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Calendar of special days - A Victorian Lady's Guide to Life


Find out how our Victorian ancestors celebrated special days, including Easter, May Day, Martinmas and Plough Monday.

Days to Keep

New Year’s Day

Before midnight on the previous day you must sweep out the dirt of the old year from all the house, and when the bells ring in the new, everything should be in spotless order. Do not go into a new year with a cobweb in a corner, but start as you mean to go on, and as you mean to finish.


Boil your bairns’ eggs in good strong thick tea, till they have gone a good, golden brown. After that let them take them along to the braes and roll them on to the rocks to crack open. Ministers say it is the rolling away of the stone from Christ’s tomb, but it is older than the church by a long chalk. An egg is a new life and a rolling circle a never-ending one, eternity. Your children will not care about that. But they will enjoy the eggs well enough.

May Day

Get up early on the first of May, before the day dawns, as you always should, and wash your face in the dew, if there be any, and if you reach it before the sun has got to it first.

The summer solstice

A good time for whin burning.


There are no ghosts or ghouls out more than on any other night of the year, but the children like to think so. Encourage them in this fantasy, for they like to be frighted, and let them dress up in all the old clothes you can rake out from the bottom of the kist. The guising is a good thing for them and you should get them each a turnip lantern and send them out for their apples and nuts. When they come back in they can dook for them. And hang them up some treacle scones from the washing line.


The old folk used to start the slaughtering of the beasts dead on this day, and the 11th day of November is as good a time as any around this time of year to provide for the winter. And bless the poor pig, for its time has come.


Well before Christmas get a good thick birch clog for the fire, and strip it of its bark, so that when Christmas comes it be fine and dry. It should be big enough and solid enough to burn that night but to be taken out of the fire for the following Christmas, for you should always use the half of last year’s brand to light the next log, keeping it in a dry place till that time comes round again.

Plenty evergreens for the mantelpiece, fir, spruce or pine, and the holly and ivy from the estate. Hang up the mistletoe above the door, for all that pass through to claim a kiss, for kissing is a kind thing at Christmas. And never mind what the old folks say about the mistletoe, that the pagans bowed the knee to it and that it was the forbidden tree in Eden, causing Adam’s death, and Balder’s too. Both died because of blindness and a woman, we are told, but the truth is that they died because of themselves, and the woman ends up with the blame, being easier to pick at than the mistletoe, which grows high.

Plough Monday, Monday after Twelfth Night

The horses will be out again and you should give the beast half an apple and cast the other half into the start of the first dreel. But the men will have been ploughing the sea for ten days already.

Extract taken from A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Life' by Elspeth Marr, edited by Christopher Rush, which is published 22 February 2018 in paperback, priced £7.99 (Michael O’Mara Books).

Written throughout her life but only discovered after her death, by her great-great nephew, Christopher Rush, Elspeth’s (known as Aunt Epp) journal was never intended for publication but her style of writing and the subject matter she covers nonetheless reaches a universal audience. Not afraid to put forth views on the big topics – religion, evolution, and ethical issues – she also tackles the nuts and bolts of living – food, sex and health.

(main image copyright Tuck DB Postcards)


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