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Allendale tar barrels


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The people of Allendale, Northumberland, welcome the New Year in a spectacular way with their procession of blazing tar barrels. During the evening, men in home-made costume (the guisers) visit the town's pubs and shortly before midnight assemble for the procession which is the focal point of the custom. The barrels are actually one end of a wooden barrel, about twelve inches deep, filled with wood and shavings soaked in paraffin. Once the barrels are alight, the procession follows the town band round the streets and back to the market-place, where an unlit bonfire awaits them. After circling the fire, and at the stroke of midnight, some of the barrels are thrown on to the fire, while others are extinguished and saved for next year, as it is hard to get decent wooden barrels these days. The crowd cheers, and Auld Lang Syne is sung. Most of the Guisers spend the rest of the night first footing (see New Year). According to extensive research carried out by Venetia Newall, the tar-barrel custom is not nearly as old as most people assume it to be, dating only from about 1858. It seems to have started with the band's New Year perambulation of the village. One year, the wind was so strong that it kept blowing their candles out, and someone suggested that a tar barrel would be a more effective illumination.

Venetia Newall, Folklore 85 (1974), 93–103;Sykes, 1977: 156–9;Kightly, 1986: 44;Shuel, 1985: 190–1.


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