Custom contrived: Maundy Thursday Shoe Polishing

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“ It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…..he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”  Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”  For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone was clean. When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

John 13:1-17

Shine on!

Whilst the Queen (and every modern monarch since George v) will distribute maundy money on the day, those in the hierarchy of the church try to do something in keeping with the words of John…after trying washing feet, called Pedivallium (which is surely a bit too invasive or Catholic) and whilst the Archbishops of Canterbury and York appear to keep to the tradition, other high level Anglicans have settled upon polishing shoes as a good compromise. It can be encountered across the country from Birmingham to Leicester, Northampton to Nottinghamshire, Coventry to Cardiff.

Where this compromise came from is difficult to find but it is likely to be a transatlantic import. The earliest British example is that of Manchester which appears to have been done since 2008. An account reading:

The Cathedral Clergy shined the shoes of shoppers in Manchester Arndale on Maundy Thursday. The shoe shine idea has a serious message aiming to emulate Jesus washing the feet of his followers 2000 years ago and the subsequent tradition of the clergy washing parishioners feet on the Thursday before Easter for centuries.”

In some places it appears to be a one man team but according to the Peterborough Today:

“THE Bishop of Peterborough rolled up his sleeves to give shoppers a free, symbolic, shoe shine. The Rt Rev Ian Cundy and more than 10 other clergymen and women from across the city gave shoppers’ shoes a bit of spit and polish in Cathedral Square.”

Shopping centres appear to be the popular location but:

“Commuters from Abergavenny were give a free shoe polish at the train station to mark Maundy Thursday today. Modern-day monks living in the community offered the service to people travelling to work in a re-enactment of Christ’s act of washing the feet of his disciples.”

Now there’s a group of people surely in need of a shine although perhaps the business men and women probably had had a shine beforehand, although an extra re-buff doesn’t harm.

Shoe off!

My first encounter with this curious custom was a Maundy Thursday back in 2011, where the Bishop of Southwell called out to me – fancy a shoe shine? How could I refuse and I enjoyed the chance to say back at work that my shoes had been polished by a Bishop.

However, some people were quite wary. Others lacked shoes which could be shined. Some wondered what it was about the Right Reverend Chris Edmonson, Bishop of Bolton, explained to the Lancashire Telegraph:

“This is a modern twist on the tradition of foot washing, which in Jesus’ day was done by the lowest servant of all. Jesus challenged his disciples then, and all of us today, to treat each other with such love and respect. We hope to have lots of opportunities to explain this and the message of Easter, while we offer a practical service to people in the town. Shoe shining in the public space is a brilliant opportunity for Bishop Paul and myself to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ visible.”

Certainly it was a good opportunity for the church to connect in a comical and non-preachy way with the community. Indeed, one man, clearly not a card carrying Christian had quite a deep conversation I observed. Was he convinced by the faith perhaps no, but he left more sympathetic. Indeed as Bishop Paul said:

“It’s all done with a light touch and plenty of banter, but it is very effective.”

The Rev Roger Morris, from Coventry went one further and set up for the three days of Easter he said in the local BBC web page:

“We want to bless the people of Coventry by offering them something for nothing. We’re not after money. We are not on a recruitment drive. We simply want people to associate the Church with the idea of good things, freely given – after all, that is at the heart of the Easter message.”

As Bishop Urquhart polishing shoes outside Birmingham cathedral noted in the Birmingham Mail:

“The shoeshine is just a small demonstration that people who follow Jesus are prepared to roll up their sleeves and serve their communities.”

In a world where those in power seem report a bit of humbleness is more than acceptable….picking up from the Bishops I did it myself this Maundy Thursday!

 

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Custom survived: Royal Maundy Thursday

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Maundymoney (14)

Royal events are a special kind of event. When combined with a calendar custom it can really create a spectacular event, certainly in the amount of interest shown by all and sundry and especially the world’s media. Whereas the Haxey Hood might create a few minutes on the TV’s local news; Royal Maundy can sometimes be fully televised. Royal events also attract a special kind of person as well.

Royally treated!

Top Tip. Royal events attract a lot of people as well. Maundy is perhaps the most pre-Televised event as well. So you have to get there early. My first experience of Maundy Thursday was at Derby in 2009 which in retrospect was a good choice as a later Maundy did not let me experience much of the custom first hand.

