We live now almost in a 24-hour society. Back then, times, days, dates were in some ways more significant. As I wander through my ramblings about days, weeks and years, there may be more than the usual number of sweeping generalizations – there were some obvious exceptions to some of the things I will say.
I tried to find a picture like the clock that used to sit on the mantelpiece over the living room fire, which was a central feature of our home. It was a similar sort of shape to this one but not quite the same. It was always there and it was how we knew the time. Of course, it was not electric, but clockwork, wound once a day.
As young children we didn’t have watches and there were no other devices to tell us the time – but then as children the time of day didn’t mean much to us. We had Big Ben and the pips on the radio (and, later, television) to keep the clock accurate.
There were no digital clocks or watches and we talked of time with less accuracy. You might say it was nearly half past ten, or if you wanted to show off the accuracy of your knowledge, you could say it was 25 past ten. No one would venture a time more accurate than the nearest five minutes. (OK, I suppose train timetables did.)
People kept to a fixed pattern every day, with fixed meal times – when the family ate together.
We went to work in the morning and came back in the evening. Most workplaces had fixed time. (No Flexible Working Hours! and not much part-time working.)
Shops were particularly rigid. Small shops would open from 9:00 to 1:00 and close for an hour and a half for lunch, closing finally at 5:30.
Pubs had fixed times defined by law – a few hours at lunchtime and a few hours each evening. This meant that all pubs closed at the same time – 10:30 pm. Of course without today’s traffic and today’s drinking culture this was less of a problem.
Television, only one channel at first, had limited hours – a little Children’s Television in the morning, then running from about 5 to 10:30 in the evening.
Work patterns were so well defined that the working hours were payed normally and anything over counted as overtime – perhaps at time and a quarter. (I can’t be sure how accurate this last statement is. But I am not going to be put off saying things just because I’m not sure of their accuracy!)
School times were the same through every county – as schools were all run by Local Education Authorities (LEA). I think that times may have been much the same nationally.
The regular pattern of life made things calmer than the hectic life we have today. (Many other things also affected this, of course.)
I have looked elsewhere at shop hours but the week followed a much more definite pattern, starting for the heavier Christian influence and more rigid Sunday observance.
In general, office jobs were Monday to Friday with the same hours each day. When pay was marked at time and a quarter for overtime, it was maybe time and a half for Saturday and double time for Sunday. Small shops opened for Saturday in the morning only.
Many more people were paid weekly and paid in cash. So the housewife would plan the meals round a week. (There were no credit cards and effectively no such thing as credit.) Often this was the traditional Sunday roast, followed by leftovers and other cheaper meals for the rest of the week.
Sundays were treated respectfully as non-working days with virtually no shops open at all on Sunday. The only exception I can remember is that the greengrocer could sell perishable fruit and vegetables on a Sunday morning (but they could not sell tinned peas or, in later years, frozen peas.)
Sundays were very quiet with few people working. Many more people went to Church on Sundays and sent their children to Sunday School to learn about Christianity. (There must have been emergency services, like police and hospitals, on Sundays.)
Pubs did open on Sunday but for even more restricted hours than the week.
We have met several ways in which the Church of England dominated our way of life, directly through church attendance, indirectly in education and cultural values, and in the special significance of Sundays. It also defined much of the year, through the Church calendar. The main events in the Christian year were Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. (I won’t go into the religious significance of these and other days in the calendar.)
Christmas Day is always 25 December but the rest of the Christian year moves in a complex, almost incomprehensible way depending on notional cycles of the Moon in the Holy Land. When I sang in the choir, we would have to sit through sermons that were not always thrilling or exciting. With nothing else to read I would sometimes look through the Book of Common Prayer, which has several pages of tables to help in the calculation of Easter Day.
There have been controversies and splits in the Church about Easter Day. The First Council of Nicea, in 325 AD, established some incomplete rules that took centuries to settle, without even going as far as to suggest that Easter should always be on a Sunday. Western churches, including the Anglican Church (Church of England) now define it as a very specific Sunday between 22 March and 25 April. Based on this we have always had Good Friday (the Friday before) and Easter Monday (after Easter Sunday) as Bank Holidays.
Because of differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, Eastern (Orthodox) churches celebrate Easter later, from 4 April to 8 May. The relationship is not straightforward because of differences in defining the ‘full moon.’
As Easter Day moves, the other days in the Church year move with it.
You can read about Christmas in general and in our household in several blog posts. We had just Christmas Day and Boxing Day as Bank Holidays, and New Year’s Day was a normal working day. (Scotland has always been different, taking New Year’s Day instead of Boxing Day.)
The period of Lent covers about six weeks from Ash Wednesday to Easter (both, as explained above, movable feasts.) Traditionally, it was a period of fasting and self-denial, when people would give up some luxuries – especially sweets and chocolates. I think Mum always gave up chocolate and sometimes we did. I still sometimes give up sweets, chocolate, biscuits, cakes and ice-cream now but the tradition is much less commonly observed. (OK, the cakes rule is often twisted or broken.)
On Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday to the Church, we always had pancakes, coming from early Lent observation when people would give up other rich foods such as eggs – and so use them up on the day before Lent started. We just had plain pancakes with some sugar and lemon juice.
Non-English viewers should understand that there are many varieties of pancake through the World. US readers may know them as English Pancakes, larger and thinner than the US versions.
