A Treasury of British Folklore: Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe

From Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe: A Treasury of British Folklore, written by Dee Dee Chainey and illustrated by Joe McLaren
From Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe: A Treasury of British Folklore, written by Dee Dee Chainey and illustrated by Joe McLaren
From Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe: A Treasury of British Folklore, written by Dee Dee Chainey and illustrated by Joe McLaren

I began writing  A Treasury of British FolkloreMaypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe back in April last year. I spent a feverish five months of early hot-chocolate- filled mornings, and late coffee-fuelled nights picking through old books, reading stories told by lips that now utter no words, learning of things, long-forgotten, that once made up the todays and the yesterdays of the normal people of this land — now so torn between beliefs of what it is, what it once was, and what it one day might be. Now is a time when identities are being written and rewritten. What it means to be British is at the very core of so many hearts as they leaf through newspapers, awaiting news of the latest instalment of political turmoil that will dictate their future. And within all of this chaos, the worms still churn the same soil beneath our feet regardless of the name it’s given, and the centuries-old trees of the British countryside watch ever on, and on… seemingly shaking their heads at our noise in their timelessness.

And for many months, I have been waiting for the book to appear, words pulled from the mouths and minds of history, netted down into a story of a land, from the harvest rituals and orchard customs of the rolling fields of the south, to the dark, haunted lanes of the northern counties of England with their Strikers and Skrikers, to the wind whistling through the fairy-trees of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Today, the book was finally released by National Trust Books. They’re uneasy words, wrangled with by a writer, by a publisher, and by editors, all looking at these histories through their own lens of what it means to be British – an uneasy identity right now. The book is a negotiation of what British folklore is, and what British identity means in the sense of an ever-changing, yet persistent, folk culture – in all its spatial, temporal and social complexity. So the words that finally tumble on to the page are a construct of an identity, a middling of sorts: a tempering of the wild emotion of myth and old gods that seethe under the soil, balanced with the bookishness of archives and evidence of what came before and can be measured; tempered and civilised to make it palatable, like smoothing the mud of a Bronze Age round house, to create a place – indeed a book – that like a round house, can act as a fireside, where old tales are told, and the bones of the land are bared as their myths are remembered.

And over the last two months, with talk of printing, and release dates, I’ve thought about what I would say of this book, that seems only half mine, as the folklore it contains belongs to the people of Britain who shape it — certainly not to me. I wondered if I might choose to write about folklore relevant to the month, and calendar customs to go with each. I wondered if I might look at British folklore, region by region, or theme by theme – as the book itself does. But I think, in actual fact, that it’s actually more important to talk about why we need a book like this right now, in today’s Britain.

While folklore is a very contemporary thing, and speaks just as much about the traditions, rituals, and beliefs we hold today as it does of the people of the past, this book is very much backwards looking — as is much of the folklore shared each week to the #FolkloreThursday hashtag. Back in the days when I worked on projects in museums, and assessed how best to present the past to visitors, it became clear that heritage was viewed by many as a product to be consumed by the public, something to be neatly packaged by archaeologists and curators, to make it palatable, and easily understood. So too is folklore, in many senses, and Britain’s Folklore is no different. Many of the intricacies of academic debate are too lengthy to be included in such a short book. Folklore had to be selected, piecemeal, to give a rounded, balanced overview of the traditions, customs, and tales of Britain. I can only hope that I’ve summarised these debates sufficiently, and given a fair representation of folklore across the isles. Yet, these pages are packaged, quite purposefully, to reflect the interests of those reading. I came across an array of gruesome folklore, that might titillate and entrance many — particularly from Lancashire and the northern counties, strangely — yet this had to be sanitised, and made suitable for the ‘gentle reader’ that is the average visitor to National Trust sites. This preparation and presentation of the folklore went further: it had to be made fitting for a modern reader, with modern principles and ideals. Where was the folklore of same sex relationships? Where was the folklore of feminism, of asylum seekers, of being a single parent? Folklore of this kind was nowhere to be found, or examples were at least few and far between. Researching this book, and the reading of it, shows how blessed we are to live in the modern world, filled with choices and freedoms that people of the past were not privileged enough to enjoy. Much of the folklore was indeed dark, and full of fear.

