simple things with your hands can be really soothing. There’s a meme floating about out there about how it answers an existential crisis because you get in there and eventually you have a sock! It’s a simple way to be powerful and to make changes which helps a person maintain their sense of being someone who can change things. Being able to make stuff you can use is incredibly empowering.
I recently saw a suggestion online that we might have evolved for craft. The willingness to sit around patiently making things must have had huge survival impact on our ancestors. Be that making storage vessels for food and water, making clothes to keep warm in the winter, making tools, or any other day to day items, having them would result in a more viable human.
Perhaps on some level, our bodies know that crafting keeps you safe. Crafting is how we get everyone through the winter. So we are soothed by the process of making.
As an enthusiastic crafter I am enchanted by the idea that how we are as humans might have things to do with evolving to feel good about making stuff.
I first ran into the notion of the cursed boyfriend jumper via a Talis Kimberly song. It’s a rather fascinating bit of modern folklore from the knitting community, and it goes like this: Making your boyfriend a jumper will doom your relationship. Boyfriend jumpers are cursed.
I had a bit of a poke about in this – it’s easy to find information online. Most of what’s out there ponders the practical and psychological reasons why jumper making may not be good for relationships. But, it’s more fun to talk about it as a folkloric curse and so of course that’s what people end up doing.
Having made a massive snuggly jumper for myself, I wanted to make jumpers for my household, which is what got more exploring the cursed boyfriend jumper. It’s a decidedly different thing to be knitting a jumper for someone who wants a jumper and normally wears jumpers – and there’s nothing weird, invasive or unsettling about making clothes for someone you live with. So we picked out the wool together and looked at stitches together and the result is something Tom likes. Imposing a surprise jumper on someone you don’t know well clearly has implications.
I learned a lot making this one. I need to stop assuming I’m bigger than everyone else because it turns out Tom’s chest is bigger than mine and I had to add some little inserts. I shall fettle my pattern accordingly for next time. I confirmed some ideas I’d had about how better to do collars, following on from my first jumper. The stitch is based on fisherman’s rib, but I think I was doing it wrong, technically! I really like the effect though, so, not a problem.
It turns out that the idea of a row by row, stitch by stitch set of knitting instructions terrifies me. But, a few broad theories of jumper and I’m happy to crack on with it. There are practical implications to this as well. Much of the body of this jumper was knitted at the Gloucester Steampunk Winter Convivial, while the sleeves were knitted the following weekend at Steampunks in Space. I’m finding that crafting at events helps me stay calm in face of what can otherwise be sensory overload, but there is no way I could manage a stall while following a detailed pattern.
The changelings of folklore are not long lived. They are only bundles of leaves and twigs, rocks and mud lumped together and enchanted to resemble a child. Their job is to distract the family for a day or two after the baby has been stolen. The changeling is supposed to die, the family is supposed to mourn the death in all innocence.
There are those of us who never fit, never belong. The changeling story is a comforting fiction. The real baby, the one they wanted and could have loved, was kidnapped by fairies. You are what was left instead. You are a fairy child, and you belong somewhere else. The ache in your heart is a longing for that more magical place and one day, they will come for you, one day you will go back. There is a way for your heart to be whole and for your life to make sense. It’s not authentic folklore, but it is the kind of story that can keep a person alive.
Then there are the people like me. The ones who should not have lived and yet somehow did. Gazing anxiously at every reflection, certain that other people must surely be able to see the mud and twigs under the surface. This human-seeming skin has stretched too far and is so thin, one day the sticks will poke through it. Perhaps it will be a relief when it finally breaks open and everyone else can see that I was never a real person.
We were never supposed to live this long. We aren’t actual people. Nor are we fabulous magical fairy children waiting to go home. We are mud and sticks, conjured to pass as a baby, and somehow we are not dead yet. This isn’t folklore either. There are no traditional stories about changelings who do not die. But, we know what we are.
Forgive me if I am terrible. I was not made to be anything good. There is only rot and death on the inside, only broken things. I was not supposed to exist like this. I cannot help it.
(Art by Dr Abbey. This one is a standalone and does not relate to any specific project).
When Nimue suggested that I write something about the living tradition for this blog, I wasn’t sure what I would come up with. However, the kaleidoscope that is social media has provided me with an answer.
