Tuesday, 22 December 2015
This is a slightly longer version of the essay included in the splendid Folklore Tapes release Calendar Customs III.
Midwinter is the low ebb of the year, the heart of the lifeless season when the sun describes a wearily flattened arc across the sky, it luminosity dimmed and wan, its passage brief. Shadows lengthen, the branches grow bare and bony, temperature drops and darkness prevails. The spirit sinks and a general sense of lassitude fills the soul. It is a season of shivering and sighs in which summer warmth and light become a hazy memory. There is a need for cheer, for hope and conviviality, for reminders of Spring’s renewal to come. Old midwinter rites and rituals, centring around Christmastide observances and celebrations, bring a little warmth and light into this chill time of scarcity and spiritual despond.
In the pre-industrial age, the pattern of the pastoral and agricultural year shaped the rhythms of human labour and rest. The midwinter period between December and early January encompassed weeks when there was little to be done save a bit of dung spreading. The holidays could extend from St Nicholas Day on the 6th December to Plough Monday, the first to fall after Twelfth Night. Plough Monday marked the recommencement of the agricultural year. It was a still interval of cessation during which the coming year could be contemplated and good fortune invoked through the observance of certain propitiatory acts (or the studious avoidance of others). Bells were tolled in various parishes on Christmas Eve to keep the Devil and his ill-doing at bay over the ensuing months. At All Saints, Dewsbury in Yorkshire, this involved sounding one clangourous knell for every year since Christ’s birth, spaced at even intervals between the hours of 10 and 12 (and thus requiring precise calculation). This feat was known as Ringing or Tolling the Devil’s Knell, a long funereal watch which, in keeping with the inversions characteristic of the season, was cause for celebration.
Wassailing was (and still, to an extent, is) a means of ushering in the luck of the new year. The word derives from the old Anglo-Saxon greeting ‘waes haell’, or ‘good health’. The standard response (although not necessarily in Anglo-Saxon England) was ‘drinc haell!’, or ‘I’ll drink to that’, presumably accompanied by the raising of a goblet or drinking horn and the hearty quaffing of its contents. Wassailers, who were predominantly women, would travel from house to house singing their wassailing song and bearing their wooden wassailing bowl (sometimes decorated with ribbons and evergreen boughs). The bowl was full of spiced ale with variant combinations of roasted apples, toast, nutmegs, sugar, eggs and cream; a dubious concoction, half drink, half bread pudding, sometimes known as lamb’s wool. The householder accepting the offered libation and offering food or other gifts in return would bring luck into their homes for the approaching year. The luck of the house was of particular concern at this time, what with the retreat into the domestic space in the face of encroaching cold and darkness.
Wassail songs are a species of celebratory folksong all to their own. A typical and particularly well-known one (largely due to its collection by Ralph Vaughan Williams) comes from Gloucestershire and the opening verse gives the general flavour, as well as revealing the wassailers on the occasion of the song’s recording to be male:
Wassail! Wassail! All over the town.
Our bread it is white, our ale it is brown:
Our bowl it is made of the Maplin tree,
We be all good fellows who drink to thee.
The renowned 17th century lawyer and scholar John Selden found the wassail ale very sour and grumbled about ‘wenches with wassells at New-Years-Tide’ who ‘present you with a cup and you must drink of the slabby stuff, but the meaning is, you must give them monies, ten times more than it is worth’. There was certainly an element of minor wealth redistribution to this and many midwinter traditions, and well-off men like Selden often found cause for complaint. Christmas might be a time of generosity and openness, but who were the deserving poor? And whey did they have to be so forward about claiming their share? Similar complaints were voiced about the annuities known as ‘boxes’ granted to tradesmen or those in the delivery trades on what came to be known as Boxing Day. The change of the day’s name from that of the first Christian martyr, St Stephen, to one marking what amounted to a holiday bonus charts a trajectory from the sacred to the secular and pecuniary which has been marked since well before the Victorian era. It was one reason why the parliamentarians banned Christmas.
This was an opportune season for the less well-off to earn a little extra in a time of scarcity and scant labour. They sold their entertainments, decorations and blessing (an possibly the cessation of their nuisance-making) whilst wielding the implicit threat of diminishing the luck of the house, or even of cursing the inhabitants on these spiritually charged days. The Scots, needless to say, were particularly good at the cursing part. A New Year song sung on South Uist whilst seeking hogmanay, or gifts, from local households had an extra verse in reserve should such generosity prove lacking:
The curse of God and the New Year be on you
And the scath of the plaintive buzzard,
Of the hen-harrier, of the raven, of the eagle,
And the scath of the sneaking fox,
The scath of the dog and cat be on you,
Of the boar, of the badger and of the ghoul,
Of the hipped bear and of the wild wolf,
And the scath of the foul polecat.
That’s some heavy duty scathing.
