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Friday, December 11, 2015

HERE WE COME A WASSAILING

I don't know if you know this, but the Christmas carol started out as a dance, and then became a song. Whereas wassailing started out as a libation and then became a song and then darn near disappeared. Both traditions suffered their original metamorphoses for the same reason – Puritan kill-joys. The carol was revived and survives as a gentle Victorian anachronism. Still, most of the music and some of the words remain recognizable. But if somehow you could transport a 12th century English Celtic villain into a modern wassailing, the first words out of their mouth would be the medieval equivalent of “where is the booze and the broads?” Call it the cost of Christianity, or progress, or even just the march of time, but clearly we've lost some things in reaching the 21st century. And one of those some things was wassailing. Song
“Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wand'ring
So fair to be seen.”
During the 2nd century C. E. when you the walked into any Inn or Public House in that far flung corner of the Roman Empire called England, you were greeted by your fellow vandals with the phrase, “Waes hael”, or “good health”. And your proper response would be “Drinc hael”, or “A drink to your health”. And what the Celtic holi-poloi would be drinking might be Mead, made from fermented honey, or a fermented version of whatever else grew locally – beer in rye growing areas, or in the hilly west counties, where the Celts grew apples, hard cider. Everybody drank these concoctions because the alcohol killed most the pathogens in the local water supply. That's why we still call consuming alcohol, drinking. Getting bombed was just a happy side effect.
“We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door,
But we are neighbors' children
Whom you have seen before.”
The Inn keepers kept their mixture in a large “wassail bowl” as a centerpiece on the common table, so after dinner the paying guests could use their now empty food bowls to dip themselves an after-dinner drink. It is an oddity of these original pubs that the food cost money but the drinks were free. As the food supply increased, this pricing scheme would be reversed. On special occasions, the Mead would be added to the beer or cider, which improved the flavor and the alcohol content. And so taking a holiday drink from the wassail bowl became “wassailing”.
“Good master and good mistress,
As you sit beside the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
Who wander in the mire.”
All of this was ancient enough to be a Celtic tradition long before Rome was Christian. And about a month after the winter solstice the pagan Celts were even wassailing in their fields and apple orchards. They called it in Old English La Mas Ubhal (mangled into modern English as, “lambs wool”), or as perhaps the celebration of the apple. On the Twelfth Night of Christmas (see these pages for Twelve Days of Christmas) apple farmers would lug a large milk container filled with cider and cider soaked cakes into their fields. In the dark and the cold they would build a fire, drink and eat and dance. In song the men would threaten the trees and the women would plead the tree's defense, all to encourage them to produce apples in the coming year.
We have a little purse
Made of ratching leather skin;
We want some of your small change
To line it well within.”
It was called “An Apple Howling” or a “Luck Visit”. In Devonshire, standing under each tree, the farmers would sing “Stand fast, root! Bear well, top! Pray God send us a good howling crop: Every twig, apples big; Every bough, apples now! Hats full! caps full! Bushel-bushel-sacks full, And my pockets full, too, huzzah!” The cakes were placed in the forks of the trunk, baked apple splices were tossed into the crown, and cider splashed on the bark. It seems as if the farmers were trying to give the trees the idea of what they were supposed to produce come spring.
“Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth;
Bring us out a cheese,
And of your Christmas loaf.”
And then midway through the 5th century the Anglo-Saxons defeated the native Celts at the battle of Crayford, and over the next 600 years these invaders squeezed the Celts back into the Welsh highlands and the far west counties, which, by chance, included the apple growing regions. So, wassailing in Wales and Devon became associated more with cider, while in Anglo-Saxon England, beer and ale were what filled the wassail bowls, and the post- solstice celebration morphed into a fund raising venue. Originally, the English village leaders went house to house, singing a Wassail song at each door and offering the residents a drink from their Wassail bowl. In response, the residents were expected to make a donation to the poor. Eventually, the leadership lost interest in the process and the poor themselves stepped in to fill the vacuum. You can imagine how happy the wealthy were to share their money with a bunch of dirty, young “urban types”, who came begging at their front door, something forbidden the rest of the year. Wassailing door-to-door became frowned upon, mostly by those best able to donate.
“God bless the master of this house,
Likewise the mistress too;
And all the little children
That round the table go.”
In 1066, King Henry and his Normans conquered Anglo-Saxon England. The Normans not only brought the French words to the island, but they also brought a militant brand of Christianity. And that religion would prove to be wassailing's most determined foe. We know wassailing was still popular in 17th Century London, because just after New Years in 1625 the anal retentive Sir John Francklyn made a notation in his account book of the one pound 6 pence he paid for “the cup”
“Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail, too,
And God bless you, and send you
A Happy New Year,
And God send you a Happy New Year.”
But after the Puritans chopped off the head of Charles I in 1649, they began to remake Britain in the their image of God. And it was a dull, dull God they envisioned. The Puritans were suspicious of wassailing, of all that drinking and dancing in the dark, and they disapproved of peasants directly asking their “betters” for money. So laws were passed, and punishments metered out. Some who celebrated the pagan days were even burned at the stake. The impact of their moral divide survived even until the end of the 20th century, as evidenced by the laws allowing advertising of wine and beer on television, but restricting the same for the sacrilegious “hard” liquors.  So if, at your next Christmas party you should find a wassail bowl bubbling away on the stove, dip a cup, and enjoy. It is a tiny taste of our shared pagan past, a harmless reminder that before Christianity, there was a god in every tree and apple, as well as every soul.
"Wassail, wassail, out of the milk pail
Wassail, wassail as white as my finger nail
Wassail, wassail in snow, frost, and hail,
Wassail, wassail that never will fail.”
- 30 -

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