It was an early Maundy. March had a considerable chill exacerbated by standing around for so long for the Royal party’s arrival. The experience being improved by the crowd and their curious idiosyncrasies. Royal events attract a certain type of follower. Royalist to the core. Dedicated to the Queen and very keen to show it. You would not see a Morris follower decked out in whites and bells turn up to May Day event waving their white handkerchief at the dancers or a Mummer fan dressed in drag awaiting the arrival of Dame Jane! No! But here surrounded me were the Royal followers, the Queenies, some were draped in the Union flag, another head to toe in a suit made from it. A small group of women had T shirts with the Queen emblazoned on it. However, my attention was drawn by two elderly men standing patiently at the front of the barrier. One saying to the other as they unfurled a large union flag ‘this will attract her’ as if somehow the Queen was a like a raging bull to the old Jack! They conversation then went rather curious “I wonder if it’ll be her Wakefield one said to another, could be her Manchester. I bet it’ll be the Westminster replied the other then.” What were they talking about, it was only when the Queen did arrive in a blue ensemble, that it was clear it was her clothing they were referring to and the locations the times they’d be at Maundy! All the time they referred to her as Liliput, an apparent childhood name of the Queen, said as if they’d just finished high tea with her that morning!

To be a Royal must require a great deal of patience I would reckon. The flag did attract here and she made a beeline to the men. Surprisingly to me one of the men struck up a conversation with her and she responded warming, the other dug into a bag, emblazoned with a flag of course, and brought out a large table book on the British Landscape, the sort of thing on remainder bookshelf. She took it graciously as would be expected, and handed it to a Lady in waiting. No wonder she has so many houses with rooms in it – she’d need it for all those gifts.

This is a stage managed event and even those not decked in the appropriate clothes were provided with a flag to wave at the Monarch when she arrived. Maundy is like so some of rock tour; the Queen appearing at every Cathedral in the Kingdom like some aged rocker ploughing out their greatest hits. However, there is no sign of a faded career here, the monarchy really pull out all the stops of pump and circumstance and the roadies are London’s Beefeaters.

Money, money, money

Many years ago my father was clearing some old draws of a Georgian desk at work once and found a Queen Anne coin. It was unusual having a large number 2 on one side and the other the Queen with a wreath around it. It took a few years to find out it was a Maundy coin, one of the first set because until the 18th century during William and Mary, the coins given were circulating coinage, the modern coinage has not changed par the monarch’s head of course. These coins struck in denomination of one penny, two pence, three pence and four pence and presented in a leather purse. The money counts up to the monarch’s age and another purse has a £5 coin and 50p. Originally, the poorest received it but today it those in the church communities recommended by the clergy for their service to the church and community.

Maundymoney (25)

Maundy, maundy, maundy

Based on Jesus’s direction, maundatum, at the last supper, originally the ceremony was one for high churchmen such as Archbishops and the Pope and involved the washing of feet, called pedilavium, as well as giving alms to the poor. This ceremony then moved to the monarchy The custom started with possibly the least likely Monarch – King John. Much maligned he distributed clothes, food and forks (!) to the poor in the Yorkshire town of Knaresborough as well as washing their feet. This was in 1210. However, by 2013 whilst visiting Rochester in Kent, coins had been minted for 13 poor residents to represent the twelve apostles. By Edward I the monarch was giving monies exclusively only on Maundy Thursday. The custom evolved over time, by the late 1300s, Edward III was giving money related to their age. He was fifty and gave fifty pence to fifty poor men, however, it was not until Henry IV, that this feature now part of the current distributions became established.

The custom survived pestilence and Reformation. During plague times, the Lord High Almoner was sent and nosegays of flowers held to cover the smell of those feet that needed to be washed! These nosegays survive as part of the custom today. Despite differing views both Mary and Elizabeth both performed the custom, although the washing of the feet started to become less done by the monarch. However, Charles I was less enthusiastic and indeed Charles II appeared to use the custom as a means to restore popularity of the restored Monarchy after the Restoration. The custom however was sporadic whilst James II performed it, William III less so and by this time, the washing of the feet had disappeared and more often the Lord High Almoner did it.

By the 20th century, the Monarch was absent. The royal presence returned with George V in 1932 and as such we could see this as a revived custom. The Monarch has continued the custom with Elizabeth naturally being the longest running. Originally the custom was held in the London area, the moved to alternating between another Cathedral and Westminster. Then developed into a grand tour of all the Cathedrals in the Kingdom…finishing in 2017 with Leicester!

