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Village History

Midwinter festival

Posted on December 30 2014 at 1:51:02 0 comments

Wassailers

Pam Morley of Ælfgythe Women’s Border Morris invites villagers to join their traditional wassail.

The Alvechurch women’s Border Morris side, Ælfgythe, will continue a time-honoured ritual as they host a traditional wassail in the village on January 24. 

The wassail is seen as part of the rich tradition of English history, but is not always understood. According to Webster’s online dictionary, the word “wassail” means a toast to someone’s health, a hot spiced drink served in a large bowl, or a noisy celebration.

The word itself comes from the Middle English “wæs hæil” which translates as “be well” or “be hale”. 

In fact there are three types of wassail. The first is simply filling a large bowl – sometimes called a loving cup – and passing it around a room to be shared, and the second is taking the bowl round to the houses in a neighbourhood to wish everyone well.

This is thought to be the origins of carol-singing because often the travelling party would sing a traditional wassail song such as Here We Come A-Wassailing as they journeyed from house to house. 

The third type is a celebration of the fruit trees and harvest to come. The purpose stemmed from the common belief that it was necessary to wake the fruit trees and, by driving away evil spirits, to ensure a good harvest in the summer. This will be the focus of Ælfgythe’s Wassail in January. 

So, what makes up the Wassail celebration? There are a number of elements that are normally included.

The proceedings are usually led by a Wassail King and Queen, and the crowd gathers around the largest fruit tree – often thought of as the Guardian of the Orchard.

The Wassail Queen is lifted up to sit on a branch of the tree, and the wassail drink is then passed round. Some of the drink (usually cider or perry) is spilled on the roots of the tree.

Pieces of toast are then hung in the branches of the trees to feed the birds – the guardians of the trees – and to encourage their return to the orchard to aid with pest control and pollination. Usually a poem or rhyme is chanted by the crowd, for example:

Old apple tree, we wassail thee. 
Hoping thou will bear …
Hats full, caps full,
three bushel bags full and
my pockets full too. Wassail!

Another rhyme is:

Stand fast root, bear well top,
Pray God send us a good howling crop.
Every twig, apples big,
Every bough, apples enow,
Hats full, caps full,
full quarter sacks full,
Hulloa, boys, hulloa!

Often the crowd will beat the trunks and large branches of the trees at this point to wake them up from their mid-winter slumber, and then everyone shouts, bangs pots and pans and generally makes lots of noise. Some wassails involve shotguns being fired through the tops of the trees.

All this noise is to drive out any evil spirits that might blight the harvest, but it’s a great excuse to be a little rowdy for just a short time!

The event then finishes with a traditional wassail song, and many shouts of “Wassail” to which the traditional response is “Drink hail” or drink well. 

There are strong links between Morris dancing and wassailing, and Morris sides all over England have been helping to organise the festivities for many years.

The clashing of the sticks and jingling bells were seen as adding to the efforts of driving away evil influences, and the dancing provided entertainment to the onlookers. In this spirit the Ælfgythe Wassail will continue the tradition. 

Our wassail broadly follows the usual pattern, and the celebration will start at The Crown in Withybed at approximately 4pm. There will be dancing for a while, and then candles in lanterns will be lit for the procession to The Weighbridge pub.

The procession will be led by the Green Man in a fabulous costume, and will arrive at The Weighbridge at 7pm or just after.

The Green Man’s origins have been lost in time, but certainly in the Middle Ages in England he was seen as the embodiment of nature and a symbol of rebirth. 

The crowd will gather around the fruit trees to the side of the main building, and will address one tree in particular – it was planted in memory of Robin Walden, who lived on a narrow boat at the Alvechurch Marina for many years and was held in high esteem by many.

The wassail is especially poignant this year as it would have been Robin’s 80th birthday.

Robin’s tree is not yet large enough for the Queen of the Wassail to be lifted up into it, but the rest of the ceremony will include a wassail poem, making some noise, sharing cider and ale with the trees, hanging up toast and the wassail song. 

Why not come along to help us to keep this midwinter festival alive and chase away those winter blues?  Everyone is welcome to join in with the merry-making and wishing well for the harvest to come. 


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