The top 5 weirdest English traditions

Apr 17, 2013 at 4:50 a.m. ET

English people may not realise it but they have grown up with some very strange traditions, including Morris dancing and conker tournaments. Where did these bizarre customs come from?

Morris dancers

Have you ever stopped to think about how strange some English traditions must seem to foreigners? English people have grown up with customs, such as burning Guy Fawkes and dancing around a maypole, but not many people know where they originated from. To celebrate St. George's Day this month, here are the top five strangest English traditions and how they came to be part of the country's culture.


Maypole dancing

Maypole dancing usually takes place at festivals and fetes in the spring, such as a May Fair to celebrate May Day. This would typically be held in a public place such as the village green or school playing field. Participants dance around a tall wooden pole, holding long, thick ribbons of various colours. They dance in a certain formation which decorates the maypole with a pretty woven pattern. Similar dances associated with fertility rights exist in various European countries and the tradition may have begun in Anglo-Saxon times, as a way to decorate the important wooden poles that communities used to mark meeting points.

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Guy Fawkes Night

Nov. 5 is Guy Fawkes Night, also known as Bonfire Night, when an effigy of Guy Fawkes is burnt. Fawkes was a conspirator behind the failed Gunpowder Plot, which was a plan to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James I. Fawkes was discovered and arrested on Nov. 5, 1605. Guy Fawkes Night has grown over the years to include fireworks and other entertainment in addition to the bonfire. It is a fun family night out: an event which brings together local communities and also marks the transition from autumn to winter.


Morris dancing

Morris dancing is a traditional English folk dance which is often seen at fetes and folk festivals. It is a lively choreographed jig where participants wear bells on their shins, wave handkerchiefs and cross swords. These days Morris dancing is mainly popular with older people but historically the whole peasant community participated. The name "morris" may have been "moorish" originally, as many believe the dance was brought to England from Spain where it was performed to celebrate the Moorish people being driven out of the country.

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Pearly King and Queen

Pearly Kings and Queens are a London tradition which involves men and women dressing up in suits covered in pearl buttons and badges to raise money for charity. Each London borough has a Pearly King and Queen and there are several Pearly families who have passed down their outfits and titles through generations. The custom was founded by a market trader called Henry Croft who raised money for charity and decorated his clothes to draw attention to his fundraising efforts. The first Pearly society was formed in Finchley in 1911.



Conkers is a game which is traditionally played by children. Players thread string through the hard, round and shiny seeds of horse-chestnut trees, which are known as conkers. They take turns swinging their conker to hit the other person's until one breaks. The first recorded game of conkers took place in 1848 and it became more popular in the 20th century. The World Conker Championships have run successfully since 1965. However, conkers were controversially banned in some schools as the game was considered too dangerous.

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