From wassailing to sword-dancing: discover England's traditional winter festivals

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By Elizabeth Oliver

We hunt down the weird and wonderful winter festivals still going strong in communities across England

Each year around 5 November, the Devon town of Ottery St Mary undergoes a dramatic transformation. Anticipation charges the air; thousands of people throng the streets, and selected locals – including children as young as seven – tear through the town, carrying aloft barrels that have been filled with tar and set alight. ‘You feel such a buzz,’ says veteran barrel carrier turned event organiser Robin Wickham. ‘The streets are full of people, but you see the crowd just open up in front of you, almost in slow motion.’

The astonishing spectacle is thought to commemorate the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, although its exact origins are disputed. Some believe it to be an even older tradition, or argue that the smoking barrels were used for fumigating cottages or pubs. Many generations of the same local families have become barrel rollers – a task that requires equal parts passion and nerve – as only those who have been born or have lived in the town can take part.

 

Lifeblood of the community

Despite health and safety regulations (and the cost of insurance), the flaming tar barrel tradition has continued for centuries. And, as Robin explains, there are many measures in place to maintain public safety: ‘It may look extreme from the outside, but it is very well controlled,’ he says. ‘There’s a tight grip on what people can and can’t do, and I collaborate with the police and local authorities to make sure safety is paramount.’ The tradition is an integral part of life in Ottery St Mary, and Robin is keen to see it continue.

‘It’s a real town event; lots of local organisations get involved, from schools to the Scouts and the football club,’ he says. ‘There are so many towns and villages that have lost the hubs of their communities. This event is the lifeblood of Ottery St Mary. It puts us on the map.’

 

Light from darkness

Ottery St Mary’s flaming tar barrels are just one of the many seasonal celebrations that enrich England’s cultural landscape. Now ingrained in popular culture, Halloween is believed to have developed out of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (a time when the realms of the living and the dead were believed to be in close proximity), as well as the Christian festival of All Saints’ Day. English traditions include Punkie Night in Somerset’s Hinton St George, a procession of mangel-wurzel lanterns around the village on the last Thursday in October; and ‘souling’ in Cheshire, which sees folk plays performed in communities around All Soul’s Eve on 1 November. The practice is connected to the medieval tradition of distributing ‘soul cakes’ at this time to those praying for the dead.

Other festivities are connected with the arrival of the new year and the return of light from darkness. The pagan celebration of Yule honoured the winter solstice and, in many countries, involved a log being lit to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck for the year ahead. More recently, the yule log and other midwinter traditions, such as mistletoe, have been incorporated into Christmas celebrations, while many regions continue to put their own unique spin on the festivities. Penzance holds an annual midwinter festival, called Montol, to revive Cornish customs such as ‘chalking the mock’ – where the ‘mock’ is a Cornish yule log that is marked with a stick figure before being burned. The festival upholds the old tradition of ‘guising’ or ‘guise-dancing’ – dances, processions and performances by masked and costumed players. Many other regions preserve similar traditions of mummers’ plays, performed over Christmas.

 

The season to be jolly

While these festivals have their roots in the past, they continue to shape the identity of many communities today, as well as benefiting the local economy. Little wonder, then, that communities such as Penzance are reviving these historic traditions for future generations to enjoy.

Take Greatham in County Durham: each Boxing Day, men in brightly decorated red uniforms, holding swords, descend on the village – not to fight, but to dance. The Redcar Sword Dancers, as they are known, perform a traditional longsword dance of graceful intertwining movements with each participant holding his neighbour’s sword.

The Greatham Dance has taken place every year for the past 50 years, reviving a much older tradition. Brian Pearce, the group’s leader, is proud to be keeping the custom alive: ‘It’s part of the community; people come to Greatham expecting to see the sword dance,’ he says. ‘There are people who have been every year since they were born.’

Life-and-death drama

In addition to the initial sword dance, the group also performs its mummers’ play. In this traditional folk drama, one of the characters is ‘executed’ before being brought back to life.

Ancient as the story is, the group is happy to throw in the occasional update: ‘We like to add in some topical references, whether that’s about Brexit or anything else in the news,’ smiles Brian.

