Monday, June 3, 2019

A Look at Traditional Folk Ceremonies of Britain

My brother Karl originally wrote the following post for his travel agency blog, but never ended up using it. So, he let me share it here, and you'll find that it ties nicely into Mike and my upcoming discussion of Paul Wright's Arcadia!


I was hoping before the holiday of May Day (usually celebrated on May 1) to write a post about the traditional folk ceremonies of Britain.

Many tourists visit Britain without seeing any of these. You have to get “off the beaten track” and also check local calendars to be sure to catch one. Watch out for these on the traditional British holidays. Christmas and Easter of course, but also others such as May Day (May 1st), Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday, in other countries called “Carnival” or “Mardi Gras”), Guy Fawkes Night (“Remember, remember, the Fifth of November”), the feast day of St George — patron saint of England (April 23), Whitsun (fifty days after Easter), Oak Apple Day (May 29) and others. Often today the celebration is moved to the nearest Monday.

The precise details of each celebration of course differ depending on the particular holiday, but also differ between particular localities. I really could write a separate post on each one! Some elements are widespread, however. There is often a parade of people wearing traditional costumes. Folk dancing is also common, as are bonfires. And almost always the celebration concludes with everyone going to the pub for drinks. In fact, usually drink is consumed throughout the whole celebration, usually ale--which might be considered the English national beverage.

What are some of the specific customs? On Shrove Tuesday, in many villages the women compete in footraces while flipping pancakes in frying pans, while the young men participate in the original medieval version of football—a very violent sport with no limits to the number of players on a team. On various dates some villages have contests in gurning (the art of making a funny face). But many say the strangest custom is the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling, held each year at Whitsun in the village of Brockworth in Gloucester. A nine-pound cheese is rolled down the hill, which is the signal for a group of racers to take off after it, running on foot until the steepness and unevenness of Cooper’s hill makes each racer fall and start rolling themselves!

And where did these strange customs come from? Quite a few people want to believe that all of them come from a time before Christianity came to Britain, and so they are all left over pieces of much older religion. The supporters of this theory often like to talk about “fertility rites”. But when historians have looked at the records closely, they almost never find documents going back to pre-Christian times. More often the history of the custom seems to have been lost in “the mists of time." In some places, the tradition has gone on unbroken for many centuries, but in others the tradition had to be “revived” in recent decades, often because it was abolished by zealous Puritans or prudish Victorians.

British writer Jane Peyton described the attitudes behind these ceremonies in the introduction to her book Brilliant Britain:

“One thing that struck me during my research was that whilst the rituals and traditions are diverse, the participants share some common traits:
  • They really join in the spirit of the activity: ‘No problem, I’ll wear a mask, ride backwards on that donkey and agree to fall off it a few times. Oh, and get us another pint while you’re at the bar will you, mate?’
  • Their tongues are firmly in their cheeks: ‘And now, please welcome the trainer of this year’s world champion racing snail!’
  • Their attitude can be very matter of fact: ‘Oh look, there’s a man dressed up as a straw dancing bear. Anyway, what were you saying about the bus being late?’
  • Some of them don’t quite know why they take part, but no matter. Their predecessors did it, so they give it a go too; even if it means getting out of bed before dawn to deposit a few pennies on a stone at the top of a hill.
  • There is no sense of ‘Aren’t we wacky?’: people participate wholeheartedly, as though it is commonplace to gather in an orchard, hang pieces of toast from an apple tree and pour cider on its roots.”

It’s important then to note that in no place in these attitudes are the British thinking about tourists. These customs have never existed to entertain tourists. Generally, the participants and the spectators are local people. These events will take place every year on schedule whether or not any tourists come to watch. But during these celebrations the already friendly British become even more welcoming to visitors. They love to meet people who show an interest in this important aspect of British community life.

So the next time you visit Britain, be sure to keep your eyes open for one of these traditional local celebrations!

-- Karl Paananen


  1. Do you know about Flora Day on May 8th in Helston, Cornwall?

  2. I don't think I have heard of that one! Another local community celebration.--Karl

  3. Thanks for posting this! When I studied ethnography in college I was fascinated by rituals and communal traditions of various cultures and when I lived in Poland I had an almanac of all the seasonal festivals and traditions which graft ancient harvest celebrations, wedding rites, and birth and death rituals onto Catholic traditions. But England is a special case for the amazing variety of local folk customs and rituals that have somehow managed to persist into the 21st century. True, many of them were revived in modern times, as you note, but that makes them even more special. Local folks thought they were important enough to bring back (or recreate based on half-remembered memories, as the case may be) and young people continue to celebrate them. I was struck by how many young 'uns were participating in these traditions in many of those BFI films featured in Paul Wright's collage film Arcadia. The Shrovetide football match and the Great Cheese Roll are so violent and pain-inducing, I think it must be limited to reckless, hell-raising 20 year olds!

    Anyway, I appreciate the context you describe and the quotes from Brilliant Britain which I will have to check out. As for learning more, I'm sure a similar almanac exists for local British folk customs - if you know of one, please do share. One of these days I'd love to return to England and check some of these out... while being as respectful as possible for a tourist (I'm conscious of the dangers of ethno-tourism as I've seen how this can ruin these traditions, which has happened in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and other places I've visited).

    Thanks again for posting!