Punky Night – A Somerset Custom

Pumpkin3 © Angela Porter October 2010

It’s Punky Night tonight
It’s Punky Night tonight
Give us a candle, give us a light
It’s Punky Night tonight!

This is one of the verses of a song changed by children as they carry their ‘punkies’, or Jack O’ Lanterns around villages in Somerset, England, UK and, in times past, begging for candles.  In the village of Hinton St George, Punky, or Punkie, Night is the last Thursday in October.

Other variations on the verse include,

It’s Punky Night tonight
It’s Punky Night tonight
Adam and Eve would not believe
It’s Punky Night tonight!

It’s Punky Night tonight
It’s Punky Night tonight
Give me a candle, give me a light

If you don’t, you’ll get a fright!
It’s Punky Night tonight

It’s Punky Night tonight
It’s Punky Night tonight
Give me a candle, give me a light
If you haven’t a candle, a penny’s alright

It’s Punky Night Tonight!

If you want to sing-a-long with the words, visit “The Punky Night Song” webpage!

The threat of something not nice happening if a person didn’t give the children something compares to the more modern tradition of ‘trick or treat’.

Punkies are made from a mangold-wurzel, or a large turnip, in a similar manner to modern Hallowe’en pumpkins.  The top is cut off, the insides scooped out and designs are cut into the outer skin, leaving a thin membrane intact.  Scary faces are common, but there are many examples of more creative designs.  A lighted candle is then placed inside to shine through the cuts.

Despite the usual assumptions that this custom is an ancient one, there is little evidence of its existence before the C20th.  Various nights in late October served for this custom, but Hinton St George eventually settled on the last Thursday in October.  At one time, it seems to have been a simple house-visiting custom, but members of the local Women’s Institute reorganized it in the mid twentieth century.  It is now celebrated by a procession of children carrying their punkies, and a party where prizes for the best designs are given, a Punkie King and Punkie Queen are crowned and money is raised for charity.

A local legend purports to explain the custom’s origin.  One version of the legend is that the village menfolk went to Chiselborough Fair, and got too drunk to find their way home.  Their wives fashioned lanterns out of mangold-wurzels and went to fetch them.   There are variations on the tale, in some the menfolk make the lanterns, in others the drunken menfolk are scared by the lanterns scary faces believing them to be ghosts of dead children returning to the Earth until Hallowe’en.  The neighbouring village of Lopen claims the custom (and legend) as their own, and other villages have started their own punkie nights.

As a child, I remember helping to carve Jack O’ Lanterns from swedes.  Pumpkins were not a common item then.  It wasn’t easy work either, and my father usually took control of matters very quickly, at least by hollowing out the swede so that we could carve the designs into the shell more easily and with less likelihood of us cutting off our fingers, or worse!  The smell of cooking swede pervaded the house once the candle was lit; whenever I smell cooking swede I get get flashbacks to childhood Hallowe’en, before it became dominated by ‘trick or treat’ and the various forms of antisocial behaviour that occur on that night, and the surrounding nights.  We had our own Hallowe’en party in our home, with local friends visiting with us.  The living room was decorated with blood-red crepe paper streamers, home-made black bats and spiders and webs.  Candle light was the order of the evening.  We made ghoulish food that involved a lot of food dye!  Ducking apples, bobbing apples were always played. And the climax of the proceedings involved the  delivery and display of Captain Blood’s Cake, dripping with blood-coloured icing and ghastly green writing and a single candle placed in the middle of the cake.  This heralded the beginning of ghostly and ghoulish stories.  They would start with a tale about Captain Blood, and then would go onto other things as we children would exercise our imaginations to tell tales, add to the tale being told, and scaring ourselves with what we found most fearful.  It must be said there was a lot of laughing as well!  These were perhaps some of the best times of my childhood … even though I was most probably too shy to tell the tales, my imagination would run away with me and everyone would make fun of me, and I still bear those scars today, finding it hard to tell stories, write tales, be imaginative.  I’ll get over it though.  I will.

The drawing of a pumpkin punkie was done using a very fine technical drawing pen (0.1mm) and watercolour paints on cartridge paper.  The sketch was completed very quickly, the painting took a little longer as the white purry-furry one wanted to help/hinder by demanding cuddles and fusses!   I then fiddled with it in GIMP2 to make it more vibrant in colour, more blurry and better looking than the original!  I have a couple more done that I’ll use to decorate any entries I do about Hallowe’en.

  1. Steve Roud, “The English Year”
  2. Punkie Night at information-britain.co.uk
  3. Punkie Night at Monstrous.com
  4. It’s Punky Night! at wyrdwords.vispa.com
  5. Ronald Hutton, “The Stations of the Sun”
  6. Punkie Night at wikipedia
  7. Jack o’ Lanterns at wikipedia
  8. Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, “A Dictionary of English Folklore”

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