5 quirky festivals of Pagan Britain

There's more to Pagan Britain than Summer Solistice and May Day. Here are five ancient festivals you need to mark on your calendar

3 mins

Folk culture in Britain is very much alive and kicking. Perhaps it's a reaction to the increasing uniformity in our towns and villages, as well as a world that is becoming ever more technological and impersonal.

All over the UK, people are getting together to celebrate long-established traditions whose origins are lost in the mists of time. Of course, British people have a distinguished record in fostering and valuing eccentricity – often to the bafflement of the rest of the world.

Jack in The Green (Henry Bourne)

© 2015 Henry Bourne

1. Jack-in-the-Green

Hastings, East Sussex

A lively and well-attended event spanning the May Day weekend, bringing in much-needed revenue to the small town and fostering local pride and community spirit. As well as people dressed as sweeps and milkmaids, the Jack is attended by Bogies with green painted faces and dressed in green tatter costumes strewn with foliage. 

Gay Bogies, particularly known for their lavish and extravagant finery, are among this retinue of followers, a sign of the event’s healthy and inclusive nature. It is a good example of a folk tradition that has undergone change and mutation and become something relevant and vital for the present-day inhabitants of Hastings and those who come from all over the country to attend the festivities.

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Bonfire night (Henry Bourne)

© 2015 Henry Bourne

2. Bonfire Night

Lewes, East Sussex

Guy Fawkes Night (Bonfire Night) on 5 November marks the day in 1605 when a group of Catholics was foiled in its attempt to assassinate the Protestant King James I by blowing up the House of Lords and everyone in it.

Lewes in East Sussex has the largest bonfire celebration in the country: seven bonfire societies mount parades through the town and carry huge effigies, not only of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V (pope in 1605), but also of contemporary figures considered ‘Enemies of Bonfire’, such as Vladimir Putin.

The bonfire societies choose their own particular ‘pioneer groups’ to represent and these range from Vikings and Zulus to Native Americans and American Civil War soldiers.

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Britannia Coco-Dancers

© 2015 Henry Bourne

3. Britannia Coco-Nut Dancers

Bacup, Lancashire

In Bacup, the Britannia Coco-Nut Dancers parade through the town on Easter Saturday performing a series of dances to music played by the Stacksteads Silver Band. The dancers’ appearance is striking, and the origins of this event are obscure. One theory is that Cornish tin miners brought the dances north when they came to work in the Lancashire coal mines in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the blackened faces of the participants are linked to the faces of miners covered in coal dust. 

The blacking of faces is found in various folk traditions (e.g. mumming and Border Morris) and was an effective form of disguise when performers should have been working – not dancing and drinking.

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Strawman (Henry Bourne)

© 2015 Henry Bourne

4. Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival

Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire

Plough Monday (the first Monday after Epiphany), the traditional start of the agricultural year in January, gave rise to its own traditions. In Cambridgeshire villages in the 19th century, on the Tuesday after Plough Monday, a straw bear ‘danced’ for gifts of food or money. 

The bear, based on the custom of dancing bears, was a man covered in straw to resemble a sheaf of corn. The custom faded away in the early 20th century but was revived in Whittlesey (historically Whittlesea) in 1980 and is now an important festival with a procession of Molly, morris, clog and sword dancers, musicians and mummers. 

The bear’s costume is burnt the following day to make way for a new bear to be created the next year.

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Burry Man (Henry Bourne)

© 2015 Henry Bourne

5. Burry Man

Firth of Forth, Scotland

Covered from head to toe in a costume constructed from about 11,000 thistle burrs (from which the name Burry Man might derive), this figure spends the day parading through South Queensferry on the Firth of Forth as part of the annual Ferry Fair. He's supported by two attendants and accepts glasses of whisky (through a straw) from locals he passes. 

The nature of his costume means he has to keep his arms raised (to prevent them sticking to his sides) and he cannot sit down; it is also covered in insects. Only men born in the town can take on the role and they usually do it for several years. It is considered good luck to meet Burry Man, though you should not look him in the eye.

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Arcadia Britannica (Thames & Hudson)Images and text are from Arcadia Britannica, a Modern British Folklore Portrait, by Henry Bourne and Simon Costin. You can order your copy on Amazon now.

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