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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Wassailers behaving badly

A Pot of Wassail (Photo by Jeremy Tarling)

The ancient rite of wassailing has certainly had its better moments.  Apples in Merry Olde Herefordshire and Devonshire might not have been nearly as plentiful were wassailing never invented.  Chants of “Health to thee, good apple-tree” have certainly been indicative of eco-friendly relationships.  However, that’s about where the harmony often ended. reports that trees would often be shot at and threatened with an axe during these same wassailing rituals.  This was seen as a way of browbeating apple trees into producing more fruit.  It was also seen as a way of warding off any bad spirits that might be hanging about the trees.

If that weren’t unsociable enough, the Colonial Williamsburg website reports a number of eyebrow-
raising wassailing incidents.   Hidden amongst the “God bless you” and “Happy New Year” wassailing
wishes have been some unsavory activities that don’t quite spell “Peace, Love, and Joy.”  Even the relatively
innocuous-sounding verses of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” contain such threats as “We won’t go until
we get some…” 

In this case, figgy pudding was the number-one demand.  However, the stakes have certainly gone a lot higher than that.  Colonial Williamsburg references these words of a late seventeenth-century commentator:  “Wenches… by their Wassels at New-years-tide… present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”  (Notice the strident repetition of the word “must.”)

Colonial Williamsburg then gives further examples of how wassailing became more and more aggressive.
One song contained these words:  “We have come to claim our right… And if you don’t open up your door,
we’ll lay you flat upon the floor.”  (Sounds not only like breaking and entering, but also like a touch of assault.)

Unfortunately, some of these weren’t just idle threats.  Historian Stephen Nissenbaum is later referenced as
recounting this 1679 Salem, Massachusettts “wassailing gone very bad” example:  They threw stones, bones, and other things at Poole in the doorway and against the house.  They beat down much of the daubing in several places and continued to throw stones for an hour and a half with little intermission…

Since this often-wondrous season doesn’t technically end until after January 17th (according to the Julian calendar), these tales of woe from seasons past will hopefully wag today’s wassailers to do one better.


Copyright January 12, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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