Posted in Activity, Bringing Alive The Past, Film, History, Rural Heritage

Brimstone & Fireworks – Britain’s Winter Festivals & Customs


  • Short film I made showcasing the 2012 Festival of Samhain at Butser Ancient Farm, Waterlooville, Hampshire.

It is not a secret that I am happiest in Wintertime, if it snows, even better. My birthday falls at this time of year and it is said one often prefers the season you were born in. There are also a number of festivals and customs associated with Winter in Britain, usually involving fire, fireworks and some rather quirky rituals. They are not everybody’s cup of tea, but for me as a social historian they hold a particular fascination. Here are a few of my favourites.

Halloween, Wickerman and The Feast of All Hallows

Halloween is actually Celtic in origin and dates back to the pre-Christian era (1st to 5th centuries AD). Some of the earliest references to traditions associated with Halloween, have been passed down from Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) and Roman historian, Tacitus (56-117 AD). Both writers attacked early Druid practices:

..that unless for a man’s life a man’s life be paid, the majesty of the immortal gods may not be appeased; and in public, as in private life, they obsene an ordinance of sacrifices of the same kind. Others use figures of immense size, whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill with living men and set on fire, and the men perish in a shoot of flame.

(Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Book VI, by Julius Caesar)

..slake the altars with captive blood and to consult their deities by means of human entrails.

(Annals  by Tacitus)

The ‘figures of immense size, whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill with living men and set on fire’, you might recognise as the ominous ‘Wickerman’. This tradition was immortalised in British director Robert Hardy’s cult 1973 horror film, The Wicker Man.

  • Pagan blessing at a Wickerman Festival. For over ten years now the Wickerman Festival, an annual alternative music event, is held in July near Dundrennan in Dumfries and Galloway. This is the area associated with the 1973 British film. Thankfully today, no live sacrifices are made by way of burning men (or women) inside the wicker structure!

Halloween (or Hallowe’en if you want to spell it correctly!), derives its name from the eve of the feast of All Hallows which in the Christian calendar is 1st November. The Roman Catholic Church refer to it as a Holy Day of Obligation, compulsory attendance at Mass. The feast of All Hallows dates back to c.875 AD.

The end of October and the beginning of November was also a time when farmers reduce their  livestock. These slaughtered animals were preserved using either salt or smoke. Also at this time, the final grain harvest of the year would be brought in and winter ale brewed.

Celtic Festivals of Beltene and Samhain

In the Book Of Rights (10th Century), it states that taxes and maintenance payments by foreigners in Ireland and Scotland were due to the authorities at the end of October and beginning of May. These two events were accompanied by feasting, they were known respectively as Beltene  (31st April) and Samhain (31st October). It also made good business sense to collect taxes from farmers at the end of October as this was when their crops were harvested. There was an ancient custom of placing a bowl of milk and some bread for the Faerie who would visit at Samhain, to forget would bring dire consequences to the homesteader.

Samhain was once considered to be the beginning of the year. The old year finished at sunset on 31st October and the new year began at sunset on 1st November. This time ‘no man’s land’ created a culture where normal rules of behaviour did not apply. This is also when fire-festivals traditionally took place.

Bonfire Night

In England, 5th November is known as Bonfire Night/Guy Fawkes Night. Tradition dictates that large bonfires are lit and an effigy of a man, known also as a Guy, is burnt. The origin of this tradition is normally associated with commemorating a foiled attempt by Guido Fawkes (1570-1606) and his associates to blow-up the parliament of King James I (1566-1625) in 1605. To celebrate the fact that the King had survived, people lit bonfires across London. On 21st January, 1606, the Observance of 5th November Act was passed which created an annual public holiday. The Act remained in force until 1859.

Across central/Eastern Sussex, parts of Surrey and Kent, bonfire festivals take place, organised by Sussex Bonfire Societies. These festivals take place annually between September and November, usually accompanied by a public firework display. Some of the most famous Bonfire societies are located in Lewes, East Sussex. There are currently seven active societies in the town, the first bonfire festival took place there in 1661.

There are many rituals and customs observed at Lewes Bonfire celebrations, you can read more about these here. Battle, East Sussex, also has its own society and the earliest known records of an organised bonfire celebration taking place in the town, dates back to 1646. More information about the Battel Bonfire Boyes (as they are known collectively!) can be found here.

  • Short film I made (shot on my digital stills camera), Battle Bonfire and Firework Display from 2012.

Antrobus Soulcakers

Light a fire and strike a light

For in this house there’s going to be a dreadful fight

Between King George and the Black Prince

And I hope King George will win

Every year in Antrobus, Cheshire the tradition of soulcaking or souling occurs. The Antrobus Arms and other pubs in surrounding villages host a traditional ‘mumming group’ who perform a number of plays each night from All Souls Eve (1st November) and the following two weekends:

  • a traditional hero/combat play including sword fighting with the Black Prince who has just been revived by the Doctor;
  • Dick the Wild Horse of Antrobus, the real star of this tradition, causes mayhem when he arrives at each venue much to the delight of onlookers.

Blackening your face, when participating in a number of these winter traditions, meant that you could not be recognised, allowing for the opportunity to be more mischievous. Traditionally, on the 1st and 2nd November, children in Antrobus would dress-up and knock on villager’s doors singing the rhyme below. In return they would be rewarded with spiced cakes or money.

A soul-cake, a soul-cake

Have mercy on all Christian souls for a soulcake.

(The soulcaker’s chant spoken when helping yourself from the cake pile)

Punkie Night

In Hinton St. George, Somerset, on the last Thursday in October, the children of the village carry lanterns in a procession around the village chanting a special rhyme, begging the villagers to give them candles for their lamps.

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 don’t, you’ll get a fright

These ‘Punkies’ lanterns are hollowed-out mangold or mangel-wurzel (a cultivated root vegetable) and are carved to represent trees, houses or faces. It is believed the origin of this custom is thought to stem from a time when wives in the village would go in search of their drunk husbands who had been lost on the way from Chiselborough Fair.

This tradition closely resembles customs we associate with modern-day Halloween, hollowed out lanterns with candles and trick or treating by children.

Burning The Clavie

Thought to be either Pictish, Celtic, Viking or Roman in origin, this tradition takes place on the 11th January each year in Burghead, Moray, Scotland.  Under the old Julian calendar (until 1752), the 11th January was when the Christian New Year began.

The clavie is made from a tar barrel sawn in half, the staves of a herring barrel and a six foot salmon fisherman’s pole, called a spoke. The half barrel is fixed to the spoke with a nail hammered home with stone (no iron hammer allowed). The barrel is then filled with tar and pieces of wood. The staves of the herring barrel is then filled with tar and pieces of wood. The staves of the herring barrel are used to secure the clavier to the spoke and to provide a cage for the carrier to get his head through.

The clavier is lit with burning peat, and it is then carried around the village by a series of men before being carried up a hill where fuel is heaped on so that a large fire is created. The embers are then scattered on the hillside where people scramble for glowing portions. Each one is said to bring good luck to the finder.

(p. 9, The Festival of Hallowe’en by T. P. Concannon, Butser Ancient Farm, 1998)

Embed from Getty Images

Embed from Getty Images

  • Burning of the Clavie, Burghead, Moray, Scotland.
A Halloween picture from my family archive. On the right is my grandmother c.1920s. ©Come Step Back in Time
A Halloween picture from my family archive. On the right is my grandmother c.1920s. ©Come Step Back in Time


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