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.
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:
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.
The decoration of Christmas trees were brought to Britain from Germany as early as the 1790s. Trees were generally displayed on tables in pots, with gifts placed unwrapped underneath. The tree was decorated with wax candles, baskets of sweets, flags and little ornaments and gifts. The imported German Springelbaum was the tree of choice until the 1880s, at which time the home-grown Norway Spruce became available. This made a larger tree more affordable, and people began placing trees on the floor.
Black Friday is a recent consumer sales hype adapted from North America which takes place after Thanksgiving Day (the last Thursday in November) despite the fact that the UK does not even celebrate Thanksgiving.
Buy Nothing Day is an annual event in Britain to highlight the issues around consumerism, especially in the lead-up to the festive season. It’s a day where you challenge yourself, your family and friends to switch off from shopping and tune into life!
They will be taking over The Art House until 6pm on the 25 November, offering food on a pay-as-you-feel basis, clothes to swap or pay-as-you-feel and books by donation!
Food will be available until it runs out – a big part of waste reduction is challenging the notion that there is always ‘plenty’. Be sure you get a plateful of delicious nosh made from food diverted from landfill.
Drop in any time to enjoy some nosh, swap your clothes, pick up a book and have a chat about the ways you can reduce waste in your own home.
178 Above Bar Street, Southampton, Hampshire, UK SO14 7DW