Love folklore focused around how a young girl was ever to find a husband, and of course who he might be:

Many young girls hoped to have dreams predicting a vision of their future husband on the eve of St Agnes (on 20 January), a saint martyred in fourth-century Rome for refusing to marry against her will, who later became the patron saint of virgins. On this evening, when going to bed, a girl could take a sprig of rosemary and a sprig of thyme, sprinkle them with water three times, and place one in each of her shoes, which she then placed on either side of the bed. To ensure a dream of her future husband she would then recite: ‘St Agnes, that’s to lovers kind, Come ease the trouble of my mind.’  pp. 113 – 114

Single mothers faced castigation, with no support for themselves or their new child. It seems that some felt like there was no option but to do away with the child, and we’re left only to wonder about the back-story behind this tragedy here:

In Liverpool, the Morning Herald of 18 June 1860 reported a young woman who was apprehended attempting to murder her child by covering it with soil, having broken into a gentleman’s grounds for the purpose. Her defence was that she had the child baptised first, and it was common knowledge that an unbaptised child could not die. In the Borderlands it was considered very unlucky to walk over the graves of unbaptised children, and anyone who dared to do so would suffer dire consequences, such as the burning skin affliction of ‘grave-merels’ or ‘grave-scab’, breathing difficulties or trembling limbs.  pp. 107 – 108

 Children with disabilities were not helped, nor supported in schools with mentors to aid their learning, but instead considered changelings, a babe swapped out for one of the fairies’ own young:

St John’s Eve was thought to be a particular time for stealing children. The changelings that had supposedly replaced the child were said to cry a lot, dislike being touched and were often unresponsive when spoken to. Others were said to sometimes fly into a great rage, and some would have issues with eating and lose weight. Often these symptoms would appear in a child overnight, giving rise to the superstition of a sudden fairy swap for a changeling. It’s now believed these folk superstitions might have arisen to explain the sudden change in behaviour of children with autism, or other conditions. In Lincolnshire, it’s said that – perhaps today more in jest than genuine superstition – that if a good-tempered child becomes irritable suddenly, without reason, they must have been ‘changed’. Folk tales describe some changelings as being much older than the child they replaced. One story speaks of a changeling from Emlyn, on the border of Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire in Wales, who was as old as the real child’s grandfather. p.108

The fates that some of these children faced are horrifying to think about:

A tale from Corwrion, North Wales, dating back to the fourteenth century and collected by John Reece in his Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx, in 1901, tells of a mother complaining about her young twins that would bicker and cry all through the night. A witch asked the mother if she was sure that they had not been changed, and recommended a method to find out. She advised the mother to take an eggshell and brew beer inside, to see what the children would say. The children raised their heads to watch, and one remarked, ‘I remember seeing an oak having an acorn’, while the other said, ‘And I remember seeing a hen having an egg’. One finished, ‘but I do not remember before seeing anybody brew beer in the shell of a hen’s egg.’ On reporting this to the witch, the mother was told to take both children to the bridge and drop them off it at once, which of course she obediently did. She found her real children waiting at home on her return. p.109

The book, it seems became a journey through life, a series of snapshots of what life is, at its deepest core, from birth to death, and everything in between, and the primal need that humans all share to imbue their world with magic. That magic pervades natural places, scattered across the landscape all around us:

Many mountains are also steeped in giant legends. One of the most famous is Cadair Idris, or Cader Idris, in Wales. Legend tells that the mountain was the home of Idris, the chief of the giants in the region – an astronomer who used to gaze up at the stars from his chair (cadair or seat), which people now say is the volcanic lake on the mountainside. It’s said that anyone who spends the night on the summit of the mountain will either wake as a philosopher, a poet, or will succumb to madness. p.29

 It speaks of creatures that skitter behind the surface of everyday life:

It’s said that a gift of clothing will banish any pixie. A Cornish washerwoman named Betsy was said to find this out to her cost. She noticed a ragged, pitiful creature had been washing and folding her clothes for her, and left it a yellow petticoat and red cap – the delighted pixie disappeared through the window, and was never seen again. p.81

The fear that gripped in the dead of night can still be heard in secret tales, whispered to small faces around evening fires:

Even more gruesome, a well-known tale from Loughton in Essex says that the highwayman Dick Turpin threatened an elderly woman with being roasted over a fire if she didn’t reveal where she’d hidden her coins. His fate for this vile crime, the tale continues, is to gallop down Trap’s Hill three times a year, whereupon the vengeful woman’s spirit jumps on to his back and the two ride off together. Perhaps understandably, observing their ghostly ride is supposed to bring bad luck. p.96

