Traditions Postcards

The Traditions postcards series was sent out once a month as a self-promotional mailer. The appeal of the postcards is to reveal the often surprising origins behind British traditions, illustrated via a visual puzzle. The series has also been featured in the book ‘Postcard’ by Laurence King Publishing.

(Click the thumbnails to view the other cards)

Star of Bethlehem

The pentagram symbol (five-pointed star) has been discovered in writings dating as far back as 3000BC. It has had many different meanings and representations over the centuries, from the description of the proportions of the human body, to the five wounds of Christ, to charting the path of Venus across the night sky.

The star traditionally placed at the top of a Christmas tree represents the Star of Bethlehem, a sign from the heavens to guide the Three Wise Men. Modern astronomers, however, believe this was more likely to have been a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn.

New Year’s Day

January is named after Janus, the Roman god of doorways and beginnings. With his two faces looking in opposite directions, Janus was frequently used in Roman mythology to symbolize change and transition, such as the progression from past to future, or from one condition to another. Similarly in modern times, the passing of one year into another is often seen as a time of reflection and looking towards the future, upon which New Year’s resolutions are made.

Pancake Day

Pancake Day (Shrove Tuesday) is the day preceding Ash Wednesday – the beginning of the Roman Catholic fasting season of Lent. Originally, pancakes were eaten on this day to use up milk and eggs, which traditionally were not eaten during Lent and which would otherwise spoil during this period.

Saint Patrick’s Day

The national colour of Ireland was originally blue, but during the years of struggle between the Irish and the English, green came to be associated with Irish patriots. As Ireland struggled to gain independence, green became the colour of hope and an important symbol of the people, often represented by a shamrock.

Tradition has it that St. Patrick used the shamrock in his religious teachings to demonstrate the Trinity, the three leaves representing God, Christ and the Holy Spirit.

First Cuckoo Day

The return to England of the cuckoo from its African winter migration traditionally represents the beginning of the spring season, with First Cuckoo Day being celebrated on the 14th. Affectionately known as the ‘messenger of spring’, the first sighting – or hearing – of the cuckoo every year is traditionally reported in the letters page of ‘The Times’ newspaper.

May Day

The start of May and the coming of the warm months of summer has been celebrated for centuries. One such merriment is the tradition of the maypole, which dates back to at least the 16th century in this country. The pole was danced around and was the centre of merrymaking at the May festivities, but was later (wrongly) associated with Paganism by the Puritans and was banned from 1640–1660.

The maypole’s popularity waned over the years, until the beginning of the 20th century when Cecil Sharp founded the English folklore revival, restoring this and other folk practices such as Morris dancing. The multi-coloured ribbons tied to the crown of the pole were added around that time, imported from European tradition as an aid to help teach children traditional dancing around the maypole.

Father’s Day

A common-held myth has it that Father’s Day is merely a cynical invention of the greetings card company Hallmark. In fact, the day of celebration is largely attributed to a Mrs Sonora Smart, from Washington, who was inspired while listening to a Mother’s Day sermon in 1909.

Mrs Smart wanted to honour her father in this way, he had raised her and five siblings as a single parent. June was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of his death.

By far the most popular choice of gift on Father’s Day is a tie, however recent polls have also shown it to be their least favourite present!

Swan Upping

Swan Upping is the annual census of all swans on the River Thames. While common myth has it that all Thames swans are property of the Queen, ownership is in fact also held by two London guilds, the Dyers and the Vintners.

The traditional practice was to cut a mark into the beaks of the swans to denote ownership, one nick for the Dyers and two for the Vintners, with the Royal swans left unmarked. This was abandoned in 1998 in favour of an identifier ring on the bird’s leg.

Bank Holiday

Bank holidays were first introduced by the Bank Holidays Act of 1871. Their purpose was to give bank workers time off, but this soon caused other businesses dependent on the banks to follow suit. The Act was the first proper legislation relating to bank holidays to be put in place. In fact, prior to 1834 the Bank of England observed about thirty-three saints’ days and religious festivals as holidays.

Holidays on New Year’s Day and Boxing Day are appointed each year by Royal Proclamation, which is why diaries and calendars sometimes list them as ‘subject to confirmation’, since theoretically there may not be any proclamation.

Last Night of The Proms

First dating back to 1895, The Proms are an annual season of classical concerts held in London over the summer months. The highlight of the programme is the Last Night, where revellers sing along to nationalistic pieces such as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia’, while waving Union Jack flags and letting go of balloons and streamers.

The name Proms is originally abbreviated from the full title of Promenades, literally meaning to walk, as a large part of the venues had no seats and so the patrons had to stand during the performances.

Halloween

The tradition of Halloween lanterns comes from the old Irish fable of ‘Stingy Jack’. Legend has it that the miserly old farmer tricked the Devil into making a deal where he promised not to take his soul to Hell. However, when he died, Heaven didn’t want Jack either, so he was trapped between the two, left to haunt the earth for eternity.

To light his way through the darkness, the Devil gave Jack a glowing ember from the fires of Hell, which he placed in a hollowed out turnip to act as a makeshift lamp – a Jack-o’-Lantern. The Irish placed their own lanterns outside their homes to ward off evil spirits. When the Irish brought the tradition to America, they found pumpkins to be more readily available and easier to carve.

Remembrance Day

In Britain, a two minute silence is observed on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. This is to commemorate the sacrifice of civilians and members of the armed forces killed during war, particularly the First and Second World Wars.

This time, day and month originally signified the end of the First World War, when the 1918 armistice became effective. Originally, only a one minute silence was observed, but this was increased to two minutes after the end of the Second World War in 1945.