In Somerset, a county of south-western England, on the Bristol Channel:
– punkie (lantern) designates a lantern made by setting a candle in a hollowed-out mangel-wurzel or similar vegetable;
– punkie night denotes a night, in late October, on which punkies are paraded and displayed.
The earliest occurrences of punkie (lantern) and punkie night that I have found are from Local Notes & Queries, published in the Taunton Courier (Taunton, Somerset, England) of Wednesday 11th November 1931:
Notwithstanding any reference which may be made to the subject in our news columns, we think it well to include amongst our Local Notes and Queries a record of an interesting parade and competition organised by the Women’s Institute at Hinton St. George on the last Thursday in October, which is known in that neighbourhood as “Punkie night.”
A “Punkie” is a mangold scooped out and filled with candle ends, and these primitive lanterns are carried through the streets, accompanied by the singing of the rhyme
“’Tis Punkie night to-night,
’Tis Punkie night to-night
Adam and Eve, they won’t believe
’Tis Punkie night to-night.”
The custom is a century old, and appears to be peculiar to the parishes of Hinton St. George and Lopen.
Tradition, which is somewhat vague, has it that some hundred years ago a party of Hinton and Lopen men visited Chiselborough Fair, and as they did not arrive home their good wives formed a party to fetch them home. It is a moot point whether the lady folk found the fascination of the fair too much for them, but they seem to have become as merry as their men folk, and like the foolish virgins ran out oil in their lanterns. Legend has it that on their return journey they improvised lanterns from mangold wurzels from the wayside fields.
This year the Women’s Institute determined to foster the custom, with the result that on Thursday evening some 50 “Punkies” appeared at the cross—mostly in fancy dress—singing the old doggerel lines quoted above.
In punkie (lantern) and punkie night, punkie is perhaps an alteration of pumpkin—as ‘Cuckoo-Penner’ hypothesised in Local Notes & Queries, published in the Taunton Courier (Taunton, Somerset, England) of Wednesday 25th November 1931:
“Punkie Night.”—As a Somerset man, who is proud of his native county and all that concerns it, I do not at all relish the idea that the very interesting term, “Punkie Night,” as used at Hinton St. George, is probably an importation from America, and not a bit of genuine old Somerset, as one might have hoped and expected […]. From Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary I learn that “punkin” is the colloquial and dialect form of pumpkin in the United States, where a “pumpkin lantern” is the shell of a pumpkin scraped out thin to transparency, and having holes for illumination by a lighted candle placed therein; sometimes made to represent a grotesque face. Called also “pumpkin moonshine.” From this it seems clear that our Hinton St. George “punkie night” is nothing more or less than the Yankee “punkin night.”
This advertisement was published in The Central Somerset Gazette (Wells, Somerset, England) of Friday 25th October 1957:
IT’S AN OLD SOMERSET CUSTOM
Punky Night at Hinton St. George
Once a year the children of Hinton St. George march through the streets carrying home-made lanterns or punkies. Punky Night is supposed to date from the distant night when all the husbands of Hinton St. George suddenly disappeared. Their anxious wives hurried out to search for them carrying improvised lanterns.
This custom is confined to Hinton St. George. But the custom of Morlands is now world-wide. Each year over £1,500,000 worth of the finest sheepskin products go out from their Glastonbury factory and help Britain earn valuable foreign currency.
Glastonbury ● Somerset
The English folklorists Iona Opie (1923-2017) and Peter Opie (1918-1982) described this Somerset custom in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford University Press, 1959):
To children in south Somerset a punkie is a home-made mangel-wurzel lantern of more artistic manufacture than those commonly made elsewhere for Hallowe’en. Laboriously executed designs, or floral patterns, or even scenes with houses, horses, dogs, or ships, are cut on the surface of the mangels, so that when the flesh has been carefully scooped out—leaving just a quarter of an inch to support the skin—and the stump of a candle has been lighted within, the designs become transparencies, and the lanterns ‘glow in the dark with a warm golden light’. These lanterns (reported from Long Sutton and Hinton St. George) are carried by a loop of string secured through two holes near the top just beneath the lid of the lantern. At Hinton St. George, where Punkie Night is the fourth Thursday in October, some sixty children come out into the street with their lanterns, and parade through the village in rival bands, calling at houses and singing:
It’s Punkie Night tonight,
It’s Punkie Night tonight,
Give us a candle, give us a light,
If you don’t you’ll get a fright.
It’s Punkie Night tonight,
It’s Punkie Night tonight,
Adam and Eve wouldn’t believe,
It’s Punkie Night tonight.
And this, incidentally, is another custom which the police have tried to stop.
‘G. A. F.’ evoked this and other Somerset customs in A Country Diary, published in The Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire):
– Of Thursday 10th November 1960:
Somerset, November 6.
How interesting it is to find that some of the old country festivals still survive. I suppose Guy Fawkes Day has continued all over England throughout the years because children and the grown-ups love fireworks! Alas, Hallowe’en, on October 31, is not so universally celebrated, though in some parts of the country the one-time popular lantern processions are still held. Here in Somerset “Punkie Night,” during the third week in October, is a great occasion in the little village of Long Sutton. A charming village this, retaining much of historic interest. The Old Court House, with stone mullion windows, dating from 1658; near by in contrast the simplicity of the Quaker Meeting House built half a century later, with its pews of unpolished oak and whitewashed walls. The village meanders on, as its name implies, to the green and the church.
Here on the green the children assemble with their punkies. These are made from hollowed-out mangels to resemble a face: holes cut for the eyes, mouth, and nose, and a lighted candle inside. Some paint the faces and adorn the humble mangel-wurzel with beards and moustaches. Then with lantern faces held high they process through the village to frighten away the witches and evil spirits. The children are given prizes for the best lanterns, and then with much merriment repair to the village hall, where the local Women’s Institute have prepared a feast, and the evening ends with games and dancing.
– Of Thursday 7th November 1963:
Somerset, November 3.
Hallowe’en was more often called in Somerset “Punkie Night”—that mysterious evening when a lantern was hung at the gate post to welcome wandering souls or the fairy folk known as “They.” A Quantock game called the “Allern Apple Race” was played when two teams stood opposite each other: one peeled apples in one long strip, the other had to eat toffee apples while fiddlers played their lively tunes; when the music stopped the race paused too. This was re-enacted this week in the revels held in a Quantock village, for Hallowe’en and Michaelmas, with folk songs and dances. Another game, the “Goose’s Egg,” was enjoyed by all—Michaelmas Goose is here again “Hi Ho All in row, Michaelmas Goose is here.” Baskets covered with a white cloth and a most realistic painted goose to take the place of the real one of bygone days were brought in, to the old Somerset cries of “Eely Pie,” “Watercress” and “Wort Pie.” We danced round the baskets, calling “find the egg now” and drew a card on one of which was the picture of a golden egg; the winner dances away triumphantly with the goose.
The following is from a list of “some international holidays” published in The Province (Vancouver, British Columbia) of Monday 2nd October 1995:
Oct. 28: On Punkie Night, hordes of soccer hooligans flood the streets of Manchester. Either that or it’s the night pint-sized British goblins go out trick-or-treating.