Monthly Archives: January 2016

Custom revived: Wassailing the Apple Trees Carhampton

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If there is one custom which appears to have defied reason with its reason – it is apple wassailing – 30 years ago the surviving wassail was on rocky ground – 100 years or so before nearly all of them had died out…fast forward to the 21st century..and it is in very good health indeed with a large number of ‘revivals’ across the country. Why is perhaps the difficult question considering what it involves..we shall explore that later. Carhampton, a small village, not far from the holiday metropolis of Minehead (with its colourful Hobby Horse), is the grandfather of all such modern revivals, where these upstarts take their lead, the oldest by 80 years.

Keeping my eyes peeled!

Arriving on a fine and remarkably mild 17th January it looked like the Wassail was about to just get on its way. I asked in the pub the Butchers’ Arms and they directed me a few yards away to an orchard. This did not fit the description of the location I had read. However, at the orchard I was greeted by a large friendly number of adults and children off all ages. Some were handing out free food and hot drinks, the others wrapped up warm, but all congregated in the large orchard around a large central tree. It had not started yet, which was great I was lucky but I also thought had the guides been wrong..it was about an hour too early!

Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (64)Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (47)

he Wassail had all the features I had heard about. Pieces of cider soaked toast – although it looked pretty sturdy if it was – were placed in the trees by eager children. The roots were fueled by a libation of cider and all circled around to sing songs with the fine accompaniment of the squeezebox and the fine rich voice of the leader. A few metres away for obvious safety reasons were a row of riflemen poised to fire…ready for the signal…they fired their rounds, not as more traditionally read into the branches, but into the air…much safer! The event ended and the congregation quickly dispersed some to their cars, homes and some to the pub. I was informed that this was not the original wassailing of the apple tree but a younger upstart…the original was still to occur.

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That’s Wass-al

I returned to the Butchers Arms to be told the original orchard was tucked behind it, although not accessible from the pub, a small walk down the footway and then up a small lane, through some old farm buildings led me there. Here the first thing to hit you was the heat. A large bonfire sparked away just behind the pub where a small collection of ancient old apples resided. The orchard was small, much smaller than the community one, an old relic. Indeed, the custom was once close to extinction when almost all orchard was almost purchased for houses. At the time the pub’s landlord wisely stepped in and purchased it. Today the other houses loom over.

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A 1970s Wassail?

Getting to the core

But is the Wassail? Starting simply Wassail is said to derive from a Saxon word ‘was hael’ meaning ‘good health’ and it applied to two related by separate customs. The first involves a custom akin to carol singing usually involving house visiting and a cup called the Wassail bowl (this is different from the extinct Vessel or Wassail cup which was a box holding the nativity) and this which involves ‘toasting’ trees with song and libating them with cider. The first records of the custom show how widespread it is, perhaps indicating an older origin, are St Albans in 1486 and 1585 in Fordwich Kent and by 1630s Robert Herrick writes about Devon orchards wassailing to ensure good yields. John Aubrey is the first to record it in the West Country noting that the men on Twelfth Night:

“go with the Wassail bowl into the orchard and go about the trees to bless them, and put a piece of toast upon the roots in order to it.”

Little has changed remarkably though now the 1752 calender change has meant the date is now firmly the 17th January – old Twelfth Night – unless it is a Sunday. By the 1700s the custom appears to be proliferating, or is better recorded being recorded as far apart as Worcestershire and Sussex. Yet by the 1800s it was in decline so much that as the 20th dawned only one –Carhampton- had survived. In the West country the custom was the work of the farm workers, supposedly necessary to ensure a good harvest in autumn. Recent revivals wisely organised by breweries! In an article called West Country raises a glass to Wassailing in The Telegraph the then Butcher’s Arms, Kevin Nicholls noted:

Wassailing has been going on in Carhampton for 150 years…I used to come out here as a kid and watch it. When I took over the pub 10 years ago the local wassail was dying so I helped to bring it back. It’s a special occasion: I make a cider and then mull it using a recipe that has been handed down from landlord to landlord. It’s good for the village, especially in changing times when so many people move into an area and don’t know its traditions.”

Although an 150 year old history at least can be claimed it did slip for a few years being revived around the 1930s, and then in the 1980s but perhaps not long enough to be a real revival, just a reboot in today’s language to attract more people.

Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (108)Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (53)

To toast the tree

Soon the chief wassailer, Gordon Holt (for what of another term) looking around for the oldest tree and upon recognizing it beckoned the assembled around. To be honest this original wassail appeared a bit rough and ready – the chief did not have a torch – I lent him mine! However, it followed the classic formula. Again pieces of toast were distributed amongst the tree. He was also holding the pub’s noted cider in a yellow bucket and he distributed it around and poured it over the roots of the plant. A small crowd gathered around him and three men stood close by with their shot guns. It was bizarrely a smaller affair than that at the community orchard. He said a few words of welcome and soon we sung the wassailing song:

“Old apple tree, we wassail thee,                                                               

And hoping thou wilt bear                                                                         

For the Lord doth know where we shall be                                                

Till apples come another year.                                                                   

For to bear well, and to bloom well,                                                          

So merry let us be,                                                                                      

Let every man take off his hat,                                                                           

And shout to the old apple tree!                                                                           

Old apple tree, we wassail thee,                                                                        

And hoping thou wilt bear,                                                                    

Hatfuls, capfuls and three bushel bagsful                                                         

And a little heap under the stairs,                                                             

Hip, Hip, Hooray!”

The last three lines were spiritedly repeated with the small but vocal crowd who joined in the chant. Guns were fired and the event was over! Although the event continued with further folk songs. I notice that Kingsley Palmer and Robert Pattern in their 1971 Some notes on Wassailing and ashen faggots in south and west Somerset notes a three handed wassail cup. They note:

“is inscribed: International Wassail Bowl 1960 Yakima USA-Carhampton England….a visiting American saw the wassail and took the idea back to Yakima whi ch is in a large apple growing area, where it was used as publicity. Each year a young lady from Yakima attends…to act as an ambassador.”

With no sign of the vessel, although similar ones can be seen in early 20th century photos, one wonders if the ambassador turns up still.

Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (105)Carhampton Wassailing the apple trees 2015 (93)

Wass al it about?

The actions of the Wassailers appear rather curious. Why toast? Why fire guns? Why pouring cider? Well there are as always two reasons – one deep and meaningful, the other more prosaic. The folklorist believed that the toast placated folk creatures who looked after the tree and preserved the crop. More functionally it attracted song birds, especially robins who after eating it would eat any pest on the tree – but of course Robins have a spiritual significance themselves. The firing over the trees is said to ward away evil spirits, it could equally scare away mice and especially deer who nibble the developing buds. Certainly it is noted that sometimes when no shotgun is available, pots and pans are used to make as much noise as possible. Perhaps even the provision of cider provided antiseptic antifungal solution to the infections that rested in the roots of the trees? The song of course – unless you believe the power of sound in helping plant developments – is slightly harder to explain scientifically, but of course you have got to have a reason for a get together and a song which ties hopes together. The age is difficult to say..is it pagan? Well despite claims and the real pagan feel about a ritual regarding fertility, there is no pre1400 record.

Wass-al the rage

I noticed Wikipedia states that the traditional one is preceded by a smaller affair at the community orchard. This appears to have flipped over and the traditional event is the more modest one. What was particularly odd was that there did not appear to be much overlap. Why was this? Was it that the community orchard’s wassail was more functional, more relevant to the community? It would be very ironic if the grandfather of these wassails finally died out due to indifference. It’s nearly happened at least a couple of times, in the 1970s when the orchard was nearly lost and not so long ago in the 1990s and whilst apple wassailing is all the range from Bedfordshire to Yorkshire, the unique nature of this event is slipping away. Clearly, apple wassailing is in no fear of dying out…but Carhampton’s on and off 150 year old tradition I cannot be so certain.

 

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Custom contrived: Grenoside Traipse

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“The team would go for many miles on foot to perform for the local gentry, calling at all the public houses on the way. Even if they arrived home at 2 or 3 in the morning, they still insisted on their white trousers being washed and pressed for the next day’s outing.”

Harrington Housely 1973 after 51 years of dancing!

Grenoside Sword Dancers are the other surviving Sheffield team, its earliest reference being in 1750. Sheffield was a stronghold of the custom which appears to have arisen as a means to make money for workers in the city’s cutlery industry who were often layed off over Christmas when the companies did their stock taking. This was a means to raise so much needed cash.

