“Jack, be Nimble…” Candlesticks and Cattern Cakes
Jack, be nimble!
Jack, be quick!
Jack, jump over
Jack jumped high,
Jack jumped low,
Jack jumped over
And burned his toe!
In some parts of Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire the lace-makers’ feast day was St Catterns Day (St Catherine’s Day) on November 25th. St Catherine was the patron saint of lace-makers (and also spinners, rope-makers and spinsters!), and is sometimes confused with Katherine of Aragon (another post on that!).
In The Romance of the Lace Pillow, Thomas Wright says, “In some of the towns and villages the bellman used to go round before daybreak ringing his bell and calling out:
“Rise, maids, rise!
Bake your cattern pies.
Bake enough, and bake no waste,
And let the bellman have a taste.
As early as 1672 it was the custom to give the inmates of the workhouse at Aylesbury sums of money to keep Catterns Day,”
“Cattern pies” refers to cattern cakes – doughy cakes, often wheel-shaped, made with caraway seeds, traditionally made to be eaten on Catterns Day.
This holiday also included a ritual called “washing the candle block”, to help mark an important event in the lace-maker’s calendar. From this day onwards, lace-makers were legitimately allowed to use a candle for their evening work for the season. Candles were expensive and had to be rationed to these winter months only. Often many lace-makers would gather communally and all make lace around one candle, to share the light and heat. The one candle would be put in the centre of several glass flasks (flashes) filled with snow-water, to concentrate the light on the several lace-makers’ pillows. The closing day of this candle season was Candlemas (2nd February).
On St Catterns’ Day, the term “washing the candle-block” is just an expression, and just refers to the eating of cakes and traditional dishes (boiled rabbit in onion sauce) and also the ritual activity of leaping over the candlestick.
According to the aforementioned Thomas Wright, both girls and boys would dance around a candlestick singing:
“Wallflowers, Wallflowers, growing up so high,
All young maidens surely have to die;
Excepting Emma Caudrey, she’s the best of all.
She can dance and she can skip,
She can turn the candlestick.
Turn, turn, turn your face to the wall again”.
They would then attempt to leap over the candlestick while it was lighted. In some areas, the rhyme at the top of this post was chanted, “Jack, be nimble! Jack, be quick! Jack jump over the candlestick.” If the light was extinguished during the leaping, it was a sign on bad luck for the next 12 months.
And The Romance of the Lace Pillow by Thomas Wright