Showing posts with label custom. Show all posts
Showing posts with label custom. Show all posts

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What is the "Topping Out" ceremony? #Work folklore for #FolkloreThursday

Members of Team Holloman and construction workers gather to witness the “Topping Out” of the last beam being placed on the new medical facility at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. on Feb. 10, 2016.

The Folklore of Topping Out

If you time it just right, and happen to be looking far up off the ground, you might catch sight of ironworkers hoisting a tree, wreath, or flag up to the top storey of a framed-out building. This is what people in the construction industry call “topping out” - a ceremony held when the last beam is placed at the top of a building. It is a piece of modern, occupational folklore that may have deep and ancient roots.

In his book High Steel Jim Rasenberger describes the tradition in this way:
“Topping out is an ironworkers’ tradition marking the setting of the highest piece of steel in a building or bridge. The beam is decorated with an American flag and frequently with a small fir tree as well. Despite the fact that the ceremony had long ago been seized by publicists and financiers as a photo-op, topping out was something ironworks took seriously. To be the foreman whose gang raised the topping-out flag was an honour.”
James A. Newman, fabrication division vice president with AISC-member Art Iron, Inc., wrote an article in The Ironworker (December 1984) which describes the tradition thusly:
“No one seems to know exactly when or how it started, but the tradition of ‘Topping Out’ has become a cherished custom of Ironworkers whenever the skeleton of a bridge or building is completed. Topping Out is a signal that the uppermost steel member is going into place, that the structure has reached its height. As that final beam is hoisted, an evergreen tree or a flag or both are attached to it as it ascends. The nice thing about Topping Out is that no two ceremonies are exactly alike. For some, the evergreen symbolizes that the job went up without a loss of life, while for others it’s a good luck charm for the future occupants.”
Researcher John Robinson notes, “The topping out custom is most widely practiced in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. In Germany, where the custom is known as Richtfest, the ceremony consists of fastening a small fir-tree (or in some areas a wreath made from the branches of a fir-tree) to the top of the newly completed frame. Dignitaries are invited to make speeches, or recite poems for the occasion, and food and drink are served to the assembled workers and visitors."

On 18 October 2012, folklorist Nicole Penney conducted an oral history interview with retired ironworker Joe Lewis, of Conception Harbour, Newfoundland, who had worked high steel, building a number of well-known structures including the twin towers of the original World Trade Center in New York City. He remembers topping-out ceremonies from projects he had worked on.
Nicole Penney: Tell me about topping out? 
Joe Lewis: Topping out is when we're finished; like that's when everything is done and they'd throw us a big party for us - not a big party - buys us all pints of beer and sandwiches and we'll have a half a day just, you know, just doing nothing. Then we'll have a last beam and they'd put the American flag on it and we would write all our names on it, the whole job, then we'd bring that up and we'd set that, that's the last piece if steel that goes in that building, that's why it's called topping out. 
Nicole Penney: Okay and was it always a flag that was put on top of- 
Joe Lewis: That's all I know, I remember it was a big American flag. 
Penney: Okay, so would that flag usually stay there for a while then? 
Joe Lewis: It stays on that corner of that building wherever they put it, usually on a corner; it will stay there for a while and then we'll take it down and take it away.

Dick Conway is another Newfoundlander who worked high steel, who was interviewed by Penny and Dale Jarvis on 23 October 2012. He too remembers topping out:
Dick Conway: Topping out is the last piece of steel going up is the topping out and usually what you do with -- different places do different things, like here in Newfoundland you put up a tree. We worked on a German hanger down in Goose Bay, it was the first time I’d seen it, and the topping out, the last piece of steel went up, we were the last guys up, I had a crew up doing the decking on it, right, and before the decking went down, we had the topping out party and that’s what we did, we put up a tree, on the end of the hanger, and decorated it almost like a Christmas tree.

Dale Jarvis: So where do you think that comes from, that tradition?

Dick Conway: I don’t know. I guess again, coming back to the fishing probably, the flags. Because again you set the flag on steel, the flag is usually welded at the end of the steel, whichever flag of the country, United States or Newfoundland flag.
The origins of the ceremony are uncertain but may trace back to ancient Scandinavian religious rites of placing a tree atop a new building to appease the tree-dwelling spirits displaced in its construction. The tradition was clearly linked to the building trades in the English-speaking world by the 19th century, and in 1900, a correspondent named Alice Milne noted in the journal Folklore that “when the first chimney is finished he himself [the builder] will have to give the men a pint of ale apiece, after which they will hoist a flag on the roof-tree. If they do not get the ale, they will likely hoist a black flag, and perhaps even refuse to work.”