If you haven’t been living under a rock the past few weeks, then you may have heard something about sea shanties on TikTok. You’ve likely heard a song called The Wellerman. I’m an old person who likes folk music, but I barely understood what TikTok was until this happened. And what’s a Wellerman? A guy who delivers supplies to a whaling ship in 19th century New Zealand, it turns out.
What happened on TikTok? A young chap from Airdrie, in Scotland, called Nathan Evans, posted a video of himself singing an old whaling ballad. It went viral in a way that is particularly TikTok as other singers, and then instrumentalists, dubbed in their own parts, creating a moment of rare beauty. There are a few mixes floating around now, but this one will give you the idea.
As a music scene, TikTok seems to be a place where currently isolated young people are congregating to try to share a bit of themselves, their talent, and trying to look good in the process. There’s a certain emphasis on image that I find a little uncomfortable, but that’s not limited to TikTok, or a particular age group. Lockdown has created a whole new layer of virtual self-curation for everyone.
This was the second or third shanty that Evans had posted, but he hasn’t really been promoting himself as a folk singer. He’s been singing pop covers, and few things of his own, and taking requests for months. Some of that has been folk music, in the broadest sense of the word.
I’m not here to review Evans’ singing, but his solo performance of The Wellerman is really good. I just listened to various recordings of shanty groups and folk groups’ doing this song over the past few decades, and Nathan’s solo has a depth and power that the others miss. He’s obviously enjoying the song and singing it a cappella except for beating out the rhythm with his hand on the table is perfect. So far, so good.
But it’s what happened next that is so great. People began posting mixes of the song with their own voices dubbed in duets with Evans’ original. That’s hardly unique on TikTok, but the quality and blending of some of these duets, which quickly became a choir, is amazing.
This had been building for a while. Sea shanties have been a thing on the internet since, maybe, September. This massed choir project of “Leave Her Johnny”, organised by shanty group The Longest Johns had over 500 submissions.
To my mind, this isn’t just an example of living tradition because a folk song happens to be involved, although that obviously helps. As other folk nerds have pointed out, The Wellerman isn’t exactly a shanty, but a closely related song-type – a whaling ballad. However, it’s sung here with a shanty feel. A shanty being a work song, which sailors once sang to keep themselves in rhythm when doing work like hoisting sails. With Evans’ fist banging rhythm and the song’s great chorus this works well.
Sea shanties once had an important purpose. Not only did they keep the sailors in a work rhythm, but they helped them to keep going, and stay heartened, under difficult conditions. Under a different kind of difficult conditions this winter, these songs have found another purpose – reminding people how great it is to sing together – in rhythm, in harmony, in making the whole a little bit better with your own contribution. Hopefully, this is teaching us a valuable lesson for when we can sing together again. That’s the living tradition I’m hoping for, anyway.
Fiction inspired by folklore has had a bit of a renaissance in recent years. Folklore and folk tales have always been a fruitful lode for fantasy writers but through the novels of writers like Sarah Perry and Joanne Harris it’s become both more literary and more mainstream.
I’m the author of the Spellworker Chronicles which are contemporary fantasy novels inspired by folklore. Beltane grew out of the folklore of Glastonbury and Storm Witch was inspired by an Orcadian folk tale. There are challenges in taking folklore as your starting point especially if you’re translating it to a contemporary setting. Some things don’t shift forward as well as others. Orkney has stories of trows, fairylike creatures who are not blessed in the looks department, who have a habit of tempting human into their world. In writing Storm Witch I couldn’t find a use for the trows, even though there’s some great stories about them. I had to accept that they didn’t fit with the world I was creating.
I was more interested in the tales that people told about the pre-historic sites on the islands. There’s a saying that if you scratch the surface in Orkney it bleeds archaeology. Orkney’s World Heritage Site comprises the key sites of Skara Brae, Maeshowe, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. The dig at the Ness of Brodgar has revealed a Neolithic temple complex which has overthrown much accepted thinking about the period. It’s exciting stuff if you’re interested in pre-history and the lives of the people who built such fascinating but enigmatic monuments.
