STROUD came alive with colour, signing and folk dancing at the weekend for the annual Wassail Festival. Delighted children and families watched on as the Sub Rooms forecourt was filled with performances from more than 300 Mummers and Morris Dancers dressed in traditional festive clothing.

But among many of the dancers and singers taking part in the festive tradition were some who painted their faces black - a tradition dating back to the 16th century to ‘disguise’ themselves.

After the event on Saturday a number of people took to social media to raise the debate over race and tradition - with some branding the practice ‘offensive’ and even ‘racist’.

The age-old custom has a number of explanations and theories as to its origin, but among the most widely accepted is that ‘black face’ started when impoverished 16th-century farm workers had to conceal their faces to avoid being recognised while begging during winter, as asking for money was illegal.

However, other theories are more problematic. One traces the word ‘morris’ to Moorish, and suggests the earliest performers were mimicking North African dancers.

Studies of varying academic weight separately link the rise of Morris Dancing to that of American minstrel shows that launched the blacking-up-for-laughs craze of the 19th century.

While the debate has always been simmering, the issue made the headlines recently when the Shrewsbury folk festival and the English Folk Dance and Song Society both decided to refrain from booking Morris sides who use full black face paint, citing concerns over the ‘racist’ implications of this practice.

After the Stroud Wassail Festival the debate surfaced again.

Critics say that while the tradition may have been acceptable in imperial Victorian Britain, standards have changed and ‘black face’ can be insulting.

They argue that if the Morris dancing tradition can be changed to accept women, then why it can’t be changed to stop insulting the black community?

So, which side do you come down on in this debate?

Is this an age-old tradition with no racial connotations that needs to be defended? Is this political correctness gone mad?

Or, in the multi-racial society Britain is today, does this potentially insulting tradition need to be altered a little bit to better reflect the country?