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It’s traditional – Christmas festivities old and new

Jane Seymour
By Jane Seymour

‘Tis the season to make merry – but what unusual and memorable festive celebrations are going on across England?

What comes to mind when you think of the countryside at Christmas? Frosty mornings, long Boxing Day walks, village carols? Of course – but what about pilchard pie or giant kettles?

Britain has a wealth of festive traditions, some of which are more than a little out of the ordinary. Read on to discover the familiar and more unusual sides of a rural Christmas.

The Sheffield carols

In North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, many village pubs continue the centuries-old tradition of community carol singing Christmas time. These carols predate modern Christmas songs and are often sung with alternative words and verses. The carols are different from town to town, and the singing is often lead by local folk musicians.

The mass singing events take place throughout November and December, and are often standing room only due to their popularity!


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.

Tar Bar’l

The small town of Allendale, Northumberland, is illuminated every New Year’s Eve by the spectacular Tar Bar’l (Barrel) fire festival. The origins of the festival are unclear, but key to the tradition are the guisers – local men who parade through the streets of Allendale in colourful fancy dress, carrying barrels of flaming tar on their heads.

After processing through the streets the guisers return to the Bar’l fire in the town centre to throw their barrels on a waiting bonfire to welcome the New Year in style.

Festive feasts

While turkey or goose might be considered traditional festive fare, the Cornish town of Mousehole does things a little differently. They celebrate Tom Bawcock’s Eve on 23 December with stargazey pie – a pastry-covered pie of fish and eggs, filled with whole sardines or pilchards, their heads projecting through the crust.

Theories abound about its origin, from the legend of one Tom Bawcock, who lifted a famine by fishing in a storm, to the practical – that leaving heads on makes for more succulent fish.

And while Buck’s Fizz may be the order of the day in modern centrally-heated households, hot alcoholic drinks have been the choice for times past. The jough-y nollick (literally the ‘drink of Christmas’) was a special yuletide tipple on the Isle of Man. The drink would be brewed in a giant kettle that would be taken around the entire neighbourhood.

Other traditional Christmas drinks include egg-hot from Devon, a mixture of egg yolks, cider and spices; and Yorkshire lambs’ wool, a heady mix of ale. apples, sugar and cream, which was one of the traditional wassailing drinks.

The great Boxing Day walk

OK, so this isn’t exactly an unusual tradition, but a countryside Boxing Day walk is the mainstay of the festive period for many families. Stomping off the Christmas gluttony by taking in your local countryside is the perfect way to spend Boxing Day.

This year, why not try and take a more active interest in the nature around you? Research suggests that we gain more of a benefit from being in nature when we build an active connection with our surroundings.

Listen to the sounds of the birds, look closely at the way the water flows under a bridge, feel the texture of a fallen leaf – you might be surprised at how it makes you feel.

What’s yours?

Does your village or town have any unusual Christmas traditions? Let us know on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

A winter walk is traditional for many families


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