It’s believed that folk tales grew up around pre-historic sites as a way for subsequent inhabitants to understand the landscape they’d inherited. I’m from Yorkshire and there’s a great example of that in the Devil’s Arrows, three standing stones just off the A1 at Boroughbridge. According to legend these were thrown by the Devil from a nearby hill. He was aiming for the next town of Aldborough but the stones fell short and landed near Boroughbridge instead. Similarly, there’s the Devil’s Chair at Avebury. According to folklore if you wish to speak to Old Nick you need to run round it a hundred times widdershins after which he’ll appear to you. It’s not hard to imagine that for a God-fearing population the Devil must have been a handy way of interpreting these inexplicable monoliths.
It’s where magic and folklore intersect that I find the questions arise for the writer. The folk tale of Janet Forsyth, the storm witch of Westray (one of the northern islands of the Orkney archipelago) is a mixture of fact and folklore. It involves a girl who was believed to be able to control the weather and call up storms. You can read my retelling of the story on my website but the key elements are that Janet had an unusual ability to read the weather which results in the other islanders ostracizing her. Then when a ship was blown onto the rocks in a storm, she rowed out and brought it safely to harbour. Unlike Grace Darling three hundred years later, it was felt that only through witchcraft could a woman have achieved this. Janet was tried and convicted as a witch.
There were two question which interested me most about this story. The first was what if Janet could actually do what she was accused of? From that grew the character of Rachel Sinclair who has the power to manipulate the weather but is unable to control her abilities. As the Spellworker Chronicles have spellworkers (which are extremely powerful witches) and druids the book imagines the possibilities of this form of magic in the real world setting of the Orkney archipelago.
The second was, how do you cope when your whole world falls apart? In the story Janet loses her sweetheart, loses her place in her community and is tried and convicted for witchcraft. As this is a folk tale we don’t find out what that does to Janet and how she puts her life back together but in Storm Witch I could look at that. The two female main characters are living with the repercussions of trauma and have to decide how that affects the way they interact with the world.
Of course, when Janet was alive in the seventeenth century the belief in magic was much more prevalent in society. In the same way as the Devil was thought responsible for standing stones, witchcraft was the go-to explanation for an unusually powerful or intuitive woman. There’s always a choice for the writer as to whether they accept the magical which comes with the folklore. Personally (and there’s a potential spoiler coming) I was hugely disappointed in Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent as, in the end, it didn’t. As I’m writing fantasy I can explore these questions and let them play out in the world of druids and spellworkers that I’ve created.
Alys West writes contemporary fantasy and steampunk. She lives in Yorkshire but loves to travel especially to Scottish islands. Her stories grow out of places and the tales which people tell about places. Her work draws on her own experience of surviving trauma but always with the possibility of a hopeful ending.
Alys has a MA in Creative Writing from York St John University and teaches creative writing at the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York. She’s also a book whisperer (like a book doctor but more holistic), mentor to aspiring writers and runs an online mindful writing group.
When she’s not writing you can find her at folk gigs, doing yoga and attempting to crochet. She occasionally blogs at www.alyswest.com, intermittently tweets at @alyswestyork and spends rather too much time on Facebook where you can find her at Alys West Writer. She is also on Instagram at @alyswestwriter. To keep up with Alys’s news you can join her Facebook readers’ group ‘Druids, Spellworkers and Dirigibles’.
The Gloucestershire cheese rolling was cancelled this year, but one man rolled a single cheese down the hill. There were no groups of morris dancers out for May morning, but there were a great many solitary morris dancers up at dawn and posting videos of their dancing online. Locally, there was no lantern parade at the December goodwill evening, but there was just the one big lantern. I have no doubt there are many other examples of people doing small, safe versions of things to keep traditions alive.
I’ve found this comforting. I am glad that traditions continue, in some form, even while we can’t get together and can’t do things in the usual ways. So when the Saturday that would have been the Stroud Wassail came by, we decided to be a one household bubble beast parade. The local wassail isn’t an ancient custom, but it’s been part of my calendar for a while, and I didn’t want it to pass uncelebrated.
We waited until late in the afternoon so there were few people out in the streets. We did a ten minute or so mini parade, with just the one beast rather than the many who normally gather. We didn’t let people know we were doing it, and we put up photos online afterwards – and managed to cheer a fair few people with those.
Lockdown costs us so much, I think it’s really important to make what joy we can and keep going with the things we find meaningful. I also think it’s incredibly important to stay safe and not put anyone at risk. One cheese down a hill sums that up for me. One sackcloth boar dancing in the street. The hope that in future years, it will be better and we can have our traditions back.