Advent 19: Mummers, Wassailers and Yulesingers

Blessing the orchard at Manor Farm Country Park, Southampton
Blessing the orchard at Manor Farm Country Park, Southampton

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.

Toasting the apple tree in the literal sense
Toasting the apple tree in the literal sense

P1130610This 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:


p1100943 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 play with St George and Olde Father Christmas
Mummers play with St George and Olde Father Christmas

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.

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Dipping toast in the wassail bowl to put on apple tree branches at Manor Farm

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.

All photos © Southampton Old Lady

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English Bramley Apples

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This time of year, my friend invites us to visit her garden and collect the excess of Bramley Apples (they tend remain green in the North) from her grand tree. Bees adore its blooms. When I lived abroad this was the ingredient from home that I missed the most. An exceptionally large, tart cooking apple that has a wonderful texture when hot.

The original Bramley Apple Tree was planted in Southwell, Nottinghamshire by a girl called Mary Ann Brailsford in 1809. It was a fluke of nature. The Bramley Apple cannot be cultivated from its pips. All strains of the tree throughout the United Kingdom, come from the mother tree.

That very tree today, over two centuries later, with its own blue plaque and visitors’ book of dedications from all over the globe, is dying from a fungal infection. It is very sad.

Fortunately the University of Nottingham has enough of its offspring to continue the culture. Attempts have been made to grow them in other continents, but unfortunately they do not last long and fruit tends to be more sparse and small.

There are many websites dedicated to the English Bramley Apple, complete with recipes: puddings, pies, crumbles, dumplings, tarts, sauces and stews. It is often mixed with another English apple – the Cox’s Orange Pippin – in equal parts to make the perfect accompaniment to roast pork.

apple dumplingRecipe

One dish that has been handed down to me (which our family referred to as Dorset Dumplings) was to core, but not peel, an apple for each person. Dry and butter the skins. Sit each apple on its own disc of pastry (puff or short-crust). Cram as many chopped or small mixed dried fruits into the cored centre. Then pour honey or golden-syrup into any spaces of the dried fruits. Wrap the apple in the pastry by either folding it over the top and sticking it down with a brush of water,  or rolled quickly with the hands so that it resembles a ball.

Place the apple balls onto a greased and floured metal tray, then sprinkle with plenty of sugar before baking them in a hot oven for 15-25 minutes or until brown.

Serve with thick cream, vanilla ice cream or English custard.

They look like they are going to be too big to eat, but are surprisingly light (it is mainly apple after all) and are popular with children, who love the shape and the sweet-and-sour taste, without them realising they are getting essential vitamins.

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