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.
All photos © Southampton Old Lady
German Christmas markets must be all over the world nowadays. Here are some photos of the annual one in the City of Southampton.
All photos © Southampton Old Lady
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.
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.
I love Burns’ Nights – I have no Scottish ancestry whatsoever, but love the poet Robert Burns (since studying him for my ‘O’ level English Literature) – and the whole festive evening with toasts and Scottish country dancing in kilts. We also go to St Patricks, St Davids and St George’s events, thus celebrating all four countries that make up United Kingdom. My husband lived in Aberdeen for a while and can do such a good accent that many Scots who listen to his “Address to a Haggis” are convinced that he is the “Real McCoy.” I sometimes get asked to do the “toast to the laddies” at the last minute, as often this is the last thing people remember to ask someone to do. My husband goes over-board with the actions to go with the Ode and has so many pleas for this task that this year we will be attending six dinners throughout the week before and after January 25th – the official Burns Night.
Nowadays Haggis is available at nearly every butchers or supermarket in Britain around this time, there are even vegetarian versions. Served alongside tatties ‘n’ nipes (potatoes and turnips) it makes a wonderful winter meal. The Haggis has become a symbol of Scottish pride and Robert Burns address to it is worth attention, I have posted it beneath here with an all new English translation from an anonymous Scotsman which had to be toned down a little bit.
Address to a Haggis
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ Sou
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’a grace
As lang’s my arm.
[Fair and full is your honest plump face
Master of all non-specific sub-premium meat products!
No other non-specific sub-premium meat product compares to your tastiness
Regardless of which part of the digestive system it has been harvested from,
Therefore you are most worthy of this poem
Which is quite ridiculously long (given the subject matter).]
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
[You fill the serving-dish to the brim
And your buttocks looks like a hilltop in the distance,
That little wooden stick could be used for major structural repairs
If I were hallucinating and there was nothing else to hand,
While unidentifiable liquids ooze about you
Resembling the whisky that I’ve already drunk half a bottle of.]
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
[Watch and marvel as a man, so drunk he can barely stand up, attempts to clean a knife
And stabs at you wildly with the least of precision
Eventually making a gash in your nondescript innards
Like a makeshift latrine in the woods,
And then, O! what a glorious sight,
The only thing in this godforsaken country that isn’t absolutely baltic!]
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
[Then, gobful after gobful, they scoff it down,
Brawl over seconds, and continue scoffing,
Until all their clinically obese bellies
Become a gluttonous parody of human flesh,
Then the fattest of the lot, on the verge of puking
Mutters “Jesus that was good.”]
Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?
[Are there any people who, over their fine French food,
Or Italian cooking that would make a pig wretch
Or haute cuisine that would surely make it physically sick
In total and utter disgust,
Look down with a sneering and scornful attitude
On a dinner like this?]
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as wither’d rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash;
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
[Unfortunate fools! See the eating cultured food that I would bin!
They are as feeble as withered stalks,
Their skinny legs as thin as rope,
Their hands are tiny and effeminate,
When it comes to travelling through peaty bogs and Bathgate
They’ve got no chance!]
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ thrissle.
[But look at the haggis-eating Scots,
So great that the earth literally shakes beneath them as they walk.
Give them knives,
They’ll stab pretty much any enemy!
They’ll chop off legs, arms, and heads,
Like the tops of the thistles they bizarrely revere.]
Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer
Gie her a haggis!
[You powers-that-be, who watch over all humanity,
And determine its fates and appetites,
Give to Old Scotland no healthy and nutritious stuff
That gets stuck in the throat!
But remember, we are proudly the ‘sick man of Europe’
And give us more Haggis!]