Maundymoney (19)

Leicester was the second time I attended and the crowds were much larger, much much larger! Unlike Derby, where one could get close to the actual ceremony the whole area around the cathedral was blocked off but a huge screen showed all of it. Realising the route wouldn’t afford a good view of the Queen, I though where is she coming from? The train station and so made my way there to find no-one there. Was she arriving there? Yes, there was a man dressed head to toe in the Union flag again clutching flowers. We did not have long to wait soon all the regular passengers disappeared and the Queen arrived. She could be clearly seen if only I had a large flag or a book on British landscapes!

Custom demised: Fleas return on the 1st March

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Image result for Victorian flea

It appears to have been common belief across the country that on the 1st of March the fleas arrived back in the house. Accounts according to Steve Stroud (2005) are first made in print in late Victorian times. This belief even added geographical reference in Somerset, for a Yeovil it is said that they came marching down Hendford Hill, and at Crewkerne similarly down Cemetery Hill! Similarly, an c1890 account in Devon:

“A house-maid advised Mrs Hewett not to open her bedroom window on 1st March and aid that she had heard that the black army always came down Exeter Hill, in Swarms.”

This black army not only described the flea’s appearance but made them synonymous with the Devil for it was also said that:

“The Devil shakes a bag of fleas at everybody’s door on 1st March.”

Therefore it as advised that housewives should be careful early in the morning their front door steps to drive away any invasion or else not open one’s windows.

According to Jacqueline Simpson’s Folklore of Sussex:

“If the fleas you would be free, let all your doors and windows open be”

She also recalls that a West Sussex tradition would be to get up before dawn to fling their doors and windows open and cry welcome March and sometimes the children would be given brushes and told to sweep away all dirt from  thresholds and windowsills. In the eastern areas of the country they recommended:

“If from fleas you would be free, on the first of March let your windows closed be”

Bizarrely converse of course! An informant from Littleton told Simpson

“The reason why the windows were always kept shut in March because it was believed that the winds blew the fleas out of the thatch.”

People of Arundel on that date would shake themselves on Arundel bridge in the belief this would keep them free from fleas. Interestingly, Violets will bring fleas into the house in March according to an article in 1993 in Folklore called Plants used for pest control; some 20th century examples by Roy Vickery suggesting that being collected in 1985 there might have been some recent belief in the custom at least at Langtoft in Lincolnshire where it as collected.

In truth it was probably the change in climate that allowed cocoons laid in dust and fabrics to hatch and fleas to appear in great number. A similar event happens in houses which have been unoccupied for a period of time, in this case vibrations awake fleas from their torpor. Of course, no one remembers the 1st for its association with fleas – the human flea the scourge described in this folklore accounts in virtually if not entirely extinct in the British Isles a victim of the vacuum and temperatures of our homes are warm enough to allow cat and dog fleas to be active all year…I’d still watch up for some fleas coming down your street on the 1st of March.

Custom survived: Ashbourne Shrovetide Football

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Keep the ball out of churchyards, the cemetery and the Memorial Gardens Do not trespass on other people’s property You must not intentionally cause harm to others The ball must not be hidden in bags or rucksacks The ball must not be transported in, or on, motorised vehicles.”

So are the rules of the ancient game of Shrovetide in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Standing at the throwing in stand which for 363 days sits rather pointlessly in the town’s car park the organiser reminded the throng below him these rules….but within 10 minutes it had ended up in the cemetery

Up’ard and down’ard

There is a festival feeling in Ashbourne with town proclaiming the day with bunting. An odd festival feeling with all the shops and houses on the main streets boarded up that is. That said, this is not a war zone but everyone is excited and in the nearby hall a big meal is being held. The crowds await outside. Then after some rapturous applause. Like most mob games football is a bit of misnomer. It was hugged, punched and rolled but rarely kicked. Once I stood there motionless, like a rabbit stuck in headlights, as the ball rolled towards me and between my legs. A few seconds later a mass of men came my way shouting ‘get out the way’ or something like that! I soon jumped to the side and the ball disappeared under a mass of writhing men.

It all starts rather incongruously in a car park at the back of the shops…in truth the only large space in the town. Here is a large platform, redundant for 363 days, but today no card but people. Tourists look over from the edge, in the centre excited and waiting. After the aforementioned announcements as above, the ball was thrown in, or turned up in the local language….and of it went over the heads of the crowd and then disappeared into. The scrum held for a while, someone broke through and then went into the cemetery!

