Love Halloween? Venture into England’s ancient winter rituals

Imagine a world without the tradition of Halloween, as most Americans know it. No trick or treating. No costumes. No bucket-loads of chocolate. That was life for me and many Brits in the 70s and 80s. The American style of Halloween hadn’t really crossed the Atlantic by that point, so my childhood was bereft of such delights.

To be fair, the Brits had other things to look forward to – Bonfire Night “Guy Fawkes Night” (on November 5th) being one of them. That’s when we celebrate the capture and execution of a chap who tried to blow up Parliament by burning an effigy of him on a giant bonfire. It’s happened pretty much every year since 1605 (ish). More on that next week.

But there are many other English traditions that take place during the autumn and winter months. Many are featured in a new book by author and photographer Sara Hannant. She very kindly gave me permission to reproduce some of her photographs. It’s available to buy on Amazon UK with much more detail on this subject.

The picture above is from the traditional Ottery St Mary Tar Barrel Festival (pic by Matt Cardy) – Where men carry flaming barrels of tar through a Devon village. The Tar Barrel tradition is hundreds of years old. The exact origins are unknown but probably started after the gunpowder plot of 1605. Various alternative reasons suggested for burning barrels have included fumigation of cottages and as a warning of the approach of the Spanish armada (see the official website for more on this festival)


Then there is Punkie Night, where the villagers of Hinton St George in Somerset carve into pumpkins and take night-time walks. Kids in the village carry “punkies” which are made from large turnips called mangel-wurzels. They also sing the Punkie song:

It’s Punkie Night tonight!

It’s Punkie Night tonight!

Adam and Eve would not believe

It’s Punkie Night tonight!

Give me a candle

Give me a light

If you haven’t got a candle

A penny’s all right

According to local historian Charles Bird, the tradition doesn’t stem from Halloween – more a bunch of drunk villagers from hundreds of years ago.

“The men folk of the village went to Chiselborough Fair about four miles away and they had too much to drink”.

“The women folk went to fetch them and, because it was so dark and windy, carved mangels and put a candle inside it”.


Heading up to Cheshire (my home county) they do something called “Soul Caking” – to ward off evil spirits. Quite a surprise I’ve never heard of this before but according to John Dover, from the Halton Souling group, it’s a very ancient act. It’s intention is to protect communities against outsiders and dark spirits.

“Our play, lasting about 10 minutes, features a battle between Knight George and the Turkish Champion, with comic appearances from Beelzebub, The Old Woman (who is always played by a man), Little Jerry Doubt, the Drunken Doctor and the ritual three-legged Cheshire Horse with his Driver,” he adds.

“Souling plays were fairly widespread until the 19th Century. The most famous ones performed nowadays are at Antrobus, Comberbach and Warburton.”

“Mummers” traditionally hand out “soul cakes” at the end of the play. This in turn is based on an older medieval practice of handing out cakes to beggars in remembrance of the dead.


Finally, there is the Allendale Baal Fire event which is held on 31 December. This tradition goes back to the Dark Ages. Men in fancy dress hoist large whisky barrels of ignited tar on to their heads and walk around the village, as you do. The origins of the event are lost to the ages, but its roots lie in the good old pagan northern European desire to set ablaze huge piles of wood in the midwinter. As you can tell, fire plays a huge part in many ancient festivals across the UK.

Watch a clip from the event below:

Blimey! is your daily dose of British news and features for anglophiles everywhere! This article was carefully written by Tim Holt, a British blogger, photographer and actor based in the USA. Forever torn between two magnificent slices of sod.

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