The whole world is partying. Meanwhile we toss pancakes and muddy balls around

The goals are three miles apart. Play starts at 2pm and goes on till 10pm, much of it in the river itself. Is this fun?
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The Independent Online
This week, thanks to an unusual conjunction of calenders, virtually the whole world is in the throes of celebration. Hard on the heels of the Chinese New Year on 7 February, for which the partying is still under way, we now have Eid El-Fitr (9 February), the great Islamic feast held to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

And, as detailed on the front page of this section, the annual Carnival revelries, heading for their climax on 11 February, are presently turning the whole Roman Catholic world into a giant wing-ding. The author of the Lonely Planet guide to Brazil describes his experience of Carnival balls in Rio as follows: "...we saw a transsexual bare her breasts and offer passers-by a suck while rickety old ladies were bopping away in skimpy lingerie. A young and geeky rich guy was dancing on tables with prostitutes past their prime, young models and lithe young nymphets, all in various stages of undress. Breasts were painted, stickered with adhesive tattoos, covered with fish-net brassieres or left bare. Bottoms were spandexed, G-stringed or mini-skirted..." And to think that we will just be frying pancakes.

I always get nervous and depressed when other people are debauching themselves and having fun, but old festivals are the kind of thing that define a nation, aren't they? And if so, what about us? What ancient festivities apart from pancake-eating will we British be celebrating this week, to bind us into a historic, cultural unit? On the assumption that we are not all just waiting for the FA Cup Final and Wimbledon to come round again, I have decided to look into this worrying question. Here's what I've found so far.

All right, so it isn't the Rio carnival, but the Hurling of the Silver Ball ceremony, which takes place tomorrow in St Ives Cornwall, is at least a beginning. "A procession of accordion-players, pipers and children dressed in sprigs of ivy sets out through town at about 9.30am," a St Ives dignitary tells me. "Then the vicar blesses this old silver ball and throws it from the wall of the parish church on to the beach. The children play pass-the-parcel with it until noon, when the child holding the ball gets given a crown piece as reward." Nobody in St Ives quite knows how old this ceremony is, but it is certainly old (if a trifle tame).

Never mind: why not instead consider the Shrovetide football match taking place in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, this coming Tuesday? Forget the FA Cup Final - this match has been taking place annually for at least 300 years, keenly contested between those born north and south of the river Henmore. The goals - separated by fields, woods, a churchyard and a lot of mud - are three miles apart and play starts at 2pm, lasting until around 10pm if the game is scoreless, which it usually is. A lot of the actual play takes place in the river itself, in which a seething clump of muddy men fight it out in what is known as the "hug". In the old times a broken arm or leg was a mere trifle, but these days the whole thing is, I am told, good-humoured, though spectators should beware that if the ball comes their way they are liable to be bundled into the river along with everyone else. I suppose there could be a kind of earthy British fun in this.

If earthy fun appeals, there's another Shrovetide football match happening on Tuesday that's even older than Ashbourne. This is at Atherstone in Warwickshire, where a 700-year-old football tournament established by King John kicks off on the main street at 3pm. The oddity of this game is that there are no goals. Instead, rival gangs aggressively kick the ball around for 90 minutes, whereupon everyone tries to grab it for themselves, rugby style. Forty or fifty men end up piled on top of each other. "A few years back police always had to intervene at this stage," says organiser Bill Dickson. "But these days it's more or less under control."

Pancake races, though, of the sort that are held in market towns up and down the land, are the quintessence of the British Shrove Tuesday. Every event has its own tediously pedantic rules about the number of times the pancake must be tossed and the types of frying pan that should be used - and everyone claims that their pancake race is the oldest in Britain. Among the strongest candidates are Lichfield, Staffordshire, and the 500- year-old race at Olney, Buckinghamshire, where all the competitors must be women, demurely dressed in aprons and head coverings. I suppose the whole paraphernalia of the pancake race is the British equivalent to, say, a transvestite masquerade ball.

And that's about it - the annual British feasts, celebrations and ancient rituals binding our society together this week. Nothing too debauched, of course, though an interestingly deep-seated preoccupation with ball-related activities seems to shine through it all.

I'm not saying whether I'd rather be British or Brazilian at this precise moment but you could always ask me again during the Wimbledon fortnight. In the meantime I'm planning to indulge the debauched side of my nature by adding a dash of lemon and brown sugar to my pancakes.

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