Saturday, 29 May 2010

Oak Apple Day

Today is Oak Apple Day - hurrah!

Cue applause, cheering and general merry-making.

But hold on ... what exactly is Oak Apple Day? Well, it commemorates when Charles II rode into London on 29th May 1660 and restored the monarchy to England.

Charles II was said to have hidden in an oak tree in 1651 after the Battle of Worcester. He escaped from the Roundhead Army by hiding in an oak tree in the grounds of Boscobel House. Oak leaves and oak apples became a symbol of his restoration to the monarchy and Parliament declared 29th May a public holiday.

“Parliament had ordered the 29th of May, the King’s birthday, to be forever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny and the King’s return to his Government, he returning to London that day." - Samuel Pepys’s Diary 1st June 1660

2010 therefore marks the 350th anniversary of Oak Apple Day (or Royal Oak Day as it is also known).

The day was originally celebrated with special church services, bonfires, dancing and general merry-making. Houses and churches were decorated with oak boughs, but the dominant custom which came to symbolise the day was for people to wear sprays of oak leaves (preferably with a gall or apple attached).

This was done by almost everyone, high and low born, male and female, adult and child, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A traveller through Hertfordshire recorded in his diary in 1789 that 'every horse, carriage and carter was adorned with oaken boughs and apples, in memory of this once famous day'.

School children were given at least half a day off school and anyone who did not wear the emblem could face some form of punishment, such as pinching (hence the origin of the alternative name Pinch-Bum Day) or whipping with nettles (Nettle Day).

Although the public holiday was abolished in 1859, Oak Apple Day continues to be celebrated in some parts of England.

Castleton in Derbyshire hosts a garland custom every 29th May. It's custom that has been celebrated in Castleton for hundreds of years, originally possibly as a fertility rite, but today it is said to commemorate the restoration of Charles II. Villagers dress in Stuart fashions and chose a King and Queen for the day. They lead a procession through the village and the King wears a 3 feet high garland of flowers made from a wooden frame to which small bunches of wild flowers and leaves are tied.

Northampton still commemorates Charles II and his escape after the battle of Worcester. The town is also grateful to Charles II for giving the citizens one thousand tons of timber from the Royal forests of Whittlewood, after a great fire almost razed the town in 1675. A garland of oak-apples is laid at Charles II's statue on All Saint's Church each year on Oak Apple Day.

In Worcester, the 'Faithful City', Oak Apple Day is commemorated by decorating the entrance gate to Worcester's Guildhall with oak branches and leaves.

In a celebration with its roots in Oak Apple Day, the Shropshire village of Aston-on-Clun carries out a unique tree-decorating custom on the last Sunday in May (Arbor Day). A pageant and fete are held and the famous black poplar tree that stands in the middle of the village is decorated with gaily coloured flags. The story behind this custom is that when local landowner and squire John Marston married Mary Carter in May 1786, the tree was decorated to welcome the newlyweds to the village. The couple were so pleased with the gesture that they set up a trust to pay for the care of the tree and the flags.

Other events to mark Oak Apple Day take place in Upton-upon-Severn, Marsh Gibbon, Great Wishford and Membury in Devon.

There are a host of other local dialect names for Oak Apple Day, including: Shick-Schack Day, Shig-Shag Day, Yak-Bob Day and Bobby-Ack Day.

Right, I'm off to find my spray of oak leaves and apples before I get whipped with nettles *g*

Photo of Worcester Guildhall Oak Apple Day copyright Phillip Halling, reproduced under Creative Commons licence.

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