Gang Day

By Jules Breton, The Weeders

25 April

The 25 April marks the first Rogation Day, which were key days of prayer and fasting, with the first being known as Gang Day. Later in the year, the three days leading up to Ascension Thursday were referred to as Gang Week, with each day a Rogation Day which followed the patterns and traditions set out on Gang Day. It was a day of celebration and excess, known for drunkenness and a boisterous parade led by a dragon and a lion, and was widely celebrated until the lavishness of the traditional Catholic Church was replaced with the more puritanical practices of the Church of England.

The festival began as Robigalia, a Roman procession where a dog was sacrificed to the god of agricultural disease in an attempt to assure good growth of crops, but like many Roman and other pagan practices it was appropriated into Christianity. The concept of the central procession remained, but the sacrifice was removed. In Old English, ‘gangan’ meant ‘to go’ or ‘to walk’ and so the day became commonly referred to as Gang Day. It was a part of British culture for over a thousand years, and though it is rarely celebrated in modern times, Gang Day played a significant part in the national calendar. It was commonly believed that miracles would take place on Gang Day, as long as agricultural boundaries were not violated. In cities, begging was legal on Gang Day, and so beggars—whether genuine or not—would line the streets to pocket as much charity as they could acquire.

Now is the time, when all the lights wax dim;
And thou, Anthea, must withdraw from him
Who was thy servant. Dearest, bury me
Under that Holy-oak or Gospel-tree,
Where, though thou see’st not, thou may’st think upon
Me, when thou yearly go’st procession;
Or, for mine honour, lay me in that tomb
In which thy sacred relics shall have room.
For my embalming, sweetest, there will be
No spices wanting when I’m laid by thee.

Robert Herrick, To Anthea

The traditions of Gang Day revolved around the central procession, where the clergy and congregation would carry banners and burning torches. At the head of the procession a great dragon would be carried to represent Pontius Pilate, followed by a lion which represented Christ. In some parts of the country the dragon was later moved to the rear of the procession, but was still integral to the parade and folklore. Relics would be carried and incense burned, and chants would be sung as the parishioners walked to their local fields. There, the crops would be blessed by the priest who would strike the ground or key landmarks and structures nearby with branches, in a tradition known as Beating the Bounds. This marked the edge of the parish territory. As land boundaries were often unmarked and unrecorded, this was used as a form of collective memory and oral history, signifying to the local residents where their parish—and therefore their divine protection and taxable land—ended.

As British society became more puritanical following Henry VIII, Gang Day was gently quashed by the church. The drinking and merriment associated with the procession was not in line with the ideals of the church, and so clergy invited only the pious instead of the entire parish. Over time, Rogation processions ceased in many parts of Britain, though in a few places it is still preserved through local folklore.

Jules Breton, The Weeders
Jules Breton, The Weeders, Public Domain
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