Liese Spencer reports on offbeat seasonal revels, from mud-wallowing to fire-hurling

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Now is the time to deck the halls with boughs of holly, stuff plum duff (whatever that may be) and rediscover all those traditional picture opportunities which seem best enjoyed at temperatures below freezing. If you can manage to extract your corpulent frame from the lethal TV-settee combo, here are some of the more eccentric Christian and Pagan celebrations you might want to experience, along with a few of dubious provenance but great popularity lifted direct from the great doomsday guide to local tourism.

If you're a denizen of West Yorkshire, why not risk tinnitus by celebrating midnight mass in Dewsbury, where the good burghers will be celebrating Christmas Eve by tolling the tenor bell of All Saints Church once for each year of the Christian era. Which means, of course, that this year a rota of ringers will be sounding 1,996 knells. The tradition dates back to the middle ages and a murderous local lord called Sir Thomas de Soothill, who after topping one of his enemies, donated the bell to expiate his crime. The practice is supposed to remind the Devil of his defeat and send him off with his ears ringing. All Saints Parish Church, Dewsbury, W. Yorks (01924-457057) 24 Dec from 9.30pm.

Alternatively, hear the more genteel jingle of morris dancers at Gloucester Cathedral on Boxing Day, where the waving of hankies and pigs bladders will be accompanied by theatre from the village mummers. Cathedral Precints and New Inn Courtyard, Gloucester, Gloucestershire (01453-759 921) Boxing Day 12pm onwards.

On New Year's Eve, why not go out for a spot of fireballing in Stonehaven? Organiser Bill Emslie has been burning up the high street of the old town for 30 years, and expects thousands of spectators this year to watch the parade to the town's canon. The 45 local men and women wield balls of flaming kindling and pine cones encased in mesh, and swing them round their heads. The tradition goes back hundreds of years and is thought to be a Pictish way of burning out the spirits of the old year to let in spirits of the new. The procession starts on the stroke of midnight and lasts 30 minutes before the fireballs are doused in the harbour. Although her daughter also takes part in the parade, Mrs Emslie refuses: "I'm not daft," she laughs, "although, once you've done it, I've heard it's so much fun you must do it again."

Further north still and you come across football festivities in Kirkwall. Dating back two-hundred years, this is no ordinary kickabout, but a mass rugby-like ruck between the "Oopies" from the top of the town and the "Doonies" from the bottom. With rough scrumming and scrabbling, penalties are rare and the game only ends when the ball touches down at the castle or the harbour - which can be six or seven hours after kick-off. Phew. Kirkwall, Isle of Orkney (01856 872961) New Year's Day.

And just in case you thought Scotland had the monopoly on weird winter practices, rest assured - Essex ways of welcoming in the New Year are no less eccentric. On the first day of 1997, the town of Maldon invites game sorts to join in a mud race through the boggy reaches of the Blackwater Estuary with boys (and girls) from the black stuff raising money for charidee and enjoying a hot shower and pint after their wallow. Promenade Park, Maldon, Essex (01621-875 842) New Year's Day from 12noon.

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