Wassailing – coming from the Anglo Saxon phrase “waes hazel” which means ‘good health’ – is a very ancient custom that is rarely done nowadays. Originally, the wassail was a drink made of mulled ale, curdled cream, eggs, cloves, roasted apples, nutmeg, sugar and ginger. It was served from large bowls, often made of pewter or silver. At Oxford University, Jesus College has a Wassail bowl that is covered with silver and can hold ten gallons of drink. Wassailing was traditionally done on New Year’s Eve and Twelfth Night but some of the richer members of Anglo-Saxon drank Wassail on all twelve days of Christmas. The mixture was sometimes referred to as “Lamb’s Wool” because the pulp of the roasted apples looked all frothy and took on the appearance of lamb’s wool.
The legend surrounding the creation of Wassailing states that a beautiful Saxon maiden called Rowena presented Prince Vortigen with a bowl of wine whilst toasting him with the word ‘waes hael’. Over the following centuries a great deal of ceremony developed surrounding the custom of drinking wassail, with the large bowl being carried into a room accompanied by a great fanfare, a traditional carol being sung and finally the hot beverage being served.
This then led on to this tradition being another way of saying Merry Christmas to each other.
One of the most popular Wassailing Carols was:
“Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green,
Here we come a-wassailing,
So fair to be seen:
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”
Another ancient pagan custom was called “Mumming”, a custom that was really just an excuse for people to have a party at Christmas. The word itself meant “making diversion in disguise”, with the tradition being that men and women swap clothes, put on masks and go visiting their neighbours, singing, dancing or putting on a play with a ridiculous plot. The narrator of the mummers was always dressed as Father Christmas.
A poem often said when mumming was:
“Christmas is coming, the beef is getting fat,
Please drop a penny in the old man’s hat.”
Over the years this has been changed into a very similar poem that is often said be people today:
“Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.”
With the theme of storytelling being one that is prominent in Denny Bradbury’s follow up novel ‘Borvo II’ with her character Seofon and his son Seith both having the gift of story-telling and using it at many points throughout the book, it is of no surprise that it is a tradition that has continued throughout the ages, with Christmas being a time of year famed for such tales.