Tonight kicks off one of the earliest of the Halloween celebrations in Great Britain. In Hinton St George in Somerset, the last Thursday of October is Punkie Night.
The tradition of Punkie Night goes back over 100 years, and is related to older practices in Ireland and Sutherland.
One fateful year long ago, the men from the village went to the harvest fair in the neighboring Chiselborough, and didn’t return on time. So the women went looking for them with mangold lanterns.
Mangolds, also called mangle wurzels, look like a cross between a pumpkin and a turnip. They are a crop grown by farmers for cattle feed.
The women of the village pulled these up in the fields, carved them out, put their candles in them to give light, and then proceeded to round up their drunken, wayward menfolk. It turned into an annual custom and to add to the merriment, the children would visit all the farms and cottages along the way, singing the refrain noted above.
While it may seem logical that “punkie” is an abbreviation of “pumpkin,” it is not. Throughout Somerset, locals use the term “spunky” to refer to Will-o-the-Wisps — a ball of light seen at night rising up from a marsh or bog. The usual physical explanation for this light is “marsh gas” –i.e. methane. But many metaphysical explanations have also been offered to account for “spunkies.”
The legend is that a Will o’ the Wisp is a spunky, the soul of an unbaptised child, doomed to wander until Judgment Day. They are believed to appear at this season of the descent into darkness as a warning that the end is nearer than we think.
Nowadays, to commemorate the event, local children hollow out their mangolds. Then they carve designs or grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins and put candles inside. There’s a evening procession of punkies, and a contest for the most original design.
But of course, there is also the more ancient connection, where Celtic folk from ancient times lit candles during the Samhain season, to guide the spirits of the dead.