Shrovetide, which is a quaint old way of describing the Shrove Tuesday/Ash Wednesday period in the church calendar year is celebrated in different ways in diffferent parts of the world. New Orleans, Louisiana is (in)famous for Mardi Gras revelry. Carnivals are held in multiple parts of the world. Much of the rest of the Catholic/Anglican/Episcopal branch of Christianity mark the occasion with pancake dinners.
But in Ashbourne, Derbyshire - a quaint village bisected by a river - the excitement that has built all year comes to a fever pitch as the town is turned into a playing field for a game believed to be almost two thousand years old. It is the progenitor game of any football variant, be it Australian rules football, American football, Canadian football, soccer and rugby, to name the most famous descendants. It used to be played all over England and is sometimes referred to as mass football, but now is maintained as a local tradition by Ashbourne. A fire destroyed records previous to 1887, but the results of each game have been carefully kept ever since.
Though there is no technical limit to the number of players, about three thousand play the game at one time, divided into two teams. The Up'Ards (upwards in local parlance - pronounced "upperds") are either from or pledge allegiance to the northern side of the river (the more well-off part of Ashbourne) whereas the Down'Ards (downwards) hail from the proletarian south side. The general rule is, you pick a side, and you stay with that side for life. Defecting to another team has happened, but almost never. The game is so seared into the town consciousness that family loyalty to a side typically spans generations and crossing from team to team is a serious treason.
The goals are three miles apart, with the Up'Ards seeking to "goal" the ball at Sturston Mill, north and east of the town center. The Down'Ards goal is south of the river, at the site of the Clifton Mill. Both are millstones mounted on the banks of the river, meaning whoever "goals" the ball is getting wet. To score a goal, the team must get the ball to its own goal and tap the ball three times against the millstone. It seems odd to modern times that the point is to get the ball to your own goal, but it dates back to very ancient games in which the point was to own the object in question, which was sometimes a severed head.
The ball is a custom made, locally crafted heavy spherical leather ball slightly larger in diameter than a soccer ball stuffed with a significant amount of cork shavings so that it floats, essential for a game like this that fights its way through a river. The town tried outsourcing the balls at one point but nobody else would take the time to make a sturdy enough ball. It is usually painted very decoratively, and the art is destroyed during play. If the ball is goaled it belongs to the player, after being repainted for the goal scorer. If the ball is not goaled it is returned, again repainted, to the dignitary who "turned out" the ball.
Here are the rules, in total, minus a few technicalities. You may not murder or otherwise deliberately kill another player (excessive violence is frowned upon, but whatever happens happens). You cannot carry the ball in a bag or rucksack, you cannot move the ball or carry it inside a motorized vehicle, cemeteries and church grounds are strictly out of bounds - and play ends after 10pm. In modern times police will surge in to prevent someone being trampled to death, and it has been cancelled a couple of times in modern history due to foot and mouth disease, but it has withstood most efforts to have the game stopped for good.
So when the ball is "turned up" (thrown out of an elevated place with a double underhand throw) into the jostling mob in the town square - which has boarded up all windows and removed anything of value from the streets - there are two eight hour periods in which both teams can score, as the game is played from 2-10pm on both days of Shrovetide. It's the "huggers" that get the ball first - the point being to capture, possess, and then move the ball towards one's own goal. Huggers weight train all year, not only to have the physical strength to fight through a crowd, but also to physically withstand the pressure of being crushed on all sides by baying players trying to gouge your eyes and break your ribs. The ball typically remains in the hands of huggers for a considerable period as the ball goes one way or the other, but eventually it breaks in one direction or another and is in control of one team or another as it heads south to a critical road junction in which the ball can then go southwest or northeast.
Once the ball breaks free "runners", or guys who take the ball and run like they're being chased down (because they are) try and carry it or otherwise move it in the direction of a given goal. The ball can be thrown, kicked (although given its weight, it isn't often kicked) or carried. Strategies that have been practiced and thought through all year are then put into play. Opposing team gangs are ready to ambush runners through most likely routes, but the teams devise new ways to try and route the ball to confuse the other side. One says strategy, but in practice it looks like a hybrid between a zombie apocalypse horde trying to grab a piece of a recently killed survivor, and some kind of relief effort crossed with a surging Black Friday shopping crowd.
The problem one has when getting near to a given goal is who exactly will get the honor to score? The man that goals the ball for his side is returned to the courtyard of the Green Man Royal Hotel on the shoulders of his team-mates and pretty much has his pick of the local women for a good long while, before getting the ball as a souvenir and having his name put on the town wall as a kind of immortality, so sometimes in-fighting for the ball takes place on one's own side. But usually they elect someone enroute to goal the ball, meaning that whereas tourists and newcomers are welcome to play, they're almost never given the honor of completing the goal.
When a goal is scored (unless it's past a certain time of day, because play ends at 10pm no matter what) a new ball is "turned up" from the town square. There is no limit to the number of goals that can be scored in theory - but in practice the score is typically 1-0, or 1-1.
Of course, Derbyshire is now becoming gentrified, and the newcomers to the quaint little village are starting to complain about the mass anarchy that breaks out once a year. This is not a new type of complaint, it's been a huge problem in rural England to have city folk come into town and kill off local traditions. But to those who play Shrovetide, it's not only important to keep up a centuries-old tradition that has all but died out or evolved in the British Isles, but it's also important to keep something that's been such a boon to town morale. It's the kind of place where the main employer has abandoned the town - the local Nestle factory was torn down to make a block of luxury apartments, Nestle having moved jobs to cheaper climes. But it's also the kind of place that still has not one but two family butcher's, local greengrocer's, and small bakeries and businesses, family businesses that can trace their roots back two hundred years or more. Two, because naturally there has to be one for the Up'Ards and one for the Down'Ards.
One question that bystanders ask is, given that neither team wears jerseys or uniforms or markings of any sort, how do you know who to pass the ball to? And the answer is, you have to know who people are, and you have to know who their allegiance lies with. You cannot be lazy and just rely on some visual cue on a recently-hired foreigner who happens to be wearing the same shirt as you. As part and parcel of the soul of Ashbourne, everybody knows everybody else, at least those core three thousand villagers who break limbs, dislocate shoulders and crack ribs fighting for a leather ball just before Lent. And that's enough for the community to stay a community even as the modern world erases all regional color and starts to smear everything to a pre-fabricated, mass-market grey.
Any supporter of any ball game worldwide owes a debt of thanks to Ashford. Everything from the parlance of two teams from the same town playing the same game being referred to as a "Derby" to the mechanics of a rugby scrum to passing to a wide receiver to kicking the ball to a teammate stems from this two day riot. But the players themselves, be they in their 50s hating the fact that age is robbing them of the strength to continue, to the teenagers hoping their fleet feet will give their side the edge, just want to see their name on their own leather ball some day.