Shig-Shag Day

By Charles De Wolf Brownell, The Charter Oak

29 May

Commemorating the restoration of the English monarchy in May 1660, Shig-Shag Day—or Shick Shack Day in modern vernacular—was an odd historic celebration linked to British folklore. The name is a spoken corruption of “shitsack” which was a derogatory term used to describe a person who did not conform to the doctrines and practices of the Church of England. It was also known regionally as Oak Apple Day, Royal Oak Day, Oak and Nettle Day, or Yak Bob Day, and was celebrated on 29 May each year.

The tradition of Shig-Shag Day comes from the tale of Charles II escaping the parliamentary army during the English Civil War by hiding in an oak tree following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. It was customary to wear a sprig of oak leaves or an oak apple, which is a swollen gall which commonly appears on oak trees and has an apple-like appearance. Those who did not display oak would be targeted for punishment, including having birds’ eggs thrown at them or being whipped or thrashed with nettles.

Many an old man and woman, awakened out of their sleep as we went sounding our bullock-horns through the streets at that early hour, must have wished our breath as hushed as that of Cromwell or King Charles, as the horrible noise we made rang through their chambers.

Robert Chambers, The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities

Shig-Shag day would begin with children blowing horns and banging drums as they ran to catch the morning dew, which they washed their faces with to preserve their youth. They would then set about picking the best oak leaves and twigs, as well as gathering the oak apples, and would bring them to the town square to sell. Buildings were commonly adorned with an oak bough, and oak leaves would be garlanded to bring colour to town squares. As with All Fools’ Day, the tradition often held that oak must be worn until the parish church bells struck noon. In some towns, a representative would be dressed in oak leaves and flowers to become the Garland King and would march through the town. This can be linked to the Jack o’ the Green procession on May Day, as well as the British tradition of the Green Man, who was often seen appearing from oak leaves.

Though it used to be a public holiday, it was abolished by the Victorians in 1859. It is still noted in some towns and villages in Britain, where local customs are linked to the historic practice. A brass band procession marches through Fownhope in Herefordshire, whereas in Northampton garlands of oak leaves are hung from a statue of Charles II. St Neot in Cornwall replace the oak branch kept at the top of the tower each year, with the old branch cast down during a ceremony. The Garland King is still represented in a parade each year in Castleton in Derbyshire. Its legacy remains, however, as “sack of shit” is still used in contemporary Britain as a derogatory insult.

Charles De Wolf Brownell, The Charter Oak
Charles De Wolf Brownell, The Charter Oak, Public Domain
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