As soon as the ball was retrieved from the cemetery it found its way into the pool beside the park. At first eager members tried to use the branches to precariously perch themselves and lean over the water to get it…I winced…had they not seen the public information films from the 70s…and then plop in the water. It must have been cold..one then two, then three risked the cold depths. Soon there was a struggle for the ball in the water and then a cheer as it was hit skyward. Not enough.

Again the town divides teams into two geographical locations: Up’ards (north of the River Henmore) and the Down’ards (south). This was clearly a necessity to get a team together back in the day but nowadays anyone joins in and it’s a bit irrelevant..

On the head mate

Although called football, the Ashbourne game like many similar games is not often kicked but scrummed. Indeed it appears to have been called hugball, at some time and is believed to date from mediaeval times, although finding exact date is unknown, exacerbated by the fact that in the 1890s the archive was destroyed

One interesting theory states that the ball was originally a severed head thrown into the crowd after an execution – it seems unlikely to be honest!

The current ball is a large and beautiful item, sadly quickly smeared and obscured by the grasp of many hands. Often it is painted, a common image is that of the Cockayne coat of Arms: three cocks. This itself is interesting and was traced in 2012 to a game called La Soule played on the first Sunday of Lent and Easter Monday in the Picardy town of Tricot. Why? Because Tricot’s emblem is three cockerels . Coincidence possibly not and that

What is also unusual is that this is a two day game each day starting at 2 and going on until 10.00pm; but if the ball is goaled before half five it starts all over again! They do like their game! This goal consists of hitting the milestone this goal three times…when done, always under the cover of darkness, cheers erupt and the winner is carried on the crowd’s shoulders back to the pubs in the town.

I’ve never made it too the end mind. The cold keeps putting me off! They are made of tough stuff in Ashbourne.

Custom contrived: Waitangi Day Pub Crawl, London

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Its horrible February weather. Cold, made colder by a sharp wind and every now and again they is a flurry of snow…down in New Zealand its Summer of course ; perfect al fresco drinking weather…but that doesn’t stop the New Zealander’s enthusiasm for the day. I’m wrapped up in a coat, scarf and hat and there a group of men in shorts!

What is Waitangi Day?

This is the national day of New Zealand commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – the founding document of New Zealand on the 6th February 1840. New Zealand citizens across the two islands celebrate and naturally where so ever the diaspora end up….in Britain it appears to around Paddington

I turned up at the Pride of Paddington Pub at 10. Yes the aim of the day is a fancy dress pub crawl basically using the Circle line as the template. It is understandable that having the largest expatriate community London would have a big event. The ‘official’ events are a church service at St Lawrence Jewry and a posh event is the Waitangi Day Ball with cultural entertainment from Maori groups and fine food and wine..

However since 1986 on the nearest Saturday to 6th February a mighty pub crawl has evolved from a small gathering to a mighty fancy dress parade – of sorts! The event is almost at risk of being closed down by the want of its own publicity. After all fancy dress, drinking alcohol and large numbers do not make for a hassle free event necessarily. Indeed, it would be evident from the organisers plea on his the website that often this undesirable elements are overblown because it is easier to comment on what goes on over seas than at home:

“We’re trying to avoid having overexcited NZ TV crews beam us back home as looking disrespectful.  Considering we have had no arrests in years and only 1 complaint in 2014, our pub crawl is nothing compared to something like to what it was like at the Wellington 7’s and a night out in any big Kiwi city.”

Tiki Tour

The most impressive were the Kiwi fancy dressed individuals who when bent over looked quick convincing; well as convincing as a person dressed as a one foot bird can be! Outside one train station a group of men dressed in Cricketing whites proved or perhaps not how the country was famed for its sport. Nearby Gandolf – Lord of the Rings was filmed there – chatted with a giant beer can! At a later stop there was a large group of bare chested men…this was early February remember!!

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Hangi over

There were some sore heads on the next day and it was clear that by the end some of the bravado seen at the beginning was waning. Having said this enough enthusiasm was recovered from the traditional ending – the Hakka in Trafalgar Square.

It is interesting to note that Waitangi day means different things to different people. In an online article when the attendees were asked the views were different.

“I think it’s really great that we celebrate how the English invaders made a great peaceful treaty with the indigenous people of New Zealand,” said one.

“It’s not like a ‘yeah New Zealand’ kind of day, but it is a reflective kind of day,” said another.

Others said it simply meant a day off.”

Like many ex-pats, views differ at home and abroad: clearly it’s better to celebrate being a New Zealander when not in New Zealand, as a study suggested on 38% where proud of their country! As one attendee notes:

“Maybe back home it’s different, but definitely when you go overseas you realise how special New Zealand and being a Kiwi is.”