A Richfest ceremony in Atlanta.

I’ll leave the final words to Mr. Ed Cray, who wrote the following in the journal Western Folklore in 1963:
“The ceremony has a solid basis in history. In ancient times it was traditional to appease the gods when a building was finished, sometimes with human sacrifices, also to exorcise any evil spirits which might have taken residence in the framework during construction. Bridges presented special problems and goaded the fears and superstitions of the ancients. John Warner of Bethlehem Steel found that Xerxes, the Persian military leader, blamed recalcitrant river gods for the collapse of a pontoon bridge over the Hellespont. To punish them the water was given 300 lashes and a pair of manacles thrown into the strait. In more recent times it became traditional to attach an evergreen tree or a sheaf of corn, flowers or a handkerchief to the final beam. At present a flag is usually hoisted to the top of the structure. Iron workers deny they're superstitious but they say it brings good luck.”
I suspect modern building inspectors would much prefer workers hoisting a fir tree to the top of a new building, rather than have to deal with the paperwork that a human sacrifice would create.

Happy Folklore Thursday, and good luck on all your new projects for 2018!

- Dale Jarvis


Cray, Ed. "Topping out" Buildings. Western Folklore, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Oct., 1963), p. 275.

Melnick, Scott L. Why a Christmas Tree? A look at the origins of “topping-out.” Modern Steel Construction: December 2000.

Milne, Alice M. 1900. "Customs in the London Building Trades." Folklore. (11): 457-458.

Penney, Nicole. “Memories of Working High Steel: Joe Lewis of Conception Harbour.” ICH Update No. 038: October 2012.

Rasenberger, Jim. High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

Robinson, John V. "Topping out" Traditions of the High-Steel Ironworkers. Western Folklore, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 243-262.

Topping Out. Wikipedia.

The “Topping-Out” Ceremony.

Topping-out ceremony for Thales Germany HQ in Ditzingen

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Memories of Lych Gates in Newfoundland - gateways for the dead

This undated photograph shows an unidentified woman standing in front of the lych gate, the entranceway to the grounds of the Alexander Chapel of All Souls, located on Coster Street in Bonavista.

The elaborately beamed lych gate is a feature typical of Anglican churchyards. Traditionally, it was the sheltered point at which the coffin was set down at a funeral to await the clergyman's arrival. In some instances, a portion of the burial service was performed while the coffin rested inside the gate. A common feature in English churchyards, the concept of the lych gate was transplanted to North America. "Lych" is a form of the Anglo-Saxon word "līc" meaning body or corpse.

Once common, the only surviving Newfoundland example I know of is in Bonavista. The original lych gate was constructed circa 1899 and was financed by the Church of England Women's Association of Bonavista (1).

One S. Rees of Bonavista, in a letter dated Dec. 7, 1893 to the St. John's Evening Telegram, noted,
Dear Sir, - on Monday the 4th inst., there was no small stir here among the members of the C.E. Sewing Class, and one would naturally ask the cause. But a poster would apprise of the fact that a “sale of work,” under the auspices of the above ladies, was about about to take place; its object, to provide funds to provide a lych gate for the new cemetery. At about 6.40 p.m. the doors were open to purchasers, and when I arrived a few minutes later - considering inclemency of weather - quite A Crowd Had Gathered.
According to the author, the amount raised, $76, "was far above expectation" (2).

The Anglican Cemetery on Forest Road in St. John's also had a lych gate, which was torn down at some point in the second half of the 20th century. It is shown on aerial photographs from 1961, but was removed afterwards. According to HNFL Executive Director George Chalker, it was removed possibly to allow motorized hearses access to the cemetery.

If you have memories, or photographs, of lych gates in Newfoundland, I'd love to hear from you. You can call me at 1-888-739-1892 ext 2, or email me at

- Dale Jarvis

(1) Simms, Gavin. "Gateway to yesterday: Anglican Chapel recreates long lost entranceway." The Packet, November 20, 2008.

