Tag Archives: Wassail

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

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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.

 

Custom contrived: The Bankside Twelfth Night Wassail

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Wassailing appears to be all the rage in folk circles with revivals occurring all over. I had planned to discuss another custom for January, but after travelling back from Australia for Christmas and as I was in London, I decided to see this event and became so entranced by it that I felt I needed to extol its virtues.

Appropriately for someone coming from overseas, Bankside is a sort a microcosm of the modern day Britain. Old terraces share their boundaries with a resurrected Elizabethan Theatre, The Globe, whilst the shell of a monstrous power station holds a bizarre collection of art nearby. All lay along a mighty river. Quintessentially Britain in a nutshell. So it seems appropriate to establish a folk custom here which distils a number into one event!

Roaring success!

Mark Rylance, artistic director of the Globe was apparently the inspiration for this enterprise. A group, The Lions Part, being a spin of the Original Shakespeare Company based at the Globe, established the event in 1994 and it has gone from strength to strength since. For many there, this may be the first and only encounter with British folk customs and so the Lions Part have a large responsibility placed upon their shoulders. I did feel considering the enormous numbers watching the Mummer’s play, that someone should have been leafleting for mummers play countrywide…Like this? Why not try a Plough Monday play?

Despite the contrived nature of the custom, this is a custom which works…many because of the enthusiasm and professionalism of the performers but also because it is a curious amalgam of great British customs…a Green Man, Wassailing, Mummer’s Play, Molly dancing, Father Christmas, Twelfth Night cakes and the Lord and Lady of Misrule and even a tree dressing. Nothing was missed to make this smorgasbord of customs.

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A Holly Man for all seasons

The arrival of the Holly Man despite the modern panorama before us still has an ancient evocative appeal. Rowed by an old Thames Cutter, his image comes closer to view. To a number of people watching on the embankment, this must have been a very bizarre sight and not one they thought they may have encountered as they checked out Tate Modern! On the steps awaited Beelzebub carrying two flaming torches, a stag and a white bear (based on the Polar bear of the medieval Tower).

The Holly Man is a fine if possibly rather uncomfortable sight! Impressively covered head to toe in a variety of holly, ivy and yew, his face painted green with tendrils and leaves applied overall very otherworldly. Potentially the Holly Man looks very scary indeed but fortunately David Ridley who play him, spends a lot of time smiling.

The Holly Man is a curious character in folklore, identified by Robert Graves in The White Goddess as the Holly King who represented one half of the year being at his strongest at the Midwinter period and weakest naturally at Midsummer, when the Oak King ruled.  Whilst as an archetype it is an obvious model, there is no evidence that such a figure existed in England, although he is clearly popular with Neopagans.

And it Wassail from him and Wassail from me!

“Wassail” cried the crowd in unison! They had been here before I feel. Holding a wooden bowl filled with alcohol a scrib sheet was unfurled for the crowd and the first Wassail was read:

“Blow wind. Blow boat well, Ride well on the tide, Every beam and every sail, Bear the crew bravely home each sailing day.”

The group then moved through the massed crowds like rock stars at a concert to the steps of the Globe theatre. Here the doctor unfurled the second sheet and the crowd shouted:

“Blow wind. Globe bear well, Spring well in playing, Every lath and timber, Bear the tongues of poets, Next New Year’s summer.”

BanksideTwelfth Night Traditioncustomandceremonies.wordpress.com (44)Keeping mum

The group then moved with their swarming crowd to an arena nearby for their mummer’s play. The characters of this play ranged from those still in circulation in the ‘modern’ mummers – St. George, Turkish Knight, Father Christmas, Beelzebub and the Doctor. To this they added Prudence, Gill Finney, Cleverlegs and Twelfth Bake, some of which have an authentic Elizabethan flavour.

The play, which was certainly longer than your average Mummer’s performance had all the usual ingredients, conflict between St. George and Turkish Knight, his death and resurrection at the hand of the Doctor with various add on scenes. The play was without doubt the slickest and best mummer’s play I had seen. That is no slight upon the many extremely enjoyable amateur performances, but of course, when professionals are involved like the theatre the result can be excellent. The best performance was by Justin Brett who played Beelzebub, he easily embodied the mischief and devilish nature of the character….very much like a court jester, and indeed he reminded me of Timothy Claypole of BBC TV classic show Rentaghost.  He was very amusing and played the crowd excellently during a section where he cried out for topics from 2013 to create rhymes…although I worried I had gone through a time worm hole when someone shouted ‘Olympics’. Certainly amongst the topics such as flooding, a rhyme about the death of Margaret Thatcher was well pitched to the clientele of Southwark and ‘arty’ establishment who were not exactly big supporters of the Iron Lady…it engendered the biggest laughs let us say!

Mind you Peas and Beans

After the Mummer’s play, cakes are distributed for the crowning of the King Bean and Queen Pea. Twelfth Night is an event that now has only become synonymous with taking the decorations down, (see a forthcoming February post for comment on this), but from medieval times to early 1800s it was a time to celebrate often with feasts and fun. Often the day would be associated with a Lord of Misrule character that would overturn the usual master and servant relationship. As time went on, many of the traditions associated with it died out…the cake lasting the longest before being brought back to Christmas Day itself. Yet despite its apparent demise it is interesting to see that you can’t keep an old custom down!

Cakes were duly given out…although I was missed…and the Holly Man held their twig crowns awaiting the discovery of the King and Queen. Poet Herrick noted the “King of the Bean” in the 17th century:

“Now, now the mirth comes,
With the cake full of plums,
Where bean’s the king of the sport here;
Besides we must know,
The pea also,
Must revel as queen in the court here. Begin then to choose,
This night as ye use,
Who shall for the present delight here,
Be a king by the lot,
And who shall not,
Be Twelfth-day queen for the night here, Which known, let us make,
Joy-sops with the cake;
And let not a man then be seen here,
Who unurg’d will not drink,
To the base from the brink,
A health to the king and the queen here.”

 This custom appears to have been popular in Tudor times having been imported from France or Spain, the finder of the bean would be the King and the pea the Queen As a custom it died out in the 1700s I believe and so again it was great to see the group revive it. However, this year there was some problem finding the pea I believe, someone must have swallowed it unbeknownst and so someone volunteered to be the King Bean. So the King and Queen, both women. After this we travelled to the George Inn, Southwark. The curious assemble of onlookers, now becoming entranced by the whole spectacle gladly held hands and made their way to the watering hole in a giant unbroken daisy chain. Once at the pub, the Holly Man with his Bean and Pea royalty read their third Wassail.

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“Wassail to this old building, Long may she stand, Every barrel and every brew, Cheer the company bravely, Every drinking day!”

Here a miniature tree was also wassailed

“Here’s to this little apple tree, Long may it bear fruit, Every barrel, every brew, Cheer the company bravely, every drinking day.”

The group promised storytelling and dancing. I stayed for the dancing, Molly dancing from East Anglia, just to collect the folk collage.

What is curious is that the Bankside Twelfth Night, despite its twenty year vintage has soon become a focus for modern pagans. Like a modern day fertility symbol, there appeared to be no shortage of young women wishing to pose with the Holly Man, again underlining our need in this modern world for a fertility symbol. Perhaps for many here the surrealist day they might experience…especially for me with my day starting with a cup of tea with Noel Gallagher sitting beside me in Tate Modern. Rock stars. Modern Art. Holly Man…it’s difficult to work out what is more surreal!

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Find out when it’s on:

Calendar Customs link http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/bankside-twelth-night-celebrations/

– images copyright Pixyled Publications