Mass Skipping

GLASTONBURY, England-  Folk customs in the UK wax and wane, undergoing waves of popularity, dying out, and then being revived once more by enthusiasts who take up a particular cause. Oak Apple Day, for instance, which celebrates the Restoration of Charles II (rumoured to have found sanctuary in an oak tree) was discontinued as a national celebration in the 1850s; Morris dancing and May Day revels have seen dips and swells in popularity like a mild cultural roller-coaster. But what of traditions that have almost died out completely? There are a number of these, such as Long Rope Day. This might sound a bit sinister and hanging-related, but actually, it’s one of the most innocuous forms of celebration out there – skipping. It was a Good Friday custom, in which people would skip – sometimes all day and en masse over a single long line such as a washing line – to see in the Easter weekend. This year, English Heritage announced a decision to try and revive it, hosting ‘skip ins’ across some of its properties over the Easter weekend in April.

English Heritage historian Amy Boyington told the Guardian that: “During the 20th century, whole families would try to skip all day on Good Friday, eating hot cross buns to keep them going. They believed skipping would bring good luck and guarantee good harvests or catches of fish in the coming year.”

Image credit: Tim Green from Bradford – Morris dancers, York.

Sounds like an April Fool gag? Not so. But the tradition, which seems to have been a popular one, had almost died out by the time of World War II, being confined to fishing villages, particularly in Sussex, where people still remember their grandparents talking about it. Margaret Murray mentions it in her work, and in the 1950s folklorists speculated that it could have been a legacy of some ancient burial custom, given the proximity of skipping events to barrows on the South Downs.

“…communal skipping on or near barrows…does seem to be connected with barrows in the minds of the people who do it…I think we may remember present-day skipping as a fa-off descendent of the sports and games played at burials, and, because continuity of tradition is almost ineradicable when people wish it to be so, possibly at barrow funerals.” (Violet Alford, Song and Dance in Connection with Funerals).

At this point readers might utter a cry of ‘but where is the evidence?’ – needless to say, we don’t have any. However, whatever the origins of this rather charming custom, it may once more be on the rise if English Heritage and some of the Morris sides have their way: although it has not historically been associated with Morris dancing, some of the sides have taken it up. Gill Phillips of Brighton’s all-female Morris side Knots in May (who started skipping in 1981), says:

“It’s not really associated with Morris dancing at all, but if we don’t do it, what’s going to happen? It’s going to die and it’s great fun. It’s nice to have something the general public can join in.”

Rather as Morris dancing is accompanied by its own tunes and songs, skipping is similarly driven by rhymes, some of which may be quite old, but some of which incorporate contemporary elements: in the 1940s the rhymes referred to the war and to rationing, but by the 1960s had taken to referring to Sputnik and bubble cars.

Morris Dancer [photo credit: Kylie Moroney Photography

A recent Censuswide poll canvassed over a thousand parents of children ranging from 5 – 11, on their family skipping habits and found that only one in ten parents said that their children would be into skipping.

And historian Steve Roud told the Daily Mail: ‘It’s so hard to get kids outside or off their phones for extended periods, so parents have resorted to hiding chocolate bunnies in their houses instead.’

80% of parents, perhaps motivated by nostalgia, told the poll that they were in favour of bringing the custom back.

In Scarborough, however, a skipping festival is not in need of revival, since one has been held since 1903: this takes place on Shrove Tuesday rather than Good Friday and may have slightly different origins to the fishing skipping events at Easter in that it seems to be an extension of an event called Ball Day. In this, Scarborough prom was lined with stalls selling children’s toys, including balls and skipping ropes, so perhaps the mass skip was a chance to try out some of your purchases. Since 1853, a bell has been rung at noon by a local dignitary to signal the start of pancake making: this tradition has survived and now sets off the start of the skipping. Again, there have been attempts to link this to ancient rites, but locals say that it’s more likely that the skipping and Ball Day are related to half-day or full-day holidays for local workers – a chance to take some sea air and buy toys for the kids.

This year, the National Trust’s Skipping Day seems to have given a nod to theories of Pagan origins by holding one of its mass skips at Stonehenge: if anyone attended this, please do let the Wild Hunt know, as we can find no accounts of how well attended this was and how it actually went! Again, there is no evidence that a mass skip-a-thon was ever held by the old tribes who erected the henge, but who knows – perhaps in a thousand years’ time, it will have become a well-established custom!

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