Hence the enthusiasm for this grand Kiwi pub crawl. But, of course such a custom can survive only when those involved are there. Numbers have dropped from in 2005 over 12,000 visas were granted dropping to 6,940 visas in 2016. Political motivations have a reputation for ruining customs and it would shame that changes to the visa rules kill of this joyous national celebration.

Custom demised: Shrove Tuesday Cockshying

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“1622 Received for cocks at Shrovetide 12s Od

1628 Received for cocks in towne 19s 10d

Out of towne 0 6d”

Pinner public receipts

Often the folklorist wistfully looks upon lost customs hoping one day they would be revived. This one is not one of them. Alternatively called Cock shying it lasted until the late 18th century being popular with all cases and all ages, Sir Thomas More referred to his skill at ‘casting a cokstele’ when a boy. William Hone 1892 The Year Book notes as shown above that the custom was a parochial one as seen above in the hamlet Pinner at Harrow on the Hill and the money collected at this sport was in aid of the poor rates. John Brand in his 1791 Popular antiquities work notes

“The of throwing at cocks on Shrove is still retained at Heston in Middlesex in a field near the church have been often directed to attend on occasion in order to put a stop to barbarous a custom but hitherto have attended in vain”

He continued to describe the method:

“the sport owner of the cock trains his bird for time before Shrove Tuesday and a stick at him himself in order to him for the fatal day by accustoming to watch the threatened danger and springing aside avoid the fatal blow lie holds the poor victim on the marked out by a cord fixed to his leg the distance of nine or ten yards so as be out of the way of the stick himself Another spot is marked at the distance twenty two yards for the person throws to stand upon He has says or throws for two pence wins the cock if he can knock him down and run up and catch him before the recovers his legs.”

It is recorded that even if the cock broken his kegs he would be supported by sticks, in some cases he was put into a jar and in Sussex a version similar to the procedure of bull baiting saw it tied to a 5 foot rope.

The end of the custom

As early as the Commonwealth period, there was already attempts to supress it. It is recorded that in 1660’s Bristol it was banned on Shrove Tuesday a move which apparently resulted in rioting! However the writing was on the wall for the custom, animal welfare interests had developed. Popular culture begun to demonise the sport, in 1751’s The Four Stages of Cruelty, William Hogarth identified it as a first stage. The church too became involved with Josiah Tucker in his 1753 ‘Earnest and Affectionate Address to the Common People of England Concerning their Usual Recreations on Shrove Tuesday’ described it as the:

“most cruel and barbarous diversion,”

Public order fines started to be given out by local magistrates and its popularity waned and in some areas it was banned so by the early 19th century it was confined to the folklore books! And long may it reside there!

Custom survived: Curry Rivel Wassail and Ashen Faggot

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Curry Rivel Somerset

“Wassail O Wassail all over the town,                                                         

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown,                                                   

The cup it is made of the good old ashen tree.                                            

  And so’s the beer from the best barley,

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O here we take this door held fast by the ring,                                        

Hoping Master and Missus will let us all walk in And for to fill our wassail bowl and sail away again.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail.                                    

 O Master and Missus have we done you any harm                                          

Pray hold fast this door and let us pass along                                         

And give us hearty thanks for the singing of our song.

To you our wassail I am joy come to our jolly wassail

Wassailing is becoming all the rage in folk circles and beyond. It seems that like Morris dancing in the 20th century, wassailing is the 21st century revival equivalent. However these revived wassails appear to be those associated with trees, the original surviving one of which I discussed here, there does not appear to be a similar revival in house visiting wassailing, which one could claim probably was the original approach. Therefore when given the chance to experience one of the few surviving wassails one jumps at the chance. Such happened last Twelfth Night at the small village of Curry Rivel in Somerset.

Wassail in

Arriving at the King William IV I found a group of men standing around. “Are you the wassailers?” I asked “Yes” they replied “Do you mind if I join you and take some photos?” They were a bit perplexed by my enquiry but the reply was positive‘Yes that’s okay as long as you don’t mind being shoved in the back of the van?!”

Next minute I noticed I was in the back of transit van with six strangers. We were off to pick up the oldest member of the group, a sprightly 93 year old Harry Richards, one of them joking that the thud was the van knocking him over! A joke of course and no disrespect was intended as these men whose ages ranged from 20s to 60s had a great pride in their venerable leader.

