Nutting Day is the 14th of September.
For centuries it was a traditional, rustic holiday in England on which groups of people would go out into the woods together to harvest autumn nuts, particularly hazelnuts (aka filberts), armed with baskets of food for lunches and bottles of drink to wash it down with. It was a festive day of rustic merry-making in which even the upper classes would often participate.
Hooked sticks known as “nut hooks” would be fashioned to help pull tree branches lower for easier picking.
“Nutting”, incidentally, also afforded an occasion for teenage boys and girls to go off into the woods unsupervised, and to engage in a whole different sort of nutting altogether.
Nutting Day in the printed record
In some parts of England, the day came to be regarded as a public holiday, at least in the countryside:
“Nutting Day is still a public holiday in some parts of rural England, and very few of our popular customs can be cited in which simple pleasure is more healthily and happily sought by the merry-makers. The crop they go out to gather has no money value; but the sunny day’s ramble in the country at one of the most strikingly beautiful periods of the year is in itself a great pleasure, while the picking of the nuts is just sufficient excuse for being happily and completely idle. All ages are by prescriptive custom expected to join in these raids upon the hazels, and custom also enjoins that on Nutting Day all shall wear their shabbiest clothes. So they sally forth, whole families together, armed with capacious baskets and other receptacles filled with eatables and drinkables and intended, on the homeward journey, to be equally well-filled with the plunder of the nut-trees. Whether this proves to be the case or not matters little. They have a glorious day together in the mellowing woods and a picnic on the acorn-dotted turf, and the light measure of their harvest does not trouble the simply happy folk. Yes now is the time for nuts to be in perfection, and tradition has it that those picked on the First are worth all the rest. The hazel leaves today are tinted with yellow and chestnut; the clusters are golden brown; and the nuts themselves, loosed in their cups, slip out at the first rough shake of the bough, and come pattering down through the leaves onto the moss beneath. Here and there a branch more backward than the rest is still green; the kernels within are juicy and young, and rural superstition attaches a lucky omen to their finding. As a rule, however, the nuts are all ‘full ripe’…” — A Nutting Crook. London, England: Daily Telegraph and Courier Thursday, 2 October 1884. Page 5, col. 2.”
In a town in Cornwall, it became associated with a Mock Mayor tradition:
“At Penryn [Cornwall], on the festival of Nutting Day in September, the tailors proceeded to the adjoining village of Mylor, and elected one of their number ‘Mayor of Mylor’. Seated on a chair borne on the shoulders of four stalwart men the worthy Mayor proceeded from his ‘good town of Mylor’ to his ‘ancient borough of Penryn’. The procession proceeded to the town hall, in front of which the Mayor delivered a speech, declaratory of his intended improvements, etc., for the coming year, being generally a burlesque on the speeches of parliamentary candidates. Afterwards they adjourned to the ‘Council Chamber’ in some public house, and devoted the night to festivity.’ — Mock Mayors. Hartlepool, Durham, England: The Northern Guardian. Monday, 7 December 1891. Page 1, col. 1.
Such a nut harvesting festival was, of course, a rural holiday whose activities would have been accessible to those living in villages and small towns with easy access to nearby woods and countryside. While the upper classes may have enjoyed the day as a rural outing, for the agricultural and working classes it would have combined a day of leisure, freed from agricultural and domestic duties, to enjoy the last of waning summer in the open countryside, combined with the practical activity of gathering a delicious, shelf-stable form of protein for the coming winter’s food stores.
Nut harvesting wasn’t restricted to just this day of course. It would, and did, go on into October. There was one day though during this nut harvest period on which it was considered unlucky to go nutting: that was Devil’s Nutting Day.
It’s also worth noting that the September countryside in England offered not just nuts, but also blackberries to be harvested for fresh eating or making into jam. But while the nut harvesting period would go on for some time, the blackberry harvest traditionally ended around the end of September, known as Devil’s Spit Day.
The advent of industrialization, which moved people away from small towns and farming, and into factories in larger cities, would have slowly diminished the numbers of people who could participate in Nutting Day. In 1874, in Cirencester, Wiltshire, a factory recorded that two people asked for the day off work:
“Some very amusing and interesting entries appear in an old register in the possession of a well-known Cirencester firm which was kept under the Factory Acts Extension Act 1867. The register itself is dated 1869, and contains records of holidays taken by various assistants at various times…. September 23rd, 1874, was presumably, ‘Nutting Day’ in Cirencester Park, and one or two employees were lucky enough to get a whole day [off work] allotted them.” — Nearly 50 Years Ago. When Half Days Off Were Registered. — Swindon, Wiltshire, England: North Wilts Herald. Friday, 19 March 1926. Page 10, col. 4.
The slow disappearance of countryside around growing towns would also have caused the disappearance of easily-accessed woods where the nuts grew.
