Wassailing, an ancient custom from Saxon times to give blessings of good health over the twelve days of Christmas, is making something of a come-back.
Traditionally, livestock, crops and farm machinery were blessed as well as people. Blessings were taken from door to door. In Scotland and the North of England this is known as First Footing in the New Year.The Lord of the Manor would give food (figgy pudding) and drink to peasants who worked on his estate in exchange for their blessing and goodwill.
This was the forerunner of carolling – considered too rowdy to be done in church and also the forerunner of trick-or-treating in America, as Halloween was the original New Year’s Eve in the Celtic calendar.
“Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a Happy New Year”
Another example of a carol originating from wassail is “We wish you a Merry Christmas” (see Advent 15)
In the Southern shires of England – apple wassail blessings were to ensure a good crop for cider, especially in Kent which produces the best apples for commercial cider, and in the south-west for Scrumpy. English writer Thomas Hardy wrote about wassailing in his books and short stories set in Dorset ensuring that the custom has never died out there. The proceedings for apple wassailing are led by a Wassail King through the orchard, toasting trees and pouring cider on the roots:
Hampshire Wassail Rhyme:
Stand fast root, bear well top.
Pray God send us a good howling crop
Every twig, apples big. Every bough, apples enow.
Hats full, caps full, Tall quarter, sacks full.
Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!
Cider is drunk, songs are sung and drums, sticks, rattles and bells are beaten to drive away bad spirits and encourage the trees to give a good harvest.
Mummers plays, about the Good fighting off Evil, are often performed at apple wassails too. These were known throughout the UK and Ireland and were even taken to Newfoundland with The Pilgrim Fathers. Though kept in much of Wales, the festivals elsewhere gave way to Morris dancing in England, sword dancing in Scotland and pantomime(see Advent 8) just about everywhere. Raggedy characters (literally in costumes made from rags) introduce themselves in rhyming couplets:
Policeman Plod: ‘Ello, ‘ello, ello. In comes I, Policeman Plod.
Jack the Sniffer: You’ll never catch me you silly old sod. (He exits)
Betty Bertha: He’s gone off and scarpered all hurt and affronted
You’ve poked your nose in where it’s not wanted.
Mummer-characters have been Christian crusaders versus Moors, St George (Prince George or King George) and the Dragon, Beelzebub, Dracula, Robin Hood and the Sherif. But secondary characters kept in these plays included Olde Father Christmas and The Fool. These were obviously continued in our pantomimes.
Wassail also refers to the spiced-cider punch in the wassail-bowl. There are many recipes, which you can find online, but I use beer (left-over and flat) along with fizzy cider and a small cup of brandy in a slow-cooker. Throw in some brown sugar, the juice and rind of a clementine or two, a squirt of lemon, some apples quartered (pips & stalk removed) and Christmas spices such as ginger, cloves, cardamom and a few sticks of cinnamon. It makes the house smell lovely and is a warm welcome for guests coming in from the cold.
At 3pm on Christmas Day each year, the majority of British citizens switch on BBC TV to listen to The Queen’s Speech.
There will be clips of the Royals and what they did throughout the year; as well as a topic which will be the focal point of what the Nation will focus on in the coming year. This could be an emphasis on: older people who live on their own, disabled veteran servicemen and women, war and our defences, unity of faiths, what is a Christian? etc.
However the speech is really commissioned by the Prime Minister for the Government of the day. People watch The Queen intensely to see if there is a flicker of approval or disapproval in her manner while delivering the words.
For instance, in her last speech at the re-opening of Parliament in May 2016, it was virtually a list from Cameron’s Conservative Party manifesto and The Queen looked very miserable. She just looked down and read it off the paper: “Proposals will be brought forward for a British Bill of Rights. My ministers will uphold the sovereignty of Parliament and the primacy of the House of Commons…”
The programme ends with a rousing anthem of God Save The Queen and though I know of many who will be crashed out and snoring on the sofa by this time on the 25th of December, there will be others standing up and raising their glasses.
At Christmas time, we are bombarded with both new and traditional weird combinations of rich eats that we would not bother with at any other time. Each year celebrity chefs and supermarkets offer shocking products to pile on the calories and get in the news – it has become more like a jungle challenge from “I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here”
Michelin Star chef Heston Blumenthal, who brought us the likes of snail porridge and lollypops made from real mice paté has come up with Banana and Bacon trifle this year to replace our traditional English one.
Some British try to sample every single item that is considered ‘traditional’ over the festive period, which costs a fortune and prevents you from moving from your armchair.
