Winter Solstice: a dramatic celebration

Every December on the blog I feature Xmas scenes and Xmas books – I never seem to run out, but am still open to ideas and suggestions.

If you use Pinterest you can see some of the beautiful seasonal pictures on this page, and you can find (endless!) more Xmas books via the labels at the bottom of the page.

Today, a long description of some pagan rites…

Off With His head by Ngaio Marsh

(aka Death of a Fool in the US)

published 1957

solstice 21st December Ngaio 1

Dr Otterly’s fiddle gave out a tune as old as the English calendar. Deceptively simple, it bounced and twiddled, insistent in its reiterated demand that whoever heard it should feel in some measure the impulse to jump. Here, five men jumped: cleverly, with concentration and variety….The men’s faces were blank with concentration: Dan’s, Andy’s, Nat’s, Chris’s and Ernie’s. 

On the perimeter of the figure and moving round it danced the Old Guiser, William Andersen. On his head was a rabbit-skin cap. He carried the classic stick-and-bladder. He didn’t dance with the vigour of his sons but with dedication. He made curious, untheatrical gestures that seemed to have some kind of significance. He also chided his sons and sometimes called them to a halt in order to do so. Independent of the Guiser but also moving as an eccentric satellite to the dance was ‘Crack’, the Hobby Horse… ‘Crack’ had been hammered out at Copse Forge, how many centuries ago none of the dancers could tell. His iron head, more bird-like than equine, was daubed with paint after the fashion of a witch-doctor’s mask. It appeared through a great, flat, drumlike body: a circular frame that was covered to the ground with canvas and had a tiny horsehair tail stuck through it. ‘Crack’ snapped his iron jaws and executed a solo dance of some intricacy.

solstice 21st December Ngaio 3

[later] The fiddler’s tune changed. Now came ‘Crack’, the Hobby Horse and the Betty. Side by side they pranced. The Betty was a man-woman, black-faced, masculine to the waist and below the waist fantastically feminine. Its great hooped skirt hung from the armpits and spread like a bell-tent to the ground. On the head was a hat, half topper, half floral toque. There was a man’s glove on the right hand and a woman’s on the left, a boot on the left foot, a slipper on the right.

solstice 21st December Ngaio 4

commentary: Weirdly this book centres on a strange folk celebration linked to the winter solstice. But it always takes place ‘the Wednesday after the solstice’, with never the faintest recognition or discussion of the fact that this will frequently take us (at best) into Christmas-tide – or this year to Boxing Day. But I am sticking with the solstice date, as the link is important.

It’s full of the tropes that make Marsh annoying – the long boring interviews (what Brad Friedman wonderfully calls ‘wallowing in the Marshes’); the detailed geography description without which none of it makes sense, but is impossible to follow; the dreary class-consciousness and snobbery (this time with a lot of ho ho ho about inverted snobbery); and her bizarre and unaccountable hatred of and obsession with older women – ‘those stoopid women who turn odd and all that in their fifties.’

But despite all that….

I haven’t read this one in 30 years, and my hopes weren’t high from what I remembered of it, but actually I enjoyed it very much. It’s set in a remote English village ten years after the War, and there is a lot of straight-faced Cold Comfort Farm business -
Yon godless old devil’s altogether sunkit in heathen clamjamphries.
- I kept wondering exactly how she intended it, but whatever the purpose, it was very entertaining.

The description of a centuries-old folk dance was actually riveting (above is a much-shortened version), and beautifully imagined. A horrible murder takes place (there’s nothing cozy about this one) – and in the final section the ritual is reconstructed to catch the murderer, and the atmosphere and tension are terrific.

A keen folklorist, Mrs Bunz is the trigger for the action – she is desperate to see this ancient rite. She is a figure of rather ill-natured fun throughout

[She] got out. Her head was solstice 21st December Ngaio 2encased in a scarf, her body in a mauve handicraft cape and her hands in flowery woollen gloves… She was like an illustration to a tale by the brothers Grimm… a solitary figure thickly encased in a multiplicity of hand-woven garments. 
The whole village is full of eccentrics (it seems unfair, but typical of Marsh, to pick on Mrs Bunz…) and that certainly makes for a wide range of possible culprits and motives.

All in all a most enjoyable and suitably seasonal read.

Top B/W photo the Overton mummers in 1910, from the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

Padstow hobby Horse from same source.

The caped lady is Mrs Herbert Spencer Jennings, from the Smithsonian.

The brilliant colour pic is of a member of the Pig Dyke Molly, at the Sidmouth Festival in 2012. It’s used here with the very kind permission of the photographer Richard Powell, who lives in Sidmouth. You can see more of his work here: and lots more pics of the Pig Dyke Molly, in their wild black and white costumes, on Google and Flickr. Used before on the blog by the guest blogger, Colm Redmond.


  1. I love Brad's description, Moira! That says it all! Still, this one does have that interesting Solstice bit. And sometimes, Marsh's wit really does work. And her eccentric characters are sometimes really well-drawn. All in all, I think this one was a great choice for today.

    1. Thanks Margot, I was really pleased to match it up to the date. It was so much better than I was expecting/remembering, it's so nice when that happens.

  2. I thought I had copies of all the Ngaio March books but there are at least seven I am missing and this is one of them. I might read it someday for the connection to Winter Solstice and post- World War II life but not rushing to get to it. I did read and post about The Shortest Day by Jane Langton a few days ago.

    1. Did you see it has a different title in the US, Death of a Fool? I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and how it sticks in the mind. Will go and read your post now.

  3. I can't read any book in which people say "clamjamphries" and "Howsomedever"! In among such flaws, though, is a genuine bit of folk horror! Shades of Dr Who and the Daemons, which combines evil, Morris dancing and folkweave capes far more successfully.

  4. And if you like hand-woven tweed and the supernatural, try Worzel Gummidge and the Treasure Ship, which also features a gifte shoppe.

    1. I was pretty sure I remembered you saying you found it unreadable now! That's one reason that I was surprised by how very enjoyable (I'm not sure that's the word) I found it. I am boggled by the idea of moving on to Worzel Gummidge! There's a Gladys Mitchell featuring Morris dancing, and in general she likes folk customs - I can't remember if she's someone you like or not?


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