30 May 2022
Recording of the week: Oak Apple Day
This week's selection comes from Sarah Kirk-Browne, Cataloguer (Digital Multimedia Collections).
Sunday 29 May is Oak Apple Day in England. You may also have heard this called Royal Oak Day, Show Oak Day or Shick Shack Day, depending where in the country you live.
The day was once a public holiday and commemorated the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Charles II was said to have avoided capture by hiding in the Boscobel Oak in Shropshire, so in subsequent years people wore sprigs of oak leaves to celebrate.
The Royal Hospital in Chelsea, founded by Charles II, continues to celebrate Founder’s Day every year by decorating his statue in a wreath of oak leaves. All Chelsea Pensioners attend the event, which has taken place almost every year since 1692. Even when the building was bricked in to protect it from the Blitz in World War II, the outside was adorned with oak leaves.
Elsewhere around England, many houses would be decorated with boughs of oak, and the day was full of fun and festivities. This description from South Somerset was recorded in 1984, and features Bert Knapp reminiscing about Oak Apple Day in the small village of Huish Episcopi.
This clip comes from a large collection of recordings made by Jacqueline and Bob Patten from 1969-2001. They gathered a range of traditional songs, music, storytelling and customs, which were archived in the British Library in 2002. Jacqueline recalls the occasion they went to Huish Episcopi:
It was a very festive day, a celebration of Oak Apple Day and a reason for people of Huish Episcopi and Langport to come together. Town Bands were more prevalent then and the local band playing lifted everyone’s spirits. Children, teenagers, younger adults and older adults all shared in the fun together. The church bells were rung and oak branches festooned the village. The day celebrated an event in history that had an impact on the lives of people in the UK for generations to come, while the festivities on the day had become a local tradition, passed down from generation to generation, something inherent to the local community.
Demographics changed greatly during the second half of the twentieth century and the change has gathered pace in the twenty-first century, yet local traditions that have survived continue to play a significant role in a local community. They are a time for people who have moved into an area recently to join in, learn more about their new locality and to celebrate it; while people who have been born and bred in the area are woken out of any apathetic acceptance and appreciate it anew. It integrates people, and bridges any generation gap, the atmosphere is infectious, intangible.
As Jacqueline notes, several parts of the country still hold events, and the day has also been combined with various other celebrations and traditions over the years. This includes a charity fundraising procession with decorated oak sticks in Herefordshire, and a horseback rider wearing flower garlands in Derbyshire. Like Oak Apple Day itself, the origins of these customs can be traced back to several different sources.
Traditionally a day of laughter and games, in some areas, if people were found not be wearing their sprig of oak - or sometimes caught still wearing it after midday - they risked a cheeky punishment. This led to the day also being called ‘Pinch-Bum Day’ in Sussex and ‘Bumping Day’ in Essex. The following description from Miss Lilley (recorded in 1966) recalls the dangers of not being properly dressed with oak during her childhood in Huntingdonshire.