By no means exhaustive, there’s: Russet apples, Anjou pears, quinces, clementines, Medjool dates, Quality Street chocolates, chocolate mice, chocolate tree decorations, advent calendar chocolates, chocolate selection boxes, Belgian chocolates,
chocolate biscuits, short-bread biscuits, gingerbread, lobster, prawns, salmon, raised pork pie, turkey, venison, goose, Brussels sprouts (which no-one seems to be able to cook properly), pickled onions, pickled gherkins, pickled red cabbage, assorted chutneys, parsnips, turnips, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, pigs in blankets (chippolata sausages wrapped in bacon), nut-roast, chestnut-stuffing, Stilton cheese, baked Brie, panettone, stollen, samosas, Turkish delight, sherry trifle, crisps, walnuts, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, almonds, chocolate Yule log, and lots of cakes and puddings made with dried fruits, marzipan and all soaked in alcohol (I’ll need a separate post for the booze, though WordPress are telling me I am running out of space on my post): Christmas cake, mince pies (nope no meat in these).
Then pour plenty more alcohol over your figgy pudding (Christmas Pudding) and set alight to it! Serve these with brandy-butter, rum-cream, vanilla custard or any flavour ice-cream you fancy – Heston has brought out marmalade-on-toast flavour for Waitrose this year!
As children we wore our Christmas sweaters all winter – They were more like the tasteful Nordic ones then only not as good crafting.
For anyone that has read or seen the Bridget Jones Diary (2001) movie, they will know that in the UK we wear silly pullovers at Christmas. Knitwear presents are popular and if your aunt has spent the year knitting that embarrassing sweater for you, then the least you can do is wear it to family gatherings over Christmas.
But since that film these jumpers have taken off in a big way. Sixteen years later, we now even import cheap acrylic ones from China. We have a Christmas jumper at work day to raise money for charity and Presenters even wear them on television! There are nights out and pub-crawls where it is compulsory to wear your Christmas jumper.
Here are more photos I took from the Christmas jumper night out at Southampton’s Christmas market – click on to enlarge:
In Britain and Ireland we pull Christmas crackers at the dinner table which we have at lunch time on December 25th.
Crackers may have caught on in other countries too and I’d be interested to hear from your part of the world if they have.
When pulled it activates a firecracker that makes a loud ‘crack’.
Whoever gets the longest end, gets the prize. Prizes can vary from cheap plastic charms to gold tie-pins depending on how much you can afford.
One is set at each dinner place. Each will contain a paper crown, which is compulsory to wear at the table and there will be a lot of cajoling to get a grumpy Grandad to wear his. There will also be a joke to read out – usually a pun on words that will be so corny it makes everyone sigh. It is essential that the joke is corny.
Here are some examples:
Q: What kind of sweet goes swinging through the jungle? A: Tarzi-pan
Q: What do you call two robbers? A: A pair of knickers
This then starts the reminiscing old jokes and funny tales. Often there are enough crackers left to pull the next day “Boxing Day” which is also a holiday in Britain.
Ice Skating is always associated with Christmas in Britain. Artificial rinks are put up in nearby towns as it is never usually the right temperature, especially where I live in the South, to have natural ones.
The winter of 1962–1963(also known as the Big Freeze of 1963) was one of the coldest winters on record in the United Kingdom. Temperatures plummeted and lakes and rivers began to freeze over.
I had a pair of second-hand ice-skates given to me for Christmas then. I used to go to the Bannister Ice Rink, near The Common in Southampton with my sister. I remember that the pavements and roads were so iced up that I skated on them all the three miles home to the Newtown area.
Birds feature heavily at the British Christmas table.
The Victorians always carved goose at Christmas, but later ate turkey when Charles Dickens wrote about it in A Christmas Carol, adopting it from the New World (America).
“Christmas is a-coming, the goose is getting fat… Please put a penny in the old man’s hat… If you haven’t got a penny a ha’penny will do… If you haven’t got a ha’penny then God bless you!“
A few years ago celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall featured his 10-bird roast. Multi-bird roasts are different types of birds each stuffed inside a larger one, and the more birds involved the better.
Whittingstall was harking back to Tudor times when stuffing birds this way was fashionable. Or a different bird was eaten each day of the 12 days of Christmas (the 12 days between 25th December and the 5th January – the eve of Epiphany or Kings Day)
” 7 swans-a-swimming – 6 geese-a-laying – 4 calling birds – 3 french hens – 2 turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree”
Since then the 3-4-5-7-10-12 bird roast has made a big come back – there is a very interesting article about it in: The Mail Online
However the most popular bird at Christmas in the UK is still Chicken – possibly because it is the cheapest yet tastiest – and the bird of choice with British Hindus, who marinade it in spices for days for slow roasting it.
Pride of Place is an amazing project organised by The Caravan Gallerywhich is a collaboration between artists and photographers Jan Williams and Chris Teasdale in partnership with local arts organisations in the UK. Part evolving exhibition, part alternative visitor information centre, these projects give local people an opportunity to explore their surroundings in a creative way by contributing to the exhibition.
So far the projects have taken place in Portsmouth, Oxford, Litham St Annes, Liverpool, Wirral, Huntley, Guernsey and now Southampton – with the support of an Arts Council England Strategic Touring grant.
The exhibition continues in East Street Southampton throughout November