November 23rd is the Feast Day of St Clement, the patron saint of metalworkers and blacksmiths, which workers traditionally celebrated as a holiday, primarily in Britain.
“Old Clem’s Night” started literally with a bang and showers of sparks during the ritual “firing of the anvil.” The smith packed gunpowder into a small hole in an anvil, and then struck it soundly with a hammer, causing a small explosion.
The smith, or apprentice, dressed up in wig, mask and cloak to represent ‘Old Clem’ led a procession of smiths through the streets, stopping at taverns along the way. Boisterous singing was followed by demands for free beer or money for the ‘Clem feast’. Traditional toasts included ‘True hearts and sound bottoms, check shirts and leather aprons’; and ‘Here’s to old Vulcan, as bold as a lion, A large shop and no iron, A big hearth and no coal, And a large pair of bellowses full of holes.’
Such celebrations were not restricted to rural areas. Ironworkers’ apprentices at Woolwich Dockyard disguised one of their fellows to play the part of Old Clem. Wielding a hammer and tongs, the tools of his trade, he was carried aloft by his comrades through the town. In the streets and taverns apprentices shouted and sang the praises of Old Clem and repeatedly toasted his name: ‘To the memory of Old Clem, and prosperity to all his descendants!’ Again, the allegedly generous cash donations received paid for the apprentices’ holiday dinner.
In some rural areas smiths visited homes to beg for beer or wine. This custom expanded into the visiting custom of ‘clementing’ or ‘clemening’ whereby children called door-to door requesting apples, pears and other sweet treats in exchange for singing traditional songs associated with the night, such as ‘Clementsing, clementsing, apples and pears’, or ‘Clemany clemany clemany mine, a roasted apple and some good red wine!’
In the spirit of Old Clem, enjoy Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus”: