Thursday, 30 October 2014

Hallowe'en - the Ancient English Rituals You've Never Heard Of

It is, to the rest of the world, a time of scary leprechauns and children dressed as vampires. But in England, where All Hallows' Eve got its name, the period around Hallowe'en is littered with bizarre, terrifying and yet oddly compelling rituals.

In England, Hallowe'en came to be a spiritual time because it is the last day to have a month that starts with the letter "O". Naturally, this causes a rift in the time vortex through which the powers of drivel can sneak in. In Witney, they put blankets over cracks in the walls in case "Pumpkin-Faced Dave" sneaks in to tell them he's not a feminist. Although he does believe in equal rights for women. If Pumpkin-Faced Dave manifests in a house, you have to give him the largest T-Shirt you can find to make him go away.

The Crewkerne Pumpkin Fight is a pitched battle fought in the streets of the Somerset town with pumpkins. It is believed that it is a folk memory of the ancient Celtic tradition that the soul lives in the head. Or something. The winner of the battle is proclaimed "King Pumpkin", and goes on to meet Bayer Leverkeusen in the next round. 

The "Hobby Horse" is a popular Catholic tradition dating back to the time of Vatican 2. Former Telegraph columnists and members of the Ordinariate wander around, telling everybody that they don't trust their bishops.

In Axminster, the young men indulge in arm wrestling to determine who will be "King Cheese". Unfortunately nobody knows what duties he then has. So he wanders aimlessly round the town until Christmas, at which time they've all forgotten about it till next year. There's not much to do, in Axminster.

In Glossop, young men wrap themselves in bacon and dance around the town singing the song "I'm a perfect Christmas Accessory". This is believed to be an ancient fertility rite. Although not a very effective one, as they smell of bacon for weeks afterwards.

In Dunstable, all the pubs are decorated with Christmas trees from early August. 

In Ealing, Boris Johnson roams the streets looking for attractive women and potential voters. This is a fertility ritual, but not an ancient or pleasant one.

The women of Chester march round the city walls, looking for any Welshmen they can find. If they find one, they present him with a small onion, and tell him to come back in February. This is likely to be a folk memory of something, but frankly nobody can be bothered to work out what.

If you sit in the church porch of Silsoe in Bedfordshire all night on Hallowe'en, you've an evens chance of getting arthritis.

Many traditions have been made safer, or more politically correct, for our modern times. The Lemon-throwing ritual of Hemsby in Norfolk, for instance, has only been in existence for twelve years, since the original Lemming Throwing was banned. Throwing lemmings over the cliffs was claimed to prevent the ancient Celtic God, Manannan Mac Lyr, from washing the cliffs away. When the RSPCA brought the initial court cases, the locals' claim that the lemmings enjoyed it was rejected. In 2012-3, Hemsby beach was washed away during severe storms. Co-incidence?

In Middleton-in-Teesdale, men dress up as Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross, and run around the streets scaring old men. When they return to the "Housey-wousey"', the Brands announce they have found enlightenment and can now save the universe. Then they get frustrated that they are still unable to work the TV remote.

The village of Mears Ashby in Northamptonshire received a special dispensation from Edward VII to continue swimming suspected witches, long after the practice had been made illegal elsewhere in England. On Hallowe'en, all the local witches are thrown into the pond to see which ones float. Any found to be witches are then elected to the Parish Council. The Enlightenment never really took hold in Mears Ashby.

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