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Catch a falling star
The phases of life are marked in religion by christening, confirmation, marriage and the last rites of death and burial. People have developed many superstitions to encourage good luck at these times.
In 1520 a couple from South Leigh, John Phipps and his wife, who desperately wanted to conceive a child, tried sympathetic magic - they were summoned to appear before the churchwardens and accused of idolatry because they kept a baby's cradle next to their bed and treated it as though it contained a child.
Many omens indicated an imminent pregnancy - being the first person visited by a mother and her new baby, particularly if the mother had not been churched (Yarnton residents referred to this as scattering mice').
In Balscote it was said that one pregnancy in a village would mean two more shortly - even today there are sometimes newspaper articles about pregnancies in some workplaces coming in clutches - or an apron falling off (perhaps in itself the sign of a thickening waist), as found at Adderbury and Drayton, near Abingdon, the latter in the 1970s.
At Heyford they said that if new shoes were put on a table, the woman who had done so would have a child within the year.
In Headington, two crows flying over the house indicated a birth in the family. Seeing a falling star was a sign of a birth in Witney, and, at Great Milton, a good nutting year foretold plenty of boy babies.
There was an ancient belief that at the time of birth evil spirits abounded so, in primitive societies, men sometimes pretended to go through the birth process to distract the attention of the spirits.
There was an ancient belief that at the time of birth evil spirits abounded so, in primitive societies, men sometimes pretended to go through the birth process to distract the attention of the spirits. This theory may be behind the idea of couvade, in which men suffer pains during pregnancy, which could also indicate close sympathy between the couple.
Some believed that if the man did not suffer the marriage was unhappy. An Oxfordshire woman said in1936 that a good husband always suffered from toothache - and a local man always knew when his wife became pregnant because he had violent toothache.
Some babies are born with a caul, the remains of the foetal sac, on their heads. This was considered extremely lucky - as it protected the baby within the womb, it was a talisman against drowning. Cauls were much sought after by sailors - it was effective to own one, even if it was acquired from someone else. In1954, a Banbury midwife tried to purchase one for £10 for a sailor friend, but the mother decided to keep it for her baby boy.
When mothers gave birth at home, as most would have done until recently, a divination to ascertain how many babies she would have was to throw the afterbirth on the fire and count how often it popped, according to a Witney nurse, talking in 1936.
Birthmarks were thought to be caused by something that had affected the mother during pregnancy. In the Vale of White Horse it was said that if a mother craved port wine, blackberries or strawberries, it was important to satisfy the craving quickly, or a mark might appear on the child. The baby should always be taken up before it went down, they said at Spelsbury, even if the nurse only stood on a chair with it. This was to give it success in later life.
Birth was a cause for celebration, so food was often provided such as the bread and cheese the Kidlington Overseers of the Poor gave poor families when the wife was brought to bed'. It is not clear whether the Rocking Cakes brought to a Gossiping at Wendlebury, to be given to the baby's father, were for a christening or to be served when the baby was born.
Christenings often took place soon after birth as the mortality rate was high, and the child was not considered a full human-being before baptism and some believed that unbaptised souls would not go to heaven.
It was customary for the husband to provide a groaning cake' and a large cheese, which was cut in the centre at the baby's birth and gradually hollowed out to form a ring shape large enough to pass the child through on the day of the christening to symbolise rebirth. Often a slice of groaning cake was kept in the house for years.
After the christening girls put groaning cake under their pillows and hoped to dream of their future husbands. Women invited to the christening brought cakes and the first one was presented to the minister.
At Over Norton, a ring-shaped christening chine was cut from around the pig's neck, cured and, after cooking, the slots cut into it were stuffed with sage.
At Shillingford, it was believed that babies should not be taken out of the house until they were a month old, and even then the baby's face should be veiled.
At one time it was thought dangerous to weigh babies. In 1935, a woman refused to have her baby weighed by the district nurse because an older child had gone funny' and she was convinced it was because he had been weighed too often.
At Lower Heyford no child under one year old was allowed to see its face in the mirror or have its nails cut (before that the mother should bite them off) or the baby would become a thief.
It was customary to give gifts to babies, even to a stranger, often a silver coin, perhaps as sympathetic magic to start the child on a road to riches; silver was also thought to have protective qualities. Even today in Scotland strangers will often put a silver coin in the pram of a baby they pass in the street.
The mother stayed indoors until purified by the ceremony of churching which recognised her role as a new mother and gave official sanction to a resumption of sexual intercourse.
In the 16th century, many churches had a special seat for new mothers at the back. Churching was commonly performed in the early 1950s, some women not being happy to go out shopping until after the service. It was also thought at Stratton Audley that if one crossed the road before churching, bad luck would follow.
It was unlucky to lose a milk tooth so it had to be burnt. The writer and broadcaster from Mollie Harris said that, at Ducklington, the offending tooth was thrown on the fire and a rhyme chanted: Burn, burn blue tooth Please God give me a new tooth.' The child was then given a penny by the fairies. If the tooth fell out at school it was taken home to be burnt on the kitchen fire.
It was said at Spelsbury that if a dog swallowed a child's first tooth, the new tooth would be a fang.
A wide gap between the front teeth indicated generosity, or a voyage around the world.