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Here We Go A-Wassailing

by Lisa Agnew

WassailingThere are three forms of Christmas/New Year celebration involving wassail, a beverage originally made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, nuts, eggs and spices. In modern times the concoction has been replaced by eggnog or spiced cider, but the legend of its inception goes right back to Saxon times and is spelt out in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and involves Rowena, daughter of Hengist, a Saxon mercenary, who presents the future King Vortigern with a bowl of mulled wine and the cheer "Waes Hael!", meaning good health. Vortigern, of course, falls in love with the beautiful Saxon maiden and marries her. Traditionally this drink and its more modern variant, Lamb's Wool, is served on New Year's Eve and Twelfth Night. Lambs Wool is heated cider spiced with sugar, nutmeg and ginger. Roast apples float on the surface and when the soft apple pulp bursts into the vat, it gives the drink a frothy or woolly look.

The first Wassail celebration involves Christmas revellers taking a Wassail bowl, usually a large wooden vessel (although ornate examples have been crafted of silver or pewter) from house to house to distribute good cheer. If one was in the regent's court, the bowl was passed from hall to hall as a form of loving cup. However, the most ancient form of the Wassail celebration involves the blessing of trees and bees, so important to pollination, to ensure a healthy crop for the coming year. One of the songs associated with this practice declares,

Here's to thee, old apple tree,
Whence thou may'st bud, and thou may'st blow,
And whence thou may'st bear apples enow,
Hats full! Caps full!
Bushel -- bushel -- sacks full!
And my pockets full too! Huzza!

apple treesThe earliest known practice was to pour a sanctified liquid onto the dormant crops and orchards after the harvest, blessing the ground for the coming of spring and warding off evil. This evolved into the Wassailing of the Apples Trees celebration. The village of Carhampton in Somerset still celebrates the Wassailing of the Apple Trees on Old Twelfth Night (January 17). Other regions hold similar observances on traditional Twelfth Night (January 5). Other trees may be wassailed, yet most usually it is the sturdiest apple tree in the orchard which is so honoured. The apple has long enjoyed a special place in the diet of the English. The fruit is said to be effective against melancholy and to 'smele to an old swete apple' helps one recover his strength. By Shakespeare's time, apples were a favourite dessert, easily cooked to a consistency suitable for young and old alike.

The blowing of horns heralds the Wassailing of the Apple Trees celebration, as a beverage, usually cider, is poured on the roots of the finest tree and a wassail cake placed in the branches as an offering to the tree spirits and elementals who ensure fruitful harvest. Then the beating of kettles and firing of guns loaded with powder are used to drive away the witches and ghosts believed to reside in the crown of the apple tree. This is followed by a wassailing song sung to the tree (or the hive in the tree, in the case of bees!) as in --

Wassail, wassail all round the town;
The zider-cup's white and the zider's brown;
Our zider is made vrom good apple trees,
And now my vine vellows we'll drink if you please.

Wassailing Apple TreesIt was also believed, especially in the West Country, that the spirits of the trees were incarnated in robins and other small birds. Young lads representing these birds climbed the apple trees and cried 'Tit-tit, I want more to eat.' A piece of cake, cheese or bread was either handed up to him or dipped in cider and placed in the forks of the tree branches 'for the robins'.

When the farmers return to their homes, tradition dictates that they be denied entrance to their hearth until they guess the name of the roast being prepared within, a game which usually does not take that long! Then the party begins anew.

As this was the end of the traditional Christmas season, it was also seen as a time for one last revelry, with games and plays, often overseen by the Lord of Misrule, a peasant or similar unfortunate chosen by the gentry to be Lord for the Day. Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night was more than likely written for a Twelfth Night celebration at Elizabeth I's court in 1601. Wassail and Twelfth Night were part of the entire Yule celebration, a period of mid-winter festivity dating from well before the time of Christ. Over the centuries other elements have been added to this pagan celebration, so that aspects of Christian mythology, such as the mummers' plays starring King Herod and St George, are enacted side by side with more ancient symbology. Thirteen fires are lit about the area of the celebrations, twelve small and one extra large. Many interpretations have been given to these fires -- the twelve apostles and Christ, twelve months in the year overseen by the sun etc. -- although, again, the true reason is probably so old that it has long been forgotten.

The Oxhorn Dance is another prehistoric remnant, consisting of six dancers bedecked in oxen costume. They circle around the foot of the tree that was honoured in the Wassailing ceremony, their stamping a signal to awaken the animal and earth spirits for spring time. The best of these performers is honoured by having an Oxhorn Cake, similar to the wassail cake, placed on his ox horn. He must then dance around and try to dislodge the cake as the watching revellers eat their own versions of this delicacy and try to guess whether the Oxhorn Cake will fall before or behind the ox performer.

The obvious pagan undertones of these celebrations did not augur well with the Christian church, especially the Puritan faction. In Scotland, John Knox put an end to Christmas in 1562. In England the observance of Christmas was forbidden by an Act of Parliament in 1644, which declared Christmas "an extreme forgetfulness of Christ by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights." The House of Commons sat on Christmas Day and sheriffs were sent out into the countryside to make sure that merchants opened for business on the day. This led to a situation of stand-off between Pro-and anti-Christmas factions and riots ensued. Upon the restoration of Charles II to the throne, Christmas celebrations were once again permitted.

More Information:

Letters to Santa: Wassailing

Making a Wassail Bowl

Lisa Agnew is a freelance writer of articles and speculative fiction. She is based in Auckland, New Zealand. English by birth, she harbours a life-long fascination with the history and folklore of her native land. Her web site may be found at http://www.writingrealm.com.
Article © 2005 Lisa Agnew


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