The revival of traditional Spring festival drama in the North of England
The Pace-Egg plays are an indigenous and raucous part of the Easter festivities in many towns in the North of England. Their origins in folklore are rather mysterious, rooted as they are in medieval oral tradition. The evolution of the plays in a social context illustrates our rich cultural past and present.
Traditionally, the fantastically dressed pace-eggers or ‘mummers’ paraded through the streets in disguise with blackened faces, wearing animal skins and festooned with ribbons and streamers.
Characters and costumes
The characters varied from town to town, but The Old Toss Pot was a familiar figure. At Burscough near Ormskirk, the Old Toss Pot was a drunken buffoon, who wore a long straw tail stuffed with pins. Woe betide anyone who grabbed that tail! In Heptonstall, Toss Pot still kisses bonny lasses in the audience and gives them eggs representing good luck fertility symbols to hasten childbearing. You can see him on Good Friday every year in Weaver’s Square.
In Calderdale, some of the characters still wear scarlet tunics decorated with paper rosettes or large helmets decorated with tissue paper, bells and beads. The Doctor and a Fool are characters, who crop up elsewhere too in other towns’ Pace-Eggs.
In the Middleton play, St George fights the Turk, is killed, resurrected and goes on to defeat his enemy. The dialogue is patchy, unsurprisingly as the drama is acted out during a pub crawl. In Rochdale, George battles Slasher, is killed and revived by the Doctor, wearing an oversize coat and bowler hat and carrying a bag for his magic medicine bottle.
A popular interpretation of the combat—though by no means the only one—is recorded in an article, ‘The Pace Egg and its Origin’, in the Rochdale Observer, 14th April 1909, where it is viewed as ‘the reproduction of the eternal contest between winter and spring’ found in ‘folklore throughout the agricultural ceremonials of European peoples and in past ages the religious rituals of the Germans, the Greeks and the Romans.’
The players performed in return for alms or elaborately decorated pace-eggs, which they might then use in the colourful sport of egg rolling down grassy slopes. In Lancashire they were sure to gather up any broken eggshells lest the witches use them as boats. Nowadays these revels are often carried out for charity.
In Lancashire, Dirty Bet—normally played by a man—collected the money and eggs from the audience in a wicker basket, while Devil Doubt shook his broom in a threatening manner at those who didn’t drop something in. The reason Devil Doubt carried the broom was supposedly to help widen the circle in which the players performed. The collection of money, whether it was to support the performers’ families or simply for their own entertainment, led perhaps to the decline in popularity of Pace-Egging by street teams.
The combat-style Heptonstall Pace-Egg play was revived in 1979 and you can watch it repeatedly throughout Good Friday from around 11 am in Weaver’s Square (2017 times). The drama resonates and is still massively popular. We like to feel a connection with such annual events. It’s something to do with the past, with nostalgia, and with some deeper cultural meaning that we can’t quite put our finger on. It’s the mystery that makes it interesting. The ritualistic element of the folklore is perhaps the reason for the plays sustained popularity. It is always a hugely entertaining spectacle, a family favourite, especially if the sun shines. Sitting round the square with beer in plastic glasses and eating the free hot cross buns the local church ladies hand out is great.
So this Easter weekend why not take to the streets to sample some local culture and egg the mummers on!