The Mad Month of March: From White Rabbits to Mother’s Day

Dr Alec Gill MBE

Should Hull re-brand itself as ‘Superstition City’? Why not make this a powerful USP (Unique Selling Point) for the port? After all, superstitions are universal and there is the old expression: “Of all seafarers, there are none more superstitious than fishermen”. Fishing is at the heart of Hull’s cultural heritage. It is still the world’s most perilous job – an extreme occupation – with a high loss of life. Crewmen battled against the elements. In the wintery North Atlantic, it is often Mother Nature that wins in such conflicts. Living close to death meant that Hull’s fishing families often embraced the ancient pagan belief system we link to superstitions. 

For a more detailed account of the many Hessle Road Fishing Community and Arctic Trawling superstitions and why I believe Hull should promote itself as ‘Superstition City’, please see my eBook: SUPERSTITIONS: Folk Magic in Hull’s Fishing Community 

Superstitions are in tune with each passing season. As this is March, let’s start with animal superstitions around the Mad March Hare and White Rabbits – then end with Mother’s Day (Sunday 31st March 2019).

When I was growing up, at the start of each month, before a word was spoken, us kids chanted the rhyme: “White Rabbit, White Rabbit, Give me Good Luck. If you don’t, I’ll stamp my foot”. Talking of feet, many people carry a lucky rabbit’s or hare’s foot (not so lucky for the poor creature who lost a limb for someone else’s good fortune).

Rabbits and hares often get mixed up – in life and taboos. Indeed, the names ‘rabbit’ and ‘hare’ are forbidden words in some parts of the country. Opie & Tatem (1989) reported that:

– in the late 13th century they were both referred to as “the animals that no one dare name”;

– in 1602 the advice was “do not utter the name of the Hare or such uncouth things, for that proves ominous for fishermen”;

– Flamborough fishermen in 1875 “had a great fear if rabbits were spoken of” – they still use the substitute word Jacko [for Jack Rabbit, I suppose];

– in 1919 other alternatives for Rabbit were “those hairy things” or “one of them furry things” [both confirmed by Hull trawlermen in the 1990s]; and, 

– in 1965, Banff fishermen in Buckie referred to Rabbit Island [in the Kyle of Tongue] as “Gentleman’s Island” to avoid using the unlucky word.

In some parts of Scotland, rabbit is called Mappy. Two more Hull alternatives are ‘That animal with long ears’ and ‘Bunny’ (as in Easter Bunny). One interviewee was of the opinion that Grimsby skippers are much more sensitive about this taboo than Yorkie crewmen (who are more afraid of 
P-I-G). Indeed, it was Ron ‘Sweat’ Haines’ experience that if the word ‘pig’ was uttered, it was counter-acted by repeatedly saying ‘Bunny Rabbits, Bunny Rabbits’ to avert bad luck. [ASIDE: As 2019 is the Chinese Year of the Pig, perhaps we can return to curly-tail superstitions in a later issue of Hull Hub.]

Mischievous Hull skippers sometimes called up their rivals on nearby GY-trawlers and contrived a conversation about “rabbit-pie”. The Grimmies angrily shouted back over the airwaves, “Don’t say that word! I’ve got me cod-end down!” 

When my mate Arthur Chambers researched the World War Two trawlers, he passed on a bunny story from one of his correspondents. Although the majority of the war-time crews were fishermen, civvies – ignorant of seafaring ways – also served on the mine-sweeping trawlers. One such wireless operator decided to do the crew a favour by enriching the ship’s menu with a brace of rabbits. The RNR skipper was quietly on the bridge one evening when a commotion suddenly erupted in the fo’c’sle. He sent an officer to investigate. When he heard there were long-ears on board, he diplomatically chatted to his sparks and “persuaded him to drop the rabbits overboard. That done, peace was restored”.

I have not come across any actual Hessle Road yarns about rabbits. Apart, that is, from Dick Jackson – whose father had almost thirty furry creatures. These were kept in a brick hut with a stove on an allotment. But no mention of any superstition – these creatures were to feed the Jackson family.

There are lots of tales in the literature to the effect that “if a rabbit or hare crosses the path of a fisherman, he will not sail that day” (Radford, 1974) – but no Hessle Roader has mentioned this type of incident. Still on the local, shore-based level, St.Mary’s Church at Beverley provides a marvellous combination of two tabooed animals in one statue. Inside the church is a splendid sculpture of a White Rabbit. Apparently, this particular one is said to have impressed Lewis Carroll who included a white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. But what is fascinating to me is that this rabbit is stood on the head of a pig. I could not believe my eyes when I saw them both together. St.Mary’s was built around 1330/40 when, no doubt, the animal symbolism was more readily understood than it is today. 

In the 1970s, an unnamed source stated that ten million rabbits’ feet were sold every year in the United States – with around five million sold in the UK and Europe. Indeed, a quick look on eBay reveals a vast array of lucky rabbits’ feet for sale – in all manner of shocking colours and sold as keyrings. I don’t fancy one of those in my pocket! Perhaps the prices for such a talisman are going to increase due to the following sad news.

