wassail
The owner of the pub with his ‘apple’ tree

What did you do Friday night? I got kidnapped by Morris dancers, tied up with a man named Nick and my nether-regions threatened with kicks from the foresaid Morris dancers who were dancing dangerously around my legs with big heavy boots on. All in all it was an odd night!

I should have expected it really.  Ever since I have returned to live in Kent I have witnessed a Hop monster walking down a high street (to celebrate the gathering in of the hops for beer-making), hung hops on the ceiling of my living room (well, why not?!), and seen the Hooden Horse clapping, snapping, farting, and (on a separate occasion) doing the hooky-cookie (a pre-Christmas mummering tradition popular in the Thanet area).

Friday night was the old calendar twelfth night (the pre-Gregorian date). There are many traditions associated with twelfth night, the most well-known today of course being that Christmas decorations should be taken down. This was a very different tradition. In cider making regions such as Kent apples are a commodity of vital importance. Therefore every twelfth night they would perform a ritual which, they hoped, would bring a good harvest; plenty of apples for food and cider.

Cider is liberally poured over the Cider-apple trees at the same time as song or rhyme is sung or recited.  Edward Hasted wrote of the custom in his History of Kent, noting that young men would ‘with a most hideous noise’ run into the local orchards and sing:

“Stand fast root, bear well top; Give us a youling sop, Every twig, apple big, Every bough, apple enough”.

Another song “Here We Come A-Wassailing” is now considered a Christmas carol.

Here we come a-wassailing

Among the leaves so green

Here we come a-wand’ring

So fair to be seen

The song continues offering a happy new year and emphasising that the singers are not ‘daily beggars’ that ‘beg from door to door’ but neighbours who they know and should (therefore) look upon more kindly. The song originates from the nineteenth century around the same time as other similar practises such as Hoodening were at their most prominent.

Like most traditions the likely antiquity of wassailing is suspect and its true significance is likely to be more Victorian than it is pagan or old. However, wassailing does have a heritage. One tale, taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and also retold by the sixteenth-century William Lambarde in his Perambulation of Kent, claims that the wassail originated in the time of King Vortigern.

“Espying therefore, that King Vortiger was muche delighted in women’s companie, and knowing well that sine cerere et libero, friget Venus, he had him to a solemn banquet, and after that he had (according to the manner of Germanic yet continuing) well plied him with pots, he let  slippe before him a faire gentlewoman, his owne daughter, called Roxena, or Rowen, which being instructed before hand how to behave herself, most amiablie presented him with a goblet of wine, saying be merie Lord King : with which her daliance, the King was so delighted, that he not onely vouchsafed to pledge her, but desired also to performe it in the right manner of her owne countrey.  And therefore he answered (as he was taught unto her againe, drinke merily.  Which when she had done, himselfe tooke the  cuppe, and pledged her so hartely, that from thenceforth he could never be in rest, until he had obtained  her to wife,  little  weighing,  either how deeply he had endaungered his conscience in matching himselfe with a Heathen woman, or bow greatly he had hazarded his crowne by joyning handes with so mightie a forein nation.

At the time of this marriage, Hengist (labouring by all meanes to bring in his ovvne countriemen) begged of the king the territories of Kent, Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolke, (then knowne by other names) pretending in worde, that he would, in consideration thereof, keep out Aurel. Ambrose (a competitor of the crowne) whose arrival King Vortiger had much feared, but meaning indeede, to make thereby a key to let into the realine multitudes of Germanes, for furtherance of his ambitious desire and purpose : which thing in processe of time he brought to passe, not onely creating himselfe and his posteritie Kings of a large quarter, but. also thereby shewing the way and entrie, howe others of his nation might follow, and doe the like.”

The toast is recalled as the first wassail and, claims Monmouth and Lambarde, then firmly continued in the middle ages as a reciprocal exchange between feudal lords and their peasants. In this the tradition is similar to mummering before Christmas – a chance for the local poor or lowly-paid to receive charity at the time off the year when food was scarce and the weather was cold.

The Morris troop (check out those boots!)
The Morris troop (check out those boots!)

Back to last Friday. At the Phoenix Inn in Faversham the Wassail has been resurrected as a bit of fun. The apple tree isn’t real, the ‘history’ is wonky at best, but there is plenty of cider, apple pie, and a Morris troop.   What more could you want?

This particular troop, are not your friendly bells-ringing Morris men, but a marching, stomping black-faced band. It’s all good fun of course. My role for the evening was to be ‘volunteered’, tied up and danced around by the Morris Men. So that’s how I spent my Friday, reconnecting with my routes (quite literally it seems!) and hoping that the Morris didn’t accidently step on my legs.

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