10 Good Friday traditions you’ve never heard of

Good lore: girls believed that hair cut on Good Friday would grow thicker and longer. Photograph: Cultura/Getty

My memory of Good Friday is that it was the most boring and uneventful day of the year. Growing up in the 1970s, I remember a foreboding about Easter, with obligatory guilt-ridden religious observations of confession and the Stations of the Cross. This was also a day when those fond of the secular retreat to their local tavern – I have my late father in mind – were instead condemned to a day of forced abstinence.

In short, there was nothing good about Good Friday. It was solemn, depressing and difficult to get through. But if we go back a generation or two, via the rich repositories of Irish folklore, we find a cluster of interesting observances and traditions that must have made Good Friday at least a little more exciting and active than the times I remember.

To begin with, Good Friday was the most significant day to have a haircut. Girls believed that hair cut on this day would grow thicker and longer – twice as thick and twice as long, according to some accounts.

In addition, washing your hair on Good Friday was thought to guard against headaches. But men would not shave, as it was most unlucky to draw blood on the day of the Crucifixion.

Men who were developing a bald patch used to attribute it to the unwelcome drips that periodically fell on their heads from the side of bacon hanging in the rafters. There is an usual connection here, as it was also considered disrespectful on Good Friday to have any meat hanging from the ceiling, and people took trouble to unhook their flitches of salted bacon from the nails in the rafters. The meat nailed to the timber was seen as another analogy with the Crucifixion.

That’s also why many blacksmiths, carpenters and other workmen would be idle for the day: they would not use a saw or hammer nor drive a nail on the day Christ was nailed to the Cross. This was also the reason for a prohibition on burning wood, especially as it would have had to have been sawn or cleft.

But it was a busy day for farms, given the belief that anything planted on Good Friday was certain to grow. The Muskerry Gaeltacht of Cúil Aodha has a long tradition of planting a tree on Good Friday. Elsewhere, shrubs and bushes were set in confidence that they would thrive.

But Good Friday’s biggest planting connection is with potatoes. While many followed the maxim of planting with St Patrick, on March 17th, and digging with King William, on July 12th, most had a custom of setting their scealláin, or seed potatoes, on Good Friday when it fell in March. This was termed putting down the early pot”, and the people worked each day from Good Friday until they had set all the potatoes.

If Good Friday was late, and fell in April, it was seen as the point up to which such work should focus. In any case, it was imperative that all the spuds be covered before the cuckoo was heard. Nobody wanted to be a “cuckoo farmer”.

It was also traditional to plant cabbages and turnips on Good Friday. If you were not fully ready, you could set just one small corner of a garden or field. It was also thought lucky to sow oats on Good Friday – oats sown on that day would never rot.

After potatoes, the most significant Good Friday planting was garlic. Garlic planted before noon was held to have curative properties, and would be ready for pulling and use between August 15th and December 8th, the Feast of the Assumption and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Garlic was an essential ingredient in Irish folk medicine, and thought to be a cure for consumption and a bad cough. Many considered garlic in goat’s milk to work even in the most hopeless cases. Good Friday garlic was also fed to hens, to keep them healthy, and to cattle, to purify their blood.

A child born on Good Friday and baptised on Easter Sunday was thought to have the cure for tapeworm, as long as the worm was put in the child’s hand

A child born on Good Friday and baptised on Easter Sunday was thought to have the cure for tapeworm, aka the “running worm”, as long as the worm was put in the child’s hand and let to die while the child was being baptised.

Good Friday was also a day when people would cast off their shoes; children, in particular, then remained barefoot through the warmer summer months. Many waited for May Day before going barefoot, but those who did so early on Good Friday knew their feet would be protected from thorns, cuts and bleeding. Being barefoot on Good Friday also guaranteed freedom from colds for the rest of the year.

Another custom was to wash your feet on Good Friday and keep the water for the year: it was a certain cure if you later had a sore or other issue with your feet. The tradition of washing feet at this time comes from Christ’s washing of the 12 disciples’ feet on Holy Thursday, before the Last Supper – a Europe-wide custom taken up by monarchies and clergy as Maundy Thursday. (Maundy, from the Latin for commandment, refers to Jesus’s instruction, in John 13:34, that “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”.)

Good Friday: families would share a black hen’s first egg, to ward off sickness. Photograph: iStock
Good Friday: families would share a black hen’s first egg, to ward off sickness. Photograph: iStock

The day also involved the marking of the “Good Friday eggs. As eggs would have been forbidden during the 40-day Lenten fast, the prospect of once again eating this protein-rich food became part of a ritual. All over Ireland, eggs laid on Good Friday were marked with an X, using soot, a charred stick or a pencil. Boiled, these eggs were the first thing to be eaten on Easter Sunday, two days later. Some families chose just one special Good Friday egg – laid, for example, by a black hen – with each person eating part of it in the belief that it would ward off sickness. These eggs were never sold, as anyone doing so would have no luck in their egg sales for the rest of the year.