The performance ends with a final rendition of the dance, followed by a trip to the pub. While sword dancing may appear complex, Brian explains that it’s easy to pick up the basics: ‘We can even teach people with two left feet to do it.’

He is eager to raise awareness of the pastime: ‘Lots of people don’t realise that England has such a wide breadth of sword-dancing traditions. We want to continue to do this for as long as we can.’

 

Folk meets fruit

Another winter ritual enjoying a resurgence in recent years is orchard wassailing. Traditionally celebrated around Twelfth Night in January, wassailing has long been practised in England’s cider-producing areas. It typically involves apple trees being blessed and sung to by revellers, in order to encourage a fruitful harvest.

Noise and fun are the order of the day at the annual wassail at Frieze Hill Community Orchard in the Somerset town of Taunton: ‘We have a fantastic time,’ says Margaret Gibson, the orchard’s chairperson. ‘It’s a real community endeavour.’

Wassailing at Barley Wood Walled Garden Orchard
Wassailing at Barley Wood Walled Garden Orchard

 

In the Frieze Hill celebrations, a wassail prince or princess leads revellers to the oldest tree in the orchard, ‘the wassail tree’, to place cider-soaked toast in its branches. In one of the best-loved parts of the ceremony, revellers shout, sing, and bang objects in order to wake up the apple trees and ward off evil spirits. ‘People come jingling, jangling and rattling, banging saucepan lids, wooden spoons, horns or bells, and a great roar goes up from the crowd,’ Margaret explains. ‘It’s great fun – kids can make as much noise as they like!’

Presided over by a Lord of Misrule, the wassail also includes a pagan chant, a bonfire and a mummers’ play. It’s one of many ways that Frieze Hill has been bringing the community together. Founded in 2003, the orchard now has more than 120 trees. It recently received protection as a valued local green space from national charity Fields in Trust. ‘We’ve completed what we set out to achieve,’ Margaret says. ‘We have created a community orchard that’s used and valued by residents, and is now protected in perpetuity.’

 

Driving the bear

Orchard wassailing is not the only folk celebration enjoying a new lease of life in the modern age. Each January, the Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival sees a straw-clad performer – the ‘bear’ – parade through the streets of the Cambridgeshire market town. The custom’s origins are unknown, but it would take place the day after Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night. The start of the agricultural year, this was a popular time for rural ceremonies such as the blessing of ploughs.

The straw bear tradition fell into decline towards the end of the 19th century, but was revived in 1980 thanks to the efforts of founder Brian Kell and the Whittlesea Society. Brian learned about the straw bear custom from the 1976 record ‘Rattlebone & Ploughjack’ by folk-rock artist Ashley Hutchings.

Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival
The straw bear at Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival

‘As part of the old tradition, a local group would dress a person in straw and trundle from place to place, dancing in exchange for food, drink or money,’ Brian says. ‘Our revival is a new carnival-style event, based on the original, and on traditional British dance forms.’

Created afresh each year, the bear’s straw-and-metal costume weighs up to five stone. As a result, two people share the honour of wearing the costume, or ‘driving the bear’, to allow one to rest. Despite being unable to see through the straw – the wearer has to be led by a keeper – driving the bear is an exhilarating experience, says Brian: ‘The adrenaline takes over and the music grabs you.’

 

Involving future generations

Today’s straw bear festival also includes displays from traditional dance teams, music sessions and a community barn dance. ‘It brings people who would not normally be interested in folk dance,’ notes Brian.

In order to preserve the tradition for future generations, he works closely with local primary schools, each of which enters a team of dancers into the event. To mark the end of the festival, the remains of the bear are burnt on a bonfire. In recognition of his services to music and the community in Whittlesey (as it is now spelled), Brian Kell was awarded the British Empire Medal in 2013. After 37 years, he still gets a thrill out of seeing the townspeople come together for the festival: ‘It’s a great gathering in the marketplace,’ he says. ‘The majority of the people in Whittlesey now see the straw bear as their own.’

 

Man carrying flaming barrel
A man carries a burning barrel of tar through Ottery St Mary in Devon during the annual celebrations