Growing up in America, I delighted in carving pumpkins and displaying my Jack-o-Lanterns every Halloween. I remember being told during my school days that this custom came from Britain, where people originally carved turnips into lanterns for All Hallows Eve. I could never quite grasp the concept. How could anyone possibly fit a candle into a turnip? Why would anyone bother to try in the first place?
After I married an Englishman and moved to the UK, I was determined to get to the dirty roots of this quandary and looked into Halloween folk customs. I read about Punky Night in two books, The National Trust Guide to Traditional Customs of Britain by Brian Shuel and The Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton. These authors reported that, in an English village called Hinton St George, people still carved Jack-o-Lanterns out of native Northern Europeans veggies, rather than New World pumpkins. The veggies in question, however, were not turnips, but rather mangel-wurzels, which, according to my handy dictionary are "A large-rooted variety of the common beet, cultivated as fodder for cattle." My sources disclosed that the last Thursday of October was "Punky Night" in Hinton St George when children paraded around the town with their mangel-wurzel lanterns singing the Punky Night Song. A quick check on the map revealed that Hinton St. George was about an hour's drive from where my husband and I live in Somerset. We decided that this was something we had to experience first hand!
The National Trust guide mentioned that the Punky Night festivities began at 6:30 PM. We arrived in Hinton St. George at 6:20 on this dark, damp, and chilly October's Eve and asked some people passing by where the Punky Night celebration was. They told us "right about here". So we parked. It wasn't long before I saw my first mangle-wurzel lantern. Mangles are the size of a small pumpkin and the same orange colour when ripe (also the same green colour when unripe). The main difference in appearance is that they have a tapering root hanging off the bottom, which tends to look like a beard if the mangle is carved into a face.
A small group was gathering in the street. We soon learned from them that the person who usually organised the Jack-o-Lantern contest and festivities in the town hall had more important things to do on Punky Night this year, and since no one else had volunteered to take on the responsibility, there was no "official" celebration. But still, the die-hard Punky fans had come here with their lanterns. Most had traditional punkies. The mangle-wurzels had been hollowed out, the walls of the beet scraped thin, and the outer skin peeled off to make a design, leaving a thin layer intact to glow orange when the candle inside was lit. Some folk had carved their mangles pumpkin-style and pierced right through the thick walls. A few people had brought along Jack-o-Lanterns made from pumpkins. But, unlike designed-to-be- stationary American Jack-o-Lanterns, most of the punkies had strings attached near the top and were carried like puppets. One man had the clever idea of conveying his mangle-wurzel in a fishing-net. One woman transported her relatively large pumpkin in a baby-stroller.
Right on time at 6:30 our leader arrived, an enthusiastic elderly man wearing a florescent road worker's jacket and carrying a large hand bell. He rang his bell loudly for a few minutes as the latecomers gathered round. All together, about 35 people showed up. Adults and children were equally well represented. Everyone wore normal street- clothes.
Our leader guided us on a parade through every street of the village. On a couple of occasions, he stopped everyone and had the punkie-bearers line up to be photographed by interested standers-by. Several times he began the Punky Night Song. At first hardly anyone joined in. Later the crowd sang along, though a bit reservedly. The parade seemed rather self-conscious in general. Remarks like, "Everyone thinks we're daft" buzzed up on occasion. A few of the braver children went to trick-or- treat at some houses along the way and were rewarded with coins. A villager came out to his gate at one point offering "sweets" for the Punky kids, but only a few noticed and hesitantly took advantage of his generosity.
But despite the reticence of the group, my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. There is something magickal and a bit surreal about following an old man with a bell through the streets of an unfamiliar rural English village on a dark October night surrounded by glowing beets. We never knew where we were going to end up next or how long our journey would last. A one point we passed under a tall archway and entered the courtyard of the old Hinton St. George manorhouse. This was a time to pose for photosand sing several refrains of the Punky Night Song. A few of the current residents of the place clearly had been looking forward to the annual Punky Parade and came out to greet us. We passed by one stone house where two beautiful black and white cats were alertly posed on the largest windowsill, looking out, as though they had been waiting there to see the punkies. After about an hour, we came back to where we'd started and the crowd dispersed.
We asked the villagers about how this year's Punky Night compared to others. They all indicated that it was a disappointment. Usually more people participated and there was a celebration in the town hall and even a "Punky King and Queen". An enthusiastic boy who appeared to be between 12 and 15 years old had managed to carve a very nice image of the grim-reaper on the front of his mangle-wurzel and the word "death" on the back. He sadly expressed the opinion that Punky Night was a "dying tradition", and told us that he wished it was still like it was in "the good old days." (When asked his age, he evaded the question by replying that he was old enough to remember "the good old days.") This same kid very astutely remarked, "People have stopped coming because they think Punky Night is stupid, but that's the whole point. We come because it's stupid." (Out of the mouths of babes.... In my opinion, being "stupid" in public at least once a year is vital to maintaining a healthy self-concept!)
A woman in the crowd told us that there was probably a better Punky Night celebration going on in the little village of Chiselborough down the road. She thought that it started at 7:30. We decided to stop there on the way back to see what was going on. As we drove through Chiselborough, we spotted some kids with punkies coming out of a building which looked like an old church, so we parked in front of it and went in. It turned out that their Punky celebration, which had started at 6:30, had just ended and everyone was leaving. We spoke to an elderly man who looked as though he were in charge. He was very excited about Punky Night and offered to send us information about the history of the festival for our Web Site. (We gave him our address, but we never heard from him!) He insisted that Chiselborough was "where it all started". We learned that in Chiselborough there is no Punky Parade, just an indoor children's Jack- o-Lantern contest. We were glad we went to Hinton St George first. In the lighted hall at Chiselborough, there was plenty of punkies, but no night!