Saturday, 28 April 2018

Modern lore: Boxing Day in Wigan, by Anna FC Smith

The main project I have been working on alongside my work for the Doc Rowe Archive has been an Arts Council funded residency with Wigan Libraries called Imago Wigan. Through this residency, I have been researching the unknown origins of the unique custom of dressing up on Boxing Day in my home town of Wigan. Though the custom is modern, it mirrors more ancient customs of masquing, guising and license around the Christmas period.

For as long as I have been going out, Wiganers have donned fancy dress costumes on Boxing Day and have gone out drinking in the pubs and clubs around the town. “What are you going as on Boxing Day?” is as common a Christmas question as “Where are you spending Christmas Day?” – and to some, a more important one. The custom expresses a mass creativity and joviality, alongside satirical and transgressive elements which can push the boundaries of decency and societal acceptability (often as acts of extreme rebellion/humour). People vary from planning an outfit all year, creating something closer to the time in direct response to recent national news or in-jokes with friends, or throw something totally random together at the last minute. There is a mix of the homemade and the bought or hired, and couples or friendship groups often dress in themes.

I have pinpointed a number of core roots for the tradition. The first being the Rugby Union Football Club whose chairman, Frank Morgan, organised fundraising fancy dress parties from 1978 to the early 80s. Though a ticketed event, party goers would drink in pubs along Wigan Lane either before or after the event, and would go on to ‘Pemps’ nightclub or others in Wigan after it had finished. Others have reported late 70s charity fundraising pub crawls on Boxing Day from areas such as Pemberton; after these collections were over, the participants would head into Wigan still in their fancy dress.

In the early to mid 80s, football match goers began to dress up at matches on Boxing Day – a custom, it has been suggested, that was copied from fans of other teams. After the match, Wigan fans would go drinking.

And finally, Wigan was the home to two or three ‘fun pubs’ in the early 80s, and though not specifically connected to Boxing Day, it has been suggested by Chris D’Bray that the experimentation and costumed levity of these establishments created an atmosphere that encouraged fancy dress.

As well as collecting stories and images of past Boxing Days, I invented a new custom, celebrating the drunken revelry and costume. Its central processional figure was a fancy dress mummer made of elements of many of the costumes I’d seen in photos – representing all the costumes worn on Boxing Day. It was taken through Wigan town centre by a team of fancy dress dancers, performing moves developed by choreographer, Ruth Welch. The dance and actions crossed club dancing, drunkenness, and other processional activities such a walking days.

The work and procession was called Delight in Masques and Revels Sometimes Altogether.