spunky The History of Punkynight

From The Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton in the chapter entitled The Modern Hallowe'en


The traditional illumination for guisers or pranksters abroad on the night in some places was provided by turnips or mangle wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins. They were common in Ireland and found in Sutherland in the late nineteenth century, but by that time were also a well-established local custom in southern and western Somerset. They were known as 'spunkies' or 'punkies', being the common Somerset name for the balls of ignited marsh gas sometimes seen upon the levels. Children in Brendon hills would sing outside farms and cottages:

It's Spunky Night, it's Spunky Night,
Gie's a candle, Gie's a light
If 'ee don't, ee'll have a fright.

The carved faces, outlined by the candle within, were taken in that district as warnings of death, and used to scare unpopular people. This association must be borne in mind when considering the allied custom in the south of the county, whereby youngsters would parade the streets of the towns with their 'punkies', and compete to make the finest. This procedure is recorded at Langport, Long Sutton, and Lopen, and still exists at Hinton St George on the last Thursday of October, where the carved vegetables are judged in the village hall after the procession; they now cover a full range of patterns rather than just representing faces, and are often of considerable beauty. The most common story at Hinton is that the custom developed because the village's menfolk used the mangel-lanterns to light their way home for Chiselborough Fair. Only a heretical minority (when I visited represented by one woman) follows the folklorist Kingsley Palmer in maintaining that the lanterns are symbols of the dead, the little flames in the marshes being traditionally regarded as the souls of unbaptised babies. The later belief, however, is certain and this may be a case in which the common-sense explanation is less reliable than the more romantic one; a suggestion supported by the evidence from Brendon.

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