Christmas on Death Island

James Lloyd spends Christmas on the Isle of Thanet, home of a quaint Yuletide custom and to a grisly superstition.

Thanet, now attached to mainland Kent by Minster Marshes, was once an island, Britain’s vanguard into the North Sea and as such it occupies an important position in British history. According to semi-historical legend, it was the first place in Britain to be ceded to the Anglo-Saxons, providing the launch pad for their invasion of this country. Before then, however, the island also had a role in accommodating rather more ethereal immigrants. According to a sinister myth recorded (with commendable scepticism) in the mid-sixth century by Procopius of Caesarea, a certain coastal village in what is now France opposite Britain had been commissioned, in mysterious circumstances, with the grisly duty of disposing of the dead but not their bodies – rather, their souls.

At night, there would be a knocking on the door of whichever house’s turn it was but the man of the house would find no one waiting outside. He would go to the beach, where he found a small boat waiting in the surf. He would row it out into the Channel but, despite having apparently only one occupant, the boat would sink almost up to the gunwale. A disembodied voice would ask the boat’s invisible occupants for their names. After only an hour of rowing, the boat beached on a certain island off Britain, where it disgorged its unseen passengers. Once the boat had stopped moving, the pilot would then push it back into the sea and row home, the journey this time taking the rest of the night and most of the following day, with the boat riding high and lightly on the waves.

The superstition that the ghosts of the dead have to be rowed to the underworld is, of course, universal and the Celtic cultures of Gaul and Britain identified the place with an island to the west. In the confusion of four hundred years of Roman rule and then Frankish invasion, it is hardly surprising that the legend became garbled and the island to the west became identified with Britain itself. It may not be a coincidence that the main landfall for travellers from Gaul to Britain was Richborough, opposite Thanet. In Greek, this island’s name was rendered “Thanatos”, which is also the Greek word for death. This is coincidental (Thanet actually comes from the Brittonic root “tan”, meaning “fire”, presumably referring to a lighthouse) but stories of “Death Island” at the entrance to Britain would no doubt have sustained the myth of the ferrying of souls thither.

A rather more cheerful contribution that Thanet has made to English, or at least to Kentish, culture is the Christmas tradition of the Hooden Horse. This was a kind of hobby-horse, made of a carved horse’s head on a pole. A sheet or sack would be tied around the pole to provide the body and a man (or a boy but it was invariably male – females were not permitted to participate) would crouch underneath, using the pole as a walking stick and using his own back to provide the horse’s. He could operate the horse’s jaw by means of a string and the hobnails used for teeth produced a terrifying clacking sound.

That clacking would alert the family, sitting by the hearth of a Thanet farmhouse on Christmas Eve, that the hoodeners had come. They would gather in the yard, where a team of farmhands, usually boys, whose preserve the custom was, would lead the clacking, snapping, jerking Hooden Horse on a bridle. One of the boys would attempt to ride it, only to be thrown to the ground by his peer under the sack. Members of the family would be invited to have a go at riding as well.

All the while, one or more musicians would play a fiddle or accordion or handbells and “Molly”, another boy but dressed as a girl, would prance behind the horse, sweeping the ground with a birch broom. The waggoner, that is the performer who purported to lead the horse, would solicit donations, which the braver patrons would try to place in the horse’s mouth without being bitten. Once the hoodeners were satisfied, they would pass on to the next house. Once they were done, they would return to their own farm, stow away the Hooden Horse in the stable for next year and divide their loot.

The keen-eyed reader will have noticed that the perfect tense has been employed throughout the preceding three paragraphs. Hoodening, as the ritual of the Hooden Horse was known, belonged in the rural world of the Isle of Thanet in years gone by, a world of farm boys and farm houses, with courtyards big enough to accommodate the performance. It would not really work on a Victorian terrace in Ramsgate (though in its later years some hoodeners were brave enough to perform in pubs and shopping centres). Although similar equine masquerades are found in other parts of Britain, such as the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss and the Welsh Mari Lwyd, the Hooden Horse is not only distinctively Kentish but distinctively Thanet, with only a few towns on the mainland, such as Deal and Walmer, exhibiting it. In West Kent it was completely unknown.

Hoodening of a fashion does still exist but as part of the act of Kentish Morris dancing troupes and is no longer confined to Christmas. Today’s hooden horses tend to be expertly carved and lack the rustic simplicity of the old animal. It has even penetrated West Kent. That it should survive in some form is to be celebrated but it is not the same.

The decline of hoodening was foreseen over a hundred years ago by Percy Maylam, a Canterbury solicitor who spent his Christmases as a child in a farm on Thanet. His book on the Hooden Horse (published in 1909) was a rigorous investigation of the tradition’s history. With scepticism that would have made Procopius proud, he threw facile assumptions about the survival of paganism out of the window, demonstrating that the earliest reference to hoodening is from 1738, over a thousand years after the English were converted to Christianity, Thanet first. Attempts to derive the name of the custom from Woden he similarly dismissed with ruthless efficiency, demanding to know what kind of grammar would admit of “Wodening”.

His own suggestion that the custom derived from the Robin Hood episode of the Morris dance, however, was equally unconvincing. Morris dancing was unknown in Kent until the twentieth century and Robin Hood plays are a May Day custom. Moreover, Maylam’s own argument against deriving “Hooden Horse” from “Woden Horse” can be applied to “Robin Hood Horse” just as witheringly.

Another suggested derivation is “wooden horse”. Some East Kentish dialects drop an initial w and the rustics who performed the tradition originally invariably called it ‘oodening. So, the argument goes, perhaps “Hooden” Horse is a botched correction. The earliest detailed description of the ritual, however, from 1807, says that an actual horse’s skull was employed. The carved wooden substitute would therefore be a relatively late innovation.

Perhaps the correct explanation is the simplest: The sack in which the hoodener hides to simulate the horse’s body and movements really, really looks like a hood. Maylam considered but rejected this explanation, since it is not the horse itself that is hooded but he had misunderstood the grammar of this derivation. “Hooden”, being the adjectival form of the noun “hood”, rather than the past participle of the verb “to hood”, means not “hooded” but “hoody”, “of the hood”, or “associated with a hood”. Thus the Hooden Horse is the horse made out of a hood.

This still leaves unexplained the origin of the ritual of the Horse of Hood but maybe no particular explanation is needed. It is Christmas, a time of celebration and relaxation, one of the few times of the year when agricultural workers could rest and try to make some extra money. Does celebrating Christmas really need an explanation? Does fun have to be intellectually justified? Horse-hoodening is simply a Christmas celebration and that is all it needs to be.

Merry Christmas.

Pegwell Bay, Thanet
Pegwell Bay, Thanet

Photo credits: The Hoodener’s Horse Sign, Great Chart (Oast House Archive) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Pegwell Bay (David Mastin) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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