The UK is filled with many cultural quirks that often confuse outsiders, especially when they’re from countries that are less acquainted to peculiar customs. Maybe it’s their famously unpredictable weather, maybe their rich and interesting history or maybe it’s the oddities and variations in their language that made them the way they are. Whatever the reason, we’ve managed to compile a list of some of the strangest traditions the British have to offer.
The Maypole Dance
According to what historians have suggested, maypole dancing originated in Germany and spread to the British Isles along with invading forces and when the British settled in the U.S. they brought the custom with them, but the Puritans managed to stamp out this pagan celebration for roughly two centuries. Much to our delight, in the late 19th century, this captivating folk dance was revived, as brits became more interested in the rural traditions of their country.
To the untrained eye, this May Day merrymaking may seem like a bunch of baffled schoolchildren randomly skipping around but it’s a serious undertaking involving precise choreography meant to create intricate patters around the pole using the multicolored ribbons.
The ceremony is meant to welcome the arrival of spring and it supposedly started as a fertility ritual with the maypole being a phallic symbol, but since what is practiced today is more of a Victorian remodeled version, it’s difficult to make interpretations.
Jack in the Green
If you’ve ever been to Hasting at the beginning of May, you probably have seen how this wacky looking festival plays out. The tradition goes all the way back to the 16th and 17th centuries and was originally a celebration where people used flowers and greenery to make garlands. As the different guilds become increasingly competitive with each other, the garlands got to be so extravagant that one could cover the body head to toe. Since milkmaids were the ones initially intended to carry the garlands, they ended up having to balance them on their heads.
The Chimney Sweeps Guild couldn’t let themselves be outdone and also wanted to earn more coins from the crowd. They started covering their entire bodies in a framework of foliage and flowers.
In modern days, the Parade is an excellent opportunity to follow human hedges around town.
If you’re visiting Britain between November and mid-January, make time to go see a Panto show. It’s most likely not what you’re imagining because it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
This British winter tradition has nothing to do with mimes. There will be no pretending to walk against the wind or climbing invisible ladders. There’s nothing silent about it either, it’s in all probability the noisiest, wackiest and rudest theater experience you’ll ever have.
The format has its roots in Commedia dell Arte, a theater genre originating in renaissance Italy but nowadays, you’ll probably be seeing familiar characters such as Cinderella, Aladdin and Snow White in Panto action. Music hall style comedy, references to current events and involving members of the audience in the show, all blend together to create a strange and silly form of entertainment that amuses the kids but, at the same time, keeps the adults engaged through well veiled risqué jokes that the innocent little ones can’t understand.
The shows also feature celebrity guests and you’re likely to find soap opera actors, comedians, popular pop singers and reality show stars performing on stage.
The Royal Christmas Broadcast
The Christmas broadcast by the ruling monarch has been a veritable British tradition since 1932. It started as a radio broadcast by George V but progressed along with the kingdom and in 1957 the nation’s first live television broadcast was delivered by Queen Elizabeth II.
The speech is faithfully beamed to homes throughout the country at 3PM on Christmas Day every year, with the exception of 1969 when the Queen felt that with the investiture of her son, Prince Charles as Prince of Wales and the release of the documentary film “Royal Family”, the public had seen enough of her already, but concerned reactions prompted a statement of assurance regarding the return of the tradition in 1970.
The style and subject matter of the address tend to be similar year after year, mostly a look back at the recent past events and a call to unity. Channel 4 has been concurrently airing their own “Alternative Christmas Message” since 1993.
Their style ranges from the humorous, such as having Marge Simpson deliver the speech in 2012 or it can take a more serious and politically charged format – in 2013 the guest speaker was Edward Snowden.
Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake
Each Spring, the South West England Gloucester area hosts the internationally renowned cheese rolling event where people from the farthest reaches come to watch participants launch a wheel of cheese down a hill and then chase it.
Does that sound a little weird to you? Perfectly understandable.
The origin of the custom is unclear, it’s either something to do with maintaining grazing rights on the common or it’s a pagan tradition that symbolizes the transition to a new year. Either way, despite numerous injuries, safety concerns and several attempts made by authorities to cancel it, the race has only grown in popularity, with winners coming from United States, Australia, New Zealand and Nepal.
Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night
This holiday has its origins in the conflict between Catholics and the Protestant establishment. In 1605, on the 5th of November, Guy Fawkes, a Catholic rebel, alongside a group of fellow conspirators, was caught trying to blow up the Parliament using gunpowder barrels. The intention was to kill the Protestant King James and replace him with his daughter, Princess Elizabeth who was to be raised Catholic and later married to a Catholic bridegroom. He was found guarding a pile of wood, not far from 36 barrels of gun powder.
The day of the plot coincides with that of the end of the harvest season which was traditionally associated with festivals. The fireworks are both an ironic reminder of the barrels of gunpowder and a reflection of ancient seasonal rituals once part of Samhain.