Four unusual London Christmas traditions…4. The Boy Bishop of St Paul’s…

Inside St Paul’s Cathedral. PICTURE: It’s No Game (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

This tradition is actually one which is no longer observed – but we thought it worth a mention to finish this short series.

The creation of temporary of ‘boy bishops’ was relatively widespread at greater churches in Middle Ages (and several other churches in London also observed the tradition apparently including Westminster Abbey).

At St Paul’s, it involved one of the choir boys being elected to be the ‘boy bishop’, usually on 6th December, for a role that would run through until Holy Innocents Day on 28th December.

Dressed in child-sized bishop’s robes, the ‘boy bishop’ performed various ceremonial duties throughout the season, culminating with them delivering a sermon and leading a procession through the city.

The tradition apparently became more raucous as time went on, so much so that eventually it was abolished during the Reformation by King Henry VIII, revived by his successor Queen Mary I, and then abolished again by Queen Elizabeth I.

Since then, the idea of a ‘boy bishop’ or ‘youth bishop’ has been revived in a somewhat updated form in certain cathedrals including those in Salisbury and Hereford.

We’ll start a new Wednesday series next week.

Four unusual London Christmas traditions…3. The Peter Pan Cup…

Postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic this year, the Peter Pan Cup is a swimming event that usually takes place on Christmas Day in Hyde Park’s Serpentine.

The bracing 9am event, which is only open to members of the Serpentine Swimming Club, is a handicapped race across a 100 yard course.

While the tradition of a Christmas Day swimming event goes back to 1864, it became the ‘Peter Pan Cup’ in 1904 when JM Barrie, creator of Peter Pan and a member of the club, presented the first cup to the winner. It was the same year Peter Pan debuted on the London stage (and Barrie would continue to present the cup to the winner until 1932).

Club members have to complete a certain number of winter races to be eligible to swim on Christmas Day. These days the race, which usually starts and ends on the southern bank of the Serpentine, is usually quite a spectacle with hundreds turning out to cheer the swimmers on.

Four unusual London Christmas traditions…1. The Ceremony of the Christmas Cheeses…

This tradition, the origins of which go back centuries, centres on a ceremony at the Royal Hospital Chelsea which involves the blessing and cutting of a ‘Christmas Cheese’ with a sword.

The origins of the tradition go back to 1692 when a local cheesemonger donated cheese to the Chelsea Pensioners – retired members of the British Army – for Christmas. Since 1959, it’s been organised by industry body Dairy UK and sees cheesemongers from across the UK donate cheeses to the hospital.

The ceremony involves the largest cheese among those donated being blessed and then cut with a sword by a selected pensioner. The cheese is then distributed to the pensioners at meal times in the run-up to Christmas.

This year a special COVID-safe ceremony was held and some 258 kilograms of cheese were donated to the hospital. The largest cheese – a 25 kilogram Montgomery Cheddar – was cut by Chelsea Pensioner George Reed who had a 25 year career in military as well as a career at the BBC.

As well as last year’s 60th anniversary ceremony aside, other milestones have taken place in 2016 – when Chelsea Pensioner Mary Johnston became the first woman to cut the ceremonial cheese – and in 2009, when two members of Territorial Army London Regiment bound for Afghanistan joined the ceremony for the first time.