On a more serious note, it has been reported that our British wild rabbit and hare populations are in rapid decline. An article in the online Telegraph highlighted how “Hares could be wiped out, experts warn, as a spate in mystery deaths have sparked fears that a highly infectious disease has ‘jumped’ from rabbits”. This is, of course, the dreaded Myxomatosis (RHD-2: Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease). 

It was deliberately introduced into Kent in 1953 to control the rabbit population. It got out of hand and, within three years, wiped out nearly 99% of the rabbits in the UK. But they soon recovered (their tendency to ‘breed like rabbits’ came in handy) and subsequently built up resistance to the disease. But now, biologists have observed a disturbing return of this viral disease (spread by blood-sucking insects) in rabbits. Hares have no resistance to RHD-2. Road-kill of rabbits was once common, but they are now a rare sight on British highways.

But how come rabbits / hares are considered lucky at all? 

One website suggested that the Celts (back in 600 BC) believed such creatures were in touch with the spirits of the underworld because rabbits lived in burrows underground. Down there, they were in touch with Mother Earth and so became sacred, lucky animals. 

When the Romans fought Boadicea, she released a hare from her cloak (Farrar, 1987). The direction it dashed was seen by the Britons as a forecast of how to conduct their battle – is this why the Romans eventually won?  In the Middle Ages, it was also believed that the rabbit or hare was a witches’ familiar – her “soft-footed servant” (Lehane, 1984); and that this animal was involved in divination of future events.

The primary symbolism of the rabbit is its link with fertility – thus the saying “to breed like rabbits”. And Mad March Hares exhibit strange behaviour in the fields during the spring mating season.  Fecundity was vital to survival when infant mortality was high, life was short-lived, plagues or famine abounded, and wars were frequent. Fertility and good fortune are associated concepts. 

The Easter Bunny easily fits into these beliefs via the fertility link. Although Easter is the most important event in the Christian calendar, the word ‘Easter’ rarely if ever appears in The Holy Bible. Why is that? The simple reason is that Easter or Eastre is the Pagan Goddess of Spring and Fertility. It is from the word Eastre that the female sex hormone Oestrogen is derived. Eastre is also linked with Ishtar, Astarte (Mother God with strong links to the moon). Moon magic underpins many female-centred superstitions.

Unlike Christmas which falls on the set date of 25th December, Easter Sunday is a movable feast because it still depends upon the moon cycle: It is always set by the first full moon after 21st March. Actually, Good Friday seems especially late this year on 19th April 2019.

Academics poo-poo superstitious beliefs because there is no written evidence of how or when they started. I am not a pagan, but it is well-known that many pre-Christian rituals were deliberately not written down because it was sacrilegious to do so. Instead, they relied more on the oral tradition to transmit their festivals and beliefs.

In our modern age, Americanisation has monopolised many ancient beliefs and turned them into commercial opportunities. This has already happened with Mother’s Day. It is worth stressing at this early stage that Mother’s Day is not rooted in superstition. Instead, it is confused with Mothering Sunday (31stMarch 2019) – a Christian practice linked with the Mother Church.

In the Middle Ages, many youngsters were put into service. Boys were apprenticed to a master for many years to learn a trade (carpentry, leather working or as a blacksmith etc). Girls, on the other hand, went into domestic service in some stately home or elsewhere. 

On the Fourth Sunday of Lent (a period of doing without during the harsh winter months), however, they were allowed to return home to celebrate with their family in their Mother Church. Some youngsters brought home sweets, treats and little gifts. And so there was a carnival feeling of joy around Mothering Sunday – rooted in Christianity and the mists of time.

Mother’s Day, however, is barely one hundred years old. It was started by Anna Jarvis – the ‘mother’ of Mother’s Day. She was not a mother, but instigated the annual event because she was fond of her own mother. Three years after her mother’s death, she held a memorial service (10 May 1908) in her hometown at the Methodist Episcopal Church in West Virginia.

Anna always stressed the ‘sentimental significance’ of the occasion and became disgusted by its commercialisation (cards and flowers – especially carnations). She never wanted to make any money from Mother’s Day and never did. Indeed, in 1943, she started a petition to abolish it – but to no avail. 

She died five years later (aged 84) in relative poverty in a sanatorium. Ironically, her medical bills were paid for by “people connected with the floral and greetings card industries” (Wikipedia, 2018). 

In a nutshell, Mothering Sunday is a European, Christian tradition celebrated on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (31 March 2019) – linked with the Mother Church; while Mother’s Day is an American holiday held on the Second Sunday of May (12 May 2019) – originally intended to honour mothers and motherhood. As we saw with rabbit and hares, there is now a mix up with Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day.

 March is a funny month of the year – a time of transition from winter to spring. March might be named after Mars the God of War. There is the argument that it was the month when armies began to ‘march’ into battle – after the bitter winter had confined them to their barracks. 

On a happier notes, others recall the rhyme about “March winds and April showers / Make way for sweet May flowers”. Whilst on your way to May, watch out for April Fool’s Day and other superstitions to keep at bay.                                                                   

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