Artillery Row

Britain’s Christmas “hobby horse” customs

“Animal guising” customs offer important insights into British festive culture

The “hobby horse” as we know it today is a children’s toy, a stick with a wooden horse’s head held between the legs and “ridden” — but, in common with many activities and rituals we now relegate to children, hobby horses were once part of adult festivities. They were also particularly associated with Christmas time, and took a wider variety of forms than we see today: for a hobby horse was any kind of mock-horse animated as a sort of puppet by a human performer. The earliest records of hobby horses in England date from the 16th century, when they became fashionable at Christmas. Indeed, in 1594 an argument between imprisoned Catholic priests about whether it was appropriate for them to celebrate with a hobby horse at Christmas time was exploited by Queen Elizabeth’s intelligence services to drive a wedge between different factions of the Catholic clergy and weaken efforts to re-convert England to Catholicism. It degenerated into a pamphlet war that ran for years, even if the original cause of the argument was forgotten.

The priests’ argument about the hobby horse is a reminder that such “guising” animals belong to the many profane traditions of the Christmas season that are not clearly connected in any way with the Christian festival (although there is no evidence for the lazy popular assumption that such traditions are “pagan”, either). However, what seems to have begun as an elite fad in the 16th and 17th centuries soon spread to the working poor, at least in certain regions, leading to enduring “mock horse” customs at Christmas time in Kent, Yorkshire and Wales. The best known of these is perhaps the Mari Lwyd of Wales, not least because the bleached horse skull with false eyes carried around on a stick by a performer under a white sheet is memorably terrifying. In England, however, the most enduring traditions were to be found in East Kent, where a practice known as “hoodening” occurred on Christmas Eve. In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries young farm boys and apprentices would perform with a wooden horse’s head on the end of a stick, with a hinged mouth, which was carried by one performer under a “hood”  giving the custom its name. The “waggoner” or “groom” would lead the horse, while a “jockey” would attempt to leap on its back and a molly (a man dressed as a woman) would sweep the ground with a broom in front of the horse and demand money.

“Hoodening”, along with the Mari Lwyd and Yorkshire customs such as “Old Horse” or “Old Tup”, was in its heyday a mixture of entertainment, folk custom, moneymaking and menace, and it belonged to a series of seasonal customs that enacted the perceived right of working people to receive special financial considerations at Christmas — a relic of which survives today in the name we give to 26 December, “Boxing Day”, when tradesmen expected Christmas boxes. Like mumming, hoodening was therefore performed with dedication and determination, with young men walking many miles on frozen roads and trackways in the dark in the hope of raising some money. The hoodeners’ performance was also an opportunity to poke fun at figures of authority — especially the “waggoner”.

The reasons for hoodening’s 20th-century decline are disputed; according to some accounts, a series of high-profile incidents in which the hooden horse frightened to death a woman of a sensitive disposition led to the custom’s abandonment. Others ascribe its demise to the First World War when, in the absence of the men to perpetuate them, many masculine rural customs were abandoned. Another account tells of how, when the first mechanical tractors arrived, the hooden horse hanging in the stable was burnt. Whatever the truth, the custom was already being revived in the 1930s, and by the 1970s revival was in full swing. One hooden horse performer, James Frost, has even updated the custom to introduce “auto-hoodening”, with a hooden horse designed for Amazon warehouse workers with a head in the form of an Amazon scanner.

Hoodening, the Mari Lwyd and kindred customs belong to a common tradition of “animal guising” at Christmas — people dressing up as and pretending to be animals (in Derbyshire, for example, the “horse” is a bull, and elsewhere a goat). While there has been much unfounded speculation about the possible shamanic origins of people assuming the identities of animals, the earliest records for these customs date from the 18th century, so they may be quite recent. But animals are, after all, important to the Christmas story, and they were said to talk at midnight on Christmas Eve. If there is any deeper meaning at all, animal guising customs could be interpreted as symbolic of the Christ’s Child’s redemption of all creation, including the animal kingdom.

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