Bringing back the sun
Our local historian Ruth E. Richardson celebrates the arrival of a New Year with a continuing tradition.
New Year days are short. Long nights can be scary, and even now an owl hooting out of the blackness is unnerving. Our ancestors felt it too and they didn't have electric lights and modern conveniences. Then stars were not understood. The moon was a mystery. Majestically rising, it moves across the sky and disappears. The occasional daylight glimpse is a pale reflection of the night's glowing orb. People thought it watched you, so it was worshipped all over the world. With its partner, the all-important sun, they thought it controlled the seasons.
Neolithic people (from c.3,500 B.C.) were our first farmers. They needed the sun to return to help crops grow. The alternative was starvation. So soil was prepared, seeds and trees made ready and it was sensible, and practical, to carry out the correct ritual too. After all only the gods, and later the Christian God, could control the weather and disease.
There is an echo of all this in our Christmas traditions. Now, due to shops selling seasonal goods, Christmas Day is often viewed as the end of the festivities. In the past Christmas Day was the religious beginning, and 6th January, Epiphany, celebrating the Kings' visit to the baby Jesus, was the end. In between, everyone who could had a riotous time, which culminated in Twelfth Night, the evening of 5th January.
However, the serious side of Wassail remained and was considered crucial for the coming year. Ella Mary Leather, in 'The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire' (1912) recorded local traditions in detail. Wassail comes from Old English wæshæl, meaning 'be you healthy'. Twelve small fires were lit around a larger central one in the highest field. Everyone circled the area drinking cider and singing. Later a large cake with a hole in it would be ceremonially placed on the horn of the best oxen. The way he tossed his head indicated if the harvest would be good or bad. In cider-producing counties apple trees had to be made fertile and evil demons who would stop this had to be scared away. Wassail also refers to the mulled cider, formerly beer or mead, flavoured with sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and slices of toast.
Thanks to The Leominster Morris (see: www.leominstermorris.co.uk), founded in 1983, the Wassail tradition has been revived. Gathering at a local pub, flaming torches are distributed to the 200–300 strong crowd. In the chosen orchard toast soaked in cider is placed in a representative tree and cider sprinkled around its roots. The Herefordshire Lantern, a beribboned thorn-cage filled with straw, is lit to symbolise the returning sun. Then the fires are lit and the Wassail Song sung. Dances are enjoyed and The Leominster Morris process back to perform the Mummers Play, with more dancing, singing and, of course, drinking local cider.
In the past Twelfth Night saw gatherings and fires everywhere. Times change but even today decorations are taken down on the 6th January to avoid bad luck. Happy New Year.
©Ruth E. Richardson 2013