Walk this way

Like Wentworth Boxing Day is the famed outing for the Grenoside Sword Dancers, but this is a fairly recent invention for many years the main outing was the traipse – a walking tour of nearby houses. An account of the team visiting one of these houses is recorded in visitation is made by Lady Tweedsmuir of Wortley Hall in her The Lilac and the Rose:

“Before I leave the subject of Wortley, I would like to recall a strange little episode. We children were told that mummers were coming one evening to sing and dance. What that meant we had of course no idea, but we were allowed to sit up later than usual when they came, and that in itself gave us keen pleasure. We assembled in a room with a stone floor. In came a party of men dressed entrancingly in short coats with bright coloured patterns on them, and long dark trousers. Their leader wore a large rabbit-skin cap with a small rabbit’s head in front.

The songs and dances were charming, and the men’s faces interesting and serious. These mummers were the real thing, and their dances were not inscribed on any printed page, but had come down to them from their forebears. Harry Gust, who was married to our cousin, Nina Welby, was there, and he took down songs and stories from one of the mummers. The man was surprised and reluctant, but eventually told him in scraps and fragments something of his own and his friends’ mumming activities.       One of the songs began pleasantly with,

Tantiro Tantiro, the drums they do beat, The trumpets they do sound upon call, Methinks music’s here, some bold captain’s near, March on, my brave soldiers, away!

I remember now Harry Gust’s face alight with interest as he talked to the captain of the mummers. He wrote an article about them in the Pall Mall Gazette, which he was then editing for Waldorf Astor. I do not know if it interested people. It should have, because it was brilliantly written, but the cult of English folk lore had not dawned then on the horizon of the intelligentsia.

I remember in a childish way being interested in the mummers, realising dimly that they came from an alien world, quite different to the ordered and staid mode of life in that staid and orderly household of Wortley Hall, and that they represented something historical, rough, and elemental.”

A large area, well beyond the Parish would be covered on foot. The intention that between Christmas Eve and the end of January, all of the large manor houses and stately homes, like Wortley Hall would be visited, entertained and money would be given. Indeed the largess was considerable an article in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1895 notes each team member could accrue 30 to 35 shillings over the period (which would be a staggering £530 in modern money). One notable visit to Wentworth Woodhouse managed to collect a staggering £25 at Earl Fitzwilliam’s Christmas party – around  a £1000 worth today!!.

After the Great War, the length and duration of the walking tours were less ambitious year by year until in 1937 the outing was restricted to a Boxing Day tour of the large houses of the Parish Whitley Hall, Greno Lodge, Chapeltown Club and the house of a Dr Moles at Ecclesfield, now the Boxing Day event is associated with only one pub – the Harrow! Then after 57 years a walking tour returned in a way, a custom more contrived to give an idea than a true revival – and it’s not surprising considering the distances! On the 8th of January 1994. A much shorter tour around the Parish’s pubs and some private houses but a homage to those great walks of yore.

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (92) Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (193)

At the sharp end

I first found them finishing a set at the ….well they were getting in their cars – not really a walking tour after all I thought. A bit of a shame but then again the members were not spring chickens!! At Stone house farm despite the remote location attracted quite a crowd of curious onlookers all enraptured and perhaps hypnotised by the ins and outs of the dance. Indeed, there was something quite evocative and magical watching and hearing the dancers, especially when their clogs tapped on the stone floor. Douglas Kennedy in his 1949 England’s Dancers records a scene that has little changed:

“…the dance is performed by six men wearing clogs and carrying straight swords. Associated with it is a certain amount of dialogue and a song ‘calling on’ the dancers, sung by the leader, who brandishes a curved sabre and wears a cap of rabbit’s skin, with the head of the animal set in front. The dancers tie the ‘lock’ at the beginning of their performance, the leader (or Captain as he is called) kneels down in the centre, and afterwards the ‘Lock’ has been placed around his neck the swords are drawn. His cap of skin is knocked off in the process and rolls on the ground, looking like a decapitated head.”

Interesting unlike 1949’s observation where:

“the captain himself does not fall down to become the centre of a dramatic resurrection but just slips away from the dance, which continues its course.”

Now a special sheet is laid and the captain comically falls dead and lays in a foetus position as if dead…although his resurrection still does not occur!

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (86)

What does the dance mean? One of the commonest explanations is that it has a pagan origin, a celebration of the turning year as this evocative account below recalls:

“The Captain sings a song of bravery and love and the dance proceeds with his symbolic beheading and death. The main part of the dance then starts and immediately the Captain revives and “rises from the dead” to lead the dancers in reviving the spirit of the New Year. The six dancers weave intricate patterns with their swords and equally complicated rhythms with their steel-shod clogs. The dance reaches its climax as the fiddler increases the tempo of the dance whilst the dancers perform a rolling figure. The dancers finally form a tight circle and perform a fervent tattoo on the floor before raising their swords, pointing upwards to the sky and, one hopes, a mid-winter sun.”

