Some of my most treasured memories as a child were the family vacations we used to take.  Mom and Dad would load all of us--four, five six kids as the years went by--into the station wagon and take off for the farm in Wisconsin, or the West Coast, or Florida, and we'd drive for hours and days.  The countryside (what we saw of it when we weren't sleeping in the back seat) spread before us.  We met people who spoke differently, ate strange foods, and had odd customs (at least as far as we were concerned.)  Some customs were universal, however, and as a child, I innocently believed that the rest of the world carved pumpkins for Halloween, sat around the dinner table with the turkeys on Thanksgiving (which included half of our uncles and cousins,) and celebrated the end of summer with a Labor Day picnic before school started for the year.

As I grew older, I realized that not everyone celebrated the holidays the same way, nor did everyone celebrate the same holidays.  But it wasn't until I spent a semester in London my sophomore year in college that I had a real eye opener.  "What?!?  You don't carve pumpkins for Halloween?" I asked my host family, flabbergasted that they didn't even know what a jack-in-the-lantern was.  My roommate and I hopped on the tube, scoured Harrod's for the largest pumpkin we could find, then dragged it back home on the tube--all twenty pounds of it!  Making do with what tools they had, we carved the pumpkin with their three children, sharing what was an obviously American custom.  We passed the evening sharing stories of family customs and traditions, yet another memory to treasure forever.

And so I bring to you some of those English customs and holidays:

Michaelmas--September 29--The feast of St. Michael the Archangel.  It was a Quarter Day, on which rents were due and bills paid.  It also signaled the beginning of Michaelmas Term at Oxford and Cambridge Universities.  While not a holiday itself, many towns had fairs where masters went seeking new laborers for the term.

All Hallows or All Saints Day--November 1--Christianization of the Pagan All Hallow's Eve, this day became the feast of All Saints.

All Soul's Day--November 2--Like All Saint's Day, it is Christianization of All Hallow's Eve, when prayers are made for the departed.

Guy Fawkes Night--November 5--This is one of the most widespread and flourishing of all British customs.  The day was declared a holiday by decree of Parliament after Parliament was saved from being blown up by Guy Fawkes in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  All parish churches, until 1859, were required to hold services this day.  Celebrations continued throughout the day, with bells ringing, cannons firing and beer flowing.  In the evening, effigies of Guy Fawkes are burned in large bonfires. Also in the evening are fireworks displays.  (I attended one of these displays the year I lived in London.  And being accustomed to fireworks on a warm July night, the idea of fireworks in weather where you could see your breath, was totally beyond my comprehension.  Why would anyone want to be outside on a cold autumn night, even if there were fireworks? Can you tell I'm not a cold-weather person? <G>)

Martinmas--November 11--Feast day of St. Martin of Tours, it was once a popular Quarter Day.  Until the 1920s, it was the high point of the farm-laborer's year, celebrated with great feasts and fairs.  Feasting was common throughout the countryside, as many of the animals were slaughtered and salted for the winter.

Also occurring at this time throughout the countryside were the Harvest Festivals. These festivals were at first eating and drinking celebrations, with food piled high round the altar as the congregation sang hymns of thanks.  By the time of Victoria's reign, however, the drinking festivals were replaced by more respectable and morally sound festivities.  After a blessing in the church, tea and cakes followed in the schoolroom.  

Although customs remain, times have changed, and sadly, my dad is no longer with us.  But I will always carry memories of my childhood trips in my heart.


The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain by Charles Kightly, Thames & Hudson, 1986.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool, Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Customs & Traditions in Britain edited by Maggie O'Hanlon, A Pitkin Guide, 2000.


For more sources like these, visit our Research Page.

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