I came across some photos online some time ago from British photographer Homer Sykes. They were taken in the early 1970’s and were images of traditional British countryside celebrations throughout the year. One in particular from Northumberland caught my eye. In black and white, it showed a group of people in capes and cloaks and all manner of costume carrying flaming short barrels as they marched. Without knowing anything about what or where it was from, you had the sense that this was derived from some sort of pagan ritual celebration. It piqued my interest.
Turns out it was from the village of Allendale and, while it has the appearance of some Norse festival of fire, dates back to 1858. It turns out that a band used to parade on New Years and used candles to light their music. But the winds of the season made this impractical and someone suggested using these tar lined barrels which would give off great light and be portable as well. Plus, it looked a pretty kickass thing to do to bring in the new year.
Over the decades it has turned into tradition. There are 45 marchers, called guisers, who maintain their positions hereditarily. They assemble early in the evening, adorned in all manner of costume,going from pub to pub in a Mummer-like procession. In the hour or so before midnight , they gather in the town square to have their annual roll call and prep their barrels. At 11:30, the barrels are lit and they begin their fiery march through the village, led by a small band of drums and brass. It is said to resemble a river of fire moving through the village.
They return to the town square and gather around a 14 foot mound of fir branches and with the words “Be damned to he who throws last” hanging in the air, they heave their 45 flaming barrels into it, setting it into a giant bonfire as the last seconds of the old year pass away.
Maybe this tradition doesn’t date back to the ancient times but the idea of of the old being burned away and the new rising from its ashes certainly is timeless. Set the past afire tonight. Have a happy New Year.