Another wassailing tradition involved the blessing of an apple orchard. The wassail bowl was filled with cider, some of which was poured onto the roots of the greatest tree, the apple tree man. Trees were beaten with sticks and a regionally varying species of cacophony conducted via pots and pans, gunshots or ‘apple howling’. Was this driving out evil spirits lodged in the wood or waking the trees? Or was it simply for the visceral and slightly illicit joy of making a right racket to echo through the night air at such a dank and lifeless time? Pieces of toast soaked in the wassail cup’s contents were also hung from the branches or wedged into their forks; an offering for the robin, always a cheerful symbol of the season and a bird of good omen. A Somerset wassailing song praises the tireless creature: ‘a poor little robin sits up in a tree/And all day long so merrily sings he/A widdling and twiddling to keep himself warm,/And a little more cider will do us no harm…’
Good luck and its opposite, ill-fortune, were attached to particular days. Christmas Eve, or Adam’s Day, was a day on which supernatural and demonic forces were in abeyance. Therefore, it was a good time for auguries and divinations (particularly as regarded fortunes in love), activities which might otherwise attract unwanted attention. Ghost stories have always been popular on Christmas Eve, a tradition extending into the TV age, with the glowing set replacing the suggestively flickering fire and bringing the chilling tales of MR James into warm living rooms. Perhaps there was a vestigial sense that this was a safe time for their telling.
If you were born on Christmas Day you would be blessed with a blindness towards ghosts and spirits. Holy Innocents Day on the 28th December, on the other hand, was a cursed date. Sometimes known by the vaguely unnerving name of Childermas, it marked the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod. It was considered unwise to begin any important task on this day; it would only come to ruin. Fishermen refused to go to sea, the washing went undone (you might be ‘washing away’ one of your kin) and it was generally best to do nothing and just sit it out.
The earthing of malignant magic seems to have spread to St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) if the tradition of hunting the wren was anything to go by. Particularly prevalent in Ireland and Wales, this involved the ‘wren-boys’ setting traps in the early morning and then displaying their prize in a specially made and decorated cage in a laddish parade through the town or village. At any other time of the year this would have been the height of folly. The wren was sacred, the king of the birds, a crowning which ironically acknowledged its tiny stature. To kill it would have invited great ill-fortune into the foolhardy hunter’s life.
That it was permissible and safe at this time is indicative of the inversions of the natural and social order which were a feature of the season. This delight in turning the world upside down also manifested itself in the appointment of Lords of Misrule in wealthy, noble or royal households or university communities to oversee, with their retinues of mock courtiers, the reign of merry chaos which brought life to the dark days. The Lord (or his regional variants such as the midwinter sovereign or Abbot of Unreason) was a burlesque version of his master, with gaudily regal robes and a degree of pseudo-authority, right up to the ability to stage ‘executions’ on a prop gibbet. The masters of the household would affect to serve their staff during the ‘misrule’ of the temporary Lord, albeit to a limited ceremonial extent.
In ecclesiastical circles there was a similar tradition of appointing Boy Bishops for a period extending from St Nicholas’ Day on the 6th (the Turkish saint having a particular connection with children) and Holy Innocents Day on the 28th. The Boy Bishops would lead some aspects of the services in their specially tailored vestments and go on tours of the surrounding parishes. In Bristol, the Boy Bishop of St Nicholas Church and his retinue were invited to a lavish banquet on the saint’s day. The tradition continues or has been revived in some areas. The Boy Bishop’s tenure at Hereford Cathedral is particularly renowned, and forms a major plot element in Phil Rickman’s novel Midwinter of the Spirit, featuring the diocesan deliverance consultant (or exorcist) Merrily Watkins. The first Merrily Watkins novel, Wine of Angels, begins with a night-time orchard wassailing which ends disastrously. Rickman knows his calendrical rites and customs.
The inversion of the natural order is also a central component of mummer’s plays, or mumming. These are generally enacted on Boxing Day, New Year’s Day or Twelfth Night. They are fixed routines which are carried out with ritualistic solemnity, the stock cast of characters stepping forward like mechanical figures ratcheting forth from a town clock’s doors to introduce themselves and deliver their lines. ‘In steps I’ say the likes of St George (or another hero figure), his foe the Turk (or some other adversary reflecting contemporary antipathies), Bold Slasher, the quack doctor, a fool named Tosspot and occasionally a dragon or, trailing a whiff of sulphur, Beelzebub. Roland Hutton likens the latter, with his club and frying pan, to the Irish god The Daghdha. In parts of the Westcountry the play was introduced by Father Christmas, who stood outside of the rote action and had a little more leeway to extemporise a commentary. An element of guising (the donning of disguise) was also involved. Participants would blacken their faces, turn their jackets inside-out, bedeck themselves with ribbons or strips of newspaper and indulge in cross-dressing. The centre of the ‘drama’ (although the proceedings were studiously undramatic) was the combat leading to the death or dire injury of St George or his foe, who was resurrected by the concoctions brewed by the doctor. Their comically self-evident inefficacy hinted that magic rather than medicine was at work here. It was a resurrection myth in capsule form, an invocation of the dormant powers of life and a rite to bring fortune and abundance in the coming months. The mummers took the routing round the houses, bringing luck to those who rewarded them and finding their way by and by to the local inn.