The name Shrove Tuesday derives from the old word Shrive, to confess. It was a special day to go to Confession before Lent. In French, Shrove Tuesday was known as Mardi Gras, sometimes still celebrated through the World in elaborate carnivals.
We respected the holidays of the Church. We were never allowed to go outside and play on Good Friday (the Friday before Easter). And there were two other things associated with Easter that were only associated with Easter.
Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, introduced in the early sixties (initially as Fry’s Creme Eggs) were just very small Easter Eggs, sold for just a week or two before Easter. Gradually they became a year round confectionery, advertised and sold without reference to Easter. They have now reverted to seasonal production but are available from New Year’s Day to Easter.
(We did have Easter Eggs, hollow chocolate wrapped in foil and boxed, but they were plain and simple – just two or three brands without the branding of children’s heroes. I think you could get one with a few chocolate buttons inside but they were generally empty.)
Hot cross buns were traditionally made with a cross to represent the Crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday. They were only available for a period of about twenty four hours. (Because they were fresh the bakers had to work all night to bake them.) Now they have become available all year round – and they don’t have to be eaten on the day of production.
The whole Christian calendar moves with Easter. Apart from Christmas and Easter the main event in the Christian year is Whitsun or Whitsunday or Pentecost. The word Pentecost comes from the Greek for ‘fiftieth day’ and is 50 days (counted inclusively) from Easter, so it is always seven weeks later than Easter Sunday.
Also in the calendar was Ascension Day, always nine days earlier than Whitsun. This is always a Thursday, inconvenient in the world of Monday to Friday working. Highlands School kept a loose relationship with St Andrew’s Church and there was always a service for children on the morning of Ascension Day for us there. We were excused attendance from school until after the service.in England
Dating perhaps from earlier times when a large feast day would need a day of recovery afterwards, we had holidays after the main Church holidays. So the Church effectively defined the main Bank Holidays of the year in England – Good Friday, Easter Monday, Whit Monday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day (26 December).
The only other Bank Holiday was the summer holiday, the first Monday in August, known as August Bank Holiday.
Now we have a few more. To prevent confusion I will exclude Scotland and Northern Ireland where there are differences. New Year’s Day has been a holiday since the mid-seventies.
The first and last Mondays in May are now both Bank Holidays, one of them effectively replacing Whitsun. The last week is usually called Spring Bank Holiday and the first week is the May Day Bank Holiday (or vice versa in Scotland!)
The August Bank Holiday has moved to the last Monday in August.
Having these holidays on a Monday was obviously always considered less disruptive to working routines. The only exception comes at Christmas and the New Year. Adjustments always have to be made when one of these Bank Holidays comes on a Sunday.
Not Just Birthday Cards
Over the years several days and events have risen to prominence, largely driven by ever growing commercialization – finding reasons for us to spend money on cards, gifts and other things.
It seemed at first to come from the area of cards, which used to be more or less just birthdays and Christmas. There were always cards for weddings, funerals and invitations but not many more. We certainly didn’t send cards to celebrate new jobs, or house moves, or Easter, or passing driving tests, or the many other things now available.
Valentine’s Cards are a good example. On 14 February, we did send some Valentine’s cards but they were to a known or unknown love. They were always anonymous and unsigned, so much so that the recipient rarely knew who they were from – although of course, often a good guess was right. The idea of a card addressed on the front, ‘to my wife’ or ‘to my girlfriend’ was unheard of. Now I expect you can get them to your children, grandparents or pets.
Because it was anonymous, there was no concept of Valentine’s Day Presents. Now it is an opportunity not to be missed by appropriate sectors of industry – flowers, chocolates, perfume and lingerie.
Mother’s Day came from the US but here in the UK it was at first associated with Mothering Sunday, a day in the Christian church year in Lent. It became a day to send greetings cards to your mother and has been followed by Father’s Day and many others. All are advertised now in a way that makes people feel guilty if they don’t send an appropriate token of affection. (I have always told my children not to bother.)
Two events are most notable. We used to celebrate Bonfire Night, the Fifth of November with fireworks and bonfires. This has been largely killed off by Health and Safety and few people now let off fireworks in the back garden as we used to do. What remains is some larger celebrations, generally at the weekend nearest to the day.
As Bonfire Night has lessened in importance, another date very close in the calendar has emerged. We now celebrate Hallowe’en, the 31 October, which used to be almost unnoticed. We have Trick or Treat, imported from the US, and sales of costumes and pumpkins – and, of course, Halloween Cards. Cynics, like me, will blame the rising popularity on commercialization as another opportunity to find ways for us to spend money.
I will end with some odd bits about time …
British Summer Time has been with us since before the War. There was a short period at the end of the sixties when GMT plus one hour stayed with us for three years before reverting to what we have now – with clocks going forward in Spring and back in Autumn (US: Fall.) The exact dates used to be defined by an Act of Parliament every year so were not known very far in advance. It is now always the last Sundays in March and October.
Dates for school terms were also fixed by the LEA – the same, at least within the county, for every school. There were three terms but the half-term break was less significant. I remember it as Friday and Monday off. Now schools seem to get a whole week for every half-term.
These extra seconds, to adjust time with the vagaries of astronomical movements, started in the seventies. I won’t go into details here.
The title, of course, is from the song by Bob Dylan, released in the mid-sixties
Perhaps a better time-related song for this whole blog is “Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be,” a musical comedy about life in the Fifties!