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Our forebears kept celebrating for the whole Twelve Days of Christmas time

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 06, 2014

Taking part in the Mummers Plays which re-enacted the age-old battle between light and darkness

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BEFORE you know it, Christmas is over and we're into another New Year. Soon, we'll be taking the tree down and getting back to normal.

But, as we've seen over the last few weeks, our forebears kept celebrating over the whole Twelve Days of Christmas.

Until well into the 20th century, old folk customs marked the passage of the Festive Season. Chief among these were "Wassailing" and "Mumming", both common in the Black Country, in some cases until the 1930s.

Wassailing is an ancient custom, the word coming from the Anglo Saxon "waes hael", meaning "good health".

Originally, the Wassail was a drink made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar.

It was served from huge wassail bowls, made from silver, pewter or wood, depending on your social status.

Traditionally, the Wassail was drunk at New Year and on Twelfth Night.

But, some wealthy folk loved it so much they drank the stuff on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

The drink was also known as "Lambs Wool" as the frothy pulp from the roasted apples resembled a sheep's fleece.

A legend concerning the origins of the custom tells how a beautiful young girl called Rowena presented Prince Vortigern with a bowl of wine.

While doing this she toasted him, with the words "waes hael".

Over the centuries, a great deal of ceremony and ritual developed around the custom.

In noble or wealthy houses, the wassail bowl was carried into the hall with a great fanfare.

Then the wassail carol was sung and the hot, spicy ale served to the guests.

Alongside the drinking there were special Wassail Songs or Carols. One of the most popular went:

"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."

This form of wassailing became a traditional part of the Yuletide festivities.

But, the wassail cup was only one aspect of the tradition.

In some areas, groups of wassailers went door to door, singing the wassail carols and bringing the wassail blessing to each home.

In return for the good luck they brought, the wassailers were given food, drink or money. Another common practice was "Apple Wassailing", where the apple trees were blessed with bread and cider, ensuring a bountiful crop the next year.

This harks back to ancient crop fertility rites.

And, in most customs, the trees were regaled with a special rhyme or song, to the accompaniment of rough music from pots, pans and old tin kettles.

The ritual usually involved some of the finest cider being poured over the tree's roots, and a wassail cake placed in the branches to placate the tree spirits.

Then, the wassailing song was sung to the tree, and to the bees, if there was a hive in the tree.

In many traditions, volleys of gunshot were fired to ward off the evil spirits and witches believed to inhabit the crown of the apple tree.

Just down the road from us, in Worcestershire, they sang this version of an apple wassailing song:

"Bud well, bear well,

God send you fare well;

Every sprig and every spray,

A bushel of apples

Next New Year's Day."

Our forebears also believed the spirits of the apple trees took the form of robins and other small birds.

So, young lads, representing these birds, would climb into the tree, crying: "Tit, tit, I want more to eat ..."

The lads were duly rewarded with a piece of cake or cheese. Sometimes, pieces of bread or toast dipped in cider, were put in the forks of the tree "for the robins".

Twelfth Night marked the end of the Christmas season, and it was a last chance to party.

For centuries, these festivities were overseen by a Lord of Misrule, with normal social roles and rules reversed for a brief time.

Lords and ladies became servants, and vice versa. Special cakes were eaten at this time, containing a dried pea or bean.

Whoever found the pea or bean ruled as Lord or Lady of Misrule for the day.

It was also common for young girls to bake special Dumb Cakes on the eve of Twelfth Night.

As the name suggests, the cakes had to be made in total silence.

If the girl managed to do this, she would see a vision of her true love.

But, if she broke the silence, an evil spirit would come to fetch her.

Bonfires were also lit at this time of year. And, in some areas, Twelfth Night Oxhorn Dances survived as remnants of really ancient rites. Six dancers dressed as oxen danced round the apple tree being honoured by the wassail blessing. The dancers' stamping feet were a signal to awaken spring.

The best dancer had an oxhorn cake placed on his horns, which he had to dislodge during the dance, while the revellers cheered him on.

At this time of year, it was all about good versus evil. Wassailing and other New Year and Twelfth Night customs were part of the ancient pagan midwinter celebrations.

These also included the Mummers Plays, re-enacting the age-old battle between light and darkness, good and evil and life and death.

The word "mummer" derives from a French word, "mome", meaning a mask or disguise, which is what the mummers wore.

Dressed in fantastic outfits, with blackened faces or masks, the Mummers took their traditional plays around their community, earning food, drink or money.

In Folklore of the Black Country (Logaston Press, 2007), Roy Palmer mentions the mummers surviving well into the 20th century "at Cradley Heath, Darlaston, Pelsall and Walsall Wood .

There are also reports of them performing in Smethwick, Wednesbury and Wednesfield.

The plays were put on "by lads calling themselves guisers, who blackened their faces, begged or borrowed costumes appropriate to the characters they played (Little Billy, Squire's Son, Stranger and Doctor) ... guisers were commonly children, performing at Christmas for mince pies and money, until 1939 ..."

Local historian, F.W. Hackwood, documented many of our old Black Country customs.

Here is his version of the ending to a mummer's play performed in a Wednesbury tavern around New Year 1879:

"Our play is played and now we've done,

We hope we've given you lots of simple fun.

So if you think at all it's really funny,

You'll fill our empty pokes with lots of money.

Send us away, please, now all is calm,

And sly old Beelzebub'll do you no harm ...

We hope this nonsense your spirits will joyful rouse,

So we bid you good day and peace be on this noble house!"

May I wish everyone at The Black Country Bugle and all its readers a Happy New Year.

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