Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

QUERY: Ash Wednesday ash twigs

038In parts of south-east England ash, Fraxinus excelsior, twigs were carried by children on Ash Wednesday:

In villages around Alton in Hampshire, and as far away as East Meon, near Petersfield, at Crowborough in Sussex, and doubtless in other places, children pick a black-budded twig of ash and put it their pocket on this day. A child who does not remember to bring a piece of ash to school on Ash Wednesday can expect to have his feet trodden on by every child who possesses a twig, unless, that is, he or she is lucky enough to escape until mid-day [1].

[Heston, Middlesex, 1930s] on Ash Wednesday we all took a twig of ash tree to school and produced it when challenged or risked a kick – we had to get rid of it at 12 noon. We even risked the wrath of the teacher by rushing to the window to throw out our twigs as soon as the mid-day dinner bell rang [2].

When I was at school [c. 1950], on the Hampshire, Sussex and Surrey borders, you had to have an ash twig tucked into your sock on Ash Wednesday, until 12 o’clock; if you had one after 12 you were punished by having your feet stamped on. I assume the custom came to an end when schoolboys stopped wearing short trousers [3].

It appears that this practice was known only from about 1930 until about 1955; any records of it before 1930 and after 1955 would be appreciated.

1. I. & P. Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, 1959: 240.
2. St Ervan, Cornwall, February 1992.
3. Natural History Museum, London, March 2004.

Responses
1. As a child in Cranbrook, Kent, I clearly remember the same game concerning an ash tree twig (lack of twig = foot stamped on).
I don’t remember however the need to get rid of the twig by mid-day.
This would have been around the years 1969/1970 [Julie Legg, January 2013].
2. I remember tucking a piece of ash twig down the side of my sock on the way to school on Ash Wednesday during the 1960s. I am not sure if this carried on beyond then [Dave Norman, via Cranbrook Message Board, April 2013].
3. I did this at primary school until the early 1970s [Carol, via Cranbrook Message Board, June 2013].
4. I remember having to have a little budding ash twig to hand in the primary school playground (Kent/East Sussex border) on Ash Wednesday throughout the 1960s to avoid being called names or having your feet being trodden on. I can’t remember it happening at secondary school (which I started in 1970), but it may have done [Louise Harrison, Bristol, September 2013].
5. I was born and brought up in Surrey and from 1958-64 attended Grayswood Church of England Primary School, where pupils brought in an ash twig on Ash Wednesday. The penalty for not doing so was a stamp on your toe, but I have not heard of this custom elsewhere. We were well aware that the ash celebrated was not this tree.
My sister, three years younger, does not recall the custom; perhaps it was current among boys only or was already disappearing [Andrew Stevens, Kidwelly, Carmarthenshire, September 2013].
6. My brother and I got caught out as newcomers to the village, we had our feet stamped on for not having an ash twig in our socks on the morning of Ash Wednesday at the village primary school in Speldhurst, Kent, during the mid sixties [Jacqueline Denman, October 2013].                                                    7. I was born in 1959 so started at Newdigate Primary School in Surrey in 1964.  We all used to wear our twig in our socks until midday and then out after suffering your feet being stamped on.  I definitely remember this happening until I left the school in 1969 [Jane Batchelor, February 2016].

Image: Misterton, Somerset; February 2016.

Updated 29 February 2016.

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