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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 April, 2003, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
'Why Easter means sword play to me'
Heptonstall pace egg play, photo by Chris Ratcliffe
St George does battle
For some, Easter is marked with a village play based on a pagan rebirth ceremony, in which St George smites all challengers and the fool Toss Pot rejoices. Graphic designer David Burnop, who helped revived this folk tradition, explains.

The play, known as a 'pace egg play', is a bawdy piece of entertainment, with lots of sword fights and shouting and interaction with the crowd. It's derived from mummers' plays - mummers were bands of masked performers who paraded the streets during festivals.

While it may not appear to have much to do with Easter, there's a lot of rebirth symbolism in the play, which ties it to both Easter and to pagan spring ceremonies.

Pace egg plays are much like maypoling or well dressing, in that there's been quite a revival of these folk traditions.

Midgley School children, photo from Calderdale Council
An early photo of pupils rehearsing
In Heptonstall, in Yorkshire's Calder Valley, we started performing the plays again in 1979 for the village school's centenary. As I had done it as a child in the 1960s, my mother - then the school secretary - asked me to get some old boys together and re-enact it as part of the celebrations.

I tracked down my old teacher and got a script off him; I talked to the old men in the pub who remembered doing it between the wars when they were boys. The play went down so well, we now do it every Good Friday in the village square.

A lot of the crowd are regulars; those who have left the village and come back for the Easter holiday all come along because they know their friends will also be watching. It's become a meeting point, a coming together of the village, so quite an important event.

Crusading tale

The plot is pretty loose, and there's always lots of banter with the crowd, but it goes something like this: St George, the gallant Christian hero, is challenged by the mercenary infidel knight Bold Slasher. We find this undertone of the Crusades particularly poignant this year.

ENGLISH FOLK TRADITION
David as the Doctor in the pace egg play, photo by Chris Ratcliffe
Easter is a Christian festival, but its name is pagan - from Eastre (or Eostre) the Anglo-Saxon spring goddess
The plays are a Good Friday tradition in parts of England
This drama of death and rebirth is rooted in Celtic, Egyptian and Syrian traditions
'Pace' might derive from 'pasche', the Latin for passion - hence the Easter connection
They fight, and Bold Slasher is slain, for George cannot be vanquished. In comes the Doctor - played by me, dressed as a Victorian quack - who administers some medicine and by some miracle brings Bold Slasher back to life.

Then along comes the Black Prince of Paradise - the son of the King of Egypt - who is also slain. Next his father comes on, but instead of fighting George himself, he calls upon his champion, Hector.

But Hector is driven off, for he is not as tough as he presents himself to be. George is victorious, and at this point everyone holds up their hands to proclaim peace and joy.

To finish off, in comes Toss Pot, a character who's unique to this area. He's a bit of a tramp, a bit of an old codger, who makes various suggestions to ladies in the audience and collects money for charity. We'll be giving the proceeds to Iraq this year; last year we collected for Afghanistan.

Riddles solved

To the new observer, it can seem like quite a lot of nonsense. It takes time to work out the sense in it and the meaning, but I think that's part of the play's charm.

Heptonstall pace egg play, photo by Chris Ratcliffe
Toss Pot, the bawdy fool
It's also prompted us to try to undercover what it can tell us about our heritage. There's one line that mystified us for years: "I'll tie the cat behind the manger, for taking me to be such a poor stranger."

Then about 10 years ago, a barn was demolished and behind the manger was a mummified cat. We found out that our forebears used to do this for good luck, so that's where that line comes from.

This play gives the audience a sense of where they come from, a backward connection to a different time, a different way of life. It's quite marvellous to be able to keep our heritage alive.


Send us your comments on this story:

This story took me straight back to Whitstable Mummers and playing the part of Devil Doubt (with his shirt tail hanging out). We of course had St George, but Flasher Jack instead of Toss Pot, the Turkish Knight, Beelzebub, Dame Jane and a few others. In ours, St George is vanquished, the devil tries to take him away but he is later revived by the Doctor and gets the girl. A metaphor for Autumn, Winter and Spring. Great fun!
Simon Mallett, Maidstone, UK

It's great to see these old traditions revived. I can recall when at school in a small village in the UK back in the 70s, we replaced the traditional Christmas play with a mummer play (to which the pace egg play seems to be related). It gave the children and audience a real feel for the history and traditions of the place.
James Dignan, New Zealand

It's a great idea to stage such an historical and fun event! Here in Nanaimo all we have is some guy dressed as a pirate, when there has never been any pirates on the west coast of Canada. Robber barons, plenty; pirates, zero. We could stage an event in Nanaimo's history when Dunsmier sent in the militia to put down a miner's strike and an old woman bringing produce from her farm drove her horse drawn cart right through the middle of the militia. But that has nothing to do with Easter and it was not a joyous period in this city's history.
Donald Stuef, Canada

The expression "pace egg" also bears a striking resemblance to the Jewish name for Passover "pesach" (pronounced "PAY-sahch") and which comes from the Hebrew root Peh-Samech-Chet meaning to pass through, to pass over, to exempt or to spare.
Michael J Patis, US

Toss Pot is not quite such a rare character as you think. I know a version of the pace egg song, from an old Waterson's album I think, which includes a verse about Toss Pot, but also about Nelson and Lord Cunningham. These characters suggest the song comes from a different version of the play.
Simon Williams, UK

Your story reminded me of the quasi-pagan ritual of maypoling I performed at Easter at primary school in Hertfordshire in the early 60s. I fear is that these unusual and intriguing rituals and links with ancient history will eventually be lost even from the history books. Bravo to those working hard to continue the traditions.
Steve Light, Canada

I was born and raised in Peru and attended a British School, St George School, we honoured him every 23 April. I later moved to the US and as a Catholic I celebrate the holiday in a much different way. But to still find new facts about this Easter holiday tied to St George, pagan gods, etc. is just fascinating.
Carmen Marinsik, US

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