Whilst the Pace Egg Play in Calderdale is nowadays confined to the upper stretches of the valley, especially Midgley, Hebden Bridge and Heptonstall, the tradition was recorded in Brighouse, Hipperholme, Elland and Greetland during the 19th Century. The Play, a form of folk drama performed on the streets of such towns by a troupe of local actors annually on Good Friday, is a distinctive version of the Mummers Plays which have been performed across England for centuries during religious festivals, chiefly at Christmas or All Souls Day in many areas. The Pace Egg variant is found primarily in West Yorkshire and Lancashire and is characteristic in occurring at Easter, typically on Good Friday. Indeed, the name “Pace” is a corruption of the Latin word “Paschal” which is a liturgical term for Easter.
The basic structure of the Pace Egg narrative is consistent with mummers plays across the country. The hero, usually portrayed as Saint George, confronts a number of antagonists, represented in the Calder Valley by the Black Prince of Paradine, Hector and the Bold Slasher. George boasts of his prowess in combat but is nonetheless slain or mortally wounded in a duel with the Bold Slasher and subsequently resurrected by the medicine of the Doctor. There are also a number of incidental characters in the drama, including a Fool figure known as in the Calder Valley as Toss Pot, who rejoices when George rises from the dead and generally capers throughout the play. Following the performance, the participants circulate collecting donations from the onlookers.
A number of factors distinguish the Calder Valley version besides the date of its performance. The first is the elaborate costumes and headgear worn. The players are typically attired in red tunics and most uniquely, teetering hats garlanded with flowers, the design and construction of which is a matter of some pride. The second is the performance of the Pace Egg Song sung by the cast at the end of the play, the melody and lyrics of which are unknown elsewhere. Meanwhile, it is recorded that in the 19th Century, the Brighouse and Hipperholme presentation of the play was accompanied by dancing to an air known as the Kirkby Malzeard Sword Dance tune, a tradition which seems to be unique to those settlements in the lower valley and not documented even elsewhere in Calderdale.
The precise origin of Pace Egging is controversial. Throughout most of the 20th Century, folklorists under the influence of Victorian anthropologist Sir James Frazer believed the play to have pre-Christian origins. Prior to the circulation of a standardised text in chapbooks during the 1830s, the script of the play had been passed down orally and it was often assumed that such oral transmission could extend far back into the midsts of time in isolated communities. Moreover, the apparent theme of death and rebirth, echoing the cycling of the seasons, was – according to folklorists in the Frazerian tradition – a form of ritualised sympathetic magic, designed to ensure the continued coming of spring. This interpretation is still believed by many today, often including the players themselves, appearing in their promotional material.
However, more recently scholars such as Eddie Cass in his book The Pace Egg Plays of the Calder Valley have argued that such a reading is fanciful. Although the narrative of the play is thought to be based on a story in Richard Johnson’s 1596 work History of the Seven Champions of Christendom, no reference to the play has been found prior to the early 1700s. Whilst such references suggest it was already well-established by that time and it was not common for earlier commentators to discuss what they perceived as vulgar folk traditions, many social historians now doubt that it existed much before the 18th Century. Rather than a ritual drama, the play is now believed to be a “legitimised wealth transaction,” essentially a socially acceptable form of begging in a form enjoyed by both rich and poor and confined to appropriate times.
Such sober, deflationary accounts of calendar customs are very much in academic fashion at the moment and as academic fashion changes as often as the wind, the truth may be altogether more obscure. Even assuming the play doesn’t significantly pre-date the 18th Century, a continuity of tradition over three hundred years through such upheavals as the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars is not to be sniffed at. Whilst Pace Egging did substantially die out following the Great War, it was successfully revived in Calderdale during the mid-Twentieth Century and endures today. The play was still performed in Brighouse by the Brighouse Children’s Theatre from 1949 but alas faltered during the 1990s. However, in the upper valley it is still going strong in the hands of the pupils of Calder Valley High and should continue for years to come.