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Sunday, 17 January 2016

Old Twelfth Night and The Burning of the Ashen Faggot

Old Twelfth Night’ occurs on 17th January and is the traditional date to ‘Wassail Apple Orchards’. The word ‘wassail’ is derived from the Anglo Saxon ‘wes hál’ meaning ‘be whole’ or ‘be of good health’. ‘Apple Wassailing’ or ‘Apple Howling’ as it is sometimes called is an ancient ceremony performed to ensure a healthy and plentiful crop of fruit in the coming year.

The Ashen Faggot (sometimes called ashton fagot) is an old English Christmas tradition from in Devonshire and Somersetshire, similar to that of the Yule log and related to the wassail tradition. The wassail party passes around a bundle of ash sticks, twigs or branches—the ashen faggot—bound with green ash withies, which is then placed onto the fire. As each binding bursts, the watchers toast it with a drink. Some traditions had the unmarried women each choosing a withy, and the first one whose tie snapped would be married the next year.  While women at the Squirrel Inn, Laymore, hoping to become pregnant would jump over a burning faggot.  When the bindings have all burst and the bundle has fallen loose, each person who plans to host the festivities next year takes one of the half-burned ash sticks and saves it until the following Christmas, when it will go in the center of their own ashen faggot. The tradition endures (or has been resurrected) in many places; according to an article in the Winter 2005 issue of Devon Talk, the Harbour Inn in Axmouth annually builds an ashen faggot six feet high and three feet wide for their huge pub fireplace.

Some traditions held that not burning the ashen faggot in your house brought bad luck, or that having an ashen faggot in the house kept the Devil and evil spirits away. Ash was likely chosen because the ash tree has a long pedigree of magical associations: perhaps the most important is the Yggdrasil of Norse mythology, also known as the World Ash Tree.

Below: The Burning the Ashen Faggot on Old Twelfth Night (17th January 2007) at the The Shave Cross Inn.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Plough Sunday - The blessing of the plough

Plough Monday
'Plough Sunday' this marked the start of Plough Tide a short agriculture festival marking the return to work after the Christmas season and the start of new year ploughing.

The origins of Plough Sunday go back a long way, at least into medieval times. On the first Sunday after Epiphany, the parish ploughs, bedecked with ribbons, would be dragged to church to be blessed, as the ploughing season began. On Plough Monday the teams would drag the ploughs round the village, seeking contributions for an 'Ale' or night of revelling at the tavern. They were often accompanied by musicians, molly dancers, an old woman or a boy dressed as an old woman, called the "Bessy", and a man in the role of the "fool". Plough Tuesday would be spent, more often than not, in recovering. Then on Wednesday the work would begin in earnest.

Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days 11th January 1864, details the tradition.

This being In 1864 the first Monday after Twelfth Day, is for the year Plough Monday. Such was the name of a rustic festival, heretofore of great account in England, bearing in its first aspect, like St. Distaff's Day, reference to the resumption of labour after the Christmas holidays.

In Catholic times, the ploughmen kept lights burning before certain images in churches, to obtain a blessing on their work; and they were accustomed on this day to go about in procession, gathering money for the support of these plough-lights, as they were called. The Reformation put out the lights; but it could not extinguish the festival. The peasantry contrived to go about in procession, collecting money, though only to be spent in conviviality in the public-house. It was at no remote date a very gay and rather pleasant-looking affair. A plough was dressed up with ribbons and other decorations—the Fool Plough. Thirty or forty stalwart swains, with their shirts over their jackets, and their shoulders and hats flaming with ribbons, dragged it along from house to house, preceded by one in the dress of an old woman, but much bedizened, bearing the name of Bessy. There was also a Fool, in fantastic attire. In some parts of the country, morrisdancers attended the procession; occasionally, too, some reproduction of the ancient Scandinavian sword dance added to the means of persuading money out of the pockets of the lieges.

