In the north Lincolnshire villages of Haxey and Westwoodside, 6 January is bigger than Christmas.
For the first time since the start of the pandemic, thousands of villagers have gathered in fields nearby to compete in the Haxey Hood, one of the UK’s most curious traditions – a rough-and-tumble game that dates back to the 14th century.
The aim is to capture the “hood”, a 3ft-long (90cm) leather tube that needs to be pushed – rather than thrown or carried – by teams to local pubs in the two villages.
Like a lot of old English events, there are a wealth of traditions around the Haxey Hood, including traditional speeches, singing and quirky costumes.
It is thought to have come about centuries before, when Lady de Mowbray, a local landowner’s wife, lost her hood on a windy day while riding between the two villages.
It landed in a nearby field, where 13 farmhands rushed to retrieve it. The one who found it, the story goes, was too shy to hand it back to De Mowbray, and one of his fellows returned it instead.
Impressed by the return of her hood, she said the man who handed it back had acted like a lord and she chastised the shy man as a fool.
The story inspired the game and its 13 characters: the Lord, the Fool and 11 Boggins, roles played during the Haxey Hood by locals.
The Lord is the overseer, the Fool leads the annual procession – and traditionally is permitted to kiss any woman he encounters along the route – and the Boggins act as referees for the “sway”, the scrum for the hood.
The Fool’s speech, given at the start of the Haxey Hood, finishes with the words, also chanted by the crowd: “Hoose agen hoose, toon agen toon, if a man meets a man knock ‘im doon, but doan’t ‘ot ‘im,” which means: “House against house, town against town, if a man meets a man, knock him down but don’t hurt him.”
The game ends when the hood is handed to the landlord of the pub and it remains there for a year until the next event.
The Haxey Hood draws huge crowds and this year’s event could prove to be the largest yet, after its cancellation in 2021 and 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Previously, the only time it was not held was in 1915 during the first world war.
Luke Coggon, a Haxey Hood enthusiast, told the BBC he had grown up with the game and joins in every year. “It’s like with all traditions – it’s a very big day for the local community,” he said.