The Darker Side of Life II
Death and Customs
Games at Wakes
To our modern way of thinking the idea of playing games at wakes is rather shocking. Songs and dances, sports and games, jokes and storytelling all seem very much out of place and more suited to a happy occasion and on no account to the grief and solemnity of death.
Prayers for the dead and ceremonies associated with death and burial are part of our Christian way of life, but there are aspects of death and burial other than the religious. There is hope and the determination that the memory of the dead person will be honoured because of what they were and what they did in this life, that their standing in the community will be reflected by the dimensions of their funeral. There is also the necessity of consoling the bereaved relatives, of distracting them from their grief in various conventional ways. Most of our death and burial customs are directed towards one or more of these aims: prayers for the soul of the dear, honour to his memory and sympathy for his people. To our ancestors the playing of games at weeks offended against none of these.
In the old days the corpse was waked usually for tow nights, sometimes three. No amount of visiting by sympathizers during the day constitutes a wake, it is only the watching over the corpse during the hours of darkness that counts.
Since it was the custom that women, very old people and children visit the house during the day nearly all those present at the wake were men. When the circumstances were tragic, the death of the breadwinner or of a young mother, there was real grief and the wake games, if played, were half-hearted. But in the case of an older person, the grief was more restrained and the customs were observed with enthusiasm. It was at wakes like this that the wake games flourished.
Some of them were tests of strength or skill, such as holding a brush handle knee high with both hands and jumping over it or the ‘cobblers dance’ in which the performer squatted down on his hunkers and danced like a Cossack. A favourite test was to seat a boy on a wooden chair, then stick a pin in the back of one of the back legs, about tow inches above the floor and then tell the boy seated on the chair to pull out the pin with his teeth without putting either foot on the floor; his contortions in trying to do so were highly entertaining.
A neat little wisp of hay was rolled into a ball and people would sit round the room on chairs or ‘firms.’ The hay was passed from hand to hand behind the back. ‘It’ was in the middle of the floor, blindfolded, and when ‘It’ would say stop. ‘It’ would have to guess who was holding the hay. If the right person was named he then became ‘It.’
The men used to go outside and play ‘shoulder stone.’ This was don e by lifting a big stone on one’s shoulder and heaving it as far as possible. Fights often started and flared up over this tradition.
Two people would sit on the floor, facing each other with legs outstretched. With your feet pressing against your partner’s you’d be given a strong stick or the shaft of a brush. Using it horizontally you’d try to pull each other off the ground. “I remember that done at wakes often. The games were played in the kitchen or somewhere like that and you’s have the best of crack. And I remember being at a wake and I say them dancing the Highland. They were tight you know, but it was great. I’d never forget it.”
There were other games which were only seen at wakes, some of which seem to have been of a very peculiar nature, so much so that they were condemned and forbidden by the clergy. Indeed, there is a long series of condemnations by the church reaching back over at least three hundred years and the wonder is that these customs persisted so long. They must have been very deeply founded in tradition to have survived as they did.
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