(2)  Rees, S. "Pleasant Social Event At Bonavista. Sale of Work by the Church of England Sewing Class - Object: a Lych Gate for the New Cemetery." Evening Telegram (St. John’s, NL) 1893-12-16

UPDATE - 17 March 2014:

You can read or download the final version of this research at Lych Gates in Newfoundland

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Butter on your nose - a slippery birthday tradition

The other day, I got an email from Shirley, who writes:

"When I was growing up, it was a tradition in our home that on your birthday your mother would sneak up on you and put butter on your nose to bring you good luck on your birthday. I know none of my townie friends experienced this. So, I wonder if this was something only my family did? Or if it was a outport tradition? My family had connections to Placentia Bay, Bonavista Bay, Green Bay and Corner Brook. Have you heard of this?"

I have indeed heard of it, but it isn't a tradition I'm overly familiar with, and I'd love to know if other people celebrate someone's birthday in this way, and where they are from. A quick internet search reveals a little bit of information, much of it recycled word for word from various websites. The tradition goes by a few names, such as "grease face" and "buttered noses." Another variant is referred to as being "flakied" - where a flaky pastry (notably the Passion Flakie popularized by the Canadian firm of Vachon) is rubbed in the face of the person celebrating their birthday.

The tradition clearly goes beyond Newfoundland and Atlantic Canada.  One blogger writes, "When I was growing up in the Floyd/Patrick/Carroll counties area of Virginia, it was traditional to attempt to sneak up on the birthday person and smear butter on their nose. Even our teachers in elementary school would get in on the action, going to the cafeteria and getting the butter." Another American blogger writes that "As the story goes, the butter is meant to help you slide into your new year!"

UPDATE: 14 MAY 2020

Madeline Moore, of El Cerrito, California, writes:
I was born and brought up in Providence, R.I. We children buttered each other's noses on birthdays which meant being chased around all day by a sibling with a hunk of butter on her finger. Mother did nothing more than shake her head. I have lived in California for the last 63 years. Nobody out here has heard of it. A faculty member at UC Berkeley said the custom originated in Cornwall UK. I'm now 86 and it pleases me that I'm in good company.

UPDATE: 22 JULY 2020

David Baxter, who grew up in North Carolina, writes:

I grew up in North Carolina and our tradition was putting black grease on the birthday person’s nose by sneaking up from behind as a surprise. I know of several families in NC that did the same thing. I thought it was a southern tradition, didn’t know it has its roots in Canada. None of my grandparents or parents ever told me what it was supposed to mean. I assumed that it was for good luck. My kids hated it and would run away, my wife from Indiana didn’t understand what it was all about, so we discounted it once our kids got to be teenagers. It made me a little sad to see a tradition die away, even though it was a little strange. 

If you have thoughts on birthday butter, black grease, or flakies, email me at or leave a comment below.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Hobby Horse Revival in Newfoundland and Labrador

The poster above was one designed by Target Marketing for the 2011 Mummers Festival. It bears the caption "Terrifying and delighting children for over 400 years" and the image of a handsome mummer (yours truly) peeking out from inside a great grey horse's head.  This is a hobby horse - and not the child's riding toy hobby horse most North Americans are familiar with. The hobby horse of Newfoundland's mummering tradition is much more fearsome beastie, with big eyes, and a wooden jaw with nails for teeth, which snock together as it nips and bites at the people it meets along its route. It is an archetypal figure associated with chaos, unpredictability, fertility, and, as the poster suggests, even a little terror.

When we started planning the very first mummers festival in 2009, we went looking for hobby horses. Chris Brookes, who started the Mummers Troupe in 1972, had a couple, one of which, "Old Ball" is shown to the right. Local actor Andy Jones had one. One was found tucked away in the MUN Folklore and Language Archive. The Kelly family in Cape Broyle had another, made of styrofoam to replace an older, wooden head.

But other than those few models, very few existed outside of reminiscences.  Andrea O’Brien contributed memories of hobby horses from the Southern Shore, and a man from Bonavista Bay remembered a hobby horse made out of an old cardboard beer carton.

