Monday 30 May 2011

Oak Apple Day

Each year on May 29th is celebrated Oak Apple Day. Not a major holiday nor a religious celebration, but a reminder of one of the most turbulent periods in British history and the source of the second most common pub name in England.

Not since 1859 has 29th May been an official holiday, one which started in May 1660 to celebrate the Restoration of the Monarchy and to coincide with the 29th May, the birthday of Charles II. Yet our story starts some years before this when the Royalist forces were routed by the Parliamentarians at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Fleeing the scene, Charles rode north and the next day was at Boscobel, near Shifnal in Shropshire when the opposition soldiers caught up with him. Together with his aide, Colonel Carless, he hid in the branches of a large oak tree while the soldiers walked beneath just feet below. They stayed there until nightfall, dropping back to the ground and, after a long chase and several close shaves, escaped to the Continent disguised as a woodsman.

As already stated, the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 was given the official start date of May 29th, the birthday of Charles II. Soon afterwards public houses started to commemorate this famous event by taking the name of the Royal Oak. Most depict a large oak tree with the coat of arms of the monarchy.

Being England this also resulted in a number of what today seem odd celebrations and rituals. Traditional celebrations included wearing oak apples, not a true fruit but a gall caused by a parasite or bacteria. In some parts of the country the oak apple was known as a shick-shack, hence this was also known as Shick Shack Day. Sprigs of oak trees were also permitted in some regions. Failure to wear a token of the oak tree would result in the individual being pelted with bird's eggs or thrashed with nettles. This is the reason for yet another alternative name of Oak and Nettle Day.

Almost certainly all these were remnants of pre-Christian rites, the oak tree held to be sacred in many pagan religions. Several places in England still mark the occasion: Aston-on-Clun, Great Wishford, Marsh Gibbon, Membury Northampton, Upton-on-Severn, and Castleton.

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