Here We Come

In the bleak midwinter is an accurate description of the weather, even in northern Florida when we gathered for the Christmas Eve service at church. We were surrounded not only by the Christian symbols relating to the birth of Christ but also with, at least one, pagan symbol, a Christmas tree bedecked with twinkling lights and sparkling ornaments, reminding us that seasonal winter festivals predate the common era. Given these interweaving traditions, it’s perhaps not completely surprising that Chris sang, Here We Come A-Wassailing as the Christmas Eve benediction. Unaware that the Oxford Book of Carols deems verses two, five and six, inappropriate for church use, (presumably as they refer to the consumption of beer, and acquisition of money with menaces,) Chris sang all the verses and we joined in with hearty choruses of,

Love and joy come to you
And to you your wassail too
May God bless you and send you a
Happy New Year …

It’s likely you’ve guessed the reason for all this jollity – a couple of our friends brought a bowl of wassail for us to savor along with Christmas cookies. The warm, spiced (non-alcoholic, in this instance,) cider was just the thing to send us out into the frigid air.

I was excited, not just because the wassailing tradition hails from England, but also as I’d recently read about it in “The Song of Hartgrove Hall,” a novel by Natasha Solomons, in a scene where the owners of an apple orchard revive the tradition. Prior to reading this my ideas about wassailing were vague thoughts about a large communal bowl of the aforementioned mulled cider and increasingly off-key singing. But, as I discovered, there is much more to it than this.

Wassail Bowl

Wassailing was a pagan practice possibly dating to Roman times, celebrated at the darkest time of the year. Essentially, it’s a fertility ritual to ensure a good crop of apples for the cider harvest in the fall. The townsfolk, brandishing torches and led by a man in black called “the butler,” encircled the largest apple tree in the orchard and lit twelve bonfires (representing the signs of the zodiac, or later the twelve apostles) around it. There was a good deal of singing and slapping of sticks, clashing of pots and pans, then the youngest boy, the “Tom Tit” was hoisted into the tree to place bread sopped in cider into its branches. Hopefully, the boy was allowed to descend before shots rang out to scare away evil spirits. Early records indicate that “Old Twelving” as it was also known, was carried out on twelfth night – January 17th.  Yes! January 17th until riots broke out with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar shifting the date to January 5th – apparently robbing the common folk of several days of life!

Over time, the tradition evolved becoming an indoor celebration with the Lord of the Manor distributing largesse to his tenants. Central to this was the wassail served in an enormous silver bowl, (the one at Jesus College, Oxford holds ten gallons. “Was hael” cried the Lord inviting his tenants to be of good health. “Drink hael” they chorused in return, an enthusiastic version of “cheers!” The beverage was a blend of hard cider, mead and beer enlivened with spices and roast crab apples. We can be sure of a great deal of carousing and very little work in the morning.

It’s unclear at what stage the tradition moved outdoors, most likely there were overlapping and differing celebrations but, at some point, the townsfolk went from door to door singing, expecting wassail and money for their trouble. As the money was earned through the singing and, in some cases, the “mummers” practices of  outlandish plays and folk dance, this was not considered begging. It’s easy to see how wassail singing became the popular Christmas caroling we know today.

While Chris and I have no intention of ringing the palm trees with bonfires, firing muskets or bribing his grandson to scale the trunk to leave fermented toast in the branches to befuddle the birds and squirrels, we do enjoy the sense of community “Old Twelving” brings to the dark days of winter, and as 2023 arrives, we raise a glass of our own brew to you and wish you,

“Was hael!”

News Flash!

Jean’s editor is working hard. We’ll soon be doing final review and revisions.

Anyone know of an agent or publisher?

End Notes

Reading

Listening

Bouree from English Suite Number 2
Bach
Swingle Singers

Bachianos Brasilieros
Villa Lobos
Sally Terri and Laurindo Almeda

Viewing

Reindeer in My Saami Heart

Poetry

Failing and Flying
Jack Gilbert

 

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