The hobby horse was a Newfoundland Christmas tradition which, not particularly widespread in the twentieth century, had seemed to have faded from both the cultural landscape and popular memory in the twenty-first.  It was a shame, for hobby horses have a long and complicated history

Hobby horses (along with their colourful cousins hobby cows, hobby goats, hobby sheep, and hobby bulls) have been here on the island of Newfoundland for a long time. In 1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert wrote in his "Voyages and Enterprises":  

Besides for solace of our people, and allurement of the Savages, we were provided of Musike in good variety: not omitting the least toyes, as Morris dancers, Hobby horsse, and Maylike conceits to delight the Savage people.

"Hobby horse" and "Horsy-hops" both get their own entries in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, and folklorist Dr. Joy Fraser has included references to  hobby horses in her stellar research on mummering and violence in nineteenth century Newfoundland. Fraser includes one account, where a complainant in a legal case describes how “I heard some person running and turned round I was struck on the head with something like a horses head and knocked down I rose on my knees to get hold of the man who struck me and he kicked me on the breast”.

A 1913 Christmas engraving by John Hayward includes, in the background, what can only be a hobby horse (detail below).

Folklore research in the 1960s and 1970s uncovered many stories and references to hobby horses and bulls, but by the time the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador instigated its first Folklife Festival in 2009, very few hobby horses existed, no one had made any for years, and most people had never heard of the tradition.

Mummers Festival coordinator Ryan Davis, working with long-time Lantern Festival organizer Kathleen Parewick, designed a cardboard template to make a hobby horse head, and the hobby horse workshops which were first offered in 2009 have since become a firm part of the annual festival.

The hobby horse workshops have been taught outside of the festival, as part of ICH workshops, community centre outreach programs, and workshops for high school teachers.

Ron Delaney of Bay Roberts has made his own hobby horse from wood, based on his own memories.  In December of 2011, Delaney wrote,

“As a child , growing up in the 70’s and early 80’s I was mortified of Jannies, I use to hear my relatives talk about good and bad Jannies , as a result , in my mind they were all bad, especially the hobby horse. The hobby horse usually was the last Jannie to enter the house; I could remember scooting in the room as fast as I could when I heard the SLAP of its mouth.”

One of the participants in a hobby horse building workshop I taught in Bay Roberts, Delaney brought along Meggie and Kaegan, who now represent a new generation of hobby horse owners. Another horse foaled that day made its way back to Ontario, to take place of honour as Bottom's Head in a Grade 8 student production of Midsummer's Night Dream.

One of the participants in a 2011 Arts Work Conference hobby horse making workshop I taught in St. John's was teacher Amanda Gibson, who teaches at Amos Comenius Memorial School in Hopedale. She made her hobby horse, then went off to Labrador armed with her new skills. Horses not being common along the northern Labrador coast, Gibson adapted the template, adding hobby polar bears to the list of hobby animals now made in the province.

"The kids had a fun time making them and loved choosing the colors for their 'bears'" she wrote me. "It took a few hour-period classes, but it was a great way to end the unit in Grade 8 NL history on 19th Century Lifestyles for students that are hands-on learners."

This year, 2011, there were hobby horses galore at the Mummers Parade. Everywhere you turned, a gaudily-decorated horse's head was poking up above the sea of mummers and janneys, including one devilishly fine, black and red steed, crepe paper fire billowing from its nostrils.

For me, it was a particularly moving sight, and proof that tradition is sometimes more resilient than we give it credit for. For whatever reason, hobby horse making has struck a chord with a new generation of janneys, and I look forward to new additions to the herd in 2012.

And next year, I think the parade needs at least one hobby goat...

Merry Christmas, mummers!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Remember, Remember: Bonfire Night Memories at The Rooms

Coffee and Culture at The Rooms
November 3, 2011 @ 2:30pm

Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, was a tradition looked forward to with great anticipation in many communities throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, particularly by young people. Faced with concerns about fire safety and vandalism, the tradition faded, though it is now seeing a bit of a revival. At this special Coffee and Culture, graduate students in Dr. Jillian Gould's Public Folklore course at Memorial University present oral histories with some of the people they've interviewed who have warm memories of Bonfire Night from years past.

Coffee and Culture programs are included with the cost of admission to The Rooms.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What is in your pancake? Explore the history and folklore behind Pancake Day

What is Pancake Day? Where does it come from? What do you put in a pancake for Shrove Tuesday?

Listen in to find out!