A Correspondent, who has borne a part (cow-horn blowing) on many a Plough Monday in Lincolnshire, thus describes what happened on these occasions under his own observation: —Rude though it was, the Plough procession threw a life into the dreary scenery of winter, as it came winding along the quiet rutted lanes, on its way from one village to another; for the ploughmen from many a surrounding thorpe, hamlet, and lonely farm-house united in the celebration of Plough Monday. It was nothing unusual for at least a score of the "sons of the soil" to yoke themselves with ropes to the plough, having put on clean smock-frocks in honour of the day. There was no limit to the number who joined in the morris-dance, and were partners with " ossy," who carried the money-box; and all these had ribbons in their hats and pinned about them wherever there was room to display a bunch. Many a hardworking country Molly lent a helping hand in decorating out her Johnny for Plough Monday, and finished him with an admiring exclamation of "Lawks, John! thou does look smart, surely." Some also wore small bunches of corn in their hats, from which the wheat was soon shaken out by the ungainly jumping which they called dancing. Occasionally, if the winter was severe, the procession was joined by threshers carrying their flails, reapers bearing their sickles, and carters with their long whips, which they were ever cracking to add to the noise, while even the smith and the miller were among the number, for the one sharpened the plough-shares and the other ground the corn; and Bessy rattled his box and danced so high. that he shewed his worsted stockings and corduroy breeches; and very often, if there was a thaw, tucked up his gown skirts under his waistcoat, and shook the bonnet off his head, and disarranged the long ringlets that ought to have concealed his whiskers. For Betsy is to the procession of Plough Monday what the leading figurante is to an opera or ballet, and dances about as gracefully as the hippopotami described by Dr Livingstone. But these rough antics were the cause of much laughter, and rarely do we ever remember hearing any coarse jest that would call up the angry blush to a modest cheek. No doubt they were called "plough bullocks," through drawing the plough, as bullocks were formerly used, and are still yoked to the plough in some parts of the country. The rubbishy verses they recited are not worth preserving beyond the line which graces many a public-house sign of "God speed the plough." At the large farm-house, besides money they obtained refreshment, and through the quantity of ale they thus drank during the day, managed to get what they called "their load" by night. Even the poorest cottagers dropped a few pence into Bessy's box.

But the great event of the day was when they came before some house which bore signs that the owner was well-to-do in the world, and nothing was given to them. Bossy rattled his box and the ploughmen danced, while the country lads blew their bullocks' horns, or shouted with all their might; but if there was still no sign, no coming forth of either bread-and-cheese or ale, then the word was given, the ploughshare driven into the ground before the door or window, the whole twenty men yoked pulling like one, and in a minute or two the ground before the house was as brown, barren, and ridgy as a newly-ploughed field. But this was rarely done, for everybody gave something, and were it but little the men never murmured, though they might talk about the stinginess of the giver afterwards amongst themselves, more especially if the party was what they called " well off in the world." We are notaware that the ploughmen were ever summoned to answer for such a breach of the law, for they believe, to use their own expressive language, " they can stand by it, and no law in the world can touch 'em,' cause it's an old charter;" and we are sure it would spoil their " folly to be wise."

One of the mummers generally wears a fox's skin in the form of a hood; but beyond the laughter the tail that hangs down his back awakens by its motion as he dances, we are at a loss to find a meaning. Bessy formerly wore a bullock's tail behind, under his gown, and which he held in his hand while dancing, but that appendage has not been worn of late.

Some writers believe it is called White Plough Monday on account of the mummers having worn their shirts outside their other garments. This they may have done to set off the gaudy-coloured ribbons; though a clean white smock frock, such as they are accustomed to wear, would shew off their gay decorations quite as well. The shirts so worn we have never seen. Others have stated that Plough Monday has its origin from ploughing again commencing at this season. But this is rarely the case, as the ground is generally too hard, and the ploughing is either done in autumn, or is rarely begun until February, and very often not until the March sun has warmed and softened the ground. Some again argue that Plough Monday is a festival held in remembrance of " the plough. having ceased from its labour." After weighing all these arguments, we have come to the conclusion that the true light in which to look at the origin of this ancient custom is that thrown upon the subject by the ploughman's candle, burnt in the church at the shrine of' some saint, and that to maintain this light contributions were collected and sanctioned by the Church, and that the priests were the originators of Plough Monday.'

