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Hello. I’m going to talk about British festivals. I’m sure you’ve heard about the Notting Hill Carnival in London and the Edinburgh Festival, but today we’re going to look at a lot more that you might not know about. Actually, a lot of these are not exactly festivals, but strange races or competitions. Some of them are ancient and some are modern.
So, let’s start in January in the north of Scotland with the Burning of the Clavie. This is a whisky barrel which is set alight then carried through the streets as a bonfire. It’s an ancient tradition which always takes place on 11th of January, the first day of the year, according to an older form of the calendar. The bonfire brings good luck for the coming year and people used to keep bits of burnt wood as protection against evil spirits. At the end of January, even further north, in the Shetland Islands, there’s another fire festival, the Up Helly Aa. This seems like an ancient festival, but has actually only been going for about 130 years – well, it is fairly old, I suppose. People carry fire-lit torches and a Viking boat through the streets, then set fire to the boat. There’s lots of dancing; it’s good fun.
Now to the north of England. On Shrove Tuesday in February, otherwise known as Pancake Day, a special Pancake Bell is rung in Scarborough. Everyone goes down to the road next to the beach where they skip – yep, they jump over long ropes, up to fifteen people to one rope. And they have pancake races. This is quite common in the UK – running with a frying pan and tossing a pancake at the same time.
Another kind of race takes place in spring – cheese rolling. In Gloucestershire, in the south-west of England, round cheeses in round boxes are sent rolling down a hill and people run after them and try and catch them. The hill is very steep, so people often fall over – if you take part in this you need to be very fit and wear your oldest jeans. Nowadays this strange custom attracts visitors from all over the world, but the people from the local village are usually the ones who catch the cheese.
From people-racing, to animals, very tiny animals. World Championship Snail Racing takes place in a village in Norfolk. The snails have to race from an inner circle to an outer circle and the winner gets a lot of lettuce. There’s a party and barbecue for the snail owners and observers. This custom began in the 1960s after a local man saw something similar in France. In the UK we don’t eat snails, by the way.
More fun, in my opinion, are the onion-eating contest, also in Gloucestershire – a race to finish eating a raw onion – and the Black Pudding Throwing Championship, in Lancashire. Black puddings are like big sausages made mainly from dried blood. Contestants bowl three black puddings each at 21 Yorkshire puddings set on a six-metre platform; the winner is the one who knocks down the most. Another fun contest takes place in September at the Egremont Crab Fair in Cumbria in the north of England. The World Gurning Championship is a competition to pull the ugliest face. It sounds ridiculous but this is an ancient British tradition and the Crab Fair itself dates back to 1267. The man who won the title of best gurner the most in recent years had all his teeth taken out so he could make terrible faces more easily.
Finally, let’s go back to the south of England. In Brighton there’s a Burning the Clocks Festival to celebrate the winter solstice on December 21st. This custom started twenty years ago and is very popular. People make clock lanterns and time-themed figures of paper and wood, then walk through the town to the beach where the sculptures are set on fire and there’s a massive firework display.
So, that’s just a taste of a few of our old and more modern traditions. Would you like to take part in any of them?
Worksheets and downloads
Which of these traditions would you like to take part in? Do they remind you of any other festivals that you know about?