As part of his Archival Moments series, Larry Dohey, then with the Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John’s, wrote:

Mardi Gras literally means "Fat Tuesday" in French. The day is also known as Shrove Tuesday (from "to shrive," or hear confessions) or Pancake Tuesday. The custom of making pancakes comes from the need to use up fat, eggs and dairy before the fasting and abstinence of Lent begins.
On Shrove Tuesday, Catholics were encouraged to confess their sins so that they were forgiven before the season of Lent began. To shrive someone, in old-fashioned English (he shrives, he shrove, he has shriven or he shrives), is to hear his acknowledgement of his sins, to assure him of God's forgiveness, and to give him appropriate spiritual advice. The term survives today in ordinary usage in the expression "short shrift". To give someone short shrift is to pay very little attention to his excuses or problems. The longer expression is, "to give him short shrift and a long rope," which formerly meant to hang a criminal with a minimum of delay. 
Lent is a time of abstinence, of giving things up. So Shrove Tuesday is the last chance to indulge yourself, and to use up the foods that aren't allowed in Lent. Pancakes are eaten on this day because they contain fat, butter and eggs which were forbidden during Lent.
Pancakes were a simple way to use these foods, and one that could entertain the family. Objects with symbolic value are cooked in the pancakes, and those who eat them, especially children, take part discovering what their future will be as part of the meal.
The person who receives each item interprets the gift according to the tradition: a coin means the person finding it will be rich; the thimble finder will be a seamstress or tailor, a pencil stub means he/she will be a teacher; a holy medal means they will join a religious order; a nail that they will be (or marry) a carpenter, and so on.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What is Tibb's Eve? Drink up, Newfoundland and Labrador, it's December 23rd.

Merry Tibb's Eve all!

What is Tibb's Eve? And where does Tibb's Eve come from? We've got you covered!

Many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians don't need much of an excuse to have a party. One of the most inventive local reasons might be Tibb's (or Tib's, or Tipsy) Eve.

For those of you who don't know what Tibb's Eve is, in Newfoundland, it is the eve of Christmas Eve, and it has a somewhat complicated history that is both old and new. 

Originally, St. Tibb was a character in English plays of the 17th century. A "tibb" in those times was a woman of loose morals, so Saint Tibb was a comedic character, intended to represent an impossible contradiction. Since St. Tibb couldn't exist, St. Tibb's Eve was a day that would never come. Owe someone money? Promise to pay them back on Tibb's Eve, and no problem!

At some point, Tibb's Eve became associated with the Christmas season, as in "a day that occurred neither before nor after Christmas" or "a day between the old year and the new."

Image: Dictionary of Newfoundland English Word Form Slips - Tibb's Eve

Newfoundlanders, perhaps looking for a reason to enjoy a drink during the abstemious season of Advent, inserted this day-that-would-not-come into their personal calendars. Somewhere on the south coast of the island, sometime after WWII, the day got fixed to December 23rd. 

In the 1960s and '70s, the expression still largely meant a day that wouldn't come, but in the '80s and '90s, the day of celebratory Pre-Christmas lubrication became more popular. Circa 2009-2010, St. John's bars and arts organizations introduced the idea of Tibb's Eve events to townies. With the rise of social media, the concept took off, and ex-pat Newfoundlanders spread the cheer wherever they were hunkered down for an away Christmas. 

Thirsty for more? There are a few places online you can look for more details:

In the mood for a suitable libation for Tibb's Eve? Why not try Charles Dickens's Own Punch, from 1847:
Peel into a very common basin (which may be broken in case of accident, without damage to the owner's peace or pocket) the rinds of three lemons, cut very thin and with as little as possible of the white coating between the peel and the fruit, attached. Add a double handful of lump sugar (good measure [although Dickens had rather small hands]), a pint of good old rum, and a large wine-glass of good old brandy‹if it be not a large claret glass, say two. Set this on fire, by filling a warm silver spoon with the spirit, lighting the contents at a wax taper, and pouring them gently in. Let it burn three or four minutes at least, stirring it from time to time. Then extinguish it by covering the basin with a tray, which will immediately put out the flame. Then squeeze in the juice of the three lemons, and add a quart of boiling water. Stir the whole well, cover it up for five minutes, and stir again.
Enjoy the day! Have a memory of Tibb's Eve, or call it something different? Comment below!

- Dale Gilbert Jarvis

(last updated, Tibb's Eve 2020!)