Please welcome Mary Reed today, who is half of the husband and wife writing team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer. Mary and Eric have published several short John the Lord Chamberlain detections in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to 1999's first full length novel,
One For Sorrow. The American Library Association's Booklist Magazine named the Lord Chamberlain novels as one of its four Best Little Known Series.
Ten For Dying, tenth in the series, appeared in March 2014 from Poisoned Pen Press. Head of Zeus is now publishing the series in the UK and Europe. More info about their writing at http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite
Today, we hear from Mary. In a couple of weeks, Eric will have his turn, so please stay tuned!
It's my contention that folk customs linger longest in working class areas, particularly those connected to births, marriages, and deaths.
Thus my family still keeps up old customs such as first-footing (the first foot over the threshold after the new year arrives should be that of a dark-haired man carrying a coin and a piece of coal, thereby bringing good luck into the house) or scattering pennies when the bride's car leaves for the church. And speaking of churches, every mother in my family has been churched by the short service of thanksgiving for a safe birth and the new child, though there also lingers among older residents a
In my home area of northeastern England, churching and the baby's christening
Then there's the Cheese and Bread, still practised when I was growing up(though I suspect, by its nature, now fading away like so many other interesting customs). The Cheese and Bread was a bag containing the titular items, a sixpence, and a slice of cake, given by the christening party to the first child they met on the way to the church. However, the recipient had to be of the opposite gender to that of the baby.
Well, Elephant's Child that I am, I wondered why this custom had come about. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the gift of bread and cheese and other items was at one time, if not now, known not only in northeastern England but also in Scotland and as far away south as Devon, Somerset, and Cornwall -- and that these humble comestibles also have a connection with, you have it, fairies.
Consider the old belief that an unchristened baby is in terrible danger, not least of being stolen by fairies and a changeling left in its place. Many are the ways recorded to save a child from such a fate, including placing an iron poker or another iron item in the cradle, the metal in one form or another being a traditional protection against supernatural malevolence in many cultures and countries.
I learnt from Manx Notes & Queries (1904) of a charming saying on the Isle of Man. There, when a woman was nearing when the baby would be born, it was said "There will be bread and cheese in such a house in a short time". Further, bread and cheese was given to the first person met on the way to the church for the christening, the gift believed to protect the baby from evil influences.
But there was an even more striking connection between baptism and bread and cheese, for on the same island, after the birth, blithe meat -- small pieces of bread and cheese -- were left "in and about the house for the fairies".
Then came another discovery. According to Walter Gregor's Notes on The Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland (1881) fisherfolk placed a fir-candle (long splinters of bog fir) or a basket of bread and cheese on the bed to keep the fairies away, although the frugal could obtain the same protection by hanging a pair of trousers at the foot of the bed. OK, scratch that one. These Scots can be contrary.
But hold on! The same book relates elsewhere in that part of Scotland mother and new baby were protected from evil by placing a Bible and bread and cheese under the mother's pillow, the saying of a prayer asking protection for her and the newborn, and the whirling of a fir-candle three times round the bed or over the heads of mother and child. The cheese and bread were subsequently given to unmarried friends to put under their pillows to bring dreams, presumably of their eventual spouses, in much the same way as slices of wedding cake are used by unmarried women today.
A similar custom is mentioned in George Henderson's Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, published in 1911, except the cheese and bread was replaced by a piece of material from the mother's wedding gown. The writer mentions in passing this ritual had been carried out at Loch Eck (western Scotland) as recently as forty years before "as a protection
against the Fairies".
Henderson records that in the Highlands, after the baby was baptised, it was not unknown for its father to hang a basket filled with bread and cheese over the fire and the child be passed three times across the fire -- in this case burning in the middle of the room -- thus assuring the failure of all attempts on it by evil spirits. Might we include malevolent fairies among them?
It's certainly something to ponder over your next ploughman's lunch.