Wassail!

snow jan 6 2010 076Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, when our earliest ancestors rejoiced that from henceforth the days would become longer and the Sun return to the land. It was a day for celebration and feasting and giving thanks and we don’t have to look far to see that many of the old Christmas and New Year customs which prevailed for centuries in Lancashire and other northern counties have their roots in Solstice traditions.

Harland & Wilkinson’s 19th century book on Lancashire folklore describes some of these customs and beliefs.

In the olden time, before the Reformation, Christmas was the highest festival of the Church. In some rural parts of Lancashire it is now but little regarded, and many of its customs are observed a week later, — on the eve and day of the New Year. But still there linger in many places some relics of the old observances and festivities, as the carols, the frumenty on Christmas Eve, the mummers, with the hobby-horse, and the decoration of churches and dwellings with boughs of evergreen shrubs and plants; in the centre of which is still to be found, in many country halls and kitchens, and in some also in the towns, that mystic bough of the mistletoe, beneath whose white berries, it is the custom and licence of the season to steal a kiss from fair maidens, and even from matrons ‘forty, fat, and fair.’

Most of these customs and ‘old observances’ came not from Christianity but from a time before, when evergreens were exchanged as gifts promising the renewal of life and health and when mistletoe was believed to hold such strong magic it should be cut only with a golden sickle. Evergreens were similarly regarded as magical, as they provided shelter for wood-spirits whose native trees had lost their foliage. Frumenty, mentioned above, was a spiced porridge beloved of rich and poor and whilst the 19th century ‘mummers’ performed Christian plays, their mysterious costumes – and their hobby-horse – told entirely different and more ancient tales.

The boys dress themselves up with ribands, and perform various pantomimes, after which one of them, who has a blackened face, a rough skin coat, and a broom in his hand, sings as follows :-

Here come I,
Little David Doubt,
If you don’t give me money,
I’ll sweep you all out.
Money I want,
Money I crave,
If you don’t give me money,
I’ll sweep you all to the grave.

No Christian relics there, I’d dare to say, but old memories of earlier times which then became inextricably mixed with Christian myths and legends. Magic, so long a part of daily life for our ancestors, was never far away. Harlan & Wilkinson continue:-

I have been told in Lancashire, that at midnight on Christmas Eve the cows fall onto their knees, and the bees hum the Hundredth Psalm. I am unwilling to destroy the poetry of these old superstitions; but their origin can, I think, be accounted for. Cows, it is well known, on rising from the ground, get up on their knees first; and a person going into the shippon at midnight would, no doubt, disturb the occupants, and by the time he looked around, they would all be rising on their knees. The buzzing of the bees, too, might easily be formed into a tune, and, with the Hundredth Psalm running in the head of the listener, fancy would supply the rest.

A shame that the writer thought he must explain the ‘old superstitions’ but understandable – I have often done the same thing when a ghost story can be explained in natural terms, despite my internal longing to leave these mysteries alone. That bees should hum a tune was not so unbelievable to a community who revered the tiny creatures and imbued them with intelligence. They worked tirelessly to produce honey for their owner and allowed him to take it and, indeed, it was believed that if the owner of a hive should die, telling the bees of the event was vital if they were not to die themselves.

The Hundredth Psalm, incidentally, is more commonly known now as the Old 100th and is still sung to its traditional 16th century melody. The modern lyrics are from a different psalm altogether, beginning: ‘All creatures that on earth do dwell’ and that line alone is probably enough to bring the tune to mind, but the earlier text was:

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

A century before Harland and Wilkinson published their collection of folklore, The Reverend Thornber described Christmas customs in the Fylde:-

The midnight carols of the church-singers – the penny laid on the hob by the fire-side, the prize of him who came first to the outer door, to ‘let Christmas in,’ – the regular round of visits – the treat of mince pies – in turn engrossed their attention. Each farm-house and hut possessed a pack of cards, which were obtained as an alms from the rich, if poverty forbade the purchase. Night after night of Christmas was consumed in poring over these dirty and obscured cards. Nor were the youngsters excluded from a share in the amusements of this festal season. Early, long before dawn, on Christmas morning, young voices echoed through streets and lanes, in the words of the old song –

Get up old wives,
And bake your pies,
Tis Christmas-day in the morning,
The bells shall ring,
The birds shall sing,
Tis Christmas-day in the morning.

Here is the specimen of one sung from house to house during Christmas:-

We’re nather cum to yare hase to beg nor to borrow,
But we’re cum to yare hase to drive away o sorrow;
A suop o’ drink, as yau may think, for we’re varra dray,
We’ll tell yau what we’re cum for – a piece o’ Christmas poye.

Thornber mentions mince pies, which were as popular then, over two centuries ago, as they are now. Their filling of dried fruits mixed with Eastern spices was designed to represent the offerings of the three wise men who brought their spices as gifts to the new-born baby Jesus. Mince pies in those days were of a long and slender shape, echoing the shape of the manger in which the baby lay. But along with this Christian tradition we have the mention of playing cards, which were often used for fortune-telling at Christmas and surely not very Christian at all…

Even our tradition of making a Christmas fruit punch derives from the old Wassail, which was a mixture of alcohol, fruits and spices, drunk for enjoyment no doubt but also used to toast the health of the fruit trees in the orchard – a slice of toasted bread soaked in the brew would be placed high in the tree’s branches.

And so this mid-winter festival persists, a wonderful mix of pagan and Christian tradition, belief, mystery and myth, a festival celebrating rebirth – whether of the new year or a holy baby whose arrival was promised by ancient scriptures. The solstice celebration of the shortest day and the coming of the Sun again to the land; the babe in arms who was the reincarnation of a long-gone prophet and whose arrival was full of hope and promise – one can see why these two belief systems were so easily combined. Christianity sought always to blend itself with the existing pagan beliefs of the country it sought to convert and thus control.

At this time of the winter solstice, it is easy to see that our Christmas festival has its roots in our Nordic, pagan, history and so today is a suitable day to wish you all: Merry Christmas! Wassail!

About LancashireFolk

Lancashire folklore, legends, ghosts, local history - author of 'Lancashire Folk' published by Schiffer Publishing Winter 2015 - 9780764349836 £17.50. 'Manchester Folk', covering Greater Manchester, coming in 2017!
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