The longest day and the shortest night,
Jim Horn sat by candle light.
When his mother heard it, she did stamp and swear,
And from his head pulled a handful of hair.
According to Mrs Frederica Orlebar (1887), the promoter of lace and lacemakers’ feasts, this rhyme was sung during Cattern celebrations. Apparently Jim Horn was a male lacemaker whose family still lived in the village of Poddington; his mother was no doubt incensed by the waste of expensive candles when natural light was sufficient. Violence visited upon children by parents was a common theme of lacemakers’ rhymes and tells, as we’ll see in a subsequent post. However, the “longest day and the shortest night” element of this rhyme was more usually associated with “Barnaby Bright” and chanted on 11 June, which is Saint Barnabas’s day (and which, before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, would have fallen even closer to the summer solstice).
The winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night, when candles definitely were permitted, now falls on the feast of Saint Thomas. “Thomassing” is the last of the winter holidays associated with Midlands lacemakers. As with the other feasts we have discussed, it was not restricted to lacemakers. In fact it was celebrated much more widely than either Saint Catherine’s or Saint Andrew’s, as it has been recorded across most parts of England south of the Trent. The primary celebrants seem to have been older women, sometimes specifically widows, and occasionally young children. They would go “a-thomassing”, or “mumping” or “gooding” from door to door, perhaps singing or chanting, and collecting money, food and candles. This rhyme was used at Bliston Staffordshire in the nineteenth-century to encourage donations (we’ve found no records of such rhymes used in the east Midlands):
Well a day, well a day,
St Thomas goes too soon away,
Then your gooding we do pray,
For the good times will not stay,
St Thomas grey, St Thomas grey,
The longest night and the shortest day,
Please to remember St Thomas’s day.
Without these gifts from neighbours the poor would not be able to celebrate Christmas. “Mumping” is an old word meaning begging, but perhaps that does not quite capture the attitude of Thomassers. This is Walter Rose’s description of “Thomassing” in Haddenham (Bucks) before the Second World War:
On the twenty-first of December each year the old dames of the village, going about in pairs, canvassed those who could afford it for alms. Their attitude was not one of indigent poverty; they came in recognition of a time-honoured custom, a rite that needed no other explanation but the plain announcement, “If you please, we’ve come a-thomassing”. As a custom it was interesting and picturesque, but it was certainly evidence of an earlier poverty, and we may be glad that the granting of old age pensions brought it to an end. Yet one old lady (to her honour) still keeps the custom going – to whom, if it be my last, my sixpence shall be given.
The term “gooding” does not mean that Thomassers were after “goodies” but rather they presented an opportunity to do good. The story (which dates back to at least the 3rd century AD) goes that Saint Thomas the apostle was employed by a certain king Gondophares in what is now Afghanistan to build a glorious palace. Saint Thomas took all the money and gave it to the poor. The king was understandably angry until his deceased brother appeared to him in a dream and showed him the palace that his charity had built for him in heaven. Although this story does not seem to be widely known, it perhaps explains why Saint Thomas was an appropriate patron for seeking alms. According to Catholic doctrine, charity was the means to store up spiritual wealth. Yet oddly the historian Ronald Hutton (in his Stations of the Sun) has found little evidence of Thomassing before the Reformation, and while there are numerous parish benefactions, for instance at Leighton Buzzard (Beds) and Ravensden (Beds), which distributed doles to the parish poor on Saint Thomas’s day, most of these seem to date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Lacemakers very often numbered among the poor, including at Haddenham, Leighton Buzzard and Ravensden, but lacemakers were not specifically singled out for this charity. Lacemakers’ connection to Saint Thomas comes through the lace-schools which, as with Catterns and Tanders, provided an institutional framework for the maintenance of old traditions even while they were falling away in other regions. According to Catherine Channer, a Northamptonshire lace teacher at the beginning of the twentieth century, the children used to take the opportunity to “turn out” their teacher.
It is St. Thomas’s Day. The children are assembled; row behind row they are sitting, with their fat pillows resting against the stands before them. But by the look of repressed excitement on every face, there is evidently something about to happen. Presently the teacher leaves the room on the pretence of getting a parchment. In a minute the girl nearest the door has sprung up and bolted it; the pillows are put on one side, and an indescribable hubbub ensues. When the teacher returns she shakes the door violently, demanding to be let in; but the answer comes from thirty voices, “It’s St. Thomas’s Day; give us a half-holiday, and we’ll let you in.” For five minutes or so she stands outside grumbling and knocking, and then, finding that the children have turned the stools against her, she (not unwillingly, perhaps) gives in. The holiday is promised, the door is opened, and she walks in as the children rush out. As we watch them laughing and shouting, we think it is a pity that custom should have fixed their holiday for one of the dullest and certainly the shortest of the days in the year.
Channer does not mention the location of this school (and the implication is that the description could apply to many Midland lace schools), but possibilities include Ecton (Northants) and Stoke Goldington (Bucks). In his diary, John Cole of Ecton recorded the “turning out” of the mistress at Ecton lace school on Saint Thomas’s in 1832, while Thomas Wright records the same for Stoke Goldington in his The Romance of the Pillow.