However convenient this would be the evidence is difficult to find. But do we need a reason?

Grenoside Traipse January 10th 2016 (89)

At the farm I finally met up with fellow folklorist Richard Bradley, we walked back to the Harrow to see the final dance talking of folk customs. As we arrived at the pub the Sword dancers began to arrive – they looked up as the drizzle became to form and become heavier – not sure if we’ll be doing it inside or out one remarked. We retreated inside for a cup of tea, at the other end of the bar the Sword dancers too rested…however we were so engrossed in our conversation that we did not notice that the dancers had gone. Rushing outside we just saw them finish their dance! Oh dear!

 

 

Custom demised: Calennig on New Year’s Day

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“Dydd calan yw hi heddiw, Rwy’n dyfod ar eich traws I ‘mofyn am y geiniog, Neu grwst, a bara a chaws. O dewch i’r drws yn siriol Heb newid dim o’ch gwedd; Cyn daw dydd calan eto Bydd llawer yn y bedd.”

Translated: “Today is the start of the New Year, and I have come to you to ask for coins, or a crust, and bread and cheese. O come to the door cheerfully without changing your appearance; Before the next arrival of the new year many will be dead.”

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On New Year’s morning the streets of parts of Wales, rural areas of Dyfed, Aberystwyth, Monmouthshire, Radnorshire, Glamorgan and Carmarthan, could be heard this curious rhyme which was associated with a strange gift. As a custom it only appears to have spread with slight variation to the boarder regions of England – Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean, Shropshire and Worcestershire. Although we associate Christmas Day as the traditional day for gifts, New Year’s Day was also often associated with gift giving. This was more often associated with the idea of First footing – which survives albeit in a weakened form across England – even this year I remembered my bread to bring in.

Yet as noted until fairly recently Wales had a unique house visiting custom one which involved children. They would visit their relatives by midday carrying skewered apples stuck with fruit and raisins – akin to pomander. Ronald Hutton in his Stations of the Sun describes them as follows:

“an apple or orange, resting on three sticks like a tripod, smeared with flour, stuck with nuts, oats or wheat, topped with thyme or another fragrant herb and held by a skewer.”

It was the fruit which was called the Calennig it appears rather than the custom. In the book 1944 book The Pleasant Land of Gwent, Fred Hando notes a report of his friend Arthur Machen who noted:

“When I was a boy in Caerleon-on-Usk, the town children got the biggest and bravest and gayest apple they could find in the loft, deep in the dry bracken. They put bits of gold leaf upon it. They stuck raisins into it. They inserted into the apple little sprigs of box, and they delicately slit the ends of hazel-nuts, and so worked that the nuts appeared to grow from the ends of the holly leaves … At last, three bits of stick were fixed into the base of the apple tripod-wise; and so it borne round from house to house; and the children got cakes and sweets, and-those were wild days, remember-small cups of ale.”

In Gentlemens magazine march 1919:

“Children to their inexpressibly journey will be drest in their best bibs and aprons, and may be seen handed along the streets, some beating Kentish pippins, others oranges stuck with cloves, in order to crave a blessing of their godfathers and god others”

Generally states as the Calennig had a basic design. As Jacqueline Simpson in Folklore of the Welsh boarder this was an apples mounted on three wooden legs (a tripod) and decorated with sprigs of box and hazel nuts.

It was not always restricted to apples either sometimes it was an orange in this case using holly, tinsel, raisins, gold and silver glitter being added.

The Opie’s in Lore of Schoolchildren (1955) notes of a Radnorshire girl

“I always go New Year gifting with my sister and friends, about four of us. I get up about 7 O’clock and call for my friends and go around the houses and farms:

“I wish you a merry Christmas,

A happy new year,

A pocket full of money and a cellar full of beer,

A good fat pig to last you all year,

Please give me a New Year’s gift for this New Year.”

She stated that sometimes she would get apples or mince pies. She stated that gifting must finish by midday otherwise people will shout ‘fool at you.’

The custom appeared similar in south-west Shropshire in Clun where the children recited:

“Happy New Year. Happy New Year, I’ve come to wish you happy New Year.

I’ve got a little pocket and it is very thin,

Please give me a penny to put the money in,,

If you haven’t got a penny, a half penny will do, if you haven’t got a half penny – God bless you.”

