Vikings, pumpkins, and dancing with deer horns…

One of the many gems in Kensington Reference Library is our  special collection devoted to folklore and customs, the odder and more archaic the better! The United Kingdom has many eccentric traditions whose origins go back to ancient times but which are still observed and take place at various times throughout the year. Take a look at some of the highlights from a few of the many books we have on our shelves…here are four of our favourites…

Lerwick in the Shetland Islands hold a midwinter festival each January called Up-Helly-Aa (“End of the Holy Days”). This has its origins in a Viking midwinter festival and climaxes in the burning of a magnificent mock Viking longship, followed by lots of partying. Guizer Jarl, an elected leader of the celebrations, leads these festivities in full Viking armour (sounds like a fun job…)

In Helston, Cornwall  a spring festival  is held in May and includes the curiously named Hal-an Tow (meaning “haul on the rope”), a  mumming play referencing St George and the Dragon, Robin Hood and the Spanish Armada.  The day’s celebrations  include the Furry Dance (a floral dance) that  weaves in and out of local shops and houses, men wearing top hats and tailcoats, ladies in evening dress, and everyone adorned with sprigs of Lily of the Valley (slightly more civilised than Viking carousing!).

Abbotts Bromley in Staffordshire boasts its own traditional dance in September each year.

Hannant, Sara: Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids, a journey through the English ritual year, London, (Merrell) 2011,
The Horn Dance Fool (Hannant, Sara: Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids, a journey through the English ritual year, London, (Merrell) 2011).
The Horn Dance (Hannant, Sara: Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids, a journey through the English ritual year, London, (Merrell) 2011).
Deer horns and tweed trousers, we must be in England…(Hannant, Sara: Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids, a journey through the English ritual year, London, (Merrell) 2011).

The Horn Dance is first recorded in 1226 but almost certainly dates back to pre-historic times. Six men carrying great reindeer antlers are accompanied by a fool, a hobby horse, a bowman and Maid Marian, all performing a dance to the music of a melodeon and a triangle. The ritual is believed to ensure a good hunt but nowadays is also used to collect money for charity.

Punkie Night
Fire and fun on Punkie Night (Hannant, Sara: Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids, a journey through the English ritual year, London, (Merrell) 2011).

Punkie Night is held in Hinton St George, Somerset, in late October. The   custom is reminiscent of Halloween and trick-or-treating. Children follow a horse-drawn carriage around the village carrying “punkies”, lanterns made from pumpkins and mangel-worzels with carved faces, singing songs and threatening to frighten people.  The origins of Punkie night are believed to have come from the custom of placing lanterns on farm gates to drive away evil spirits.

If you want to find out more about these customs, as well many others, look in the following books from our collection:

  • Hannant, Sara, Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids, a journey through the English ritual year, London, (Merrell) 2011
  • Hobson, Jeremy, Curious country customs, Newton Abbott, (David & Charles) 2007
  • Hogg, Garry, Customs and traditions of England, Newton Abbott, (David & Charles) 1971
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