At Whitby, in Yorkshire, according to its historian, the Rev. G. Young, there was usually an extra band of six to dance the sword-dance. With one or more musicians to give them music on the violin or flute, they first arranged them-selves in a ring with their swords raised in the air.

Then they went through a series of evolutions, at first slow and simple, afterwards more rapid and complicated, but always graceful.

Towards the close each one catches the point of his neighbour's sword, and various movements take place in consequence; one of which consists in joining or plaiting the swords into the form of an elegant hexagon or rose, in the centre of the ring, which rose is so firmly made that one of them holds it up above their heads without undoing it. The dance closes with taking it to pieces, each man laying hold of his own sword. During the dance, two or three of the company called Toms or Clowns, dressed up as harlequins, in most fantastic modes, having their faces painted or masked, are making antic gestures to amuse the spectators; while another set called Madgies or Madryy Pegs, clumsily dressed in women's clothes and also masked or painted, go from door to door rattling old canisters, in which they receive money. Where they are well paid they raise a huzza; where they get nothing, they shout " hunger and starvation!" '

Domestic life in old times, however rude and comfortless compared with what it now is, or may be, was relieved by many little jocularities and traits of festive feeling. When the day came for the renewal of labour in earnest, there was a sort of competition between the maids and the men which should be most prompt in rising to work. If the ploughmen were up and dressed at the fire-side, with some of their field implements in hand, before the maids could get the kettle on, the latter party had to furnish a cock for the men next Shrovetide.
As an alternative upon this statute, if any of the ploughmen, returning at night, came to the kitchen hatch, and cried 'Cock in the pot,' before any maid could cry 'Cock on the dunghill!' she incurred the same forfeit.
 N.B. Other Plough Monday Celebrations in Britain can be found here at Peter Millington's Web Space

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Wassail!! The customs and traditions of Twelfth Night.

In his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922  John Symonds Udal wrote about Twelfth Night :
"So called from its being the twelfth and last day of Christmas, counting from the Nativity. It is sometimes called " Old Christmas Day ". It is considered to be the last day upon which it is lawful to eat mince- or minced-pies, which are essentially a Christmas dish. To eat one on each of the twelve days of Christmas is said to ensure for the eater entire happiness for the ensuing year, or, failing that, one happy month for each mince-pie so eaten. In some parts of Dorsetshire, however, it is said that to procure the desired result each mince-pie must be of a different person's " make ", or must be eaten at a different house."
Apple Tree Wassailing

Drinking a toast to the Apple Tree
Apple tree wassailing is a ceremony which involves drinking to the health of the apple trees.

The biggest and best tree was then selected and cider poured over its roots. Pieces of bread soaked in cider were placed in the forks of branches.

The Apple trees were sprinkled with cider to ensure a good crop. Villagers would gather around the apple trees with shotguns or pots and pans and make a tremendous racket. This noise and mayhem had a duel effect, for it was not only intended to awaken the Apple Tree Man from his slumber but also to scare away the evil spirits of winter that hovered among its branches. Finally everyone would hail the Apple Tree Man and sing the traditional ‘Wassailing Song’. One widespread version of the song ran:The wassail song was sung or chanted as a blessing or charm to bring a good apple harvest the following year.
Old Apple-Tree, we Wassail thee,
And hoping thou will bear
For the Lord doth know where we shall be
Till apples come another year;
For us to bear well and bloom well,
So merry let us be,
Let everyman take off his hat
And shout to the old Apple-tree;
Old Apple-Tree, we Wassail thee,
And hoping thou will bear
Hats-full, caps-full
Three Bushel bag-fulls,
And a heap under the stair.
This custom was especially important during a time when part of a labourer's wages was paid in apple cider. Landlords needed a good apple crop to attract good workers. Wassailing was meant to keep the tree safe from evil spirits until the next year's apples appeared.
John Symonds Udal wrote in 'Dorsetshire Folklore' about folk customs associated to the apple tree:
"Apple tree. — If an apple tree blossoms out of season - e.g. in the autumn - it is regarded as a sign that one of the owner's family will die before very long. Upon this subject the late Canon Bingham made the following communication to Notes and Queries (Ser. iv, x, 408) (1872) :—

