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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.
Hooray!!
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!"


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