Houghton Feast 2021: Why does the event happen and what traditions surround it?

Houghton Feast is a big day in the town’s calendar, but how much do you know about the yearly event?

Friday, 1st October 2021, 5:23 pm
Houghton Feast annual firework display

These days, Houghton Feast is a fun autumnal event for all the family, complete with fairground rides, fireworks and street food stalls – but it hasn’t always been that way.

Why did Houghton Feast begin?

The history of the event is thought to go as far back as the 1100s with Michealmas, a dedication festival which celebrated St Michael’s and All Angels Church which still sits in the town centre to this day, although the site was expanded and improved in subsequent centuries.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

During the middle ages Michealmas became a religious feast, this was also around the time when traditions developed at the festival, firstly cooking the first geese of the season but it was only in the 16th century that the event started to become what it is today.

This started with the generous actions of Bernard Gilpin, who became the rector of the parish of Houghton-le-Spring in 1557, and who insisted on welcoming anyone who wanted food to a feast each Sunday between Michealmas and Easter. It is also said that Gilpin inaugurated the feast as we know it today through donating an ox each year, which would be roasted and divided between the people of the town.

Gilpin’s kindness is still commemorated with the roasting of an ox and sharing the meat around the public. This returns following the Coronavirus pandemic in 2021, with pre pay options to purchase a whole ox sandwich online.

It was in the 1700s when fayres became what we know them as today, with travelling ‘freak shows’, jugglers and animals becoming normalised across the country. This developed into rides, firework displays and the Houghton Feast we know today.

Last year saw a change to the event, with regulations surrounding the Covid pandemic meaning organisers were forced to try online events. This saw a virtual walk through the town, a family quiz and live streamed events throughout the week including the opening ceremony. Additional celebrations came from footage of carnival parades from the event throughout the years.

When is this year’s event?

The roasting is occurring on Saturday, October 9 this year, with celebrations beginning on Friday, October 8.

As a way of celebrating when Gilpin would open his life to the people of Houghton for months of Sunday feasts, the celebrations usually begin on the first Friday of October and this year the festivities get underway with the opening ceremony and official opening of the fairground which has been a staple of the feast for generations. The always impressive fireworks display will be on Monday, October 11.

The opening of the fayre this year will be conducted by Councillor Henry Truman, Mayor of Sunderland, and marks the 20th anniversary of the ceremony which allows children with pupils from special educational needs schools able to ride for free.

The celebrations end this year on Sunday, October 17, with morning worship at the Methodist Church on Mautland Street, culminating a week of tradition and culture. The full programme of events is available through the event’s website.