|Crook Morris & Friends Wassailing The Damson Tree 2015 ~|
On the bitter cold and frost of a January morning, small groups of people muffled against the chill, proceeded up the country lanes of Lyth valley into the damson orchard. Some in silence, others with as much noise as they could muster, to chase away the evil spirits. One carried the three handled Wassailing bowl filled with a steaming brew of mulled beer or cider, the steam mingling with the cloudy breath of the participants. Carols were sung, the tree and orchard blessed……..
This is the traditional folk custom of Wassailing fruit trees – a ceremony intended to begin the process of waking the fruit trees from their winter slumber and the first fertility festival of the folk calendar. The word wassail derives from the Old English / Anglo Saxon words wæs (þu) hæl which means variously ‘be healthy’ or ‘be whole’ – both of which meanings survive in the modern English phrase ‘hale and hearty’. Thus Wassailing likely predates the Norman conquest in 1066. This is a traditional ceremony which seeks to start off the first stirrings of life in the land and to help it emerge from winter and to ensure that the next season’s crop of fruit, especially apples and pears, will be bountiful.
The most common date for this custom to take place is the eve of Twelfth Night or Old Christmas Eve, ie 5th January, just at the end of the midwinter period when the Wild Hunt rides and chaos traditionally rules as the otherworldly horde broke through into human realms. In some cases, however the ceremony takes places a little later on 17th January, depending on whether the celebrants prefer to follow the old or new calendar. This first fertility ceremony of the year marks a return to human ‘normality’ after the dark and dangerous days of midwinter – The ceremony takes place a couple of weeks before Imbolc, the festival which for modern pagans is generally as being the first fertility festival of the year.
The singing of carols at the Wassail can be traced back to the pagan tradition of carol singing from before the advent of Christianity. The word carol is derived from the Greek word ‘choraulein’ which meant a dance accompanied by the playing of flutes. Such dancing—usually done in ring form—was very popular in ancient times among the Greek and Roman people. The Romans brought the custom and its name to Britain.
In medieval England ‘carol’ meant a ring-dance accompanied by singing. The dancers would form a circle and, joining their hands, walk in rhythmic dance-step while keeping the form of the circle (as our children still do in their “ring-around-a-rosy” game). Chaucer describes such a ring-dance in his Romaunt of the Rose, using the word “carol” for the dance itself. He pictures himself approaching a group of dancing young ladies, and one of them “ful curteisly” calls him:
“What do ye there, beau sire?” quod she;
“Come neer, and if it lyke yow
To dauncen, daunceth with us now.”
And I, withoute tarying,
Wente into the caroling.
Gradually the meaning of “carol” changed, and the word was applied to the song itself. As carols were already an established custom, early Christians made the shrewd decision to integrate Christian songs into the tradition rather than ban the singing. Before singing christian carols in public became popular, there were official carolers called ‘Waits’. Waits were people sanctioned by the local officials to sing carols on Christmas Eve and collect money for the poor.
There was a short interruption in 1647, when the puritans came to power after the English Civil War. The puritans, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, disapproved of the celebration of Christmas. There was even a fine of up to five shillings for anyone caught singing Christmas carols. When King Charles II came back to the throne in 1660, the public singing of Christmas carols was permitted again.
Wassailing falls into two distinct categories:
The House-Visiting Wassail and the Orchard-Visiting Wassail.
The House-Visiting Wassail, caroling by another name, is the practice of people going door-to-door singing Christmas carols.It was a chance for peasants to get some much needed charity from their feudal lords. This singing for money developed in a custom involving traveling musicians who would visit wealthy homes, singing in the hope of receiving money food or gifts in return.
Wassail, oh wassail all over the town
The cup it is white, the ale it is brown
The cup it is made of the good ashen tree
And so is the beer of the best barley
There appear to have been other British customs involving the Wassail bowl including carrying the bowl of hot spiced ale or cider from door to door in a community by a group of young people. Householders who were visited were expected to give a little money to the wassailers who either then gave the donor a drink from the bowl or drank to the health of the donor and his family and household. In other cases, the Wassailers engaged in a series of challenges or riddles with the householder and sought to gain entry to the house by wit or persuasion. If they succeeded then they were given food and money.
The Orchard-Wassail is the ancient custom of visiting orchards in England, reciting incantations and singing carols to the trees to promote a good harvest for the coming year.
The ceremony generally begins with the tree, usually the oldest and most venerable tree in an orchard, being serenaded with traditional “wake up” type of chants, rhymes and sung carols, alternating with speeches by the group’s leader in praise of the tree, its fruitfulness in previous years and exhorting it to do even better in the coming year.
Wassaile the trees that they may beare
You many a plum and many a pear
For more or less fruits they will bring
As you do give them wassailing.
The custom may include the tree or trees being beaten about the trunk with the sticks. This is believed to begin the process of awakening the tree and starting the sap flowing up the trunk. It is accompanied by much shouting and the making of as much noise as possible, and shotguns are sometimes fired up into the branches. Again, this is believed to assist the tree in awakening from its winter sleep as well as frightening away any evil spirits which might be lurking in the branches.
Finally pieces of toasted bread soaked in the prepared drink are thrust up into forks in the branches or hollows in the tree and left there as offerings, whether to the tree or to the robins. The remainder of the drink is generally sloshed around and over the trunk of the tree, though in some places part of it may also be ceremonially drunk by the participants.
Wren Day, a related tradition, may also be carried out at this Wassail ceremony, although it was traditionaly celebrated on 26 December, St. Stephen’s Day. The wren traditionally symbolised winter and the robin summer. The tradition consists of “hunting” a fake wren, and putting it on top of a decorated pole or in a garlanded box to symbolise the death of winter and then taken from door to door. The crowds of mummers or strawboys celebrate the wren (pr wran) by dressing up in masks, straw suits and colourful motley clothing and, accompanied by traditional céilí music bands, parade through the towns and villages. These crowds are sometimes called wrenboys.
At each house this song was sung an the occupants asked to pay to see the dead wren with the words “Please to see the King.”
Here I am happy to say a symbolic wren was used and inplace of killing the good folk bowed to wish the Wren King well in his passing.
From Somerset comes a most powerful rhyme for calling blessings down on beasts and crops:
Good luck to the hoof and horn
Good luck to the flock and fleece
Good luck to the growers of corn
With blessings of plenty and peace.