The Suffolk Coast
  • The Sweffling White Horse - Wassail Night - Photo from Old Glory Molly Men

Celebrating the Winter Solstice

During December, the nights draw increasingly (and depressingly!) early. Today, this will feel even more so. For Thursday 21st December is the 2017 Winter Solstice.  

Celebrating the Solstice 

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year – giving just 7 hours and 50 minutes of daylight and marks the moment the sun shines at its most southern point, directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. 

The term 'solstice' derives from the Latin word 'solstitium', meaning 'Sun standing still'. On this day the Sun seems to stand still at the Tropic of Capricorn and then reverses its direction as it reaches its southernmost position as seen from the Earth.

There are many different thoughts and beliefs about the reasons why the solstices occur (there is also a “Summer Solstice” - the days will gradually get longer until the Summer solstice which occurs on Thursday 21st June, 2018 which, with an extra 8 hours and 49 minutes of sun, is the longest day). The science behind the solstices is that the earth orbits around the sun on a tilted axis. So, between September and March, Earth’s Northern Hemisphere gets less exposure to direct sunlight over the course of a day. The rest of the year, the north gets more direct sunlight and the Southern Hemisphere gets less. This is the reason for the seasons.

Many cultures and faiths across the world, including the British, observe and celebrate the date in different ways. The winter solstice festival Saturnalia was held as far back as around 217 BC to honour Saturnus, the father of the gods and the god of seed and sowing. The festival began in Ancient Rome and heavily featured large banquets, celebrating with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn. This was followed by gift-giving, continual excess and partying, and a carnival-like atmosphere that overturned standard Roman social norms. The holiday became known as an excessive free-for-all, when orderly behaviour and official discipline was dropped or ignored. Wars, even, were interrupted or postponed, gambling was permitted, slaves were served by their masters and all grudges and quarrels were forgotten.

Many of the traditions we now think of as being part of Christmas - including Yule logs, mistletoe and Christmas trees - have their roots in the pagan celebrations of winter solstice. It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations). 

Solstice in Suffolk 

People who lived in rural areas often believed very primitive and superstitious notions around the land and what it produced for the families relying on its yield. As a traditionally agricultural county, Suffolk’s farming communities have conventionally been hugely affected by the seasons and observed practices concerning the Winter solstice for centuries. 

The Suffolk tradition of “Molly dancing” could often be seen during the hardiest depths of winter. It offered a means of earning money for farmhands and plough boys when the land was frozen or waterlogged and could not be worked. ‘Old Glory’ is a group which was formed to recreate this East Suffolk traditional form of dance. Between December and early January, the group visits various alehouses and inns including The White Horse at Sweffling to perform the traditional dancing.

Traditional molly dance teams always included at least one man dressed in women’s clothing as a form of disguise; sometimes the whole team did so.  In times of civil unrest, it was thought that a man so dressed would escape arrest, since it was considered that women could not be held responsible for their actions. The term 'molly' is an old word that refers to a man dressed in women’s clothing.  In eighteenth-century England, there were 'molly houses' which were meeting places for men of a certain inclination, some of whom would wear female attire.  

The dancing is characterised by blackened faces.  Like the cross-dressing mentioned above, this was also a (surprisingly rather effective) form of disguise. The ploughboys could not afford to be recognised since some of those people from whom they menacingly demanded money from may have been their employers. It is quite an imposing sight to see a group of molly dancers slowly approaching you with a held gaze, blackened faces and flaming torches. Their annual visit to the Geldeston Locks Inn especially so, given they travel across the marshes so their torches are visible first as tiny pinpricks several miles away, ominously marching towards their intended dance location.

The molly dances resembled country dances and are usually regarded as an East Anglian form of Morris dancing. They are performed using a slow, heavy step, and with much swinging about. Steps are emphasised by the sound of the hobnailed boots worn by the dancers, the standard form of footwear for farm workers in East Anglia up until the second half of the twentieth century. The musicians play a variety of instruments, which often include melodeons in the "Suffolk" key" of C as well as recorders, drums, trombone, “tea-chest” bass and rommelpot among other items.

Plough Monday 

Historically, Plough Monday (the first Monday after twelfth night or Epiphany Eve) has marked the end of the Christmas period for agricultural workers in the east of England. The date was an occasion for “plough gangs”, again disguised by blackened faces, and accompanied by the Molly dancers, to intimidatingly demand money or other donations by pulling a decorated plough around the parish, with the cry of "Penny for the ploughboys!".  It was said that if you did not contribute even one penny, you would find a furrow ploughed across your lawn in the morning. 

