The demise of this custom shows how easily common traditions can be lost. So popular was the custom that it had a place in the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica:
“What is popularly known as wassailing was the custom of trimming with ribbons and sprigs of rosemary a bowl which was carried round the streets by young girls singing carols at Christmas and the New Year. This ancient custom still survives here and there, especially in Yorkshire, where the bowl is known as `the vessel cup,’ and is made of holly and evergreens, inside which are placed one or two dolls trimmed with ribbons. The cup is borne on a stick by children who go from house to house singing Christmas carols.”
In the 1800s up to around 1920s, local children around the midlands and northern England, County Durham, Lancashire, and particularly Yorkshire, would enact a curious custom like a mix between carol singing and May Dolls. The custom had many names, often localised Wesley Bob, a Wassail Bob, a Vessel Cup, a Pretty Box or a Milly Box. When the custom was done varied. Visitation days varied accounts recorded in Yorkshire emphasis this variation in Thorpe Hesley it began at Christmas Eve and went on for two to three days. Whereas Hoyland Common only on Christmas day morning. West Melton and Hemingfield it was Boxing Day and Rawmarsh it was New Year’s Day. Generally though the tradition would begin at Advent or more often St. Thomas’s Day, although in some areas it was November, suggesting there is nothing new in the early celebration of Christmas!
How the custom was organized differed from place to place. Sometimes it was a private form of begging and at others organized by the church. The basic approach was as follows: two girls would be the ‘vessel maids’ and they carried a box, decorated with evergreens, often fruit and spices, from home to home, covered in a white cloth. At the people’s homes, the girls would sing a carol and solicit the homeowner for some money, usually a penny, to reveal what was under the sheet. This was a scene of the Holy Family.
Clement Miles in his Christmas in Ritual and Tradition notes that:
“At Gilmorton, Leicestershire, a friend of the present writer remembers that the children used to carry round what they called a “Christmas Vase,” an open box without lid in which lay three dolls side by side, with oranges and sprigs of evergreen. Some people regarded these as images of the Virgin the Christ Child and Joseph.”
As Wright, in their A Yorkshire Wassail Box in Folklore (1906) notes the song sung varied. Sometimes it was the familiar ‘God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen’ followed by:
“God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too,
And all your pretty children
Around your table go.
For it is the time of year
When we travel far nad near;
So God bless you and send you
A Happy New Year.
We have a little purse,
It is made of leather skin,
We want a little of your money
To line it well within.
Our boots are very old,
And our clothes are very thin;
We’re tired out with wandering around,
And if we cannot sing,
If you only spare a copper
To line the purse within.
So God prosper you and I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.”
At Normanton the following could be heard:
“Here we come a–wessailing (sic), among the leaves so green.
And here we come a—wandering, so fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too,
And God send you a Happy New Year, a New Year!
And God send you a Happy New Year!
“We are not daily beggars, that beg from door to door,
But we are neighbour’s children, that you have seen before.
Love and joy come to you
I have a little purse lined with stretching leather skin,
And I want a little of your money to link it well within.
Love and joy come come to you.”
Then the box contents were revealed!
A description of the box from the Yorkshire village of Wheatcroft described it as follows:
“The dolls in it have been carried round for twenty–five years. The box measures 111/4 in. x 7 1/2 in. by 3 in. deep. It has a lid, but this is not always the case, though the contents of a box are always covered. The box contains besides the two dolls (the large of which is dressed in red), paper flowers, a lemon, holly and mistletoe, a purse, and an artificial orange and an artificial apple, both the artificial fruits containing sweets. If all the fruits are real, it is necessary to put in a bag of sweets. The purse should have a hole in it… S.A.’s mother says that the dolls represent the Virgin and Child, and that the box should be made of “parch–board” and lined with moss and ivy. ”
Bad luck was associated with the vessel cup if the householder denied it or if it did not arrive. Duncan (1925) in his Second book of carols notes a saying:
“As unhappy as the man who has seen no Advent Images.”
Thistleton Dyer in his British Popular Customs,
“The household visited by the party were allowed to take from these decorations a leaf or flower, which was carefully preserved as a sovereign remedy for toothache.”
All these associations perhaps link it to a possible pagan origin. Certainly, Wright (1906) believed it was associated with pre-Christian deity Dionysius. For as a baby he was placed in a cradle and surrounded by flowers, although it is more likely the biblical crib story derives from that. He also notes that the name vessel came from ship and that the effigy was the boy Sceaf (afterwards changed to Jesus) as a representation of the birth of a new year. Support for this comes from author such as Chaucer who does record the belief that New Year “like a child, came over the sea in a ship.” However it is more likely that it comes from wassail as in was hael ‘good health’.
Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren
Death of the custom
When the custom died out is unclear but certainly by the 19th century it was coming under some criticism being described as ‘impious,’ being celebrated by ‘the lowest dregs of humanity,’ and ‘the singing so wretched caterwauling.’
Interesting like many customs it appears in the early 20th century to have gone through a transformation. Dunstan in his West Riding Vessel Cup or Wassail Song states the song is:
“as now generally sung by children decked and carrying evergreens and sometimes having blackened faces.”
And no actual cup! Thomas et al (1926) in their Advent Images and Lucy Green, continues on the theme, the Lucy green is a small child dressed in evergreen branches and called it “Lucy Green.” And another called “Turkey Claw Chori” where a turkey claw as a badge of office for those soliciting money. Even the song changed ‘Seven Joys of Mary’ but sung to the tune of ‘God rest you merry.’ However, a search on the internet shows people are keen to revive and presenting some stateside Catholics have revived it…will it ever return here…time will tell.
Vessel cups at Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire © Lēoht Steren