Mad March Days

By Terry John

We have all heard the expression “As mad as a March hare”, and most of us know the saying “When March comes in like a lion, it goes out like a lamb.” Both are centuries old and are based on our ancestors close observation of the world around them. In March, male hares are often to be seen  racing around, squabbling and boxing on their hind legs with their rivals, hence the first expression. The second is surely based on centuries of experience, when the weather dictated the agricultural activities carried out in March.

The same may be said of some other old sayings;

A dry March and a wet May

Fills barns and bays with corn and hay.

March winds and April showers

Bring forth May flowers.

There’s also a historical link between March and the children’s rhyme that begins:

 Oranges and lemons

Says the bells of St Clement’s

In the past, barges loaded with oranges and lemons used to make their way up the River Thames to land their cargoes just below the churchyard of St Clements Dane in London. On the third Thursday in March, a special service is held in the church and the church bells chime out the tune of the rhyme at 9am, 12 noon, 3pm and 6pm. The service begins at 3.30pm after which the schoolchildren who attend are given the oranges and lemons that decorate the church.

In Pembrokeshire, we had our own rituals that were observed in March. On St David’s Day, 1st March, people walked through the streets of Tenby with leeks in their hats. In the evening a ball took place, at which the dancers wore expensive artificial leeks.

Before the introduction of the new Gregorian calendar in 1752, St David’s Day was celebrated on what is now 12th March. It was usual then in local farmhouses for wooden candles to be placed on the tables instead of a tallow one. This canwyll bren signified that the farm workers would no longer be sitting down to their evening meal by candlelight, as the longer daylight hours were setting in.

Good Friday falls this year on 25th  March and Easter Monday on 28th  March. On Good Friday, the people of Tenby walked to church barefoot, “so as not to disturb the earth”. All business ceased and no horse or cart was seen in the town. There was also an Easter custom of playing ball in the churchyard of St Mary’s. Tennis balls were thrown over the church roof. Dancing also took place in many local churchyards, perhaps a custom that dated back to the days of the pagan Celts, when ritual dances were said to have bee taken place in sacred circles of yew trees.

One of the most riotous customs held in Pembrokeshire at this time of year was the ancient game of cnapan. It too may date back into pre-Christian times and was certainly being played in the reign of Elizabeth I.

It was played with a ball made of box wood, yew, crab tree or holly, boiled in tallow to make it slippery. This was the cnapan. It was thrown into the air as high as possible, and whoever caught it would hurl it as far as he could in the direction of the part of the town from which he came. If it was intercepted by someone from another district, that person would throw it towards his own home quarter. The game could range over the whole town, or across great tracts of countryside if played outside the town limits. The game did not end until the cnapan had travelled too far to return it before darkness.

The game might involve hundreds of men and sometimes even as many as fifteen hundred. Few of them wore any clothing  for it would have been ripped off them in the scrimmage.  There were also players known as fore-runners, who had to keep in front of the cnapan and who were always of the opposing side and thus stood between the cnapan and the other team’s home territory.

There were also players mounted on horseback, who carried cudgels some three to four feet in length, with which they belaboured other horsemen who might have seized the cnapan. The horsemen were not allowed to go in amongst the foot players, who could throw stones at the horses to keep them away. The horsemen could only use their sticks against other riders.

Players often ended the game with broken limbs, black eyes and bloody noses. Cnapan is still occasionally played, especially in the north Pembrokeshire town of Newport but it is a much friendlier game than the older version.

Milder games that were played in March included marbles and skipping. These continued throughout the month, but stopped on the stroke of 12 noon on Good Friday. In some places Good Friday was also known as Marble Day or Long Rope Day. Marbles is a very ancient game, its origins uncertain. Before the time of glass marbles, it was played using round stones, hazelnuts, clay marbles and even cherry stones.

All those who took part in the various activities mentioned above probably did not know of their pagan origins. They may also have not realised that the word March commemorates Roman god, Martius or Mars, the god of war and the patron of agriculture. March was originally the first month of the year until the Romans regularised their calendar and added two extra months.

Martius was believed to be the ancestor of the Roman people through his sons Romulus and Remus. The month named in his honour was the beginning of the season for warfare and agriculture. Festivals were held to mark the month and also again in October when the season for war and agriculture officially ended.

Nowadays, one of the things we look for as March begins is the appearance of daffodils in our gardens and in the hedgerows. The wild daffodil is also known as the narcissus and that name comes from the legend of the youth Narcissus, who was changed into a lily. For that reason and because it blooms in early spring and its petals drop before Easter, it has been called the Lent Lily. 

Categories:History

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