Dancing with Oxen

The players in the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, circa 1900, reproduced via Wikimedia Commons. While the Durham oxen dance is no longer performed, the Abbots Bromley horn dance continues to this day.

The players in the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, circa 1900, reproduced via Wikimedia Commons. While the Durham oxen dance is no longer performed, the Abbots Bromley horn dance continues to this day.

Christmas is perhaps the best known moment in the liturgical calendar around which festivities and rituals continue to be held. But there is one Christmas tradition that is not widely celebrated any more in the North East: animal dances.

In the North East as in other parts of England, animal impersonations celebrated Plough Monday, the first day of work after the Twelve Days of Christmas. In Durham the Priory Almoner’s Accounts indicate that local young men would impersonate the plough oxen and collect money for drink.

Some animal-related rituals were frowned upon. On 4th September each year, the day of the Feast of the Translation of St Cuthbert, Lord Neville of Raby used to claim the right to enter Durham Cathedral, with his foresters blowing their hunting horns, and to make an offering of a freshly killed stag on the high altar. This was something which had distinctly pagan echoes, and was subsequently banned.

There are lots of links between what we now think of as religious traditions, and folk traditions. Others which similarly connect the two strands together include Maids Processions and the North East’s own versions of Robin Hood.

You can find out more in this podcast, recorded during our exhibition in Durham Cathedral in May 2016.