There was a big celebration here last week, and I’m betting that readers from the US had big celebrations where they are, too, and they probably think I’m talking about the same kind of celebration.
One of the strange things for an American moving to Great Britain (US readers: for today, just think of Great Britain as the non-Irish parts of the UK) is that nobody pays any attention to St Patrick’s Day. In the US, Irish or not, most people celebrate. They eat corned beef, drink beer dyed green, have parades and parties. Kids who don’t wear green on March 17 will be pinched in the school hallways all day long by kids who do wear green. My mother, sister and I had special green costume jewelry just for St Patrick’s day, with shamrocks and those silly hats you see on St Patrick’s day greeting cards—which, by the way, nobody here sends.
No, we celebrated Red Nose Day.
Comic Relief—which spread to the US but which started with English comedians—has raised over £650 million pounds (that’s over a billion dollars) for charity since it began as a 1985 effort to help people in drought-stricken areas of Africa. Money raised by Comic Relief in the UK funds charity work all over the UK and Africa, using cash raised by people willing to, as their slogan says, do something funny for money, and most of it happens on Red Nose Day.
All over the UK Friday there were fundraising events, some of them pretty bizarre to an American eye. I’m used to paying to sponsor people for charity stunts; I’ve paid out for any number of races and have sponsored—from my comfy chair here—a walk on the Great Wall of China and a climb up Machu Picchu. But why there is a tradition here of paying sponsorship money to see somebody sit in a bathtub full of baked beans is beyond me (and seems like a waste of food).
In the run-up to Friday people made and sold everything from cakes to origami to raise money, but to say that is only to scratch the surface. Schoolkids sponsored make-teachers-wear-a-school-uniform day, or a make-teachers-dress-up-as-superheroes day. A golf club required a 50 pence donation for each bunker shot on Red Nose Day, and a livery stable charged people to take a Red Nose Day ride in funny costumes (that’s fancy dress here; Americans wear costumes, Brits wear fancy dress), in which at least one horse sported red stick-on dots and devil horns. Why devil horns? Who cares? It looked funny, people had a good time, and Comic Relief got a donation.
I’d heard of sponsored head shavings, but had never encountered sponsored chest-waxing until this year. Several men around the country publicly had the hair ripped off their chests, at least one earning £700 (over $1000) for Comic Relief. He had it done at his office; given how painful waxing is, you have to wonder whether his colleagues really like him. Lots of different kids ran sponsored silences; I think I know some parents who would happily pay good money for quiet kids and not just on Red Nose Days. Presumably the more annoying the child, the more contributions the kid raked in. Other people ran car washes, staged comedy performances, or ran competitions to guess how many red noses would fit into a Kia.
“But how can you fill a car with noses?” I imagine you asking. These are not nose-shaped red prosthetics, but big round red clown noses, which you can buy from Comic Relief directly over the internet or from the supermarket chain Sainsburys, a major corporate sponsor, and other outlets. In recent years some of the noses have had faces on them, and have been allocated personalities (of a sort); this year we had a choice of three with the (to me uninspiring) names Honkus, Chucklechomp, and Captain Honk (honk being a term for a nose here). I prefer the noses from last time, named This One, That One, and The Other One. That was in 2009, because we only go in for this madness every other year.
My favorite is the car nose, a plastic hemisphere about 9 inches across that you fasten onto the radiator grill. Sitting in traffic is suddenly less irritating when you see, among the cars passing in the other direction (which is always, annoyingly, flowing fast while you’re stuck), a car wearing a clown nose.
There’s a 70-mph limit on how fast you can drive with a red nose on your car, which may be why British Airways, also a long-term corporate sponsor, doesn’t put noses on its airplanes. This year, one of their jets took off with three stand-up comics aboard who performed at 35,000 feet to raise money for Comic Relief as well as to get into the Guinness Book of Records for the highest stand-up gig. Other comics saved their efforts for the big television show on Red Nose Day itself (highlights available from the web site–just click on one of the clips under “Catch Up”–though Americans may not get all the references to current telly programmes or celebrities popular over here).
Some people in England do celebrate St Patrick’s Day, but they’re mainly in cities with larger Irish populations. (There are some great pictures from London’s St Patrick’s Day parade here, but I didn’t hear a soul mention any of it in my corner of Surrey, and had to go Googling today for information, to be sure there was a-wearing of the green on Thursday somewhere in England.
But while a few people here (and millions in the US) were gearing up to be as Irish as possible for March 17, we were getting ready to wear red on March 18—and to wax chests, wash cars, and even marinate ourselves in beans and tomato sauce in an effort to do something funny for money, have a good laugh and help a lot of people.