 Yet what the folklore speaks of, more than anything else, is connection, and friendship, and the bonds that hold people together. It tells of love, and the fear of losing those close to you:

One Cornish farmer’s wife reported being able to predict sea conditions by the milk in her dairy being agitated like the waves, and feared this would foretell her sailor son’s death. p.136

 It tells of warding off danger to keep your loved ones safe:

The wives of fisherman would not turn a bed on a Friday in case it caused the boat to turn and capsize in the waves. p.136

It speaks of the rituals we still take part in today, to remember those who are gone, and keep them ever close to us:

Often, in the past, the corpse was kept in the house before burial, and the relatives would wash the family member, and lay them out. This is not so common today, as undertakers often take care of these rituals instead of family members. p.148

 The book has shown me, more than ever, that folklore is life. Folklore is every laugh we have ever felt well up inside of us; every tear we have ever cried, as it shows that we are tied, in this way, to everyone that has ever come before us, and everyone who will follow: they share this same laughter, and they will cry the same tears, and what we have to show for this are our stories, the stories of humanity, that bind us together. These traditions join us together, at certain times of year, with our loved ones to bring them close in shared experience.

So as you read the book — if you so choose —remember that these are beliefs of everyone and no one in particular: the traditions of generation after generation, as they morph and change with their telling and retelling. Yet remember that once day, our beliefs and traditions will be written here too, alongside these words, in another book just like this one, as our own lives and laughter and tears are immortalised in text as beliefs we share with our generation, and those who have gone before. Folklore is life, it is death; folklore is laughter, it is tears; folklore is dead, and living all at once. It might one day be forgotten — yet for now, remember your folklore, your traditions, and your stories. Pass them on to our children, for one day they will remember for us, and our stories will blow into the world like dandelion seeds in the wind, scattering our beliefs, our customs, our tales, and replanting them anew as our legacy, when we too are but memories, and are own bodies are no more than dust and old tales, scattered in monuments that will one day too be forgotten by time.

Win a copy of  A Treasury of British FolkloreMaypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe

by Dee Dee Chainey

The wonderful folks over at National Trust Books have offered a copy of  A Treasury of British FolkloreMaypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe for a lucky #FolkloreThursday newsletter subscriber next month, so watch out for the competition this May!

‘An entertaining and engrossing collection of British customs, superstitions and legends from past and present.
Did you know, in Cumbria it was believed a person lying on a pillow stuffed with pigeon s feathers could not die? Or that green is an unlucky colour for wedding dresses? In Scotland it was thought you could ward off fairies by hanging your trousers from the foot of the bed, and in Gloucestershire you could cure warts by cutting notches in the bark of an ash tree.
You’ve heard about King Arthur and St George, but how about the Green Man, a vegetative deity who is seen to symbolise death and rebirth? Or Black Shuck, the giant ghostly dog who was reputed to roam East Anglia?
In this beautifully illustrated book, Dee Dee Chainey tells tales of mountains and rivers, pixies and fairy folk, and witches and alchemy. She explores how British culture has been shaped by the tales passed between generations, and by the land that we live on.
As well as looking at the history of this subject, this book lists the places you can go to see folklore alive and well today. The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival in Cambridgeshire or the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance in Staffordshire for example, or wassailing cider orchards in Somerset.’

Sign up for the #FolkloreThursday newsletter to enter (valid May 2018; UK & ROI only).

The book can be purchased here.




Dee Dee Chainey is a writer and co-founder of #FolkloreThursday. She curates weird and wonderful folklore from around the world for digital communities. Recent interviews include BBC Countryfile Magazine,The Independent, Vice UK and BBC World Service. When she's not pondering life, the universe and everything, Dee Dee enjoys walking, travelling and dreaming of French patisseries. Her first book, A Treasury of British Folklore: Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe, a beautifully illustrated introduction to the strange and varied lore of Britain, is available from National Trust Books. Her second, Treasury of Folklore – Seas and Rivers, co-authored with #FolkloreThursday's Willow Winsham and illustrated by Joe McLaren, is available from Batsford now. Their latest book, Treasury of Folklore – Woodlands and Forests: Wild Gods, World Trees and Werewolves, was released from Batsford in summer 2021. Dee Dee is a member of The Folklore Society.

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Dee Dee Chainey

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