Lost wassails

Dec 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Cross Channel

The Christmas dinner of the Hibernian Catch Club in Dublin ends with something rousing; in recent years it has ended with The Gloucestershire Wassail, a drinking song from the English West Country.  It’s a rustic song, well fitted for the occasion; it is sung with gusto by the singers and the assembled company, the last line of each verse being loudly repeated by a gathering of gentlemen well fed and well refreshed.

Only watching the BBC, did the meaning of some of the lines become clear.  The ‘toast’ in the second line refers to the custom of spiking toast on to the branches of apple trees as a gift to the tree and in the hope of a good crop in the year to come.  Singing it at the Christmas dinner, attempting to explain precise meanings would probably not be very popular, but the roots of the song bear witness to a culture in England now mostly lost.

Wassail! wassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

Here’s to our horse, and to his right ear,
God send our master a happy new year:
A happy new year as e’er he did see,
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek
Pray God send our master a good piece of beef
And a good piece of beef that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

Here’s to Dobbin, and to his right eye,
God send our mistress a good Christmas pie;
A good Christmas pie as e’er I did see,
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

So here is to Broad Mary and to her broad horn
May God send our master a good crop of corn
And a good crop of corn that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

And here is to Fillpail and to her left ear
Pray God send our master a happy New Year
And a happy New Year as e’er he did see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee.

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all.

Then here’s to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin
For to let these jolly wassailers in.

The wassailing tradition was strong at home, except that the local tradition was to fire shotguns up through the branches of the trees.  The Somerset Wassail came from my home town of Langport.

Wassail and wassail all over the town
The cup it is white and the ale it is brown
The cup it is made of the good ashen tree
And so is the malt of the best barley

For its your wassail and its our wassail
And its joy be to you and a jolly wassail

Oh master and missus, are you all within?
Pray open the door and let us come in
O master and missus a-sitting by the fire
Pray think on us poor travellers, a travelling in the mire

Oh where is the maid with the silver-headed pin
To open the door and let us come in
Oh master and missus, it is our desire
A good loaf and cheese and a toast by the fire

There was an old man and he had an old cow
And how for to keep her he didn’t know how
He built up a barn for to keep his cow warm
And a drop or two of cider will do us no harm

The girt dog of Langport he burnt his long tail
And this is the night we go singing wassail
O master and missus now we must be gone
God bless all in this house until we do come again.

Of course the traditions were pagan, but there is not much amongst the range of Christmas celebrations that is not pagan.  When American traditions of Santa are embraced without question, to the extent that it would be a 21st Century heresy to go on radio or television and express doubt concerning his existence, sometimes a bit of home grown paganism would not go amiss.

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  1. Wassail. Marvellous.

    I’d go a step further than you, Ian, and suggest there’s little in Christian ritual that doesn’t have pagan origins of some sort. Nothing wrong with that as long as you go easy on the wicker men.

  2. Strangely enough, the hardline Prods in the North would agree with you, which is why they so hate anything involving rituals!

    I love the old traditions – anything is better than the saccharine blandness of what Christmas has become

  3. Speaking of rituals, some of the rugby teams seem to have their own sets of traditions. I love going to Bayonne, where the guard of honour for the teams stand holding oars (it was a rowing club originally) and where everyone stands to sing the club anthem , La Pena Baiona, and I still haven’t fathomed the Stade Francais pink, complete with a 13th Century princess on the front of the shirts. Makes the RDS seem dull.

  4. Those French guys have great traditions, but they don’t seem to think much of ours — like staying quiet while a player is taking a kick.

  5. I noticed unruliness creeping into our own ranks at the Boks match – jeering at Steyn was audible from some quarters of the ground.

  6. Any tradition that promotes a good cider harvest the next year is OK by me!!!!!

  7. But the Gloucester habit of sticking slices of toast on the branches is probably more conducive to good apples than the Somerset habit of shooting the trees!

  8. What is the significance of the Somerset shooting into trees? I saw locals on Majorca doing it around Easter time one year. They appeared to be municipal workers. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it.

  9. I had to Google it!

    It’s to drive away evil spirits. I wonder if you have to use game or competition cartridges (the size of the shot varies!)

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