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Christmas & Boxing Day Games

The Serpentine Swimming Club in London race for the Peter Pan Cup at 9am on Christmas morning. Sir James Barrie was a founder member of the club in 1864 and still was when he presented the cup in 1904. Though jokey and festive and popular as a spectacle on a cold Christmas morning (especially if the weather is dire) the race is quite serious. Entrance is open only to members of the club, who must have taken part in at least three of the regular races held throughout the year. It is a handicap race over 100yards; the least good swimmers go first, the better at one second intervals (according to their form from previous races) until the best who go off last. The piper is Mario McClarnon, here leading the swimmers out in 1987 – who then proceeded to win the Peter Pan Cup. He was a longstanding member of the club which now has a Memorial Cup (for a 440 yard race in September) named after him. When not swimming he was usually to be found busking near Oxford Circus.

Boxing Day sport includes the Bakers and Sweeps ‘football’ at Waltham Cross in NE London near the M25. This actually started in Cheshunt in 1908 (and so qualifies for ‘custom’ status) and moved the couple of miles south after the war. Although always for charity, and nowadays not much more than an exuberant exercise in in getting covered with as much soot, flour, gunk and mud as possible the event does have many of the hallmarks of classic street football.

On Boxing Day the Wren Boys of Dingle appear. Hunting the Wren was a St Stephen’s Day custom because the wren was thought to be a bringer of misfortune. Once caught the wren was fixed to pole and paraded around town. It is hard to credit that anyone ever felt threatened by such charming little birds. Nowadays several groups of more benevolent Wren Boys tour the town, dressed in straw ‘rigs’ and assorted costumes, collecting for charity (and then indulging in ‘craic’ for many, many hours) . The straw costumes are reminiscent of those worn by the Straw Boys in the Irish version of the mumming play, still intermittently found in the north, which makes one speculate that in Dingle two customs have got amalgamated at some time in the past...