Before the Reformation in the 16th century, the Church sanctioned and encouraged the collection of money for this practice. Some of this money went toward providing the plough-light, maintained by the ploughmen's guild in the parish church. This usually took the form of a candle or rush-light, placed before the altar, whose flame was never allowed to go out.

Even today, many rural churches still have a traditional blessing of the plough service. This January, services will be held in many towns and villages across Suffolk, including Rumburgh, Blythburgh, Lowestoft and Bury St Edmunds among others. On Monday 8th January, ‘‘Old Glory’’ will be pulling their own traditional plough, festooned with ribbons and rosettes from Rumburgh church to The Rumburgh Buck with displays of Molly dances, the toasting of the plough, the singing of a Plough Monday song and the ceremonial burning of greenery collected from the hats of the dancers. Finishing Suffolk's soltice events, head to the Sweffling White Horse on Saturday 20th January for ''Wassail Night'. 

For more information on the ‘Old Glory’ Molly Men and events, visit http://www.old-glory.org.uk/




Things to see and do

Long Shop Museum

Long Shop Museum

Leiston

Located at the heart of the original Richard Garrett and Sons Town Works, The Long Shop museum tells an inspiring story of enterprise and endeavor through its stunning collections, hands-on displays and the remarkable family behind the factory.

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Wheelchair Accessible

RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve

RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve

Westleton

Discover nature together on the beautiful Suffolk coast. Wander among the wetlands and woods, potter along the beach, and pause to watch some amazing wildlife. Explore the Wild Zone with the family, then sample some delicious home-cooked, locally-sourced food in the cafe.

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Angels & Pinnacles (Suffolk churches)

Angels & Pinnacles (Suffolk churches)

Angels and Pinnacles helps you discover Suffolk’s magnificent medieval churches, among the finest in Europe.

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The Suffolk Punch Trust

The Suffolk Punch Trust

Woodbridge

The Suffolk Punch Trust is an educational and environmental charity dedicated to breeding and preserving the Suffolk Punch horse. The Hollesley Bay Colony Stud, is the world’s oldest and largest Suffolk Punch stud farm. It is the perfect place to meet these magnificent horses, to find out how they shaped the landscape of East Anglia and helped to develop farming throughout the Eastern Counties.

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Dog friendly

Adnams Brewery and Distillery Tours

Adnams Brewery and Distillery Tours

Fancy doing something a little bit different? Situated in the heart of Southwold is the Adnams Sole Bay Brewery and Copper House Distillery, where Adnams have been brewing since 1872.  

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Wheelchair Accessible

Suffolk Coast & Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)

Suffolk Coast & Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)

The Suffolk Coast & Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a stunning landscape packed full with wildlife and exciting places to explore and discover. There's something for everyone with 155 square miles of tranquil and unspoilt landscape including wildlife-rich estuaries, ancient heaths, windswept shingle beaches and historic towns and villages.

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Alde Valley Spring  Festival

Alde Valley Spring Festival

Saxmundham

A four week celebration of food, farming, landscape and the arts in the beautiful Upper Alde Valley.

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National Trust Sutton Hoo

National Trust Sutton Hoo

Woodbridge

Discover the story of the Anglo-Saxons at the burial ground of kings

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Dog friendly Wheelchair Accessible

Events

Beer dinner at The Westleton Crown

Beer dinner at The Westleton Crown

Dunwich | Fri 12th Jan 2018

Visit The Westleton Crown for a fantastic evening with a selection of local beers and a three course mouth-watering menu created by Head Chef, James Finch. 

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Big Garden Birdwatch: Big bird cake off at RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve

Big Garden Birdwatch: Big bird cake off at RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve

Saxmundham | Sat 20th - Sun 21st Jan 2018

Visit RSPB Minsmere special bird kitchen.

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Christmas Farmers Market at Snape Maltings 2017

Christmas Farmers Market at Snape Maltings 2017

Snape | Sat 23rd Dec 2017

The finale of the season of events at Snape Maltings is the special Christmas Farmers’ Market which offers locally sourced fresh produce and artisan products.

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Astronomers Week at Haw Wood Farm

Astronomers Week at Haw Wood Farm

Saxmundham | Thu 04th - Thu 11th Oct 2018

This year will see a dedicated week for several local astronomical societies to enjoy the dark skies at Haw Wood Farm.

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Story Telling Evening at The Anchor Walberswick

Story Telling Evening at The Anchor Walberswick

Walberswick | Fri 29th Dec 2017

An informal evening of story-telling by local residents, suitable for all the family.

Wood-fired pizzas served from 4pm. Storytelling commences 6pm.

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WHERE TO EAT

The Sweffling White Horse

The Sweffling White Horse

A traditional pub in the village of Sweffling near Saxmundham and East Anglia Pub of the Year 2015

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Free wifi Dog friendly