Blessing of the Throats, LondonThough not strictly a folk custom, the annual Blessing of the Throats service at London’s St Etheldreda’s church in Ely Place is quirky enough to figure in any list of strange British customs.
St Etheldreda 's is the second oldest Catholic church in England, returned to Catholic use in the 19th century. It is here that on February 3, St Blaise’s day, a ceremony is held to ask for that saint’s help in treating those with throat problems. Blaise, a 4th century doctor in Armenia who became bishop of his home city Sebaste, saved the life of a small child with a fish bone stuck in his throat as the saint was being led off to be tortured for his faith.
There are various methods of invoking Blaise’s intercession: two candles can be held crossed over the sufferer’s head; or the wicks of the two candles can be dipped in holy oil and then touched to either side of the sufferer’s throat – obviously unlit candles are used! The priest performing the ceremony asks for Blaise’s help as the candles are manipulated.
St Etheldreda’s is chosen as the natural venue for the ceremony as she is the patron saint of throat complaints, so for believers the potential healing power is twofold. Those of a less spiritual persuasion may like to know that the church also provided throat charmers of a different sort – in Elizabethan times the crypt was used as a tavern.
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