As Nutting Day waned in the 1800s, the day became an activity for narrower groups and classes of people who had both the freedom of a day off, and access to countryside.
At the start of the 1900s, a columnist in England’s Lake District records a nutting day that was an outing for school children as well as a reward for church volunteers:
“Last week, through the kindness of Mr and Mrs Argles, the children of Crosthwaite and Howe schools had the unique experience of a pleasant nutting day on Whitbarrow, together with the bellringers, choir and churchwardens who were also invited. Mr Burrow had provided an excellent supply of provisions, and tea was served under the oaks near the old keeper’s cottage, and thoroughly enjoyed. The mountain air, and the hunt after the nuts, had given the children keen appetites. Nuts were plentiful, bags being well filled. The weather fortunately kept fair, and the outing will be cherished in the youthful memories for many days to come. Such events as these help to relieve the monotony of school routine even in country districts.” — A Crosthwaite Novelty. Windermere, Westmorland, England: The Lakes Chronicle. Wednesday, 22 October 1902. Page 3, col. 2.
Nutting Day seems to have particularly became an annual activity for school children (the ones whose parents could afford schooling for them, of course). In 1834, a writer for Hunt’s London Journal recorded his school boy reminiscences from several decades previous:
“We never look upon an apple-stall in one of the hot, dusty streets of the metropolis, in Autumn, nor see on it the finely clustered heap of filberts, retailing “a penny a pint” to the lucky urchin who possesses so much of this world’s wealth, but we think upon our joyous nutting days at school. We bring straightway before our ‘mind’s eye’ the portly figure of our reverend pedagogue, as on a fine September evening he would announce to our greedy ears that he had given us the morrow for ‘nutting day’. What hasty packing up of bags! Virgil without the boards, Ovid ditto title-page and preface, and our huge dictionary, of which we were proud, are gladly and unceremoniously thrust away from ‘human ken’ for a day; and then our search at home for our nutting-bag, laid away since last season, and our journey to the pheasant copse to cut a hooked stick, so that we may have nothing left to do in the morning. Then, when the morning arrived, what eager peeping out to see if the day were fine; verily our toilet then was soon made, and our nice brown bread and milk neglected, when compared with our usual repast thereof on a school day; how carelessly did we thrust the packet of bread and cheese, made up for us by our prudent landlady, into our aforesaid nutting-bag; for, in truth, we were too much filled with pleasurable anticipations to be able to contain such earthly commodity as food. We well remember the select companions who composed our party; we hear them even now extolling the merits of the copse to which we were bending our steps, describing the thickness of the clusters, and debating what place we ought to ford the river. Now are our shoes and stockings pulled off and carefully tied to the button of our jacket — and now we cross the broad cooling river, holding the youngest by the hand to prevent the stream from knocking him over. Now we have arrived, and joyously look on the rich mellow-tinted bushes, drooping with the weight of the ripe fruit; the elder boys suppress the hurrah of the younger ones, for fear of attracting other parties to rob us of the spoil.
Now we do separate; but a peculiar whistle will bring us soon together again. The pliant boughs bend under the influence of our stick, and start back relieved of the weight which before oppressed them; nimbly our fingers go to work, and our bag, widening like an alderman’s stomach, and our aching shoulders, tell us that we shall soon have as much as our limbs can bring away with ease. Hark! how our companions whistle; they, too, have been busy, and call on us to rejoin them. Whither shall we go to eat our repast? Why, under the shade of the fine elm which grows at yonder curve of the river, and where we can get our cups filled from the clear spring which runs hard by. Our bread and cheese, rather crushed by the concussion of boughs pressing against our pockets, is relished with a gusto we did not think possible when we took it in the morning; and, by and by, we are joined by merry troops, returning home after a successful expedition, and we hear many accounts of adventurous doings in preserves, and chases by the gamekeepers; and, chatting in such-like manner, return to the village, displaying our treasures to the natives, and cracking our nuts and jokes in all the light-heartedness of youth and health. — Hunt’s London Journal. Newry, Down, Northern Ireland: Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser. Wednesday, 17 September 1834. Page 4, col. 2.
Nutting Day is recorded as an annual event at Eton College for boys:
“Other quaint customers were there, such as the gathering of the boughs of May blossom on May Day, which was allowed, always provided the boys did not get their feet wet; the general nutting day in September, and the offering of the spoils to the headmaster; and the theatrical performances during Christmas, for which a former headmaster, Nicholas Udall, wrote his celebrated comedy ‘Ralph Roister Doister’, the earliest English comedy at present known.” — A New History of Eton College. Windsor and Eton Express. Saturday, 17 February 1900. Page 3, col. 5.
