Custom contrived: Slaithwaite Moonraker festival

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Slaithwaite is a village much many others in the west Yorkshire area except that through the middle is a canal which is the source of a much heard legend which records the actions of smugglers called moonrakers.

Moonshine?

An account on the Slaithwaite Moonrakers website records the origins of the legend:

“It all started around 1802 when the Slaithwaite Canal was built. As usual, when there are ships there are smugglers, and canal barges are ships of a sort aren’t they. Some of the bargees used to smuggle all sorts of things up the canal. Mostly rum and whisky and other things that had duty on them, and times were hard on the local estate in 1802, so they employed customs men to try and catch the smugglers. Despite this, the chances of getting caught if you were a smart cookie were not very high, and the profits could be so good that many villagers took the risk to make a few bob.”

The said story relates that some rum had been hidden in the reeds:  
“They has just started to rake it out, when a shaft of moonlight pierced the clouds and illuminated the scene. Unknown to Ken, some customs men were secretly keeping watch, having been tipped off by a jealous villager. When the moonlight lit up the scene, one of the customs men shouted ‘What are you lot doing?’ Uncle Fred was quite a quick thinker and as he noticed the Moon reflected on the water, he replied ‘Are you blind? Can’t you see that the Moon has fallen into the water. and we’re trying to rake her out before she drowns!’ Well, the customs men looked at each other and burst out laughing. “Moon fallen in the water! A right lot of Moonrakers you are!” said one.”

Shine on Slaithwaite moon

Roll forward to 1985 and some thought it would be a great idea to commemorate these smugglers with local children making lanterns of all shapes and sizes and following various themes from space in 1989 to vegetables in 2001. The efforts are remarkable and they really light up the street and the faces of those who see them. The Huddersfield examiner summed it up well in 2018:

“In February, people in the community are invited to be creative by being taught to make lanterns, using withy, tissue and glue. For the last festival, 1,500 individual sessions in lantern making were organised. It usually takes at least two sessions to make a lantern.”

The article goes on to describe:

“On the last Saturday of half term all assemble in the village centre with their lanterns. The Moon, which is around 2.5 metres tall, comes floating down the canal on his Moon Barge, and is hoisted out onto dry land by a huge crane, to music and fireworks. He is carried round the village by his gnomes, accompanied by assorted street bands and a large crowd, many carrying lanterns. The parade then heads back to the canal, where the Moon is celebrated by a Finale and Fireworks show.”

Once in a two moon!

The custom has been established to be biennial but 2021 would have been a year for it but sadly like every other custom the pandemic stopped the parade but did not stop the spirit of the custom and it adapted. It was called the Moonshine project where local people did artwork to be placed in the window. In 2021 people in the village lit up their windows so people who appreciate some brightening up those cold and dark February nights when they did they nightly exercise.  It was a great way to continue the community spirit that such customs are designed for.

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