Soon as he was in thou, sitting at the front, not crammed in the back, we were off. I had no idea where we were going and indeed at one point we appeared to go off-road, but that’s Somerset roads for you. A large crowd had congregated at the first house and as they assembled with their venerable leader at the front. Then they opened their mouths and the wassail song came out.

Curry Rivel Somerset

I was impressed how forceful it sounded considering this was the first time they’d sung it together – they had small wordsheets to help them but only one member appeared to be struggling to remember and it didn’t really notice.

The door opened with a warm welcome and the wassails entered. Inside across the kitchen table was a fine spread of food and drink. The Wassail evokes a party atmosphere in the village and to be one of the houses chosen is a great honour especially as it is thought that the wassailers would bring good luck as emphasised by the toast given by their leader

“God bless Master and Missus and all the family. Hoping they’ve had a Merry Christmas and wishing them a Happy New Year.”

After satiating themselves at the first house it was off to the next. Back in the van. Hold on as we swerved a tight corner. A makeshift light being provided by a blinking torch or on occasions someone’s lighter. When we arrived at the next house, we leaped out into the gloom of a remote house. Here an even warmer welcome and spread was available. Then off the next and the next. At each more and more food, and more and more alcohol was being taken. This meant that the groups ability to hold on to the string and sides of the transits less easy and some thought it was best just to sit down. .

The food was indeed quite exquisite and it was obvious that the great honour of being a wassailed house asked for more than just supermarket fayre! At one of the houses an actual wassail bowl was provided which the members took a sip readily from. The wassail bowl being of course mentioned in their song but surprisingly absent I thought! Despite the amount of alcohol imbibed the song did not waver in its nature and indeed appeared to get stronger and song with more vigour! The final stop was one of the younger members of wassailer where again like in all the houses I was warmly welcomed and treated.

Ashen faces

Back at the William IV pub faces were squashed against the windows awaiting the wassails. They were late – I was glad I had attended the wassails and not waited at the pub – then a window was opened and their final wassail was song

Despite accounts to the contrary the Ashen Faggot is not carried around by the wassailers but awaited them at the bar. The Faggot is a fine construction, made traditionally by the same family in the valley below the village.

It consisted of ash logs tied together neatly with ash withies, nine in all, a magical number. Walker in her Old Somerset Customs tells us that it was once as long as five feet and four oxen were employed to drag it to the hearth…no wonder it wasn’t carried! Now it’s a more manageable foot or so to fit into the rather small fireplace at the pub.

Curry Rivel Somerset

It is evident that the Ashen Faggot is an older custom, possibly pre-Christian. This is especially evident in Curry Rivel when it is claimed that its burning has happened for at least 200 years but the Wassailers only date back to 1900.

The Ashen Faggot is a Somerset and Devon tradition and Curry Rivel is not the only village to have one. In a way it is the local version of the Yule log but were as this has died out in Britain, the Ashen Faggot survives and indeed in some places has been revived.

Curry Rivel Village

Muriel Walker in Old Somerset Customs tells us that the Ashen Faggot was said to have been first made by the shepherds to warm the baby Jesus, another version tells that Joseph had collected the bundles and Mary had lighted it to wash the baby Jesus.

Ashen faced?

At the allotted time, Mr. Richards was assisted carrying the Ashen Faggot to the fireplace and saying a few words placed it in the fireplace giving it a ceremonial kick into place.

Willey notes:

“after it has been burnt none of the remains are saved for the next year’s faggot. Free food and drink go around once the faggot is on the fire; the food is bread and cheese etc. and usually the brewery to which the inn is tied supplies a free firkin of ale. The landlord makes up a hot punch based on scrumpy (rough cider) and a scrumpy and wine mixture – home-made wheat wine and scrumpy is particularly potent and highly recommended by the locals. Each time a band on the faggot burned through the landlord was expected to drain a pint of beer or cider.”

Curry Rivel Somerset

Apparently the brewery ceased the free beer a few years back. Yet despite this there was a real party atmosphere and as the embers flickered and faded from the old faggot I made my goodbyes and left. As Willey notes:

“In a village where, during the same period, other traditions, for example the annual ploughing match, the Silver Band, have completely disappeared as casualties of suburbanization, the survival of wassailing in any form is perhaps both curious and heartening.”

Indeed it is and it is evident from the warm welcome and full spreads from the houses that there is no fear of wassailing dying out any time soon in Curry Rivel. A tradition grasped by the younger community as well and a great tradition with some great people as well.

Curry Rivel SomersetCurry Rivel Village