But the Eton boys didn’t have to give all their nuts away to school staff, only a portion actually:
“In the good old times, too, the Eton boys had a holiday on this occasion to go out and gather nuts on condition that when they returned they made the masters presents of some of those which they gathered. Before the nutting day arrived the scholars of that famous seminary had to write in prose and verse compositions upon the fruitfulness of autumn and colds of approaching winter.
‘This day, they say, is called Holy-rood Day,
And all the youth are now a nutting gone.'”
— Topical Notes: General and Local. Bucks Herald. Saturday, 23 September 1916. Page 2, col. 6.
Observance of Nutting Day lasted longer in some parts of England than others. Even into the 1920s, the Earl of Bathurst would open the grounds of his country home, Cirencester Park, to allow locals to come to harvest nuts.
“Blackberries are already numerous on the hedgerows in Cirencester and the neighbourhood. In the Park nuts are prolific, reminding local folk of the approach of ‘Nutting Day’, when the Park is thrown open for this purpose.” — Blackberries and Nuts. Swindon, Wiltshire, England: North Wilts Herald. Friday, 27 August 1926. Page 10, col. 1.
By the 1930s, a writer in the Devon area of England noted the disappearance of the day:
“Is Nutting on the Wane? Indeed, in former times, a ‘nutting day’ was quite an institution, regarded almost in the light of a national holiday, when the entire village, young, old, middle-aged, and infantile assembled with sticks and baskets to take part in a day’s expedition, combining the more serious business of nut-gathering in the neighbouring woods with a picnic and a great deal of merry-making. In those days hazel copses, like all other woods, were more extensive than now…” — St. Leger-Gordon, R.E. The First Tree of Spring: Uses and Legends of the Hazel. Plymouth, Devon, England: Western Morning News. Monday, 5 January 1931. Page 6, col. 5.
At the start of the 1940s, a writer in Birmingham writes of the holiday as definitively having been lost:
“Nutting Time: The hazel nuts are ripening in Midland woods and lanes, and these nuts are well worth the gathering for storage for winter use. If one looks for them it is surprising what a number of nut trees are to be found in the lanes on the Worcestershire side of the city. Normally one scarcely gives the trees a second thought, but just now the nuts, in their green-frilled jackets, with a tinge of bronze on the ragged edges, look so attractive that one is inclined to halt and sample a few. Hazel bushes also grow in abundance along many quiet Warwickshire country roads. Wood nuts gathered at the end of September have the true nutty flavour and shake out of their cups easily. Nutting Day towards the end of the month used to be kept up as a rural holiday, and parties of villagers sallied out to the greenwood, where the hazels grew, with bags, hooked sticks, bottles and baskets, and everything else for a woodland picnic. That, alas, is one of the many rural festivals we have lost.” — Table Talk. Birmingham, England: Birmingham Mail. Saturday, 14 September 1940. Page 2, col. 8.
After the Second World War, at the start of the 1950s, a woman’s column writer indicates that autumn nuts were now more likely to be harvested at market stalls:
“Nut meals: The new nuts are on the stalls. Nutting Day and Nutcrack Night (Halloween) are terms now seldom heard, but the spirit of them is retained in the nutritive value of nuts in the diet.” — A Housewife’s Log. Leeds, West Yorkshire: Yorkshire Evening Post. Thursday, 11 October 1951. Page 4, col. 3.
It appears likely that in a preponderance of areas of England, Nutting Day was associated with the 14th of September (see History below).
Other regions, though, may have observed their Nutting Day at different times, particularly if it were a guild or trade association observing the day.
An 1838 report of boaters falling into water in Cornwall noted that Nutting Day was on Monday, the 27th of August that year — in that region, at least:
“On Monday last [Ed: 27th August 1838], being Nutting day, a large party of pleasure came down from Truro in a barge, and landed at the quay. Three women, and two men, stepping hastily into the boat alongside, upset her, and were all thrown into the water. They escaped with a ducking.” — Local News. Falmouth, Cornwall, England: The Falmouth Express and Colonial Journal. Saturday, 1 September 1838. Page 8, col. 1.
In 1858, it was observed on the 6th of September in Lincolnshire by a tailors’ association:
“We know not for how many years this mirthful brotherhood have on some bright September St. Monday St. Monday — a term for a bonus day taken off work. At this point in history, Sunday would have been the only weekly day of rest., thrown down their implements of trade and industry, and partaken their harassed physical structures to the tranquilizing influences of the “Greenwoods shade”. On Monday last, the festival of 1858 took place, and was attended by most of the old patrons of the event, and an increasingly large number of fresh ones who were initiated into the mysteries of a tailors’ nutting day, on which occasion we believe it is a flagrant breach of the code of snip to bring any nuts home. We hope this very light hearted fraternity will never bring any disgrace upon their profession, or their nutting-day, by any worse breach of any other code, either.” — The Tailors’ Nutting Day. Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England: The Lincolnshire Chronicle. Friday, 10 September 1858. Page 6, col. 2.
