HAXEY, UK — Sometime in the 14th century — or so the story goes — a landowner’s wife was riding her horse when the wind swept her silk riding hood from her head.
Thirteen farm workers ran to retrieve the garment. The sight of peasants scurrying across her husband’s fields so delighted Lady de Mowbray that she bequeathed them a parcel of 13 acres.
The one condition: that the scene be re-enacted each year.
Thus was born the Haxey Hood, a tradition that lives on nearly 700 years later in this northern England village of some 4,500.
In Haxey, “the Hood” is the biggest day of the year. On Jan. 6 — the Twelfth Night of Christmas — every adult who can takes the day off work. The local school, Haxey Church of England Primary, is closed.
By mid-morning, the village’s pubs are full of people downing pints with plates of fried eggs and mushrooms. Friends share flasks of home-stewed sloe gin in the streets. (A lot of people take the next day off as well, in anticipation of the hangovers.)
“Christmas, New Year, all wrapped together, absolutely,” said Nigel Hill, a longtime Haxonian.
The actual game is a pastiche of characters and traditions that wouldn’t be out of place in a Harry Potter novel or “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
The farmhands’ gallant gesture today takes the form of a giant scrum of 100 men or more, called the “sway.” The sway’s job is to push a leather tube — the “hood” — to one of the four pubs in Haxey and its neighboring village, Westwoodside.
A squad of colorfully dressed characters attends the game: a Lord, a Fool and 11 scarlet-clad Boggins, who act as referees to ensure that no one gets trampled to death.
Theirs is no easy task. People break bones at the Hood. They get knocked unconscious. The sway moves like a charging animal. It rollicks and rolls across the broad field of thigh-high grass where the game begins, and continues down Church Street — altogether, a playing field some 1.5 miles in length.
Hundreds follow the scrum: families, teenagers, children who wish they were old enough to join, old men who wish they still could.
“I’ve cracked ribs down there,” said Simon Andrew, a Boggin built as tall and solid as an oak tree.
Precisely how this tradition began remains a matter of debate. Scholars believe the Lady de Mowbray tale may have been invented to lend respectability to a ritual with pagan roots.
Folk games like the Haxey Hood used to be far more common throughout Britain, according to research by Catriona Parratt, a University of Iowa professor.
Most died out or were stamped out over the years by various authorities wary of allowing the locals so much aggression and drink.
Yet Haxey, somehow, has managed to hang on to its Hood.
In this village, about halfway between London and the Scottish border, the faithful continuation of the game is a point of pride.
Boggin roles are handed down in Haxey families the way earlships are in landed ones.
Everyone knows the words to the songs the Fool and his Boggins sing in the pubs in the hours before the sway, and when to raise their glasses during the paean to beer “John Barleycorn.”
This Jan. 6, after two and a half hours, the landlady of the King’s Arms reached forward from the pub’s threshold and plucked the hood from the sway, ending the game and defending the hood’s place behind the bar for yet another year.