"Remarking an apple blossom a few days ago" (month of November) " on one of my trees I pointed it out as a curiosity to a Dorset labourer. ' Ah! Sir,'he said, 'tis lucky no women folk be here to see that '; and upon my asking the reason he replied, ' Because they's be sure to think that somebody were a-going to die.' " (This superstition is referred to in somewhat similar terms by Mr. Bosworth Smith in his Bird Life and Bird Lore, 1909, p. 365.)

I have been told by an old lady in West Dorset that if the sun is seen to shine through the branches of an apple tree on Old Christmas Day (6th January) it denotes a fine "blooth " (i.e. collective blossom), and that a good crop of apples may be expected.

An apple pip is often used by girls as a test of their lovers' fidelity. If, on putting it in the fire, it bursts with the heat she is assured of his affection ; but if it is consumed in silence she may know that he is false. Whilst they anxiously await the effect the following couplet is usually pronounced :—
" If you love me, pop and fly ;
If you hate me lay and die."
I have not myself met with any instance in Dorsetshire of the ancient custom of " wassailing ", or drinking the health, of apple trees on the eve of Twelfth Day, similar to that which obtains in some parts of Devonshire, Herefordshire, and other cider-drinking and making counties. It may be that the apple crop in our county is not considered of sufficient importance to warrant such rites being carried out as in those counties which are more noted for the high quality of the cider made there — and of which large quantities are exported — that in Dorsetshire, I think, being reserved more for local consumption, and particularly for the sheep-shearing, hay-making, and harvesting seasons. In a recent volume, however, of Folk-Lore (xxix, p. 71) (1918) containing notes of the folk-lore material now being collected by the "Brand Committee" of the Folk-Lore Society, there appears some indication that similar rites have been carried out in Dorsetshire, when cakes or toast dipped in cider were put in the branches or forks of apple trees and libations of cider were poured out upon or thrown against their trunks, to the accompaniment of shouts and the firing of guns, whilst songs or rhymes were sung in their honour, to which sometimes " rough music " was added. Full particulars of these ceremonies will no doubt appear in due course when that material comes to be published. In the meantime I append a verse given there as a Dorset variant, as follows :—
"Stand fast, root!   bear well, top !
Pray God send a good howling crop !
Hats full, caps full, dree bushel bags full ! 
Now, now, NOW ! "    (Fire-arms discharged.)- (Conf. Brand's Popular Antiquities, i, 2, where it seems to be considered that these ceremonies were a relic of the heathen sacrifice to the goddess Pomona.)
At a meeting of the Dorset Field Club held at Dorchester in December, 1920, in the discussion which followed the reading of a paper by Mr. W. O. Beament on " The Apple Tree Wassail", Mr. Stanhope Rodd stated that apple wassailing was still kept up in his own parish at Chardstock (This paper subsequently appeared in vol. xlii of the Proceedings (1922)).

Apropos of this custom of wassailing the apple trees may be noticed the superstition which Brand gives us in a general statement (i, 273, (n.)) : " There is an old saying that when it rains on St. Swithin's Day it is the Saint christening the Apples."

