Heather's Monthly Articles

Wassail!

January 2019

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Prelude to a Wassail
Maplehurst, West Sussex

It may be a new year, but in certain parts of the U.K. come January 5th or 6th it might well as be the Middle Ages. For that’s when many towns and villages celebrate Twelfth Night, with wassailing and log burning ceremonies that go back hundreds of years.

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Twelfth Night performers drink
from a Wassail Bowl

Bodmin in Cornwall, for instance, is the proud possessor of a will left by a chap called Nicholas Spry, that dates back to 1624 and which details the town’s wassailing festivities. Spry, who was the Town Clerk and three-time mayor of Bodmin, bequeathed in his will a wassailing bowl and the funds to fill it. Namely three shillings and 4 pence for an “annual wassail cup” to promote the “continuance of love and neighbourly meetings” and to “remember all others to carry a more charitable conscience”. The use of the word “continuance” leads one to assume that what would become known as the Bodmin Wassail, was already an established tradition.

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Under the directive in Spry’s will, on the 12th day of Christmas, the cup was to be carried through the town to the Mayor’s house, collecting funds as it went. Although the stipend ran out long ago, the custom continues, It’s a twelve-hour festival of song, drink and fundraising, undertaken by a group of men dressed in top hat and tails, who warble their way through the streets of Bodmin. The smart clothes they wear are usually hand me downs, passed along through the ages from one wassailer to another.

Meanwhile in the quaintly sounding village of Curry Rivel in Somerset, the locals are not only wassailing the night away, but celebrating with the burning of the Ashen Faggot – a type of yule log bound by lengths of strong, but flexible, willow stems known as "withies". Typically, back in the day, all households would burn the ashen faggot for fear of bringing on years of misfortune and bad luck.

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Dunster & Axmouth Ashen Faggot

Nowadays, the ritual is carried out in a local pub, where the ashen faggot is placed in the hearth and set alight while bets are placed as to how long it might take until the last binding burst. The winner gets a prize and the proceeds go to charity. The burning process can usually take several hours, during which time there is much singing, drinking and revelry. That sounds a lot more pleasant than what was described in the 1878 records of the small town of Ashburton:

It was usual when the fire was well lighted and the wood beginning to crack, to place the youngest child of the household on the faggot. The length of time the child stayed there was regarded by the old people as a sign of future bravery or otherwise. - C. Smith.

Reveling in the smell of smoldering flesh must have been a popular pastime in ancient times, for another traditional January custom is one called “Haxey Hood”. It involves a two-foot tubular “ball”, one and a half mile apart “goals”, twelve umpires and a smoldering "Fool"! I’ll have more on that next month. In the meantime, Wassail!

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