July’s weather made it a popular time for fairs until the late 19th century, when the home secretary suppressed most traditional local fairs on the grounds of disorder, drunkenness and immorality. But fairs had suffered a setback in the previous century: after the imposition of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, their fixed days no longer corresponded to the season of the produce they sold. There was much opposition to the new calendar and many people continued to celebrate “Old Midsummer” on July 5 (June 21 in the old calendar).
The month’s foremost festivity was a survivor of the pre-Reformation era: rush-bearing. This originated from the time when many churches had earthen or clay floors and therefore required a carpet of rushes. However, long after most churches had tiled or stone-flagged floors, the tradition of bringing rushes to church on the first Saturday in July continued as a procession to the parish church. The rushes were fashioned into increasingly elaborate and stylised forms until, in some cases, they were replaced by wooden ornaments and the rushes disappeared.
One of July’s most important feast days was St Swithun’s Day, which in England was celebrated on July 15, the date of the Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester’s translation to a new shrine in 971. Even today, St Swithun’s Day is associated with English weatherlore: that if it rains on St Swithun’s Day it will rain for 40 days thereafter; and vice versa if St Swithun’s Day is dry. This belief is at least as old as the 14th century and was accompanied by a conviction that rainfall on St Swithun’s Day was vital for the apple crop.
On July 25 (St Christopher’s Day) in the pre-Reformation era, lights would have been lit before the great image of St Christopher that faced the entrance in so many English parish churches. On Old St Kenelm’s Day (July 28), which commemorates an Anglo-Saxon royal boy-martyr, there was a bizarre custom of throwing crab apples at the local vicar. And on the river Thames, the month concludes with Swan Upping, when since 1473 swan keepers for the Vintners’ and Dyers’ companies have marked the wings of the Crown’s swans.
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