I was not aware that this superstition had any special reference to Dorsetshire until I had read Thomas Hardy's interesting collection of short stories, published in 1913, under the title of A Changed Man. Mr. Hardy is as surely to be depended upon for his knowledge and application of his county's folk-lore as ever Mr. Barnes was for its dialect. Here in that charming story of " The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid" one of the characters observed (p. 355) :

"But I hope it won't be long after the time when God A'mighty christens the little apples." " And when's that ? " " St. Swithin's—the middle of July."

It will be noticed that here it is the Almighty not the Saint which shows His solicitude for the welfare of the apple crop— a solicitude apparently equally shown by the Church in the olden days when the " Blessing of New Apples " (Benedictio Pomorum in Die Sancii Jacobi) was ordained to be observed ten days later, St. James's Day (25th July), according to the Manuale ad Usum Sarum (Brand, vol. i, p. 274.)"
Faggot Burning

The Ashen Faggot as depicted in the the
1913 Christmas Edition of 'The Graphic'.
The Ashen Faggot (sometimes called ashton fagot) is an old English Christmas tradition from in Devonshire and Somersetshire, similar to that of the Yule log and related to the wassail tradition. The Custom of burning of the Ashen Faggot on Twelfth Night was featured in the Dorset Evening Echo 9th January 1996.

Custom rekindled on Twelfth Night

A centuries old custom was re-enacted for Twelfth Night with a faggot-burning ceremony at a pub on the West Dorset and Somerset border.

For 21 years local farmer Mike Turner has made a 13-foot long ash faggot, bound with hawthorn, to be burned in the fire at the Squirrel Inn at Laymore, west of Drimpton.

The ceremony, where people make guesses as to how long the faggot will take to burn, is thought to have originated to celebrate the old Christmas Day on January 6, under the Julian Calendar, which England followed until 1752.

Tradition has it that spectators should take a drink every time each of the dozen binds burns away, to ward off evil spirits.

Squirrel landlord Ron Cull was 'stoker' for the evening, he was helped by Tim Beer and Mike Turner, who put the finishing touches to the faggot.

This year the ceremony took four hours, 33 minutes and 31 seconds from the breaking of the first bind to the moment the last one snapped.

Best guess was from Sheila Doble, from Laymore, who was just 91 seconds adrift and who won a keg of beer. Second came Jenny Jefford, from Salisbury, and third was Samantha Moyle from Tatworth, near Chard.

"I think we are probably the last pub around here to do this now," said Ron, who had to ask magistrates to grant a special drinks licence extension.

"They said they weren't too keen but my solicitor persuaded them to let the custom carry on as long as it did not set a precedent — and after all, it's only once a year!"

Friday, 1 January 2016

The 'New Year' Mummers at Symondsbury

The Symondsbury Mummers in 2009
Towards the end of the last 19th century many English villages had their Yuletide mummers. A number of young men would form themselves into a company, usually of five to eleven members, according to the size of the play. Some plays were much longer than others.

The Symondsbury Mumming Play is the most complete of any of these plays. This play has eleven characters, Father Christmas, Room, King of Egypt, St. George, St. Patrick, a Doctor, four warriors, Servant-man, Dame Dorothy and Tommy the Pony. The traditional dress of the warriors was usually a soldier's uniform, decked with ribbons, streamers and sashes. The head-dress was in the form of a helmet with ribbons falling to mask the face completely from view.

The Ilchester Arms, Symondsbury
Symondsbury Mummers are still in existence today, their play being performed on New Year's Day every year in the car park of the local village inn The Ilchester Arms at around 8.00pm.

Staffordshire born, John Symonds Udal who lived at the Symondsbury Manor, took a keen interest in Dorset's folklore, customs and traditions. He wrote the following article printed in Folk-Lore Record, (Vol.III Pt. I, 1880, pp.87-116) and later reprinted in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' (published in 1922), with regards to the custom of mumming including a transcript of the play that is performed at Symondsbury.

For more information about this play visit www.darkdorset.co.uk
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