A writer in Exeter, England, wrote that Nutting Day there had been the last Thursday in August by tradesmen involved in the cloth trade:
“The Fullers, Weavers, Dyers and Shearmen, all earned very good wages — something like L 4 a week — and they did not work long hours either for that. The market people looked upon them as their most likely customers, and seldom thought of uncovering their best goods until the ‘green-aproned men’, as the Tuckers were called, and their wives came along. The cloth tradesmen lived on the very best of everything, I can tell you! There was no mistake about that! The last Thursday in August was a great holiday with the Tuckers and Weavers and the Shearmen. It was known as Nutting Day!” — Rex, William. An Exeter Retrospect. Exeter, Devon, England: The Western Times. Thursday, 13 February 1886. Page 3, col. 6.
A report the following year gives more details the associations big festive day:
“To the editor of the ‘Exeter Flying Post’. Sir — The last Thursday in August was a gala day many years since for the tuckers, weavers and shearmen of the city, called “Nutting Day”. It was kept by them as a grand holiday. After partaking of lunch at the Windmill Inn, Holloway Street (which was kept by Mr. Field: this hostelry being noted for its good homebrewed, was well patronized by the craft), they went to some of the woods in the neighbourhood, nutting, returning to dinner at the above-named inn. The room was decorated, flags were hung out the windows, and young trees planted in front of the house. The late C. Bowring, Esq., if possible, occupied the chair. After the repast the loyal toasts etc. were proposed, and well responded to. Then the senior member was called on for their standing song. The chorus was:
Until this is law I will maintain
Until my dying day, sir,
Let whatever king shall reign,
I’ll drink my gallon a day, sir.
The emblem worn by the fullers was a green apron with white serge strings. The dyers wore a blue apron and red serge strings. James Cossins, Exeter, August 1877.” — Fullers and Weavers. Exeter, Devon: Exeter Flying Post. Wednesday, 29 August 1877. Page 5, col. 6.
As nuts could be harvested anytime from September well into October (it being just a race against the squirrels), anyone could venture out at any time with some friends and say that they had had a “nutting day”.
On mainland Europe at this time of year many harvest festivals revolved around grapes for wine. As England had not been a grape growing country since the Romans left, the harvest festivals would revolve around crops that were locally harvested, such as nuts, or hops.
The date, September 14th, as noted above, seems to have become the date most commonly associated with Nutting Day. The date was actually officially associated in the Church calendar with Holy Rood Day, also known as Holy Cross Day or St. Cross Day. [Ed: Rood == Rod, as in a piece of wood.]
For unknown reasons, over time the day became associated with a nutting festival:
“Yesterday [Ed: 14th September] is marked in the calendar as Holy Rood or Holy Cross Day, and takes its name from the festival established in honour of the recovery by the Emperor Heraclitus of a portion of the true cross that had been taken from Jerusalem by Chosroes, king of Persia. Three hundred years ago it was the custom to go nutting on this day.” — Epitome of News. Leeds, Yorkshire: Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. Monday, 15 September 1890. Page 5, col. 8.
The day was mentioned in a Restoration comedy play published in 1662, called “Grim the Collyer of Croydon“
“Another dedication which occurs in only one instance in this country is that of St. Cross, or the Holy Cross, at the pretty village of Quainton, the Parish Church of which is thus named. The festival of St. Cross, Holy Cross, or Holy Rood Day is placed according to the English Kalendar [sic] on Sept. 14th. The observance of this Feast dates from about the year 615. It was instituted to commemorate the recovery of a large piece of the true cross discovered by the Empress Helena, an event known as the Invention of the Cross, and kept on May 3rd. Chosroes, King of Persia, carried a portion of it away with him when he plundered Jerusalem. The Emperor Heraclius gave him battle, defeated him, and brought back the stolen piece of the cross to Jerusalem.
In some parts of the country Holy Cross Day was kept as a sort of nutting festival, as we may gather from the following passage from the old Play of Grim the Collyer of Croydon:
‘This day, they say, is called Holy Rood Day,
And all the youth are now a nutting gone‘
— Some Buckinghamshire Dedications – St. Cross, Quainton. Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire: The Bucks Herald. Saturday, 7 March 1903. Page 7, col. 4.
Prohibitions against nutting on this day
Some people held that on this day in fact you should absolutely not go nutting, as you might encounter His Satanic Majesty doing the same today.
See discussion under: Confusion of Devil’s Nutting Day with Nutting Day
Chapter 5: Nutting: Wordsworth in Eden and Arden. Mead, Ruth Mary Judith. Wordworth’s Poetry of Allusion. PhD Thesis. University College, London. August 1998. Pp 136- 155).
|↑1||St. Monday — a term for a bonus day taken off work. At this point in history, Sunday would have been the only weekly day of rest.|