In the North-East, mummery was accompanied by sword dances, although the mumming aspect gradually faded away. The sword dances, using flexible blades or sometimes lengths of wood, culminated in the formation of a locked pattern in the form of a pointed star (a significant form?) or rose. This was usually lowered around the head of one of the attendant fools or cross-dressing ‘bessies’, offering a mock sacrifice where once the death might have been all too real.
Another form of ritualised drama taken round the houses over the Christmas period involved the parading of a horse’s head on the end of a stick, with the bearer hidden beneath a covering sheet. These heads were wooden in the case of The White Mare of the Isle of Man or the Poor Old Horse of Yorkshire and Derbyshire. But the Mari Lwyd of Wales was the bleached skull of an actual horse, its eyes glassy marbles, its hair strands of coloured ribbon. It was a nightmarish apparition, and one which haunts M.John Harrison’s Viriconium and Light novels and stories. The Mari Lwyd also goes through the pantomime of death and resurrection, and its difficult not to see a symbolic enactment of the seasonal cycles. The Hooden Horse of North Kent is accompanied by a team including a mollie, or transvestite, and its is still paraded through the streets of Whitstable, its health assiduously maintained by the Ancient Order of Hoodeners. I like to imagine the long-term Whitstable resident Peter Cushing observing the ceremony, perhaps even taking part, leading the Hoodeners with a solemnly purposeful yet kind and compassionate Van Helsing gaze.
A celebration in time of darkness requires light, and fires were indeed started with due ceremony. If Christ was the light of the world (John 8:12), then the fixing of his date of birth at the Council of Tours in 567 also served to usurp the claims of others to bring light into the world. The Mithraic celebration of divine birth in the world also fell on the 25th December, as did that of the cult of the unconquered sun, or Sol Invictus, which the Emperor Aurelian established as an official state religion which lasted between 274-323. With the Roman Saturnalia and Pagan solstice festivals also occurring around this time, it was good sacred territory to tactically stake out and colonise. There is inevitably a sense, however, if not of Pagan roots showing through, then at least of a continuity of human experience and spiritual need. The warmth and conviviality engendered by a fire or flickering candle flame serve as a reminder that the summer sun will be reborn.
In Stonhaven, near Aberdeen, fireballs were swung in small cages at the end of long chains or ropes, forming small, whirling meteorite trails through the evening air. Allendale has its flaming tar barrels, lit as the old year turns into the new and worn like Arthur Brown hellfire bonnets. It’s an enthusiastically revived and maintained carnivalesque tradition celebrated in the Unthanks’ beautiful song Tar Barrel in Dale. In a variant of wassailing traditions found in the border counties of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and similarly intended to bless the next year’s crop, twelve bonfires were lit in a circle on Twelfth Night, often with a larger central one – Old Meg as it was sometimes known. In Ross On Wye, an effigy was erected in the centre of the fires and burned.
Plough lights were kept burning in many parish churches, often glinting off the idle blades of the plough itself which was kept propped against the wall until Plough Monday. Candles also served to light the evergreens which were brought into the house – holly in the living room, ivy in the porch, and sometimes bay and broom as well. The ashen faggot was burned in Devon on Christmas Eve, a bundle of ash twigs which crackled and kindled one by one, marking the progress of the evening like an irregular clock. As each popped and hissed into flame, the onlookers would take the opportunity to stand up, loudly wish each other good cheer and pass around a large communal cup of cider.
The best known Christmas flame came from the yule log, however. It was a large log prepared over a lengthy period and giving off plentiful light as well as heat. It was to be lit from a piece of kindling saved from the pervious year’s log, and kept burning for Christmas Eve and Day to preserve the luck of the house. Richard Carpenter warmly depicts the yule log tradition in a Christmas episode of The Ghosts of Mottley Hall, although unfortunately the wood chosen is inhabited by an old elemental spirit which spreads discord and ill-humour through the house before being coaxed to its airy freedom. The word yule itself derives from the old Saxon, via Nordic languages: the Norse Jol, Swedish Jul and Danish Juul. These were words for the Scandinavian midwinter festival, suggesting further layers to the hybrid and ever-evolving native traditions.
The contemporary character of Christmas and midwinter festivities bears little resemblance to the old celebrations and observances. We have inherited wholesale the imports and reinventions of the Victorians, which themselves have been recast in hyper-commercialised late capitalist mould. The frenzy accompanying the season can sometimes seem to verge on the psychotic. But the genuine excitement many still feel indicates a certain continuity with the spirit our ancestors. There is a continuum of human experience, a need to find comfort and light in a time of darkness. Even with the pitiless and relentless glare of shopping centres providing the permanent, blazing illumination of a false sun, we are not fooled. We still need to be reassured that the true sun will return in radiant glory. The dying of the light is not permanent. There will be resurrection, new life, a new year with all that fortune may bring.
So a jolly WASSAIL! to you all.