Interestingly in Glamorgan and Carmarthen they could extend it to the entire month. Whether we should include the English counties is unclear, as outside of Wales the decorated apple does not appear to be recorded. It was called The gift in Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. Interestingly, Simpson in Folklore of the Welsh boarder states they were still common in Monmouthshire and around St Briavels in 1900. In Chepstow she states before the First World War it was called a Monty and those who carried it chanted:

“Monty, Monty, Happy New Year,

A pocket full of money and cellar full of beer”

Origins of the custom

It is possible that the custom descended from adults for in Herefordshire, the 1822 Gentleman’s Magasine notes that the peasantry called with:

“a small pyramid made of leaves, apples, nuts etc,, gilt in hope of receiving gifts in exchange for the luck this conferred.”

Yet by 1880s it was only youngsters. Certainly in 17th and 18th references are made to a decorated orange with cloves being a gift for New Years in England. Brand (1900) in his Observations on popular antiquities makes note of a remark on the Christmas masque of Ben Jonson ‘he has an orange and rosemary, but not a clove to stick in it Hutton in his Stations of the Sun saw the three components as representing gifts of the Three Wise Men of sweetness, wealth and immortality. The author of The weird wonders of wales – the right way with Calennig from 12/12/1986 notes:

“This calennig apple clearly dates from ancient times, being a representation of the sun which was absent during winter.

Death of the custom?

Even by the early 20th century it was in decline as Donald Davis of Those were the days from 11/7/1936 notes:

“Lately the carrying of an apple has been discontinued and only the recitation of brief verses or greetings and the collection of new pennies mark the custom in those districts where it has survived.”             

In Llandysul, Carmarthanshire, an account on the BBCs Domesday Reloaded records:

The custom has rapidly declined over the years and this year, 1985, very few children came collecting because the children today get enough pocket money and food. Also, many children may not have been told about the custom by their parents.”

In other parts of the country it was still being recorded but it in a way the well-meaning anonymous author of The author of The weird wonders of wales – the right way with calennig from 12/12/1986 perhaps by begrudging gifts led to its decline:

“Soon it will be calennig time. That’s when youngsters come to the door asking for me years gifts. Over the last few years, those who have come to my door have been duly treated, but this year will be different. Why? Because they haven’t been doing it right! Shame on them. We shall put things right. The way it should be done….is for the children to knock day a proper calennig verse to the person who answers, and then receive the gift.

He also goes on to note he had seven such verses that the children should use.

“Os fyddech chi mor garedig, Ac agor drws y ty, Y flwyddyn fwyaf lucid a fyddo gyda chwi” ‘Blwyddyn newydd dda I chi, Ac I bawb sydd yn y ty, dyma yw’n dymuniad ni O ddechrau’r flwyddyn hon.’ If no one answers Blwyddyn newydd ddrwg, Llond y ty o fwg.’ A bad new year may your house fill with smoke and then run away like the clapper readers can help preserve the custom too by responding to those youngsters who ‘do it proper’, let’s see what we can do to keep our traditions alive”

I wonder if they heeded him. Certainly there is little reference I can find to the custom through the 90s. Today Calennig has become a name for civic New Year’s celebration, often for children, such as those held in Cardiff. Yet it is difficult to be sure with private and domestic customs. Does it still survive? Certainly it did in 2003 but by the sound of the article The custom of calennig on 16/1/03 it did not sound particularly healthy (with five children only)!:

“The old welsh tradition of calennig is still alive in Llanrhystud. At around 11 o’clock on New Year’s Day in the morning the joyful sound of children’s voices was heard at several homes in and around the village as five local children sang traditional New Year songs to wish all those they visited a happy new year. Some were rewarded sign gifts of money. In older times children would be given gifts of fruit, cakes or sweets. Calennig normally begins soon after the dawn of the New Year and continues until noon, the earliest callers are generously rewarded for their enthusiasm. It is good to see this ancient custom continuing well into the twenty first century.”

The fact that the custom survived into the 80s with no mention as a living custom by folklorists is astounding, survival into the 21st century even more amazing, but of course such customs can survive like the New Year’s Penny Scramble in Driffield which was then absent from books and sites like the excellent Calendercustoms. Certainly people are aware of it as the Youtube clip and Twitter feeds shows and guides how to make one exist. But does any child still go out properly house visiting with one? Has it died a death completely like other house visiting customs succumbed to the power of Hallowe’en! Does it still survive where you are? Please comment and perhaps add photos.