As with the Good Friday haircut, these eggs were a sure protection against headaches. They were kept for the full year, and rubbed on the affected part of the body when someone had a pain. Good Friday eggs had no best-before date: they were believed never to go off, remaining as fresh the following year as the day they were laid.

Sowens was prepared by soaking oatmeal in cold water until it fermented, or by boiling a handful of oatmeal in spring water. It was referred to as bull’s milk!

The day’s main religious observance took place at 3pm – the hour Christ was thought to have died – when people went to church for the ceremony of adoring the Crucifix. They believed that the sky darkened at that time and that anyone who made a request or plea to God was sure to have it granted.

The congregation would approach the altar, where the priest held a large crucifix, and one by one each kiss the five wounds of Christ. Women would undertake this ritual barefooted and, unusually for the time, without their heads covered and with their hair down. It was a very significant Irish custom that, following a death, older women in particular would leave their hair down, to help them keen, or cry, in a way that embodied the abandon and chaos of death and their role as the cailleach, a sort of otherworld adjunct.

Good Friday was a day of “black fast”; as well as the usual restrictions against meat and dairy during Lent, this was a day of severe fast. Many ate only three small collations. Others confined themselves to a single meal, usually at noon, the hour of the Crucifixion. Nobody was to eat anything until after this time, and even babies in the cradle would have to cry three times before they were fed.

Like Ash Wednesday and Spy Wednesday, Good Friday was a day when sowens met the needs of those fasting. Sowens was prepared by soaking oatmeal in cold water until it fermented, or by boiling a handful of oatmeal in spring water to make a milk substitute. It was referred to as bull’s milk! Sowens was used to soften mashed potatoes, as a substitute for milk or buttermilk in bread, and as the base of a number of simple and rather drab white gruel dishes that variously included nettles, turnips, cabbage and herring.

As people normally ate fish on Fridays, on Good Friday people living near the coast instead went to the shore to gather seaweed and shellfish, as an extension of their denial. Staying on the shore rather than going out to sea was linked to the belief that the sea craved dead bodies on Good Friday.

They collected carrageen and sleabhchán – aka sloke, or laver – and made dishes with limpets in particular. They believed that everything they gathered from the shore on Good Friday would result in good health; there are accounts of droves of children and adults picking the shores clean at low tide.

When the little robin came to the Cross, and tried to extract the thorns from the crown of thorns, Christ’s blood soaked into its breast feathers

Irish folklore associates three birds – the swallow, the heron and the robin – with Good Friday. It is said that when Christ was dying on the Cross, a swallow flew past and in sympathy cried, “Give him a drink, give him a drink!” The swallow has lived in perpetual summer ever since. Its arrival in Ireland in mid-April announces the season here. When the Irish summer is over, the swallow has the luxury of migrating to a country whose summer is about to begin.

The heron was the second bird to fly over the Cross. It was heard to say: “Give him strength to endure his pain.” As a result the heron was granted no enemies.

When the little robin came to the Cross, and tried to extract the thorns from the crown of thorns, Christ’s blood soaked into its breast feathers. Ever since that day the robin’s breast has been red. People used to believe the robin would eat nothing until noon on Good Friday.

It’s worth noting that the church set Easter to fall on the Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox (which itself falls around March 21st). Until the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar – in 1582 elsewhere, but not until 1782 in Ireland – March 25th was taken as the start of the new year, the time when everything started afresh. (A remnant was that, until recently, tax returns had to be submitted by April 4th.)

So this was the liminal point of the year, mirrored in the three-day transition from Christ’s death, on Good Friday, to His Resurrection, on Easter Sunday. With miracles of the dead coming back to life, and of the regeneration of nature and agriculture, whatever you did on Good Friday was bound to turn good for the rest of the year.

Make no doubt about it: the folk tradition made sure the Good Friday to-do list was very full indeed.

10 TRADITIONAL ACTIVITIES FOR GOOD FRIDAY

1 Wash and cut your hair, to make it longer and stronger and to safeguard yourself against headaches

2 But don’t be tempted to shave

3 Grab a spade, dig a corner of the garden and plant some seed potatoes – and, if you have time, set the oats, cabbages and turnips

4 Plant your garlic, to use as a remedy against winter coughs

5 Take off your shoes and socks and put them away for the summer

6 Wash your feet – and keep the water as a cure for verrucas and corns

7 Find a black hen and wait for it to lay its first egg of the day before marking it with an X, using a burnt stick. Then boil it on Easter Sunday. Have spoons ready for everyone

8 Go to chapel barefoot, and with your hair down, to queue up to kiss Christ’s five wounds on the Cross

9 Soak oatmeal to make sowens

10 Go to the shore and pick limpets and seaweed to make a black-fast collation to eat at 3pm

Shane Lehane is cultural and heritage studies course director at CSN College of Further Education, in Cork, where he teaches archaeology, folklore and history. He also teaches in the department of folklore and ethnology at University College Cork. He is always interested to hear about local folk custom and tradition; you can email him at s.lehane@csn.ie