Red Nose Day

A display of red noses for sale at Sainsburys in Burpham, Guildford, Surrey.

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.

I’m not.

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.

A helpful customer-service pirate at Sainsburys on Red Nose Day. (One of the red noses for 2011, Captain Honk, is a pirate, you see.)

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).

Staff at my Starbucks on Red Nose Day in their (barely visible) red dealyboppers. No, Chris -- the chap in the middle -- isn't wearing a glowing headdress, it's my bad photography combined with an awkwardly positioned ceiling light.

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.

A shelf-stacking Teletubby helpfully posed for a photograph at Sainsburys in the canned food aisle. (Which is actually an American phrase; until the store was refurbished a while back the sign read Tinned Food).

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.

"The Nose That Grows" -- tomato plants packaged for Red Nose Day.

“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.

A Sainsbury's shelf stacker who has swapped her ordinary long plait (US: braid) for a bright fuzzy new hairstyle.

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).

Car noses for sale.

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.

Yet more red noses for sale, proceeds to Comic Relief.

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.



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12 responses to “Red Nose Day

  1. Malcolm

    English people may be slightly more aware of St Pat’s nowadays, but that’s thanks to the media. I’ll tell you how little it meant back in 1962, when Ingrid and I got married on the 17th of March: We were not aware that it was also St Patrick’s Day until we moved to Ireland in 1974. The 17th was just the first available date at the Hampstead Register Office. (And no, our firstborn did not arrive until two years later.)

    • Yeah, when I did my exam for British citizenship and had to learn the dates of the saints’ days for England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, I ran that question by friends here and almost none of them had a clue when St Patrick’s day falls. I’d noticed there wasn’t any Irish-themed stuff in the stores, but when people didn’t even have a clue what time of year St Patrick’s Day is, that’s when I realized we had a Serious Cultural Gulf between the two populations.

      Pretty much any American can tell you when St Patrick’s day is. Calendars for kids–the kind of thing you might have in a schoolroom, with a different brightly painted wooden dangly logo hanging above moveable dangly letters–always use a shamrock for March; I wonder what such calendars use here? Maybe they don’t have those kinds of calendars…

  2. Candida

    Corned beef? I learn something every time on this blog. And I grew up in Ireland. Corned beef did not figure largely. Nor did the wearing of lots of green clothing, though that probably had something to do with the pre-Celtic-Tiger state of Ireland’s economy in the seventies and eighties. I remember short lengths of bright green ribbon with gold paper cut-out shamrocks or harps stuck onto them, with a little safety pin at the top for your lapel. And suddenly I feel all nostalgic…

    • Yeah, thinking about our stuid little childish St Patrick’s Day jewelry got me feeling a little nostalgic, too. Tacky stuff. Unutterably tacky stuff. But it did save you from being pinched at school if you didn’t happen to have anything green to wear. (If a kid didn’t see the pin or beads or whatever and pinched you anyway, then you could pinch them back. Savage little lot, we were.)

  3. Vic

    I learned something new today. I am Dutch, live in the U.S., and celebrate St. Patrick’s day with, yes, beer, corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes. I was chastised for not wearing green on Thursday. Our comic relief, while raising money, doesn’t prompt people to wear red noses. Thanks for this post!

    • THanks for reading, but sorry to hear you were chastised. I thought that only happened among children, but I suppose people will always find something to complain about… At least, being Dutch, you can tell them why the other side of the balance from Irish green is Irish orange!

  4. Ernest W. Adams

    I was in California at the beginning of the month and couldn’t believe the amount of St. Patrick’s-themed kitsch being sold in drug stores, department stores, gas stations, and so on. I think there must have been more plastic made-in-China St. Patrick’s junk in one Target store (a slightly downmarket department store which, in this case, was frequented mostly by Hispanics with little or no Irish heritage) than in several Irish towns put together.

    One wonders what the old saint would have thought.

  5. Malcolm

    The one thing that’s hardly ever mentioned here in Ireland, except in an occasional can-you-believe-this way, is that St Patrick himself was an Englishman. But since economic Armageddon fell upon us, we do get the odd satirical letter in the papers suggesting we should hand the country back to the English, accompanied by a note of apology. You have to feel pretty aggrieved with your government before you get to that sort of “joke.”

  6. Steve Wells

    Here in Chicago, where the entire population is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, the authorities dye the Chicago River kelly green on that day (see photo at's_Day). If you saw the film “The Fugitive” you watched Harrison Ford escape his police pursuers by threading his way through the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day parade, which has been the largest annual parade in the City since the mid-19th century. More alcohol is consumed on St. Patrick’s Day than any other day; Catholics are given a respite from their Lenten sacrifices specifically on St. Patrick’s Day. Red noses (the plastic ones, that is) are not to be found, as far as I have ever seen.

    • Dying the river green…!? Doesn’t that pretty much kill everything in the river? Presumably not, or they wouldn’t do it; besides, I’m anticipating a “you think anything could live in that river?” response. But there have to be at least…some frogs or insects or…something.

      • Steve Wells

        No, actually, the dye is apparently quite safe. You’re right: no one with any sense would do anything to foul the river, at least nowadays. The dye is added to only one rather short section; it is gone by the next day. Although twenty years ago you probably could have walked across the surface of the Chicago River on the flotsam and jetsam, the city has done a remarkable job of cleaning up what once was an eyesore. Today people swim (sometimes) and fish (frequently) in the river, which teems with life and boat traffic. Green beer, of course, flows in abundance in Chicago on “Red Nose Day.”

  7. Tina

    It’s true there isn’t a big public fuss about it in a lot of areas, but actually, most of the Irish societies around the UK put on something – it just doesn’t get reported very much! And when it’s competing with something as big as Red Nose Day (which is now more like Red Nose Month, or at least Fortnight), it’s not surprising.

    Corned beef figured fairly large in my Irish childhood, but I suspect not the same sort Mary-Ellen’s referring to – more the canned stuff with the layer of yellow fat. I wonder when and why bacon-and-cabbage (the staple food of my young days, and note hyphenation: never the one without the other) turned into corned beef and cabbage?

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